Comics Writing 101, or How I Learned It's All Street Rules
AK: I can't remember when Julian and I first began chatting but it wasn't too long ago. We both admire Samoa Joe very much and that was a jumping-off point to a new friendship. A few weeks ago, Julian shared that he writes comics and I thought it'd be fun to ask him to share some tips on how to write a comics script, since it requires a very different set of skills than writing prose.)
Writing is something everyone thinks they can just jump into doing, but comics writing especially is something every comic fan thinks they are able to do. Every once in a while we get fumbling would-be writers who have name cred that only want to write a comic but fail when it comes to the delivery.
But don’t let that discourage you from writing comics! It’s a wonderful medium to explore and create in. However, as in all forms of writing, it’s not as easy as it may appear to the layperson. So here are some hints on how to do this, as not to end up like (some people who should not be named because AK has no money for a lawsuit).
1) It’s All Street Rules
In all honesty, when I first wanted to do this, I had no idea what I was doing. Nobody really teaches you to write comics and there’s nothing set in stone as to how to write a script for comics.
The Big 2 publishers (Marvel and DC) have their own ways of how they like their scripts delivered, but indie comics are another matter entirely. It’s all up to the person. It’s all up to how you want to collaborate. I’ll get this more in the 5th point, but if you’re without an artist, you want a short and simple script to shop around for one.
That being said, present your idea in whatever way is easier for you. Neil Gaiman writes in prose. A lot of comic writes just go “Rocks fall.” Some plan out scenes with their artists and write down what they both want. It all depends on you.
But if you want a structure, here are a few things you need:
A Character Dossier: A set of Character Sheets, comprising character descriptions and motivations of the characters
An outline: However you prefer to outline. Just do it.
Script Writing: Personally, I go “Page 1, Number of Panels, Panel 1: [Description] Person: [Dialogue].” But however you were taught to script, go ahead and do it.
2) Plot Structure
Oh lord do people forget this one so easily. Yeah, you have a story. But how do you get from X to Z and what is going to be Y? A structure I learned from film script writing has proven useful:
Introduction: What is the world? Who are the characters? What is normal in this world? Plot Point 1: What tosses the world upside? What is the conflict you’re introducing? What is going on that makes the main character move? Plot Point 2: After that hurdle, what is the second? What is it that escalates the action to the boiling point? (repeat as necessary!) Ending: Tying it all up. How has this changed our characters? Our setting? Our story in general?
There’s many ways to plot structure, and it really depends on the story, but remember to have one. Do not just go in and write an imaginary version of you fighting off Nazi zombies because you think you’re a badass, and not tell your readers why you’re fighting Nazi zombies and what you hope to achieve.
Remember conflict. Remember action. Remember that you need a story.
(That said, there are some comics that lean more towards building atmosphere than recounting a narrative, but even such comics have an innate sense of tension or motivation.)
3) Visualize While You’re Writing
Comics are a visual medium, blending art and text to tell a story. Therefore, from conception, you as the writer need to visualize what you want on the page. Translate what you would like to see on the page into words. Maybe even sketch it out yourself, crudely if you have to, to get the page flow correct.
Flow is essential. There are many books on how to achieve this, right down to where you should place the very last panel on a page to get people to want to turn it. You want things to flow together. As a writer, you have to be purposeful in placing your story beats (important moments), you want to keep thinking, “This is where I want the story beats to happen on this page and spread into the next page.”
I know that many people talk about visualizing their scenes when writing anything but this is a big deal in comics. You want to create something visually striking on the page so visualize, visualize, visualize.
4) How Much Detail: That is (Mostly) Up to the Artist
How much detail should you give when you write? Well, that’s up to the artist you’re collaborating with. Some artists like as much detail as possible. Some artists rather have little and play around. Also, you as the writer may wish to convey a specific scene in a lot of detail because you can see it in your mind’s eye, but give sparse information about less vital scenes. It’s best to discuss, try out either way, and see what you both find acceptable.
If you are shopping for an artist, I suggest you have something with a medium amount of detail and then play around with what you two want. Which brings me to my final point:
5) Remember This is a Collaboration
Unless you are the artist AND writer, you are collaborating with another human being. Maybe several. Ask for opinions. Ask for things you want to add. Talk to the artist and have an open line of communication.
Don’t make the same mistake as me of saying what you think the artist wants to hear. Be firm when something is off. Be happy when something goes right. Talk to each other and ensure that this story is being told in the best way possible.
I hope this helps out anyone who is looking to write in the comics medium. Or really any collaborative storytelling medium that involves a script. These guidelines helped me getting started and were passed to me by other actual pros who have published their work. I’m still working on the details but these are the lessons I have learned through failed projects.