Good resources on how to write comics?
December 14, 2014 10:37 AM   Subscribe

I'm a big comics fan, and just for the hell of it, I wanted to try my hand. I am looking for resources that discuss the medium itself, as well as how to write for it... especially format-wise (i.e. what is a typical work-flow for writing comics, how do people format it, that sort of thing). I am also open to any resources, period, that you think would be useful. Thanks!
posted by wooh to Writing & Language (11 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Scott McCloud's Making Comics is an obvious place to start. You might also appreciate his Understanding Comics.
posted by librarina at 10:39 AM on December 14, 2014 [9 favorites]

The Comic Book Script Archive has bits of advice about scriptwriting, as well as excerpts and complete scripts to read and dissect. And the aforementioned Scott McCloud is a really smart guy when it comes to the actual mechanics of comics. Make sure you look at both of those.
posted by peteyjlawson at 11:04 AM on December 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

People's workflows vary enormously -- there aren't really formatting standards that're nearly so universal as, say, screenplay or manuscript formats.

If you're writing for yourself, there are literally no rules. Some people are visual thinkers and tend to go straight to thumbnails -- very quickly sketched, usually small versions of comic pages with rough dialog that are later refined. Other people write the story out in prose and then basically adapt it into comics pages. Some people write screenplays. It varies!

Faith Erin Hicks did a nice writeup of her own process here.

If you're writing for someone else, some useful things to keep in mind:

- Break your script down into pages and panels. Include dialog and sound effects (SFX) as separate paragraphs. One way to format a comic script would be:

Panel 1

Wooh walks into a large, green room.

SFX: tap tap tap tap tap

Panel 2

Wooh stops and looks around.

Panel 3

Wooh yells toward the ceiling.

WOOH: Does anyone here know how to write a comic?
- Make sure that you're only describing one action per panel. A common mistake made by inexperienced comics writers is to describe panels that are impossible to draw. IE: "Wooh walks into a large, green room. The lights suddenly shut off, and Wooh freezes mid-stride." That's at least two panels' worth of action, possibly three. There are ways to cheat this, but that's something to save until you've had some practice. In general, it's best to think of every comic panel as a single moment frozen in time, carefully chosen to tell a story as effectively as possible.

- Try not to put more than six panels on a page, especially if those panels contain dialog.

- It takes a while to get a feel for how much text can comfortably fit onto a comic page. One way to check this, even if you aren't an artist, is to sketch out the panels for the page you've written and then write out the dialog and captions at about the size they'll be on the final page. Is there room left over for the artwork? If a page is more than 1/3 covered by word balloons and captions, you probably want to tone it down a little.

GOOD LUCK! Comics are the best.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 11:31 AM on December 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

Danny Fingeroth published a magazine called "Write Now!" which was devoted to the nuts and boilts of writing comics. Back issues are still available here. I have the Best of Write Now book and it's a treasure trove of tutorials, interviews, etc.
posted by KingEdRa at 11:32 AM on December 14, 2014

I do a solo comic. My workflow:

I start with a beginning, and an ending. I need to have somewhere to aim for. I then start iterating on this: what are the major plot points I need to hit to get from the beginning to the ending? What do I need to do to get from the beginning to the first major plot point? What do I need to do to get from the beginning to the first minor plot point I came up with on the way to the first major plot point? Eventually I'm down to the level of "this is what needs to happen on the next page", and I start doing loose drawings and text to that effect. Sometimes in Evernote, sometimes in my sketchbook; a lot of my planning is intensely visual, with diagrams of multi-page layouts, loose sketches of expressions and panel compositions, along with all the textual material of 'this happens, this happens, that happens' and fragments of dialogue.

My first drafts of actual content tend to be first drafts of images AND dialogue; both are refined at once. I'll move stuff around on the screen as the page's composition evolves. It is important to have at least a first draft of the dialogue when I start drawing, so I leave room for the text in the art. (If I'm working on paper I like to finalize the dialogue before the art, with a lot more steps of layout thumbnails.)

If you want to Write For Pro Comics there are definitely script formats and rules of thumb out there. I couldn't point you to any offhand as I'm not much interested in that world; a little googling will definitely turn up some examples from famous comic scripters.

Mostly what you need to do as someone who only writes and does not draw is to give the artist a good idea of what needs to happen. If a thing needs to be shown, tell them in the script. If a thing needs to look a particular way, tell them. The artist is not a mind-reader.

(A lot of Pro Comics Writers have dabbled in drawing them as well; their art was rarely anything to really set the world on fire, but it gave them enough of a grounding in the strengths and challenges unique to the medium to be able to write with them in mind. If you're going to talk about dividing the action up into pages and panels, which most comics scripts do, it's important to know how much 'time' and what kind of actions you can fit into a single panel.)

If at all possible, it is a very good idea to work WITH an artist in coming up with a concept. Someone who has creative investment in the characters/world/narrative is going to do a better job than someone who is just motivated by being paid to draw it. (But you should still pay them to draw it. Think of the relationship between scriptwriter and artist as that between father and mother: your contribution is an important part of what makes the final product, to be sure, and it cannot happen without that part, but the artist has to put something like a hundred times as many hours into it. You can also contribute by learning to do things like wrangle the website/kickstarter/book printing/convention appearances.)

If you have a really good working relationship with the artist, you may want to try the "Marvel Method": writer and artist kick back and brainstorm the outline of a plot, artist goes off and roughs in a bunch of pages with placeholder dialogue that carries the barest essentials of the story, writer does the final dialogue based on how the artist did all the 'acting', 'pacing', and 'cinematography', and possibly suggests a change in the art here and there, artist does final art. It worked for Stan Lee and Jack Kirby; it worked for my boyfriend and myself when we were doing my previous comic (nsfw, unfinished due to a breakup), it can work for you, too, if you're willing to give up a lot of control. You need to trust your artist a lot for this, of course!

Also Comixtribe has a lot of writing on The Process from the perspective of someone doing the traditional writer/artist split. Submitting a few pages of script to their 'Proving Grounds' column may be a worthwhile project!

ALSO. Read stuff outside of your comfort zone. If you love superheros, for instance, don't just bring a head full of superhero trivia to the table. That will result in comics that appeal to nobody but other dedicated superhero fans, if that. Which I guess is maybe useful if your dream is to write for Marvel or DC, but good luck with that, there's a hell of a lot of people competing for that gig. The wider you cast your creative net, the better.
posted by egypturnash at 11:32 AM on December 14, 2014 [5 favorites]

I love you all! Some good links, some good advice. I welcome all of it.

"Read stuff outside of your comfort zone."

This is great advice, and is something that I've been trying hard to do... I fell in love with comics because of Sandman, and for a long time sought out stuff like that, but I'm trying to read anything iconic. Good noir stuff, good superhero stuff, classic anything, indie comics... there's a wide world of awesome storytelling. Superheroes are probably my weak spot really...

My goal is not to make money from this, really. I love the medium and think that some really great stories can be told in it, so I thought I'd try to write something. Certainly not planning to quit my day job ;) But I'd like it to be as high quality I can make it, to the point where I could work with an artist to get it drawn, if I so desired.

Thanks again!!
posted by wooh at 12:08 PM on December 14, 2014

If superheros are your weak spot you're doing fine.

I also meant read stuff that is Not Comics; there are too many people who want to write comics who have basically never read anything but. If you've read voluminously enough to have encountered good writing and bad writing, and to tell the difference, your comics writing will be much stronger. (And other places: my ex writes MUCH snappier dialogue than I ever will, because he has watched so many sitcoms. It's not appropriate for everything but it really worked for Absinthe!)
posted by egypturnash at 12:49 PM on December 14, 2014

Ah gotcha. I kind of took the general advice that to write well you have to read voraciously to heart at a young age. Literary fiction is a real love of mine (as well as movies and science fiction), and I agree that it's great to have a lot of influences. But I feel comics are a great way to draw from literature while engaging in visual storytelling.

Excited to check out your work by the way!
posted by wooh at 1:30 PM on December 14, 2014

Other than the good advice everyone else has offered, there are two volumes of Writers on Comic Scriptwriting which may be useful (both are out of print but also don't seem that rare). While they focus on mostly mainstream creators, they might be a good starting point.

I do feel like things used to be much more formal in terms of how a script needed to be formatted and while I wouldn't say "anything goes" now, I do feel like the move toward giving creators a bit more freedom (even within mainstream publishers) means everyone approaches writing a bit differently.
posted by darksong at 2:24 PM on December 14, 2014

McCloud's book is excellent.

Will Eisner wrote a couple books on the subject -- Comics and Sequential Art and Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative.

I have not read the books written by Alan Moore or Dennis O'Neil on the subject, but I've seen 'em mentioned here and there -- an Amazon search for "how to write for comics" should pull them up.
posted by cupcakeninja at 4:27 AM on December 15, 2014

I'd pass on Alan Moore's. Which is code for "I wish I had passed on Alan Moore's book."
posted by Billiken at 10:14 AM on December 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

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