Right Place at the Write Time #5 – From Story to Script
Category: Right Place at the Write Time
In the last Right Place at the Write Time we talked about motivation and how to find the time and energy to write. We’ve also covered the important of writing regularly to hone your craft, and I even gave you some helpful hints on things you can read to best prepare yourself for writing comic books. Assuming that you’ve checked out those columns and taken some of the advice, I think we’re ready to continue on.
This time, I thought we’d get into some meat and potatoes type stuff and take a story from an idea all the way to a comic book script.
Now remember, there are hundreds of ways to script a comic book. I’ve seen a ton of them, but be sure to find something that’s comfortable for you. Some folks do Plot-First (otherwise known as Marvel Style) while others feel that a Full Script is the better approach.
Tons more information on both of these styles can be found online, but here’s a brief rundown if you don’t feel like getting your Google on:
Marvel Style is when the writer breaks down what should be on each page of the story. The characters, the action, the “what’s happening” and the artist takes the page, goes off and decides how many panels are needed, and positions the panels accordingly. After the artist is complete, the writer goes back and writes dialogue for the finished page. This style works best when the artist and the writer trust each other’s abilities and talents.
In a Full Script the writer breaks each page down by panels and tells the artist exactly who should be where, what dialogue should be able to fit into each panel, and how many panels should be on a page. This lets the writer control the flow and pacing of his story, but doesn’t always leave room for the artist to be creative. We’ll talk about finding and working with artists in a column to come.
Me? I prefer to work in Full Script. The comic book script is a letter to the artist. After all, they’re the ones who will be taking your written words and ideas to the illustrated page. Unless, of course, you’re one of those lucky folks who can actually write AND draw, in which case, I’m completely jealous of you and everything you stand for.
The danger of full script is that you have to ensure that you give the artist enough to work with. You have to flesh out characters and what they look like, the environments, whether a scene is taking place at night or during the day, and generally everything that you hope to see on the page. It takes an extreme amount of detail at times (Alan Moore would write panel descriptions that were pages and pages long) though other times, a mere sentence will do depending on the talent of the artist and how familiar they are with your story.
I want to show you how I take a story from idea to comic book script. Now, I’m not saying that this is the correct way, or even the only way — it’s simply what has worked for me.
One of the interesting things about comic book scripting is that regardless of whose script style you choose to ape at the beginning, over time it will meld into something that is completely your own as you learn new processes and get feedback from your artists. In fact, I encourage you to solicit feedback from an artist on how your scripts are setup. Their feedback and can be enlightening.
For this example of Story to Script, I’m going to use a short story that I wrote a few months ago. I’d appreciate it if you didn’t steal it and claim it as your own, but these things happen.
In my never-ending process of trying to write in different genres, I figured it was time to write something in a fantasy setting. I’m no fantasy master, but I understand the types of characters that are available, the tropes, and the stereotypes. Since I didn’t want to sit down and write a six-issue mini-series (after all, I’m just testing the waters for myself), I thought I’d start off with something simple: a three page story.
I thought for a few minutes, considering different types of stories, and what might be fun for an artist to draw. After several false starts, here’s the germ of the idea that came to me:
Three Orcs, sit along the side of the road discussing which types of humans they enjoy eating most, however, these are not your typical Orcs. The stereotype, shown through movies and fantasy novels, tell us that these beings are slow and stupid, but these three particular Orcs speak in very advanced dialects.
BOOM. There it is… The basic idea for my story. The first idea I got that I didn’t hate.
Knowing that this was to be a 3 page story, I was going to need to flesh things out a bit more. I had a story idea, but I didn’t have a plot.
I had the introduction to my characters, but I needed more in order to have a story, as opposed to three Orcs just sitting around gabbing.
Three Orcs, Dort, Vafur, and Nilg, sit along the side of the road discussing which types of humans they enjoy eating most, however, these are not your typical Orcs. The stereotype, shown through movies and fantasy novels, tell us that these beings are slow and stupid, but these three particular Orcs speak in very advanced dialects. As they talk, a man in armor runs upon them, sword in hand. He is a knight who is escorting two young ladies in a horse-drawn cart. He calls the Orcs stupid and prepares to vanquish them, however, the Orcs don’t like being stereotyped. Out of pure anger, they attack the Knight, killing him and destroying the cart. During the frenzy, the Orcs show their stereotypical “Stupid” side, but after the fight is over, they go back to their regular talk and as luck would have it, they’ve also gotten some humans to eat. They resume conversation, discussing how sad it is that humans can be so cruel and hateful toward them.
Now this is starting to look like a story! I include all of the classic elements:
Act 1 – The Introduction: I Introduce my characters, show who they are, what they’re about, and establish the status quo.
In my Act 1, Dort, Vafur, and Nilg (good names for Orcs, right?) show us that they’re quite intelligent, breaking the typical Orc stereotype. They hold an intelligent conversation on what type of humans they enjoy eating most.
Act 2 – Conflict: My characters are tested in some way.
In my Act 2, the Knight, showing off for the women that he’s escorting, attempts to kill some stupid Orcs. Of course, the Orcs take offense and the fight is on.
Act 3 – Resolution: My characters succeed, learning something.
In Act 3 the Orcs kill the Knight and ravage the cart, showing what happens when humans underestimate them. For humor purposes, the Orcs will show their stereotypical “stupid” side during the battle.
Denouement: The state of affairs after the climax.
In my closing, the Orcs go back to their normal way of speaking and they’ve also left one of the humans alive, for a snack. (See how we went full circle there?)
I’ve now got the skeleton of our story. An outline, if you will. The next part is to visualize the story, decide which scenes should go on which page, and the pacing of it all.
This story is pretty straightforward. With a three page story, we essentially have one page for each act. We’re still in outlining mode so I’m not diving into too much detail yet, simply deciding which actions will need to appear on each page.
To keep things simple, this is how I broke down the story:
In this example, each page corresponds with each act, though obviously this won’t be the case with a five or ten page story.
Now the tough part. It’s time to figure out how many panels needs to be on each page in order to tell our story.
How do we figure that out? Simple! Take a few minutes away from the computer. Close your eyes. Go outside. Take a walk. Let the story play out like a movie in your brain. Play it over and over until you see the snapshots that will help tell your story.
Some helpful guidelines: Most comic book pages have between four and seven panels.
The fewer the panels, the faster the pacing of the page (because you read it faster) whereas more panels will slow down your action (since there’s going to be more to read and look at). This is something you’ll also want to keep in mind.
After spending some time visualizing my Orc story, here’s how I decided to break it down:
I decided that on page #1 I could squeeze everything I needed to into 4 panels.
PANEL 1: Establishing shot of the Orcs sitting alongside the road.
PANEL 2: Fly in closer to the Orcs. They talk.
PANEL 3: We isolate Nilg and Varfur as they debate with one another.
PANEL 4: The Orcs continue debating, however, Dort looks over his shoulder. A disturbance is happening off panel.
Page one complete. I’ve established the setting, the type of story, introduced our characters and the beginnings of the problem. There’s no dialogue yet, but that doesn’t mean I’m not writing it in my mind!
Let’s look at page #2, which I also kept at 4 panels. It’s mainly action, so I wanted to ensure that the reader eyeballs it quickly to keep up with the pace.
PANEL 1: The Orcs notice the Knight coming at them with sword drawn. In the background we see two women, a blonde and redhead, sitting on a horse-drawn cart looking scared of the Orcs. The Orcs react to being called “stupid” by the Knight.
PANEL 2: The Orcs attack the Knight. He’s shocked and surprised.
PANEL 3: The Orcs kill the Knight and head for the horse-drawn cart.
PANEL 4: The women hold onto one another, scared of their impending doom as the Orcs draw near.
In 4 panels I’ve set up the problem and the action has happened. Lastly comes page #3 which I decided could be just 3 panels and would bring the story to a close.
PANEL 1: The orcs walk away from the wreckage. The knight, the horse, and one of the women are dead.
PANEL 2: We pull back and see the redhead being dragged away by the Orcs as they continue to talk.
PANEL 3: They walk down the road, dragging the woman along with them. The conitnue to talk to one another, saddened that the ignorance of the humans.
Our panel breakdowns are complete! A round of applause for everyone!
But I’m not done yet! Because I’m writing in full script, I have to go in and beef up the details. Everything I’ve written for my outline is very general, but because this script will be a letter to the artist, I need them to know everything about the characters that I can, along with roughly how much dialogue will be in each panel (so they can leave appropriate space).
Some artists will do character sketches to get a feel for the people they’ll be drawing, but others may request to know which actors people may look like. In the case of the Orcs, I may find a very general picture of one that I like, and then explain what sets the three apart so that the artist doesn’t make them look too much alike.
This is the toughest part of scripting. You have to know your story inside and out. Take as much time as you need and once you’re happy with it, read over it a few more times and massage out all the details.
Here’s the finished script that I produced for the artist:
PAGE #1 (4 Panels):
PANEL 1: Establishing shot of a country side. It’s the middle of the afternoon and we’re zooming in on a small encampment alongside a lush, forested road.
PANEL 2: We meet three gruesome looking Orcs: Dort, Vafur, and Nilg. They’re sitting around on the ground chatting with one another. They should all look very similar with basic clothes and facial features to differentiate the three of them. Crude swords sit next to them on the ground. Varfur gestures toward Nilg with his thumb.
PANEL 3: Close on Nilg and Varfur as they talk.
PANEL 4: Varfur is talking and gesturing while Dort looks over his shoulder at the sound of a disturbance.
WARRIOR (off panel):
PAGE #2 (4 Panels):
PANEL 1: Bigger panel. In the foreground, the three Orcs watch as a warrior, clothed in armor, his face uncovered, runs toward them with sword high in the air preparing to strike. Behind the warrior we see a horse-drawn cart with two younger women, approximately in their early 20’s seated on top. One a red-head, one a brunette. They look frightened at the scene.
PANEL 2: The Orcs attack the warrior. He backpedals, a look of terror on his face.
PANEL 3: In the background, Dort stands over the warrior stabbing him with his crude sword. In the foreground, Varfur and Nilg run toward the camera snarling and looking very threatening.
PANEL 4: Close up of the two women, sitting atop the horse-drawn cart. They’re dressed in a regal, fantasy garb and they hold onto one another, screaming in horror at their impending doom.
PAGE #3 (3 Panels):
PANEL 1: The three Orcs are walking away from the wreckage into the foreground. In the background, the cart is overturned and is on fire. The warrior, horse, and one woman are dead. We can’t see the Orcs below the chest.
PANEL 2: We pull back and see that one of the Orcs is dragging one of the women behind him. It’s the red head. She’s alive.
PANEL 3: They walk off into the distance with their prize. They’re silhouetted by the daytime sunlight.
Whew! That was quite a journey, right?
As I read back, I ensure that I included all of my plot points and don’t leave anything hanging. I’m likely to read this script ten more times and make many more changes, but it’s a starting point and something an artist can visualize and draw from.
I hope that this focus on Story to Script was beneficial, and I’m happy to answer any questions you may have. As always, I welcome your ideas as well!
Stay tuned to see where the column goes next!
Until then, keep reading and writing.