You're a comic book writer with a great story idea, an awesome character, and a general direction for your plot and story. You've labored over draft after draft and are finally happy with your script pages. All you need to do is hand off your manuscript to the artist! Writing comics should be easy, right?
Not so fast.
Comics are a unique medium. You have the advantage of having an artist collaborate with you in telling your story, but how do you convey that one scene, pose, or sequence you’ve conjured in your head for all this time? How do you communicate that exciting twist that will cause your readers to demand the next issue?
Your script is not only a story for the audience, but also the blueprint for an artist. Some writers provide lots of latitude and editorial control to the artist, however there are certain times you may need to highlight a plot point or emphasize an emotion. There might be a visual that you imagined so clearly, one so vivid you can see every beat. Drawing the comic is different from writing one, and learning how to coordinate with your artist will best allow you to translate that image to the page.
Here are some tips you can use when writing your script to make your artist love you. Having created several of our own original comics (Midnight Massacre) and collaborated on other ventures (Jupiter Jet, Cryowulf), we hope you’ll be able to avoid some of the pitfalls we initially encountered. If you’re working on an indie comic - the following tips will be a way for you to retain your voice, while making your comic LOOK like a comic. If you’re a writer, these practical tips will allow you to communicate with your artists in their language and think like a visual storyteller.
1. Know Your Ending
Last things first: know how your story ends before you even start writing. This is a lesson we learned from films; the great Francis Ford Coppola always had to know the ending of his stories because he had to know how to get there. This might sound counter intuitive in the world of episodic comics, but understanding where the story is going will allow you to seed motifs, evolve characters, and will be the north-star for your story’s themes. This will elevate your storytelling on every level. There’s nothing worse than weaving a great yarn for your audience, only to write yourself into an anti-climactic corner. You can set up a whole three act structure for the entire arc or get more granular and do that for each episode, but it's important to have a general sense of how the story will wrap up. Cliff hangers and twists are great (sometimes you might be forced into them), but the audience really remembers and rewards a great final pay off. This is what separates a good comic from the great comics.
2. Keep 'em Coming Back For More
The last page of each individual issue should always pack an emotional punch. Now I’m not saying you have to be M. Night Shyamalan with a mind-blowing reveal at the end of each issue for shock’s sake. What I am saying is, a surprise twist, a quiet realization, or a bombastic upping of the stakes (when done right) will simultaneously lend to a little closure, while also teasing what’s coming up next. Remember, comics are serials - and pulling out the rug from under your heroes or villains will also pull out the rug from under your readers. I like to try to have a reveal every ten pages and think of each comic like a short story, yet components of a larger narrative. It’s easier said than done, but each issue should conclude an arc of a mini-story or chapter, while also setting up the next book.
3. Consider The Page Turns
Use the comic book page format to your full advantage. Every “turn” occurs on odd number pages. Just a rule to remember: Odd number pages are set ups and even number pages are reveals.
This allows you to plot out the tempo of the story and guide the reader’s eye to where you want them to focus without spoiling the surprise. There’s nothing worse than having an establishing shot end up in the middle of two pages. Imagine the distraction of an alien invasion splattered on the next page while a character is trying to profess his love on the first page. Having the pay off on even number pages allows the reader to build up to the reveal and dictate the pace (by turning the page). Clarity is everything in comics; if the art is a dance, you must lead the reader across the floor that is the page.
In this page from Ben’s Superman Portfolio Sample, young Clark and Lana pick up books on page 3 of a 6 page portfolio (odd number setup) when suddenly, he reacts in surprise. We, as the readers, don’t know what Clark is seeing, but the last panel sure gives us a tease and shows the look of surprise on his face. What could he be looking at?
The next reveal (Page 4, an even number) show us that his X-Ray vision has been activated. Allowing us to get the same look of horror of seeing the skeletons of your classmates as Clark gets.
4. Give Your Audience An Entry Point
Comics are great for writers who are creating entirely different worlds with imaginative lore. A fantasy world of elves, fairies, and witches with their own languages and rituals or a galaxy beyond our imagination that is faithful to advanced scientific principles are stories that are not hindered by the comic medium of inks and colors. But in translating the intricacies of world building for the artists to draw, it's important to remember that you must give your audience an entry point into your saga. With so many great comics out there, if a reader puts down the book in frustration after three pages of technical specs or an issue only in "Gremlinese", you are pushing your readers away.
Even in the middle of setting up a complex world, you can create situations that resonate with your audience. The more your audience recognizes the actions - and more importantly, the emotions - a page, the more likely they'll fall under the spell of your world rather than being boxed out of it.
5. Set a Page Count
If there’s one thing we should have done for our own comic, Midnight Massacre, it was to set a page count prior to drawing our story. Comics should be 24, 32 or 48 pages long. This might sound like a small tip, but miscalculating this forces you to find pages to cut, scrambling to find natural page breaks, or shoehorning in new pages. Calculate how many pages you need prior to drawing. You can always budget for goodies like special features and extras after the actual story is locked.
6. How Are Your Readers Reading Your Comic?
Readers are increasingly reading their comics on their phones. I know... sacrilege to purists, comic writers, and old school fans. We all want to feel our comic book scripts translated to print. But we must evolve with the art form. Distributing your comic digitally is a great way to publish your comics without breaking the bank. Midnight Massacre began as a digital run before being collected as a trade paperback.
When writing for readers on their phones, comics become panel-based. You can slap a whole page onto a pdf., but readers are going to have manipulate the screen - squeezing and stretching and missing some of your finer details. Consider the medium. Close ups play a larger role. People are swiping down on the art, so it's important to think through how transitions may work on that level.
We recently created a short story comic for Webtoons called Cupid Coffee. Cupid Coffee is about a barista who is also a cupid and helps folks fall in love - only problem is - hes unable to find love for himself. A simple and charming story to get our feet wet with web comics. Since readers would be scrolling, we made the opening scene the creation of a latte - with a drop of milk splashing into a mug just so. We learned that about four to five pages of script translated to one episode. We were careful to rethink splash pages and listen to the pattern of shot reverse shot dialogue. We also used narration and the "gutters" for dialogue more than we've ever used in traditional comics. Considering how your readers consume your story will open up creative avenues for both the medium and the story.
7. Keep Your Dialogue Short
This is a good note for all writing, but specifically if you want to write more realistic dialogue. Trust the artist to convey a lot with the character’s face. But more importantly, you don’t want to cover up the great art with endless dialogue bubbles!
One of our favorite writers, Kelly Sue DeConnick suggested a maximum of 3 lines per dialogue balloon. That’s not to say that everyone has to have a short, clipped, Hemingway-esque cadence. Be mindful of how people talk in real life - and if you generally follow this dialogue rule, when you do have a big show-stopping monologue, you’ll be able to really set it apart.
8. Active Actions Not Passive Scenes
In one of our older attempts, Ben and I wrote a comic about a family of gangsters who owned a casino in Macao. After the patriarch dies under mysterious circumstances, the rest of the family plots to fill the vacuum. It was supposed to be something like King Lear meets Game of Thrones meets Ocean’s Eleven. I started on the script and proudly handed it in to my brother. An hour later, he handed it back and said - “I can draw this, but it’s eighteen pages of people arguing in a boardroom.”
At that moment, I realized that I was writing a comic, not a play. Visuals pace the story; not dialogue. Find settings and use actions which illuminate your theme (or your characters motivations) while they talk. It will make your stories more dynamic. Your artist is the “director” of the action on the page. He or she will choose the angles, props, lighting and special effects. Unless it’s intended to be more of a conversational piece, be mindful of the actions that fuel each scene.
9. Create Distinct Characters
Your main characters are going to be featured in many pages - sometimes all of them. Each scene will illuminate their movements and reactions. Imagine what makes your character visually interesting and how would that translate from far away, close up, and even from behind. Spider man is the best case of this. His colorful costume, the energy of his actions, and the vivacity of his web swinging and shooters makes for an eye popping character.
If all your characters look or dress the same, your scenes will start becoming… monochromatic. You want your readers to distinguish your main character from the group even when they’re flipping quickly through pages. An iconic character will have a prop or a costume that is instantly recognizable, even in silhouette.
10. Character Motivations
Your characters should have three defining elements that serve as a consistent guide to your story as a whole: a want, a need, and a flaw.
The want is the character's goal. A character like Batman wants justice.
The need is what will fulfill a character. Sometimes, the protagonist confuses a want with a need, and doesn't know what he or she really needs. Batman's need is family - as evidenced by the expanding Bat Family.
The flaw is a character's weakness or sin. It's either a character trait that surfaces repeatedly to undermine their needs. It can be a temptation that the protagonist gives in to even knowing that it is in act of self-sabotage. Batman's flaw is his inability to grow past his trauma in a healthy way.
How far is your character away from his or her want. Does he know what the need is? Is she confronting her flaw whenever she runs into her antagonist? Knowing these three statements from the beginning of your story will always provide a map back when you get stuck.
Keep in mind, none of these are hard rules that you HAVE to follow to write a comic book. These are just some tips that have informed our own writing. Comics are a collaboration between writer and artist. The final product depends on this back and forth and a little foresight. If we can share any of our own tips, we hope that it helps you become a better writer and think about how to best collaborate with an artist on your project. Want more tips or have more questions? Feel free to contact us or leave a comment below.