•  
Home    Archive

News: Our Community Comic "Gunbaby" is and always will be open for submissions. Any submissions received will run on the site front page on Sundays.

00:00:30UncleRobotI know CPR...
18:39:34Chadm1nSpammers must die. Now.
16:56:16Chadm1nAs promised a few weeks ago, Webcomics Community has been upgraded!

Author Topic: Comics Script Format Part-1  (Read 15275 times)

0 Members and 1 Guest are viewing this topic.

Offline Rob

  • Resident Dick!
  • Administrator
  • Hero Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 1324
  • Easily Confused, Feeble Minded Founder
    • Remedial Comics
Comics Script Format Part-1
« on: September 19, 2010, 11:43:34 PM »
A writer's tutorial on presentation

By Kurt Hathaway of


This week, I'm starting a new muliti-part series that discusses script formatting in some detail... so read this thru for an introduction and follow up in the coming weeks as I delve into the nitty gritty of comics script format. Whether you're new to comics scripting or have pitched and sold a series, there's probably something of value in this series for your future efforts. I'll be speaking mostly on full-script style, but some information could be easily applied to plot writing.

Comic book scripts are unlike screenplays, they don't look the same as a novel manuscript or stage play, they don't resemble a radio play script--but all these scripts have one thing in common: they tell a story.

A comic book script is a blueprint that's to be read and understood by the editor-once it's accepted, it's passed along to the artist to draw the pages-then off to the letterer with the art for the lettering. Even the colorist can benefit from reading a well-presented script.

Each member of the creative team has a job to do-and proper script format will help them to do their job in a way that brings the writer's work to life in the best possible way. An easy-on-the-eyes script is also a treat for the editor who must slog through the "slush pile" in search of his new writer. In a well-formatted script, the ideas are well presented and concise, making the script-reading experience much more entertaining.

Because reading a script is an entirely different experience than reading a finished comic book, I'll be using the term "script-reader" to distinguish the reader of the script in script format from the reader who reads the final drawn, lettered, colored comic book. The script-reader could be a friend, a proofreader, an agent, an editor, an artist, a letterer-anyone reading your work in script format rather than a printed comic book.

While there will be some writing tips sprinkled within, this series is not designed to teach anyone how to write plot and / or story. There are plenty of books on the market already that cover that topic more than I ever could, so visit your local bookstore and browse.

The central purpose of this series is to teach professional-level comics script format that - when read by an editor or potential client - is easily understood by script-readers-be they an editor, an artist, or letterer - a format that presents your story with clarity, without confusion-to best show off your story to its advantage. This series is for folks who want to write professionally for paying clients who look for well-presented material with a compelling story.  A compelling story that is NOT well presented falls short of telling the story, no matter how compelling it might be in the writer's mind.

As a letterer who's worked with literally thousands of scripts over the years, I've seen scripts in unintelligible formats that left me with more questions than answers and I've seen scripts that are clear, concise, and easy to work with.

Working with the worst of them, I don't know who is who on the penciled page (making it impossible to point the balloons to the proper characters), dialogue is presented out of order, thought balloons are not designated as such, captions have quotations when no one's speaking, etc. Simply put, it takes longer to iron out all the questions I have than to actually do the lettering work. If I were the editor, I may very well not read past page 2.

With the best of them (the bulk of the professionally written scripts I've handled), the elements are presented in a clean, easy-to-understand, well-presented style that allows me to do the lettering work with a minimum of backtracking or fuss. The work goes fast, the deadline met, the book on the stands without hassle.

While a story may be thought of as a collection of scenes, the basic units of the formatted script are the page-and the panel. The "page" refers to the page of story that will eventually appear as one page of artwork in the finished product. But consider the panel to be the central unit of the comics script.

Beyond that, the panel is further broken into 3 distinct parts. This information is expressed as 3 separate elements in the script, related but distinct parts of the script panel:

1.   Camera / Location    [What does the reader see? Where are the characters?]
2.   Panel description    [What are the characters doing? What is the setting?]
3.   Lettering Elements    [What are the characters saying/thinking?]

A generally accepted way to format these are:




PANEL NUMBER HERE / "CAMERA" & LOCATION INFO HERE
Panel description here, more visual information for the artist

  • Lettering Elements here for the letterer [indented]





Each panel would have all 3 elements presented in order.

Let-s go over these one by one.

 

1. LOCATION / CAMERA:

These are generally film terms that are borrowed by the comics writer from Hollywood writers as a kind of storytelling shorthand. Just a few words tells the script-reader what he's supposed to imagine in his mind's eye as he reads the script.

The location information tells us where we are in the story (inside the bank, outside the school cafeteria, in the county library, etc.)-and should be presented in the first panel of a new scene. This first panel is often referred to as an establishing shot-a wide angle that establishes we're at the seashore, or at the top of a mountain--whatever the needs of the narrative.

A scene change occurs when time and/or place is changed during the course of a story. The events in Mary's bedroom is a different scene than those in the waterfront warehouse (change of place). The events in the waterfront warehouse in the morning is a different scene than the events in the same waterfront warehouse at midnight (change of time).

Subsequent panels as the scene progresses may drop the overall-defining location information once it's been established in the new scene's first panel. It would be understood if the scene starts inside the county library, that's where the action unfolds until a new scene is presented and a new location described. But the action may move from the library's bookshelves to the library's men's bathroom, back to the shelves, then to the librarian's desk. If so, each mini-location should be mentioned and presented in turn.

The camera information tells the script-reader how much of the scene we see from panel to panel. Like a film director, the writer often establishes how "wide" or "narrow" a view the reader will have. In this way, the writer breaks up the scene into shots-or more properly-panels.

Include the panel number along with the location and camera information.

PANEL 1 / WIDE / MARY & DUKE WALK ACROSS THE UNIVERSITY CAMPUS

This information can be expressed in a number of ways, depending on your preference:

PANEL 1 / WIDE / MARY & DUKE WALK ACROSS THE UNIVERSITY CAMPUS
PANEL 1 / MARY & DUKE ON THE UNIVERSITY CAMPUS / WIDE ANGLE
PANEL 1 / WIDE SHOT / MARY & DUKE AT THE UNIVERSITY

Some writers prefer a different numbering method-either is acceptable.

5.1 / WIDE / MARY & DUKE WALK ACROSS THE UNIVERSITY CAMPUS
In this example 5.1 stands for page 5, panel 1. The next panel would be 5.2, etc.

What the reader learns from the above examples is the panel number (on whatever page it happens to be)-that the panel is showing a wide angle that shows a lot of the scene (rather than a close up that shows a portion of the scene)-and that we're looking at Mary and Duke on a University campus.

It doesn't sound like a lot, but the information is important, as it gets the script orienting the script-reader to what he'll eventually be seeing in the final drawn comic book. It's a kind of first impression. More details will be provided in the panel description to further orient the reader to the story's events.

Some writers even include the relative panel size to aid the artist in page composition. This is also acceptable if you're working with a new artist or simply want to maintain more visual control for dramatic effect.

PANEL 1 / WIDE / MARY & DUKE ON THE UNIVERSITY CAMPUS / LARGE PANEL
or:
5.5 / CLOSE ON DANCER - SMALLEST PANEL ON PAGE
5.6 / CLOSE ON DANCER'S FEET - SMALL INSET PANEL

Other misc. examples:

PANEL 1 / WIDE / MARY & DUKE WALK ACROSS THE UNIVERSITY CAMPUS
PANEL 2 / TWO SHOT / MARY & DUKE
PANEL 3 / WIDER TO INCLUDE KEITH
PANEL 4 / CLOSE ON KEITH
PANEL 5 / CLOSE ON DUKE
PANEL 6 / TWO SHOT-KEITH & DUKE / FAVOR DUKE
PANEL 7 / ANOTHER ANGLE

Some Camera Terms and their Meaning:
  • Worm's eye view (or low angle) From low looking up-as if the camera is on the ground.
    Bird's eye view (or high angle) From high up looking down-as if the camera is in the air or sky.
    Two-shot -- 2 characters in the panel.
    Three-shot --3 characters in the panel.
    Close up --Head and shoulders.
    Extreme close up --Very close on a person or object. Maybe eyes, nose, mouth-maybe even closer.
    Another angle--Indicates to the artist to change angle, but leaves the choice to him.
    Wide angle (or just wide) -- To include a large area of the scene, somewhat subjective, so be sure to clarify what's seen in the panel description to direct the artist.
    Extreme wide -- Very wide-as in a shot of the New York City skyline.
    Wider -- A wider angle than the previous panel. Opens up the panel to include more visual information (another character or object).
    Favor [character name]--The camera features one character over another-though it may be a two shot, the angle may be more on Duke than on Keith. Usually when the favored character is speaking or registering a reaction the artist needs to draw as the focal point of the panel.


2. ACTION, OR PANEL DESCRIPTION:
This is a visual description of the panel that supports the location/camera information by supplying further details of the location and characters as well as other visual information pertinent to the story's presentation. It's a more precise description of what the reader eventually sees inside the panel. Who is seen, and who is not (depending). Props, costume, attitude, facial expressions, and character position all play a part in this panel element.

The panel description element should be literally thought of as "artist's instructions"-though it also doubles as scene setting for the editor, publisher, or anyone else you're trying to sell the story to.

When a new scene starts, more visual information is required at the scene start than as the scene progresses, and should be laid out up front to orient the script-reader to the scenery, location, characters, clothing, etc. Don't tell us that Mary is wearing her PJ's in panel seven of her bedroom scene. Tell us in panel one of that scene, so the script-reader can "see" the proper picture you want them to see (and so you don't surprise the artist after he's drawn 6 panels of Mary in a sundress).

With each new scene, the panel description needs all the information necessary to "paint a picture" of the place/event for the script-reader. This includes a feel for the place or what the "set" looks like (organized or disaster area), and other information vital to the story as it unfolds (maybe the dresser drawers must be by the door for the story's climax to work).

Things to think about when writing panel descriptions-especially with a new scene:
  • Specify location    ("at an office building" is not enough)
    Time frame      (today, or the year 1351?)
    Set decoration       (a tidy chem lab-or a neglected, dusty one?)
    Who's there       (and who's not--especially in team books)
    Costume       (in civilian clothes--or action outfit?)
    Lighting       (characters in shadow to create mystery)
    Facial Expression    (happy, sad, mad, etc)
    Gestures      (pointing, waving, punching)
    Body attitude       (hunched, chest puffed out, relaxed, sitting, running)
    Props          (what they're holding, using)

Side note:
It may already seem like common sense, but write panel descriptions in present tense. A few times in my career I've been handed scripts written in future tense (weird, right?). I guess the writer figured the art hadn't been drawn yet so they were writing as if the story took place in the future at the time of the art's creation. Instead of Spider-Guy crawls the wall; they wrote Spider-Guy will crawl the wall. It took me a few pages to figure what they were doing-then I had them rewrite it. So, always write descriptions in present tense-even events that take place in the year 1640. Captions may be past tense, depending on the story, but panel descriptions should be in present tense-as if the story is unfolding in the readers' mind as it happens.

And to best present the visual information, start the panel descriptions with the broadest details and narrow the focus of the details as you proceed with each sentence.

EX:
PANEL 1 / WIDE / MARY & DUKE WALK ACROSS THE UNIVERSITY CAMPUS
It's a newer institution, so the architecture of the buildings is glass and steel-no brick, no ivy. Mary and Duke are walking to their next class across the campus quad while talking. Misc. students can be seen rushing to class, sitting on benches, reading under a tree, etc. Both Mary and Duke wear casual clothes and carry books.

In the above example the overall panel impression is presented first-followed by details.

The number one priority of any writer is CLARITY... be clear as you "paint the picture" with words. A recent spec' script I read told me on page 1 / panel 1 that the main character was standing "in front of a door." No indication if the character was inside or outside... no idea if the door was in a run-down hallway of a run-down hotel in 1945... no idea if the door was a locked bank vault door... no idea if the door was a dimensional portal... no idea if the door was the street entrance to a real estate office. Luckily, I'm not an artist, but certainly any artist would need more information than that. An editor would simply be confused enough to move onto the next script in his slush pile--which is exactly what I did.

Adjectives and nouns go a long way in "painting" a clear picture for the reader, so beef up your vocabulary if need be.  I always have my browser set to dictionary.com when I write so I can use their excellent online thesaurus [wonderful for crafting dialogue, too].

And remember: Comic book panels are static images-they do not move like motion pictures, so write each panel as if it were a snapshot. A character cannot rush across the room, punch the villain, and draw his weapon in the same panel.

3. LETTERING ELEMENTS:

Below the camera-location information and the panel description the lettering elements are presented.

Everything the letterer needs to know and do is offset here-away from the panel description and indented to suggest a separation of the two (DO NOT use the tab button to indent--in MS Word, use the increase indent button in the formatting pallette or set up an indented paragraph style). The dialogue, captions, sound effects, titles, etc. are all laid out under the panel description.

Just as the panel descriptions are artist instructions, the lettering elements are considered the letterer's instructions. These are separate from each other for good reason-artists very often may not read the lettering elements (though he should, if he's going to lay out the panel correctly so the dialogue flows in order)... but a letterer rarely reads the action paragraphs-after all, by the time he's ready to go to work, the art's already been drawn and is right in front of him. He can see the finished, drawn panel on the page-he doesn't have to read about it, too. For this reason, the lettering elements are separated from the panel description. It also makes the story easier to read for the editor who has to get a feel for the story, pacing, and dialogue before the art is drawn.

Lettering elements include:
  • Captions (Cap)
    Dialogue balloons
    Thought balloons (thought or TH)
    Various other balloon styles--telepath, whisper, burst, etc.
    Sound Effects (SFX or FX)
    Background Signage
    Story Title (once per issue)
    Credits (once per issue)

EX:
PANEL 1 / WIDE / MARY & DUKE WALK ACROSS THE UNIVERSITY CAMPUS
It's a newer institution, so the architecture of the buildings is glass and steel-no brick, no ivy. Mary and Duke are walking to their next class across the campus quad while talking. Misc. students can be seen rushing to class, sitting on benches, reading under a tree, etc. Both Mary and Duke wear casual clothes and carry books.

  • Mary:
    Duke, I saw you looking at that new girl. You... think she's pretty?

    Duke:
    Who--Sheila? She's okay, I guess. Just that she reminds me of someone I haven't seen in a while.

    Mary:
    Who?

    Duke:
    I-I'd rather not say right now.

The actual dialogue may be presented in all upper case caps, but many writers prefer to use lower case. I prefer to see all upper case, and I know a lot of editors do, too. It's just easier to spot and it gives a sense of what the eventual reader of the final comic book will also be reading. It gives the editor an idea of the finished work even before the first page is drawn.

  • MARY:
    DUKE, I SAW YOU LOOKING AT THAT NEW GIRL. YOU... THINK SHE'S PRETTY?

    DUKE:
    WHO--SHEILA? SHE'S OKAY, I GUESS. JUST THAT SHE REMINDS ME OF SOMEONE I HAVEN'T SEEN IN A WHILE.

    MARY:
    WHO?

    DUKE:
    I-I'D RATHER NOT SAY RIGHT NOW.


Next week:
More on lettering elements than you ever thought about!  And how to format them in your script.


About the author:
Kurt Hathaway has been a comics freelancer for 25 years. His client list reads like a who's who of publishers: DC, Marvel, Image, Dark Horse, Eclipse, Malibu, and tons of others. He has thousands of lettering credits including two for Newsweek and Esquire magazines. A DC editor nicknamed him "The Comics Commando" for his timely delivery of deadline work.

He letters the webcomics "Master Jesus" and "Chicago 1968" both written by Len Kody.

In addition to lettering and logos, Kurt Hathaway's Cartoon Balloons Studio does custom font design, page/book/magazine design, pre-press (setting up press files for the printer), and animated motion graphics for video projects.

He's written material for Image Comics, DC Comics, Antarctic Press, Electronic Arts Playstation Division, and ABC/Disney Television. He's currently writing the comic series "Dawn of the Dread Force" for Jaran Studios. Dreadforce.com

He can be reached at:     khathaway1@socal.rr.com

(Editor's note: Whenever indentation was required as part of the formatting provided by the author I am forced to use a "list" tag from the forums. The list tag creates the indentation I require to properly represent the authors' intentions, however it is not designed for the purpose and leaves a small black dot at the first entry of every indented group. Please ignore this black dot. It is not part of the article as intended.)

Offline otomo

  • Newbie
  • *
  • Posts: 24
Re: Comics Script Format Part-1
« Reply #1 on: September 21, 2010, 11:12:27 AM »
Good article again.  There's no 100% agreed upon comic script format, but for people just starting out, or people who want to improve, Kurt offers some sound advice, especially being as detailed as possible about your setting and your camera angles.  That's definitely the best way to get the artist to draw what you envision. 

Clarity and an easy to read and understand script are also very important.