I recently gave a talk at the Bristol Comic Expo 2014 about how I started writing for 2000 AD by pitching Future Shocks scripts. I’ve written up my notes as the following blog, covering everything from submission tactics to coping with rejection and why there’s really no such thing as ‘breaking in’
This blog positions me as some kind of veteran - albeit of a teeny-tiny patch of comicdom - so I'd better show off a couple of medals before I start dishing out advice. I’ve had two original series published in 2000 AD, that’s Age Of The Wolf and Dandridge. I’ve also written Tales From The Black Museum, Robo-Hunter, and Judge Dredd. So there.
But before I got to write all that, I ‘broke in’ by submitting Tharg’s Future Shocks (read on to find out why I just dropped the inverted-comma bomb). What the heck is a Future Shock? Well, according to the 2000 AD submission guidelines they’re “self-contained, four-page science-fiction short stories with a twist ending”. These things appear several times a year in 2000 AD and there are several genre variants that employ the same format. These include horror stories called Terror Tales, time-travel stories called Time Twisters and alternate-history stories called Past Imperfect. But do bear in mind, if you’re submitting, that Tharg is asking for Future Shocks!
Now, 2000 AD has an open-door submissions policy, which means anyone can take a crack at writing a Future Shock and have a fair shot at getting it published. As such, this is the route through which the majority of new writers come to 2000 AD. This was how Simon Spurrier and Al Ewing arrived, both of whom now write for Marvel. Arthur Wyatt, writer of the bestselling Dredd movie sequel comic Underbelly, also fought his way through the slush pile, as did, most recently, writer and artist David Baillie (whose excellent blog contains a wealth of behind-the-magic info) and novelist T.C. Eglington (author of popular children’s books The Spellbound Hotel and its sequel The Stolen City).
Having gone through this apprenticeship myself, from submitting my first Future Shock to graduating to my first series, I’ve learned a great deal. But before I go into any of that, first let me tell you what I’m not going to tell you.
I’m not going to tell you how to get your Future Shock submission accepted. Why? Because I don't know. I’m not the editor; I’m the freelancer. I’m the guy on the outside looking in and as such have no idea what the editor does or doesn’t do, what processes he may or may not go through, what he may favour or can't stand. (Here’s a good time for me to add a little disclaimer along the lines of ‘all opinions expressed herein are my own and do not represent those of Rebellion, yadda, yadda, yadda…’)
All I can tell you is what worked for me; and the truth is all anyone can tell you is what worked for them. Telling people how to break into comics (and Craig Mazin of the wonderful Scriptnotes podcast said exactly this of screenwriting in the US) is like telling them how to lose their virginity. I can tell you how I lost mine (and I usually will after six pints of Stella), but that’s it. Everyone’s circumstances are different. It’s therefore pretty much impossible to dish out one-size-fits-all advice.
However, one thing we can all agree on is that Future Shocks are super-hard to write well. And here’s four reasons why:
1.) You’re trying to surprise the reader with a final-page twist that they know is coming the second they see the words ‘Future Shocks’ on the contents page. Regular readers know these things contain twists and will have rounded up a list of possible punchlines by the time they've reached the bottom of the first page. 'I'll bet it was Earth all along, or the main character's really a ghost, or he's the killer he's been searching for all along, or maybe...'
2.) You’ve got only four pages in which to build a sense of character or consequence, so the reader actually cares about what you’re writing.
3.) It’s hard to avoid what’s been done before. Never mind what Future Shocks have been coming up with since they first appeared in 2000 AD in 1977, short-form sting-in-the-tail sci-fi stories have been doing their thing since at least the 1890s, when H.G. Wells was writing War Of The Worlds. Over a century later, even the most seemingly original ideas have likely been done to death already. (It’s interesting how at least two recent Future Shocks reflected this sense of a creative bottleneck by offering very postmodern spins on the Future Shock story: Simon Spurrier and Jon Davis-Hunt’s Hacked (Prog 1754, Oct 2011) and David Baillie and Graeme Neil Reid’s Time Is The Only Enemy (Prog 1837, June 2013). The first was a witty deconstruction of classic Future Shock tropes, while the second featured a Future Shock writer who essentially found himself in the middle of one of his own stories.)
4.) Competition is fierce. I asked Tharg himself, 2000 AD’s almighty alien editor, how many Future Shock submissions does the Nerve Centre receive? I was told approximately two a day. That’s 10 a week, around 40 a month and almost 500 a year. And how many Future Shocks actually got published in 2013? Seven.
What’s your best chance of getting a script accepted amid that scrum? Like I said, I don’t know, but here’s what happened with me. I started submitting in January 2007. At the time I’d had a lot of film journalism published, but had no creative credits. I’d written plenty of short stories and wotnot but had nothing published outside the small press. Once I had decided to target 2000 AD, I submitted relentlessly and got rejected half as much again. So the first thing I learned about writing Future Shocks was…
WRITE PLENTY OF SCRIPTS!
Submitting Future Shocks is a war of attrition in which scripts are your ammunition. We’re talking World War Z tactics here, whereby you get over the wall by clambering up a pile of rejected scripts, each one better than the last. Now here’s the next thing I learned…
REJECTION IS A CERTAINTY!
After getting hit by several of these horrible little form letters, you’re going to feel as though you’re feeding all your hard work into a shredder. I coped by telling myself…
WRITE LIKE YOU’VE ALREADY BEEN REJECTED!
Here’s some good news: All you need to care about is writing your script. You can’t control what happens once you’ve posted it. You can’t control whether it gets accepted or rejected. You can’t control what artist might work on it. You can’t control whether the readers will love it, hate it or dismiss it as ‘filler’. Hell, you can’t even guarantee Royal Mail can get your submission as far as Oxford! So don’t distract yourself by worrying about the possibilities. Focus on the script you’re writing. Don’t worry about failing or succeeding. Keep a clear head. This allows you to bring all your experience and ability to bear, and this will help you write as well as you possibly can.
While attempting to maintain this Zen-state (not always successfully), I knuckled down until I had a stack of scripts on file; around six or seven. So, as soon as that rejection arrived I could fire off a replacement straight away. Of course, if the editor had included any feedback with that rejection (e.g. ‘too many panels per page’, ‘you need to dramatize the story rather than just narrate it’) then I’d review the script I was about to send out, just to make sure I wasn’t making that same mistake twice.
IMPLEMENT ANY EDITORIAL FEEDBACK!
This went on for about three years, in between other writing jobs, including film journalism and subediting, until I got to a stage where Tharg let me pitch ideas instead of having to write the entire script. By now I’d been regularly writing film and comic-related reviews, articles and interviews for the Judge Dredd Megazine. It's perhaps safe to assume that the fact my copy always met the brief, the word count, and the deadline, went some way towards convincing Tharg that I was a safe pair of hands.
Soon after, I ventured an idea for my first series (Age Of The Wolf), which got accepted, after which I was ‘in’, although ‘in’ means whatever you want it to mean. No one gives you a certificate. Tharg doesn’t invite you to the Nerve Centre and say ‘I dub thee a script-droid’ (and if he did he’d probably only anoint you with a clip round the ear and threats of further violence unless you returned to your cubicle straight away).
Having gone through all that (the submitting Future Shocks not the Betelgeusian beatdown), I can probably distil everything I’ve learned about submitting Future Shocks into two broad categories of wisdom…
1.) ASK YOURSELF WHY YOU’RE DOING THIS
2.) GET IN BY GETTING GOOD.
Let me break these two down, starting with the first one.
Having spoken to many writers over the years, I reckon there’s three types of people who submit Future Shocks: fans, aspiring professionals and established professionals. The fans aren’t in it for long haul; they’re just taking a punt on a cool idea, which is still a perfectly valid reason for submitting. These guys and girls are in the game on a casual basis. The aspiring pros, however, are in it to win it. They want to write comics professionally one day. The established professionals
are already making a living out of writing and for them this is just another outlet. These folks may be seasoned journalists, or fiction writers with several novels under their belt.
In terms of who stands the best chance of writing the sort of script most likely to get accepted, the established professionals probably have the edge, if only because they can write well enough to get paid to do it. The aspiring professionals probably have the advantage over the fans because they’re more likely to have studied the techniques that make a good script. Notice my emphasis here not on getting accepted, but on writing a good script. Because the surest route towards acceptance is to…
WRITE A GOOD SCRIPT!
I’m reminded here of an anecdote I once heard about an agent who telephones a publisher and says, ‘My client’s written a 10,000-word novel. Would you be interested in publishing it?’ To which the publisher replies, ‘Depends which words and in which order.’
To write a good script you’ll need to know how to build up an idea, how to tell a story visually, and understand drama, character and plot (and how those last three are all the same thing). So the advice to the underdogs out there has to be…
THINK LIKE A PRO EVEN IF YOU’RE NOT!
Don’t think like an amateur. Think like the writer you want to become. Get good at what you’re doing.
When I first started submitting I guess I was somewhere between aspiring and established (lots of work in niche publications and not much else, but I’d been around the block enough times to know what I was doing). When I started writing comics, I made all the usual rookie mistakes, which Tharg got me to wring out of the accepted scripts before they went to the artists. But once I’d made that first couple of sales and emerged blinking into the wonderful world of professional comics writing, I started to realise that a lot of the terminology I was used to hearing when I was still a Future Shock virgin didn’t really reflect the truth, certainly not as I was experiencing it.
For starters, ‘breaking in’, as I discovered, is really more like ‘seeping in’, like mould. I recall Simon Spurrier saying something to this effect elsewhere, but ‘breaking in’ implies there’s this one barrier, this single door that you have to get through, on the other side of which is this wonderful Wonkaland of comics in which you’ll never be rejected again, in which editors will queue up to give you work, and you’ll get paid to write whatever you want. That dream may come true way, way, waaaay down the line. If you’re super-lucky.
For now, the reality of submitting Future Shocks is this: You will exhaust yourself breaking down that door, getting that first script accepted, and once you’re through, guess what you’ll find on the other side…? Another door. And behind that, another door, and so on and so on. And each of those doors will be as hard to get through as the last. Submitting never gets any easier, even after you’ve scored a few sales, even when you get better at it. It’s like a video game where your character levels up, but the monsters just get stronger, and so the challenge remains the same.
So words like ‘breaking in’ don’t reflect the truth and yet do determine your view of the business you’re trying to get in to. So…
Another term that can be deceptive: ‘comic writer’. If you want to become a professional comics writer you need to know what that means in reality and not what you think it means based on what you’ve read in interviews and other such promotions. I always used to assume, even when I had plenty of professional experience, that if someone was referred to as a ‘comic writer’ then they spent 100% of their time writing comics, when, of course, that’s very often not the case.
For many freelance writers, writing comics is just one gig among several. Chances are they’ll be toiling through two or more deeply unsexy writing gigs that they won’t want to mention during that interview with SFX magazine. They may be making the majority of their income proofreading recipe books or writing marketing copy for a high-street bank (I’ve done both). Lucky is the writer who can straight away launch a freelance career based on a creative niche like comics, which is why you need to be aware of the bigger picture at all times.
FUTURE SHOCKS ARE NOT THE BE-ALL AND END-ALL!
If you’re submitting Future Shocks with an eye on becoming a professional comics writer (that is, a freelance writer who works in comics), then submitting Future Shocks should be thought of as one fishing rod among many. Write other things for other outlets and see what bites. Do you know an artist? Have a firm idea about how you can self-publish something that will actually reach an audience? Then go for it.
Over the years, I’ve met a heartbreaking amount of people who’ve become fixated on writing or drawing for 2000 AD above all else, who’ve built the idea up in their head until it means more to them than is healthy.
ASK YOURSELF WHY YOU’RE DOING THIS!
The answer to that question shouldn’t be because you have to, because you’ll be a failure if you don’t, because getting a script accepted will validate who are. Stephen Pressfield’s awesome little book The War Of Art rightly warns of the dangers of staking your self-worth, your identity, your reason-for-being, on the response of others to your work.
Why was I doing it? Because I was a freelance writer who wanted to work for a paying creative outlet. I didn’t let it mean any more to me than that. Of course, emotionally it means way more to me than that. My inner fanboy is constantly bouncing up and down squealing ‘I write for 2000 AD! Woo-Hoo!’ But I keep him locked away when he needs to be and never let him get in the way of the work. Now, lesson two…
GET IN BY GETTING GOOD!
This came from an interview I read with former 2000 AD editor Andy Diggle, from Comic Heroes magazine. He said, "Everyone always asks how to break into the industry, but they never ask how to become a better writer. That's the answer - you break in by getting good at it."
So how do you get good at writing Future Shocks? You start by reading the two compilations Rebellion have published, that’s The Complete Alan Moore Future Shocks and The Best Of Tharg’s Future Shocks. But you also examine the foundations upon which the series is built. Future Shocks are short twist stories, which – never mind those found in Will Eisner’s The Spirit or classic anthology comics like Tales From The Crypt – is a form probably as old as the short story itself. While submitting my Future Shock scripts I read plenty of twist stories by those whom I had decided were the masters of the form, particularly Saki and O Henry. I watched shows like vintage Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
You’re reading and watching these to examine how they work, but you’re also familiarising yourself with the types of stories that have since become cliché. You’re becoming literate in the form.
Now the classic advice about writing, which you’ve no doubt heard a zillion times, is to read as much as possible and write as much as possible. I’d argue these two disciplines alone are actually of limited benefit to a writer. You need to read a lot? Definitely. Write a lot? Certainly. But you also need to take time out and…
Let’s say you want to become a great comic writer, you’ll dutifully work your way through the classics: Eisner, Watchmen, Dark Knight Returns and everything else that finds its way onto every ‘100 best graphic novels list’ ever. But unless you know why you’re reading these books all you’re really doing is ticking titles off a list…
DON’T JUST READ IT, STUDY IT!
What’s so damn important about Watchmen anyway? Why does everyone say I have to read it? Don’t rely on the opinions of others, no matter how unimpeachably expert they may be. Challenge everything you’ve heard about this book. Approach it like you’ve never heard of it. Make up your own mind. Have the courage to disagree.
With a clear head, unclouded by hype and reverence, ask simple questions. What techniques is this story using? What effect does this create? What are the story’s antecedents? What’s the historical context, the circumstances in which this story was produced? What do you know about the person who wrote it?
Take nothing for granted. Develop an aggressive, even arrogant sense of what you think works or doesn’t work. Cultivate a sense of taste. Compile your own canon. Fuck ‘the classics’.
The same goes for writing. You can write a dozen scripts, but if you’re not learning more about what the medium can do, experimenting with new techniques, and being brave enough to fail, then you will never improve and every script you write will suck just as much as the last one.
There’s three strands to learning how to write anything (comics, novels, plays, anything)…
1.) UNDERSTAND LANGUAGE
2.) UNDERSTAND THE MEDIUM
3.) UNDERSTAND DRAMA.
The first is a given. If you want to write professionally, but can’t be bothered to learn how to string a sentence together, or how grammar and syntax work, then you’re the equivalent of a plumber who doesn’t know which way up to hold a monkey-wrench.
No editor worth writing for is going to accept poorly written English. If your Future Shock synopsis contains more than one typo or grammatical error, then I’m pretty sure that’s all the excuse Tharg needs to reach for another rejection slip. He’s got a filing cabinet full of these submissions, which he needs to get through before lunch.
Having worked for several years as a subeditor, I know how lazy writers can be when they think they can get away with it. But there’s no subeditor at 2000 AD to check your spelling for you or sharpen up your syntax before Tharg takes a look at it.
As I was rightly reminded by a member of the audience during my talk at Bristol, learning difficulties such as dyslexia need not be a barrier to writing professionally (it didn’t stop F. Scott Fitzgerald, Agatha Christie or Quentin Tarantino). Seek information and support from organisations like The British Dyslexia Association or charities like Dyslexia Action.
As for the rest of you, there are plenty of books on grammar and style out there (I’d recommend Constance Hale’s firecracker of a style-guide Sin And Syntax for starters, as well as several of the Chambers and Oxford guides on style and plain English). There’s no excuse, people.
The same goes for strand number two, understand how your medium works. We’re talking comics here, so the bible has to be Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics (a must!) and his third book, Making Comics. I’d also recommend Eisner’s venerable but still relevant books Graphic Storytelling And Visual Narrative and Comics And Sequential Art. Sorted.
Now, strand three, understand drama. This is particularly relevant when it comes to writing Future Shocks because you don’t have room to get away with spouting reams of exposition; it has to be this tight little six-pack of a story.
Here’s how drama works: your main character is trying to achieve something, but something or someone is standing in their way, and something awful will happen to that main character unless they achieve their goal.
That right there is the nucleus of storytelling and it goes back to the days of togas and inventing democracy. The key to understanding how it applies is to see how it exists within stories on both a macro level and a micro level, that is, to the overall story and within the smallest component of the story: the scene.
What does Indiana Jones want to achieve in Raiders Of The Lost Ark? The recovery of the Ark of the Covenant. What’s standing in his way? The Nazis. What will happen if Indy doesn’t achieve what he’s set out to do? The Nazis will take over the world.
Now let’s zoom in on that scene when Indy visits Marion at the bar in Nepal. What does Indy want to achieve at the start of this scene? He wants to convince Marion to tell him where to find the headpiece to the Staff of Ra. What’s standing in his way? Marion doesn’t want to tell him because she’s still mad at him about the way he treated her in the past. What will happen if Indy doesn’t find the headpiece? The Nazis will get it, discover the Ark’s resting place and eventually use the artefact to take over the world.
What you’re developing here is the writer’s x-ray vision, which will enable you to see through an overall premise or a single scene and identify what’s driving it. It’s the equivalent of an artist spending countless hours studying anatomy until they know instinctively how to structure a pose.
Let’s come up with a generic Future Shock premise right now. Let’s say there’s a guy in space-prison. What does he want to do? Escape. What’s stopping him? Bars, security guards, perimeter guns. What will happen to this guy if he doesn’t escape? We could settle for saying he’ll spend the rest of his life behind bars, but let’s ramp it up a bit. Your stakes need to be as dramatic as possible. So let’s say he’s offended fellow inmate Big Xertlik, Anvil-Headed Nutter of Worlds, who will Scotch-kiss our hero into oblivion unless he escapes within the next hour. Ooh, a time limit. Now we’re cooking.
Now let’s zero-in on a scene. Let’s say our hero is on work detail, breaking rocks with a laser-hammer, and an alien guard is about to discover the hole he’s digging and through which he was about to escape. Oh crap. The guard is striding towards him right now! What does our hero need to do? Prevent the guard from discovering the tunnel and alerting the other guards. What’s preventing the hero from doing this? This bruiser’s heavily armed and so are his buddies. What’s at stake? Horrible tortures await those who try and escape, so our hero’s going to wish he was staring up at Big Xertlik, Anvil-Headed Nutter of Worlds, if that tunnel gets discovered.
LINE OF ACTION. COUNTER-ACTION. STAKES. THE ONLY FORMULA YOU’LL EVER NEED.
Obviously, you’d need to put a fresh spin on that space-prison premise and ask a whole bunch of other questions, like what’s going to make my space-prison story different from everyone else’s? How can I make the reader care what happens to this guy? What’s the twist at the end? Notice how working up a story is about asking the right questions. Learning about drama will help you understand which questions to ask and how you can give the best answers for the story that you have in mind.
Writers, being writers, like to romanticise, especially about writing. But don’t be fooled. The hard work involved in writing a story isn’t magic; it’s mechanics. It’s craft. It’s learnable. Yes, there’s instinct involved, but instinct is built upon knowledge and experience. As the French Romantic painter Eugène Delacroix once said, “First learn to be a craftsman; it won’t keep you from being a genius.” (By the way, I found that quote in John Yorke’s Into The Woods, a comprehensive breakdown of the mysteries and function of drama, and another must-read).
And it’s the same with ideas. You shouldn’t worry about being unable to generate enough ideas to keep writing scripts. Learning about drama can help you build a Future Shock idea out of anything. Check out New Scientist, Wired, or a Sunday magazine. Find an article that tickles your interest and ask how can I turn this into a Future Shock? Who might be the main character? What might they want? Have fun…
MAKE A GAME OF IT!
Remember that freedom you felt as a kid when you were writing or drawing? Back before it all came to mean something? That lack of self-consciousness is what you’re trying to get back to, because that’s how you’ll stand the best chance of doing your best work. If you’ve received a dozen rejections, then clearly you may have to ask yourself whether your best is ever going to be good enough for this publication. But the only way to find out for sure is to give it your best shot.
And that's all I had to say on the subject of Future Shocks. I was going to include a section on twists, different types, how they work and so on, but I didn’t have room to include it. Plus, it’s a bit advanced, so I’ll probably end up doing this as another blog at some point…
In the meantime, have a listen to this podcast recording of a 2000 AD writers panel I also did at Bristol with the mighty Al Ewing (Judge Dredd, Loki: Agent Of Asgard), hosted by the good folks at Everything Comes Back To 2000 AD...
Check out this podcast recording of the 2000 AD writers panel featuring Al Ewing (Judge Dredd, Zombo, Loki: Agent Of Asgard) and my good self. This took place at the awesome Bristol Comic Expo 2014 and was recorded by Iz McAuliffe and Stacey Whittle on behalf of the good folks at Everything Comes Back To 2000 AD. You can also download the episode via iTunes or the ECBT2000AD Libsyn webpage. (Contains a few swears.)
Some thoughts, along with some stuff I’ve found, on how theme works in stories: what it is, where you can find it, why no story can do without it (except those that can), how writers can overthink theme, and why it’s never a good idea to write ‘art’
Theme is what a story is really about. Theme articulates how the author feels about their story. Theme (along with character) is what makes a story unique, rather than just another story about a guy robbing a bank, hunting monsters or falling in love with the wrong girl. Theme is about what the plot actually means, to the writer at least. If I'm having trouble driving a story or if the characters feel a bit directionless, it's often because my theme isn't quite there yet and needs focusing into something stronger, simpler or more coherent.
Sometimes I know what the theme is before I've even written the pitch. In such cases, I'll be thinking something like, 'Gee, I really want to tell a story about what it's like to sacrifice something you love. Now what kind of characters would best embody that? What kind of situation would best dramatise that? Where do the ninjas come in?' Other times the theme doesn't emerge until I'm one or two drafts down the line.
When writing comics, I find it's good to know the theme by the time you're writing the breakdown*, because, as Pixar screenwriter Andrew Stanton says, "Theme dictates every decision." I say "it's good to know the theme by the time you're writing the breakdown". It would probably be more accurate to say, "it's good to take a stab at what you think the theme could be". Like everything else in the story at this stage, the theme will change several times before you finally nail it.
What’s in it for you?
Theme is really about finding something in the story to which you can relate. As storyboard artist Emma Coats recently tweeted, “Why must you tell this story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.” Comic writer Mark Waid wrote a great blog on the same topic. In it he explains why it's vital for writers to find something in common with their characters, even if that character is an immortal god of thunder whose day job involves punching people through buildings.
I think the need to relate to your characters is why varied experiences can be so important to a writer; greater experience gives you greater sympathetic range. And by ‘greater experience’ I don’t mean giving up your day-job to go Eat Pray Love in Cambodia. It’s about being alive to what any experience has to offer, no matter how mundane. It’s about living in the moment. Another veteran comic writer John Ostrander wrote a profound article on theme in issue 12 of the (sadly no longer published) comic-writing magazine Write Now!, in which he said that it’s "not a matter of how much experience we have had but what we have learned from it."
Critics obsess over theme because it’s the gateway into the writer’s soul. It’s the writer’s contribution to our collective understanding of the universe. However, as Ostrander points out in his article, your truth it is not the truth. There is no one universal answer; there is only our answer. A story's theme is unique to the storyteller, but it must also mean something to others. Andrew Stanton calls this need to connect with other people, “probably the greatest story commandment, which is ‘make me care’. Please - emotionally, intellectually, aesthetically, just make me care.”
Theme vs. moral
Don't mistake a theme for a moral. Morals are the currency of fable, not great drama, although dramatic themes often explore a moral or a single idea. When I wrote the second series of Age Of The Wolf, I didn’t figure out the theme until I was halfway through writing the scripts, which, as it turned out, was way too late, caused a lot of problems and ate up a lot of hours in fixing it. But anyway, the subtitle of this series was ‘She Is Legend’, but the theme, I realised, was really ‘is she legend’? Does the heroine always do the right thing? Make the right choices? Is she always noble, virtuous and unselfish? No. Because the people we revere as 'legends' are really just ordinary people; weird, scared, selfish ordinary people. On the other hand, does she get the job done, beat the bad guys and save the people? Yes. I didn’t come to any kind of conclusion about all this. I just let the story steer itself along these lines and left the rest to the gods.
Again, as Ostrander points out (man, you should really go buy this issue), morals differ from theme because they state a truth that allows no further questions. The greatest works of drama convey ambiguity. And ambiguity can enable a story to transcend the coarse mechanics of narrative. One way in which it can do this is by evoking the open-endedness of real life and inflicting a wound that the story cannot heal. This occurs in Jaws when poor Mrs Kintner confronts Chief Brody on the dock, slaps him in the kisser and sobs that heart-stopping line, “But still my boy is dead now and there’s nothing you can do about it.” As film critic Antonia Quirke writes in her razor-sharp BFI monograph on this movie, “an element is introduced into the film that cannot be resolved, or absolved by catharsis. This is the extra leap that art makes. To introduce a trouble which cannot be cured by the resolution of the story.” At this point, it no longer matters if the shark is killed – and the story’s line of action resolved – a mother has lost her child, nothing can bring him back and she will feel the pain of that loss for the rest of her life.
And yet some stories seem to get by just fine without theme. Movie critic and novelist Stephen Hunter is spot-on when he wrote this about Die Hard in his book of collected reviews Violent Screen: “[The movie] illustrates a key principle in the realm of melodrama: if it’s fast and gaudy enough, and if it beats you to oatmeal efficiently enough, you’re willing to throw out all your doubts, sit back and suck up the excitement.”
Snatch is another great example of a movie that gets by pretty much on plot alone. Its characters are ciphers who all sound the same, but the film is so fast and the plot so deftly, so gleefully constructed that you're missing out on a great ride if you don't give in and enjoy it. Hell, it's all art as far as I'm concerned (I stand firmly in the Scott McCloud 'art-is-a-raspberry' camp**).
I guess an absence of theme is a form of ambiguity in itself, and as such opens theme-less melodrama up to interpretation just as much as a masterful novel like The Great Gatsby. Film studies professors these days are as likely to read a student thesis on Steven Seagal movies as they are on the work of auteurs like Hawks or Hitchcock.
Too much theme?
Every story is worth something, even if it's only worth a rant about how much it sucks. And, of course, these days everyone has a platform on which to express what they feel a story is worth. No wonder writers get nervous. It’s a demanding crowd out there, and bad reviews - professional or otherwise - all amount to bad publicity, which many writers fear can sour their chances of scoring their next gig. Such a volatile atmosphere can perhaps intimidate a writer into fussing about theme, spending more time worrying about how that theme will be interpreted and less time actually telling the story.
To take a couple of recent cinematic examples, movies like Prometheus and Man Of Steel feel to me like they're overcompensating. Why overcomplicate what are essentially pulp stories, whose vigour and meaning reside in their very simplicity? Why strive to answer the sort of questions asked by people who are more interested in trivia than in surrendering themselves to a great story? And don't get me started on the whole prequel thing, a trend that often feels dedicated to destroying whatever mystery made the earlier stories so enticing in the first place. I'm also reading a lot of comics these days that feel like they're labouring to create a worthy contribution to a time-honoured canon, straining to satisfy the dreary demands of continuity.
Dammit, just lighten up and tell me a story!
We all know that (zap, pow) comics are no longer just for children, while pioneering critics and theorists like Kim Newman and Scott McCloud have helped vindicate the 'low' genres and mediums (and thus influenced these fields creatively way more than I think many people realise - but that's another pet theory of mine). It's great that the value of melodrama and comics has been recognised, but what happens when writers take that recognition too seriously and become preoccupied with what it all means? In his gripping film history Blockbuster: How The Jaws And Jedi Generation Turned Hollywood Into A Boom-Town, film critic Tom Shone explains how the Alien franchise fell foul of overthinking. “The more fascinated Alien films grew with the richness of their own thematic texture, the more they neglected their humble duty to terrify, and by the time of Alien Resurrection [or indeed Prometheus - Alec], the series had unspooled into mere marginalia, of archival interest to those who wished to know what happens when you give an Alien movie to a Frenchman to direct.”
No writer wants to come across as an amateur, but it's never EVER a good idea to write 'art'. That applies whether you're Barbara Cartland or Vladimir Nabokov. When in the midst of writing, say ‘balls to art’. It's a raspberry. Concentrate on the task in hand. Think theme, not art. Look for the simplest piece of emotional truth at the heart of the story and communicate that. Don’t think,
feeeeeewl! Speak your mind, but remember Denny O'Neil's cardinal rule of theme (apparently passed on to a young John Ostrander, whose Write Now! article you should really, really read): “You can say anything you want but first you must tell a story.”
* When you're writing a comics series, or branded fiction (like, say, a Warhammer tie-in book for Games Workshop), the commissioning editor - if they like your initial pitch - will usually ask for a 'breakdown' of what happens in each chapter of your proposed story. Before you can actually write the story you're proposing to write, you have to explain how that story starts and ends, how it moves from A to B, and how the main character does this, that, the other and why. The process of figuring all this stuff out is what screenwriters call ‘outlining’ or ‘breaking the story’. Most writers agree it’s a nightmare process that usually feels like the story is trying to break you!
** Go read chapter seven of McCloud's Understanding Comics...
If you want to find out more about what I think when it comes to writing comics and stuff, check out Comic script formatting: here’s what I do... Or if you’d rather read what better-qualified folks have to say about this sort of thing, go read Pixar’s Andrew Stanton on great storytelling, Emma Coats’ 22 rules of storytelling and go buy some back issues of Write Now! while you’re at it.
I recently changed the way I lay out my comic scripts for 2000 AD. Wanna see…?
Here’s how I used to do them…
And here’s how I do them now…
Why the change? What’s the difference? Well here’s why and what, and prepare for some subatomic levels of pernicketiness…
I’m a real process nerd. I’m forever making notes on exactly how I came up with a pitch, put together an episode breakdown, wrote a script, or edited the finished piece. It often feels like I’m spending as much time writing notes as I am writing the scripts themselves, but it helps me figure out how to refine the entire process and avoid making the same time-consuming mistakes twice. I used to think I was wasting precious work-hours, but I’ve since learned it saves bags of time in the long run. So this change in formatting came about as part of an ongoing overhaul, a result of not only putting in place what works best for me, but also what works best for the artists and letterers, or so they tell me.
A comic script is ultimately a very hands-off way of writing a story – certainly when you’re writing ‘full script’ as you do for 2000 AD. I don’t get to tinker with the dialogue or sound effects down the line. Once the script is written, I invoice the thing and start writing something else. By the time the script sees print as the finished comic, I’m usually so immersed in another story that I’ve forgotten how the one that’s just been published actually ends!
Writing a comic in this way is a bit like directing a movie without ever being on set. Instead, you write a detailed memo to guide the cinematographer, actors and editor in your absence. For obvious reasons, I like to smooth the transition from person-to-person as much as possible, making sure everyone has everything they need from me in order to do a great job.
How I learned to stop worrying and despise writers
Taking care with formatting also stems from me not wanting artists and letterers to hate my guts. Maybe this has something to do with personal insecurity or maybe the fact that I’ve worked for a long time as a subeditor. Having subbed various publications for various clients over the years, I know what it’s like to be last in line, racing against an insane deadline while struggling to make sense of copy that appears to have been written by someone suffering a concussion.
Seriously, kids, if you want to become a professional writer, you could do a lot worse than find a freelance gig as a subeditor for a magazine or newspaper. It helps sharpen your grammar and syntax, and your ability to condense (a vital skill when it comes to writing comics). It also erodes any fears you may have about committing words to the page. “500-word news piece by lunchtime? No worries, chief.”
Most importantly, working as a subeditor will trample out of you every ridiculous romantic notion you ever had about writing. After several weeks of wrestling with copy that you’re pretty sure the writer came up with by pressing their face into the keyboard for several seconds before clicking ‘send’ with an invoice attached, you’ll have developed a healthy loathing for lazy writers.
Comics are a collaborative medium, and if the writer can’t be arsed to do their job that means everyone else in the collaborative chain has to pick up the slack (and do so for the same paycheck). I don’t ever want artists or letterers to feel like jumping out of a window the minute they learn they’ve been saddled with me on a project. I know where my responsibilities lie, and within those boundaries I will take care to be approachable, adaptable and do my best to resolve any issues that might trouble the pencil monkeys and letter wranglers later down the line.
Last in line
Formatting the script is actually the last thing I do before a final printout and proofread. Once I’ve broken down the action into pages and panels, I’ll open a new Word doc. and write placeholder panel descriptions, e.g. ‘3.) Estab shot interrogation room’, ‘4.) Cop shows photo to Ang’, ‘5.) Cop angry; we see dagger’. Then I’ll bullet the exposition (that is, exposition that I’ve been unable to communicate visually) beneath the panel in which it’s most likely to appear, e.g. ‘DD unlicensed; against law’, ‘Explain dagger’, ‘Faeries want it back’. Then I’ll turn all that exposition into nice juicy character-revealing dialogue. I won’t add the attributions just yet; I read somewhere that good dialogue is so rooted in character that you should be able to tell who’s saying what without the attributions. With the dialogue written, I’ll go back and rewrite the placeholder panel descriptions. This bit’s easy, like writing a bunch of emails. I usually do it during a commute to another job, which saves me an hour or two at the desk. Then – after a lot of rewriting, shuffling stuff about, and reading stuff aloud in funny voices – I’ll format the script.
By the way, please don’t get the impression from reading this that I actually know what I’m talking about. Don’t take anything that I say here as comics-writing gospel. Notice the title of this blog does NOT read ‘How to format your comic script’. This is just how I do it, based on what I’ve learned in the short time I’ve been writing comics professionally. I actually have a horrible feeling that a more seasoned pro will read this blog and laugh themselves into a coma.
Anyway, with all this in mind, and all the usual provisos that must accompany this sort of article now in place, I’ll go through each component of my script and explain why I’ve done what I’ve done for the benefit of anyone out there who may be interested in sexy stuff like font size and underlining, or who may be stuck for ideas about how to lay out their own scripts and/or present them professionally when submitting, say, a Future Shock to 2000 AD. Here goes…
It’s Microsoft Word for me. You can keep your £300-a-pop scriptwriting software. I know many writers use programs like Final Draft and Movie Magic, but I don’t know a whole lot about these and having to tap the indent key a few times really isn’t a big deal for me.
Font, spacing, and language settings
I’ve taken a fancy to ‘Courier New’ at point size 11. I used to use ‘Verdana’ at point size 10 because it looked nice and readable, but it ended up looking weird in this new format. Plus, Courier is like what proper screenwriting types use and I like the way it makes me feel a bit like Robert Towne clattering out a draft of Chinatown.
I set the spacing at 1.5, so anyone (including me) has space to scribble down any notes or corrections on a hard copy. Oh, and I set the spelling on UK English, of course, because 2000 AD is a publication as British as petty crime, doomed optimism, and eating chips in the rain.
Header and page numbers
A publishing standard, this, a traditional safeguard against the possibility of a butter-fingered editor clutching several printed manuscripts tripping over a subeditor who has finally assumed a foetal position, thus scattering your precious pages all over the office. This way, someone will at least be able to identify which submission is which, so the editor will know to whom they have to send the rejection letter.
Same goes for page numbers, guys. Writers who don’t number their pages are in league with Lucifer. Ask any subeditor - whose eyelid will probably start twitching, at which point you need to back away slowly.
I write ‘Series title: episode X of X’ in the header just to keep everyone on point (including me) as to how much more of this crap they’re expected to read.
Name, email and phone number
The editor needs to know who wrote the script they are reading, if only so he or she knows who to yell at once they've finished. I always add basic contact details, so everyone else I’m working with knows where to find me. With this series of Dandridge, I knew I’d be working with artist Warren Pleece, but if the script is a new project or a done-in-one like a Tharg’s 3riller or a Tale From The Black Museum, chances are I won’t know who’ll be doing the artwork. In these cases, I always include a single-sentence to-whom-it-may-concern-type note to the lucky artist just below the contact details, telling them they are welcome to get in touch. And they usually do. If you’re submitting a script on spec (‘on speculation’, meaning material submitted at your own expense and which an editor is under no obligation to purchase) as you’d do with a Future Shock submission, adding anything more than your name, email and contact phone number is going to look a bit presumptuous, cowboy. So no links to your website, blog or anything else that has nothing to do with the script you’re sending.
Title, episode number and page numbers
All capitalised and bold so they immediately stand out. (No need, of course, to add ‘EPISODE ONE’ if it’s a done-in-one story like a Future Shock.) These (and the panel numbers) are the only things in the script that are bold, so the artist and letterer can get their bearings at a glance.
As you can see from example one (above), I used to have a separate line and actually write ‘Panel 1.’ I like the new way (below) much better – 1.) – if only because it’s bloody obvious you’re referring to a panel! It also cuts down on a line and provides a nice sort of intro to the topic sentence of your panel description.
Ooooh, tricky. This probably needs a separate blog, which I may write some other time. For now, here’s a few rules I currently tell myself to stick to:
* Keep panel descriptions as short as possible; aim for a line or two. A panel description should sit in your head after a single read.
* Watch out for the word ‘and’ in panel descriptions; it's often a telltale sign that you’re trying to communicate more than one beat of action.
* Ambiguity has NO place in panel descriptions. Avoid metaphors and unusual similes. Give concrete details! If that means giving the exact height or width of something, do it!
* Describe a camera angle (close-up, establishing shot) only when the required impact or information would be lost without it. Otherwise, default to a standard (implied) full shot. Specific instructions constrict the artist.
* Where possible, describe each new element on a new line, so the information is presented to the artist clearly and in order of dominance.
I’ve seen some scripts where the writer capitalises the name of a character the first time they appear in the script; sometimes EVERY time the character appears. This practice originates from screenwriting, so crewmembers flipping through a copy of the shooting script can easily find the scene in which a character first appears. I tend not to do this when writing a comic script. I don’t like too many capitals in the panel descriptions as they can clash with the capped dialogue. Yes, I know in panel one of this sample I’ve written the magazine title ‘INTERVIEW’, but that’s only because that’s how I wanted it to appear in the panel.
Dialogue attributions and dialogue
My attributions are indented x4 and the dialogue x2 (see below), with the right-hand margin set at 11. I used to put tabs into the dialogue in order to make it all line up neatly (see above), but this can create problems for lettering droids, who may have to go through the entire script and take the tabs out before cutting and pasting.
Giving the attributions a line to themselves (as oppose to setting them before the dialogue – see above) also solves the problem I sometimes had of having to squeeze in bracketed dialogue directions – e.g. ‘(off)’ or ‘(shouts)’ – if the character had a long name. By the way, ‘off’ and ‘shouts’ are pretty much the only such directions I ever use.
A separate line for each speaker also means I can ditch the attribution ‘LINK’. One less attribution to get wrong, right? I put the dialogue in capitals ‘cos that’s how it appears on the finished comic. I’m also a lot more careful about my dialogue-to-panels ratio than I used to be, although ‘Good Cop’ seems to be waffling on a fair bit for a six-panel page. Ahem. A golden rule of dialogue (there are many): let your characters talk then edit the hell out of them.
I try and stick to five panels with two balloons per panel each containing 25 words (max!). I spell out numerals (‘twenty-three’ and not ‘23’), and underline any words that need vocal emphasis. I rely on my ear for this, and the less underlining the better. I would have bolded these emphasised words, as they would appear in the finished comic, but underlining looked better and created a clearer hierarchy among the script’s components.
I generally use an ellipsis (‘…’) for a pause in mid-speech (character takes breath, struggles for words, pauses for effect) and a double hyphen (‘--’) to denote an interruption, a longer pause or for establishing a connecting link when speech continues over several panels. (And I don’t leave a space between the hyphen and the last letter of the last word.) I also use double quotes when spoken dialogue either precedes or follows the panel in the form of a caption in a different scene.
When I started submitting Future Shocks back in 2007, the submissions editor advised me not to break panels and dialogue over two pages, as the artist or letterer might think the page stops there and miss what else your characters have to say. I solve this problem by shuffling the entire panel down onto the next page (or chiselling at the panel description until the thing fits), then adding a ‘[Contd…]’ or ‘[Page continues…]’ note at the bottom.
It turns out letterers do not share a comprehensive grimoire of sound effects containing the correct spelling for every sound from ‘slapped face’ to ‘a bowling ball landing in a bucket of eggs’. So I come up with these for myself, and attribute them in exactly the same way as I do dialogue, e.g. ‘SFX: KERSPLAT!’
I’m of the opinion that, as a general rule, SFX shouldn’t stand out, that they should be absorbed subliminally by the reader. Therefore, I’m usually happy with the universal language of ‘blam’ and ‘kaboom’ with a few more unusual effects like ‘fwommph’ (bursting into flame) to add variety. Sometimes the letterer will – quite rightly – omit a sound effect that I’ve included when the image clearly speaks for itself.
And that’s that. The points I’ve described above are merely guidelines. I’ll often tweak them depending on what needs communicating. The aim is to present the information as clearly and neatly as possible. Common sense rules.
To finish off, here’s the first three pages of the script followed by the first page of the finished comic. Enjoy.
If you want further reference material on formatting, visit the Comic Book Script Archive, which contains a ton of published scripts for you to peruse. If you’re submitting a Future Shock to 2000 AD, then for the love of all that’s sacred read the comic’s submission guidelines.