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.