So you want to write a comic book? Well, if that’s what you want, you just have to do it and do it until you know that it’s good, and then dig it out a few years later, unable to believe you thought X and Y were worthwhile ideas, but Z still seems pretty nifty.
If you’re here to figure out how you should format it, though, I can help you with that. I have no doubt there will be an industry standard in short order now that DC and Marvel are both superconglomerate idea factories at the same time that they’re monolithic universes coordinated by a mere couple of creators (that sounds perjorative, but it’s not). Figure in ten years you’ll have Bendis-style vs. Johns-style vying for supremacy. Or maybe not. It doesn’t matter, because here’s how I format a comic script in pure text file, which is the best possible way in all possible worlds.
When I write a comic book, I want it as plain as possible, so that my endless revisions don’t compound the time it takes by changing and fixing formatting. I need a layout that I can look at and know instantaneously who’s doing and saying what. Only when the script is done do I format it to a version with styles differentiating font, color, and alignment for easier reading on the artists’ part.
You can get the all-purpose (and very nifty) Celtx for free and Andy Diggle has a formatted Final Draft template you can download, but I just want to write in pure text and not be slowed down kicking the formatting around. TAB key? Buddy, you’re lucky if I even press ENTER.
That said, I think the Final Draft can automatically re-number your panels and pages if, like me, you write pretty tight scripts and often end up pulling a few boxes from one page to another, moving a scene around, and generally making life worse for yourself.
Anyway, I’ll write a page of script like so:
1- DIRK SIZZLEJAW sneaks into the Venusian Love Chamber, unseen in the shadows.
I’ve found it!
See that? Nice and smooth. Number, dash, space: let’s write some visuals. Drop a couple lines, abbreviated character name, dialogue. Then things get complex.
2- Low, close angle over the O/P SAPPHO THE AMAZON QUEEN’s HAND on her HIP. Framed in the crook of her arm is Dirk, surprised to be caught.
HAVE you, Dirk Sizzlejaw? Or has the Crystal of Longing…
SAPPHO! We meet at last in a sober state!
You’ll notice I capitalized the characters as they first appeared. That’s a standard thing to do in movies, though in my older scripts, I frequently use it in every panel to indicate that person is in fact, on-panel, and not standing off to the side but talking or committing some action that rendered them mostly off-panel. also do it to inanimate objects, indicating the value of the object in that shot. Basically, whatever’s the focus, the point of the panel, or the object of our attention, I’ve made it capitalized. I broke that capitalization rule too much, so I just stuck with an introductory capitalization, and now if someone’s off-panel, but needs to be indicated, I’ll just use O/P (in the panel description) or /OP (in the dialogue notes following their name).
Which brings us to the other thing I did. After a character’s name, I’ll indicate to the letterer (and to an extent, the artist) via shorthand how the dialogue will proceed. I include a key at the start of the script with my scripts of some basic abbreviations, such as /TD, meaning two pieces of dialogue are TIED together, indicative of the flow of speech. Sometimes it will behoove the panel that a character’s two word balloons NOT be connected, indicating a greater sense of time or weight on the second one. Space is time in comics (actually…in the real world, too, we just don’t have the organs to perceive it).
Some abbreviations & terms I’ll use:
POV = Point of view
BEV = Bird’s eye view
WEV = Worm’s eye view
O/P = Off-panel. Also shows up as “ /OP” in character names above dialogue. If this shows up in the action, it’s just to let you know all or most of a person isn’t in the picture. If it’s dialogue, it just means that’s where their word balloon tail points.
WIDE ON = a pulled-back zoom on a shot, showing a lot of background around the subject.
WIDE = Page-width or nearly page-width panel.
THIN = Horizontally narrow
LONG = Vertically tall. Anywhere from half a page-length to full length
SHORT = Vertically small
Word balloon abbreviations: maybe it’ll help with the layout of each panel. It’s all familiar stuff.
/TH = Thinks. Thought balloons rather than talking out loud.
/TP = Telepathy.
/BZ = Burst. Word ballons that are yelling or radio or otherwise electronic
/NT = No tail for a word balloon, used sometimes with burst, sometimes with off-panel.
/TD = Tied. Balloons joined or connected.
/OP = Off-Panel. The character is in the scene but all or most of their body doesn’t appear, though we might see a hand, a gun, part of their head, whatever.
/OP? = Maybe you can fit them in the panel, maybe not, but it’s not necessary.
/BX = Someone narrating over the action. Also shows up as /BOX
/OL = Overlapping whoever just spoke. Used for interruptions, surprise noises.
/SM = small. For whispering, muttering, that sort of thing. Usually used with:
/WZ = woozy, when someone’s dazed, drunk or just woke up, etc.
In dialogue, I’ll just capitalize the words I want to bold in the final page, though you have to watch out for this: some comic book fonts differentiate between capitals, so you may end up with a serif capital I in the middle of your word where a sans serif i should be. It’s best when a script is done to do a “Find all” for the letter i by capitalization / spaces on either side, and replace in bulk, then second “Find all” for for any dialogue or narration where the first-person singular I has been diminished where it shouldn’t be. One final eyeballing will quickly confirm all capitalizations are as they should be.
I number the panels last because I move things around a lot. Till then, I’ve set up a hot key (ALT + `) to insert a little character-symbol that equals fast and easy panel indication. Usually it’s a star or a dot, but you can choose whatever will stand out to you. If I’m working in Notepad rather than Word, I’ll just punch a ** in its place, and then do a Replace All as I move toward final script.
You can either number your panels throughout the book (e.g. 1-100) or by the page (Page 2, panel 3). There’s advantages to both. I prefer the former. It makes it easier to refer to later when discussing with the artist.
For the long view, you can do a Replace function and automatically number your panels or pages. The crappy part is if you add, move or delete a panel, it can firk your numbering royally, so I usually default to 138A or somesuch when I have to insert another panel and don’t want to renumber the 200 that follow. But again: you should be able to fix that with the right software.
It’s good for once you have the script pretty set in stone. You can then go over the script imagining the space you’ll need for each page, and move a panel to the preceding or following pages.
Anyway, that’s how I write a comic script. Everyone has their own way, and you, of course, should figure out what works best for you, but that’s how I do it. Not better, not worse, just saves me a lot of micro-formatting when I should be concerned with the bigger issue.
UPDATE, 4/10/18: These days I finish in a Word template I made for easier formatting, and/or go through Scrivener first, but I still often grind it out in Notepad like the above to lay down the story’s energy without getting lost in the technical details. Pages, panels, character names, on-page text: these are all given their own styles set as shortcut hotkeys for fast arrangement and faster edits. My favorite thing about is Word numbers the panels and pages automatically so moving them around is less of a hassle. I’ll post the Word template sooner or later for anybody who wants it.