National Graphic Novel Writing Month, Day 12: Comic Scripts AREN’T Screenplays, by David Alan Mack
Day twelve of NaGraNoWriMo, and we’re bringing in some fresh voices to add their expertise. First up is David Alan Mack, the national bestselling author of nearly twenty books, including Wildfire, Harbinger, Reap the Whirlwind, Road of Bones, and the Star Trek Destiny trilogy (Gods of Night, Mere Mortals, and Lost Souls) as well as a writer for television and– most important for our work today– the writer of the Farscape: Scorpius comic for BOOM!
My first training as a scriptwriter was a screenwriting
101 course I took more than 25 years ago. In that class I learned the
fundamentals of writing for motion pictures and television, and I refined my
understanding of those forms a few years later during my studies at NYU’s film
school. Nearly a decade later, after three sales to the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star
Trek Voyager television series, I had to unlearn most of what I knew about
scriptwriting when I got a chance to write for the Star Trek comic books, then produced by the now-shuttered
A lot of scriptwriters make the mistake of thinking that
if one knows how to write teleplays or screenplays, that comic books are just
the same thing without the constraints of a limited budget or an overworked
visual-effects department. After all, they both describe stories pared down to
images, sounds, and dialogue. However, the two forms differ on a few very
The first key difference is how the two formats break up
the narrative. A screenplay or teleplay simply has scenes, which might or might not be subdivided into shots. Scenes can start or end anywhere
on the page. It’s a minimalist format intended to serve as the blueprint for a
story while affording the production team great latitude for interpretation.
A comic-book script needs to break up its story into pages, and those are further broken up
into panels. As a general rule, a
page should be treated as a discrete storytelling unit, which is a fancy way of
saying don’t start or end a scene in the middle of a page. It’s also important
not to clutter a page with too many panels, or to crowd a panel with too many
lines of caption or dialogue text.
The second major difference between film/TV scripts and
comic-book scripts is how the action is described on the page.
When describing a scene in a film/TV script, one can
describe continuous actions with great economy. For instance, a line of action
in a screenplay might read, “Porter gets up from the table, picks up the phone,
and uses it to smash in Resnick’s skull.” The reason this direction works in a
screenplay is that it’s a blueprint for a motion picture—emphasis on motion. That one sentence might end up
being depicted with a half-dozen different shots edited together in a film, but
in the script, one needs to describe only the continuous series of actions.
Comic-book scripts are not blueprints of moving action
but instructions from which an artist will render sequences of static images that imply
movement by breaking down an action into decisive images across any number of
panels. For instance, the simple moment described above might be rendered
thusly in a comic-book script:
With his left hand, Porter is
pushing himself back from the table and is half-risen to a standing position;
with his right hand he is reaching toward the old-fashioned rotary-dial phone
in the middle of the table. Resnick sits on the other side of the table, facing
away from Porter and ignoring him while smoking a cigarette.
Same angle as Panel One. Resnick
is in the same pose, oblivious. Porter is standing and holding the phone high
overhead in his right hand, poised to strike.
Same angle. Porter has swung the
phone and clobbered Resnick. A motion trail shows us the arc of the swung
phone, and a burst highlights its point of impact. Resnick is in free fall,
knocked from his chair, arms limp at his side, a few bloody teeth flying free
away from his slack jaw.
Same angle. Resnick lies in a
heap on the floor, a puddle of blood beneath his face. Porter is walking away
to panel right. He is not looking at Resnick. The phone lies on the floor
beside Resnick’s head, the bulky cradle fractured, the dial busted and half-off
the cradle, the receiver a foot or so away at the end of its tangled cord.
PORTER: It’s for you.
As you can see, a comic-book script can take a lot more
space to convey the same idea that a screenplay expresses in a single sentence.
In that respect, it’s a more difficult form to master because it’s not as
immediately intuitive as film writing. One can’t simply describe the series of
events that constitute a scene. It is the responsibility of the scriptwriter to
pre-visualize the story and decide which images best convey the moment he or
she wishes to describe.
One more difference is the way the comic-book medium
handles something known as “internal monologue,” which are a character’s inner
thoughts. Comic books make frequent use of internal monologue in the form of
narrative captions written in the first-person style—i.e., “I smell the
despair rising from the line of artists waiting in vain for a chance to have
their portfolios reviewed. I breathe in the schadenfreude like the perfume of a
flower that blooms only at night.”
In film and television, the only way to express internal
monologue is the voice-over, which falls in and out of fashion from one
season/year/decade to the next. In a screenplay, the voice-over is treated as a
form of dialogue; in the graphic novel format, it is treated as caption-box
The one bit of good news for those who have been trained
in the rigid and unforgiving ways of screenplay/teleplay format is that there is
no such thing as “graphic novel/comic-book format.” In my experience, no two
comic-book scriptwriters ever format their scripts exactly alike. Unlike
screenplay format, which makes unyielding demands regarding font, type size,
margins, indents, and punctuation, a graphic-novel script simply needs to be
clear enough for the editor and artist to follow and understand the writer’s
As long as you remember a few basic rules, you’ll be
- Break up the story into comic-book pages;
- Divide your pages into panels;
- Keep in mind that even-numbered pages are always on the left,
which means that two-page spreads should always fall across even-odd page
pairs, such as 8-9, 10-11, etc.;
- CHARACTER names and DIALOGUE should be written in ALL CAPS,
because comic-book lettering doesn’t usually use lowercase characters;
- When you put text in a caption box, specify for your letterer
whether it is an EDITORIAL CAPTION or a CHARACTER CAPTION for internal
monologue, or a CHARACTER DIALOGUE CAPTION that will contain a character’s
off-panel dialogue in quotation marks.
So, as you embark upon your own graphic-novel-writing
adventure, tell yourself as often as is necessary: “I’m not writing a movie,
I’m writing a graphic novel.” Then write like it.