"Scripting The Light Fantastic"

When we last talked about writing, we discussed how to write using the plot method, inaccurately referred to as the Marvel method of writing, where you give the artist a plot, sometimes a page by page breakdown of the story, sometimes a couple o page overview, but without dialogue. The artist then interprets the plot visually, breaks it down as he or she sees fit - using as many or as few panels as they believe necessary to convey the action. The plusses with this method of plotting is that the artist becomes more a part of a creative process than if he or she is just following someone else's dictates. Many artists prefer he plot style while others prefer being given every bit of information necessary. You have to adapt to what your artist is most comfortable with.

Since a comic book is first and foremost a visual medium, this allows the artist to control the visuals and pacing, in other words, to do what they do best. The minuses are when the artist either decides to, or mistakenly ignores or changes the plot and makes changes that may be to the detriment of the story, to a future plot line they’re not aware of, or they choose a poor way to best illustrate the scene. When this happens you have to fix things in the writing. You can take a scene that is not clearly shown visually and, being clever, explain it in your dialogue and captions. But when you're working with a really good story-telling artist, one who understands the plot-driven method, the collaborative nature of plot style makes for a better looking comic than is often the result of writing a full script. The artist can plus your story and make you look great.

But when you're working with someone who wants to draw what they want to draw, the story be damned, the writer may find himself trying to dialogue a story that borders on the incomprehensible. I've been lucky to work with a great number of brilliant artists who have made my stories look great, and therefore made my job in dialoguing their art easy. On the other hand, I've worked with some artists who have so misinterpreted or changed my stories that even I haven't been able to figure out what the story was originally about. If you trust your artist and they prefer working from a plot than a full script, and if circumstances allow it, I would always do comics plot style. I find my dialogue is better because I'm seeing already finished art and can play off expressions and body language. This means I'm concentrating on character and not exposition.

If the writer wants more control over his or her story, or if the artist prefers having every detail of what the writer wants explained to them, or the editor wants full scripts for any number of reasons, then it might be best to write a script where every panel is broken down with a detailed scene description as well as containing all captions and dialogue. On the plus side, this gives the writer control over the pacing of the story. On the negative side, an artist can still misinterpret a scene, or leave out vital information. And since these days fewer and fewer editors ever ask an artist to redraw a whole page - they're just happy if the page makes it in somewhat on deadline - it means the reader may be left completely confused by what they're seeing because the writer isn't given a chance to compensate for poor or wrong story-telling with a caption or clever line of dialogue. Since the artists actual drawing might be quite good, the readers will blame stories that don't make sense squarely on the shoulders of the writer.

Without saying who or what book, I wrote a full script within the last number of years in which I asked for a shot of a character entering a bar - you'd see the character opening the door and the bar and patrons inside. I described the bar as well. The artist, who was really quite good, drew something in that panel, no doubt about it, but nobody, and I do mean nobody, can tell what it is. It's certainly not a person entering a bar; there's no person in that panel nor is there a door or a bar. It looks something like a close up of a tree limb, but I wouldn't bet a nickel on that, either. I've actually offered ten bucks to anyone who can tell me what this is a drawing of, and nobody, once they see the art, has taken the bet.

Unfortunately, because you don't know our character is entering a bar, and because there are no background anywhere else in this sequence, you have no idea at all what's going on or where the scene is set. But because the page looks well drawn, blame for this senseless stuff comes down to, guess who? And since this was done full script, and I didn't see the pages until much too late, there was no chance for me to write a caption to cover the missing action.

Still, most writers prefer writing full scripts. Partially, it's because you do have more control than on a plot style story, and partially because once you're done with the script you're done and can get paid, whereas when you write plot style you have to wait until the artist finishes the art - which today where deadlines are as much of a fantasy as the sories themselves -can be months later. At that point you have to try to remember what you were trying to set up. Editors prefer a script, too, because that means one phase of the finished job is actually finished.
Good work is done both plot style ad full script. I did all my Tomb of Dracula and Teen Titans stories plot style. Alan Moore does all his work full script.

So let's get down to the basics of full script.

Format: There are as many formats in writing full scripts as there are writers. A lot of writers today use a converted movie/TV format script, but most writers still write in some version of the script format that has been used since the 30s.

As an example of what I do, I'll print some panels from a Night Force script. I'd like to thank DC Comics for letting me publish them here. Night Force and all its characters is copyrighted and trademarked by DC Comics.

NIGHT FORCE #8

PAGE ONE

PANEL 1: A DARK ROOM IN A HOSPITAL SOMEWHERE. FOCUS ON DOCTORS AND NURSES AND ONE WOMAN (MORE IN A MOMENT ON HER) STARING AT A MAN IN THE FOREGROUND, BOUND TO A TABLE. WE CAN’T SEE THE MAN’S FACE (AND WE WON’T THROUGHOUT THE STORY TILL THE FINAL PAGE) BUT THIS IS RICHARD NIXON. YES, THAT RICHARD NIXON. HE’S OLDER THAN HE WAS WHEN HE ‘DIED’ AND HE’S GOING INSANE, STRAINING AT HIS BONDS, WRITHING LIKE AN ANIMAL. WHEN WE HAVE A CLOSE-UP OF HIS MOUTH HE’LL BE FOAMING MAD. ORDERLIES ARE TRYING TO RESTRAIN HIM, BUT HE’S CRAZY HERE. EVERYONE ELSE IS IN FEAR. THE WOMAN OFF TO THE SIDE I MENTIONED ABOVE SHOULD BE CAREFULLY DESIGNED. SHE’S GOT DARK, MYSTERIOUS FEATURES. BEAUTIFUL, OF COURSE, EXOTIC. PERHAPS EURASIAN, PERHAPS NOT, BUT SHE SHOULD RADIATE MYSTERY AND COMPOSURE. HER DRESS IS OUT OF PLACE HERE BUT IT’S ALL RIGHT. SHE COULD HAVE ‘JOAN CRAWFORD’ SHOULDERS, 40’S LOOK TO HER CLOTHING, ETC. IN HER OWN WAY THIS WOMAN (NOT NAMED) IS THE EQUAL TO BARON WINTERS, BUT SHE WORKS (WE THINK) FOR THE GOVERNMENT. SHE SHOULD HAVE THE SAME IMPERIOUS ATTITUDE HE HAS. SHE DOESN’T OVERLY EMOTE AND SHOULD ALWAYS LOOK AS CALM AS THE BARON DOES. NEXT TO HER IS A SECRET SERVICE AGENT IN A SUIT. ANYWAY, THE FOCUS HERE IS NOT ON HER BUT ON NIXON GOING POSTAL AND ORDERLIES TRYING TO SEDATE HIM.

Cap 1:   His SCREAMING had been going on for more than             three hours. It was amazing his elderly body could accept so much pain.

Nixon SE: YYAARRGGGGGHHHHHH

PANEL 2: CLOSE ON HIS HANDS, CLAWING LIKE AN ANIMAL, RAKING ONE OF THE ORDERLY’S FACE.

Doctor 2: For God’s sake, TRANQUILIZE him already.

Orderly 3: We’re TRYING.

Orderly 4: Hold him down, dammit.

PANEL 3: SMALL INSET. CLOSE ON NIXON’S MOUTH, FOAMING.

Nixon 5: GRAAWWWWWWWW

Cap 6: 1,157 days since it began. 1,095 days since they put him here...

PANEL 4: HE’S PULLING FREE THE RESTRAINING STRAPS. ORDERLIES ARE STRAINING TO HOLD HIM.

Cap 7: ...in the DARK, in the COLD. Away from a world who believed him DEAD.

Dr 8: Oh, God--not AGAIN!

PANEL 5: THREE ORDERLIES PULL HIM BACK. THE DOCTOR IS USING A SYRINGE ON NIXON’S ARM OR NECK OR WHEREVER IT LOOKS BEST (NOT HIS BUTT).

Cap 9: Away from a world that could not possibly understand what had HAPPENED to him.

PANEL 6: NIXON IS DOWN...THE ORDERLIES AND DOCTORS ARE WIPING THE SWEAT FROM THEIR BROWS, ETC. THE MYSTERIOUS WOMAN IS WATCHING INTENTLY.

Cap 10: And even if they KNEW the truth, they never could allow themselves to BELIEVE it.

Dr 11: Got ‘im.

Okay, that's the opening page of a story that is designed to shock. I thought we'd be crucified for doing what we did, but strangely enough, nobody ever questioned the idea that Nixon could still be alive let alone a madman guinea pig in some insane experiment somewhere. Either that's an indictment of Nixon or the readers thought he was as fictional as Baron Winters, our lead character.

The format I use has the scene description in CAPITAL LETTERS. I do this to make it clear for the artist and letterer. There have been cases where the letterer - who rarely ever reads what they're lettering - has actually lettered the scene description as dialogue. So, to make it easier for them, and to visually separate the panels themselves, I do all my scene descriptions in CAPS.

Unlike movie scripts, which have the name of the character centered on the page with the dialogue beneath it, I keep the character name, and all "instructive writing' to the left and put a column space between it and the dialogue. Again, that's to keep everything neat and tidy. I also double space between scene descriptions and dialogue lines, and between caption lines. I work hard to make the act of reading of the script as simple as I can.

Length of description: Some writers I won't mention, Hi, Alan Moore, write pages and pages of description so that every little detail is mentioned. Obviously it works for him and his artists, but I put that level of detail in only when I think that detail is really needed, either to explain the setting or the character. Unless it's vital that the character be entering scene from stage right, cross in front of a table that is three feet high and has one broken leg, I won't elaborate beyond - JOE CROSSES THE LIVING ROOM. If I know later on there's going to be a fight or some other action, I will of course describe the props I want in that first scene description. Often I may have to go back to that first panel and keep adding props as I use them. That's one of the great benefits that has come out of writing with a computer. In the old days we had to keep retyping that page from scratch every time a new thought came to us.

You will notice that I number all dialogue and captions. Again, I do this to make things easy. The balloons are numbered consecutively on each page; I start with #1 on each new page. This allows the artist to sketch in a quick balloon shape to show where they want the dialogue to go, and then put in the number of the balloon so the letterer who is not paying attention knows exactly what balloon goes where.

I often put codes next to the names, for instance: Joe 4THOT. This means that balloon 4, coming from Joe, is a bubble-shaped thought balloon. Joe 5OP: means balloon five is coming from off panel - Joe is talking but he's not drawn in this panel. Joe 6WHIS: means this is a whisper balloon. SFX in the lefthand column means I'm telling the letterer that this is a sound effect and to letter it accordingly.

Pacing of each page: There are many schools of thought on this, and frankly I change my approach with every page. Some writers insist on ending each page with some sort of mini-cliffhanger. It might be something small, or it could literally be a cliffhanger, which makes the reader want to turn the page to see what's going to happen, or it might be some kind of emotional cliffhanger that makes the reader want to continue. Other writers like to end a scene at the end of a page, making each page self-contained. Some like to end a scene in the middle of a page so a new scene begins and continues into the following page. I go back and forth and try to do what I feel is best for each page.

Remember, writing is not a science, it's an art, and therefore there can be no hard and fast rules. You have to write what feels right, but you also have to know enough to understand if it works or if it doesn't. You won't always make the right choice, but the more you write and learn the better chance you'll have of knowing why you're doing what you're doing.

How many panels per page? That's a question I get asked a lot. There's no easy answer to this, but try to visualize the page in your mind and figure out if there's so many panels the reader won't be able to see the art - especially if there's a lot of dialogue on top of the number of panels - or if there's so little action on the page that it is dull. A page should flow both artistically and emotionally. It should not only look good, but remembering that a comic book exists to tell a story, it should also convey a decent amount of information. Some stories are so under-plotted that you come to page 23 and nothing has happened. Others can be plotted so that by the end of page 23 you are so inundated with information that you've lost any sense of the plot and characters. What you're looking for is a pacing that moves the story forward both in plot and character. This isn't easy and it changes with eery story and every page of the story, so I can't give you any secrets on how to do this. You've just got to keep writing and learning, and then, 20 years later, you'll still be worrying about doing it well. Writing is, as stated, not a science. You will never master it. But you will learn and as you learn, if you have the talent, you will, one hopes, keep getting better.

That's it for this time around. We began this series a year ago by talking about coming up with the idea. In a week or three we'll finish it with a brief discussion of dialogue.

See you in seven.
-Marv Wolfman

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