If you follow me on Twitter (TiredFairy) or here, you probably know I’ve been editing and writing comics for nearly 15 years now. Doing anything for that long, you’ll end up with some tips and tricks for doing what you do. It’s not so much alchemy or magic as it is trial and error. And what works for one person won’t necessarily work for someone else, though I think there are some basics pretty much everyone uses to one degree or other.
I know it can seem a little confusing and while it's certainly work, writing comics is completely accessible to everyone. And fun!
Now, no two creators write a comics script exactly the same way. But. That doesn’t mean anything goes. There are some basic format things in scripts that make it easier on everyone, especially the artist and editor you’re working with.
One very important tip that I will repeat later, too: Scripts should be clear and give the artist the room to interpret what you’re describing. It’s fine to have specific art needs but comics is uniquely collaborative, so use it. It’s a lot more fun to work on a comic where you’ve left room to be surprised by what the artist comes up with. Remember that the art is telling the story just as much as any words or dialog, if not more.
Personally, I start with an outline. How detailed it is depends on the project and what the editor wants to a degree, though even a short outline should have some basic elements.
1. A paragraph or two that sums up the story or storyline if it’s an ongoing series.
2. A breakdown of each issues’ story points, I usually break it up into 3 beats. Issue starts here, goes here, ends here. Includes all major events that take place in the issue and then how it relates to the whole.
3. Character breakdown, who they are, what their story purpose is, and what their arcs will be.
I’ve done one to severalepage outlines depending on the scope of the project and how much info an editor or licensor needs included.
Sometimes from here I’ll do issue breakdowns, which is what it sounds like: a page by page summary of what an issue will contain. Usually about a sentence per page. Other times I do page breakdown by sections, as in: pages 1-7 x happens, 8-14 this happens, 15-21 x happens, and then page 22 is where things are set up for the next issue or ends. It’s flexible, if you’re too rigid you can actually hamper your writing. But it’s helpful to have a basic guide.
General comics writing tips:
1. Don’t be redundant. Comics are visual so if something is shown in the art, don’t repeat it in the dialog or captions. Use that space to explore other aspects of the story or character.
2. Don’t be afraid of silence. Every panel doesn’t need to be filled with balloons and words.
3. Try to think about the space in a panel and don’t crowd it. 5 balloons with 6 sentences each isn’t going to leave a lot of room. Figure out what really needs to be said. Less is often more.
4. Be clear in your panel descriptions. Remember, you want the artist to understand what you want easily, not have to decipher it. However, don’t be a dictator. Comics are words and pictures, they should work together. Leave room for the artist to bring what they do best to the book, too.
5. A panel is one action/emotion, not several. A character can’t both smile and frown, leap and sit, in a single panel. This is something writers often fudge or allow the artist to decide what to show, which is fine. Just keep it in mind so you aren’t frustrating your artist or asking for the impossible.
Now, all of this is nice but it doesn’t really “show” you what I personally do or how I write a script. Because I just wave a wand and presto! Script! Okay, obviously not.
So I’ll show you! I did a short story for a horror anthology by VERTIGO called THE WITCHING HOUR. The story ended up being called “RISE”. It was illustrated by the AMAZING Tula Latoy and is one of my favorite stories to date.
Here’s the short outline that was approved with a slightly different title:
Title: “The Dead Shall Rise”
Concept: Young woman backpacking in Ireland stumbles across an ancient burial ground and becomes possessed by the spirit of a wronged witch. The witch is looking for revenge and has to seek out the descendants of the people who killed her.
Backpacking through Britain has been a dream of Elena Cotter’s for as long as she can remember. In her head, she pictured endlessly scenic vistas, cheerful drinks with strangers, and maybe meeting a cute European girl for a hookup. Unfortunately, what she gets as she trudges through Ireland is a lot of rain, mist, and generally depressing sogginess. This is NOT how it was supposed to go.
Instead of stopping at a warm and comfy inn earlier in the day (that was, for once, clear and sunny!) Elena kept walking, expecting to find something when she needed it. Nope. Now it’s night and the rain is getting stronger and she is thoroughly miserable and definitely lost. Which is precisely when she stumbles about an ancient burial mound. Curious, she goes in, and find herself possessed by a witch who is obsessed with vengeance. Although Elena sympathizes, she wants her body back, and struggles to stop the spirit from killing the descendants of the people who murdered her.
Unfortunately, the spirit manages to ritually kill a few people and Elena, horrified, is able to briefly get control of her body back, just long enough to throw herself into the ocean. We end with Elena the spirit, both sad and annoyed that this is how her great adventure ended, looking at her broken body washing up on shore.
Now here’s the 8-page, final script (we tweaked dialog after the art came in):
Wide establishing shot of the most scenic, idyllic idea of “quaintly” modern British/Irish landscape you can think of. The color is green, really, really, green, lush and vibrant. There’s a village, appropriately small and charming, with a winding road leading up to it. There’s a coastline not far from it with a wide expanse of blue ocean. We get a glimpse of the perfectly crumbled ruins of an old castle just up the rolling hills. The sun is out, the sky is clear, it’s basically perfect. Which means it’s all about to go horribly wrong.
ELENA CAP: I’ve wanted to travel for as long as I can remember.
ELENA CAP: So I saved for a year, ate ramen and neon mac n’ cheese ‘til I thought I’d go insane from salt poisoning.
ELENA CAP: It was going to be so much fun. Beer, hookups with cute Euro girls. You know, like in the movies.
We pull back to see that this is actually a picture on an iphone, held in a delicate, long fingered, light brown hand. It’s being held up to reality, which is gray and rainy and extremely drab. There is also no quaint village, just a road that leads by a coast, that drops off abruptly into tall cliffs, and the white caps of a steely, stormy ocean. It’s nothing like the bright picture on the phone. It’s dusk-ish time, quickly fading into night.
ELENA CAP: I was going to figure out my shit. Become myself, find meaning, get it all together.
ELENA CAP: Should’ve known.
ELENA CAP: I’ve been in the UK for a week now and all it’s done is rain, rain, and more fucking rain.
The sky has darkened, and our Elena is now a lonely figure trudging along the road and barely able to see what’s in front of her. It is a miserable, unpleasant night. She is wearing a large gray coat with lots of pockets and the hood up so we can’t really see her face yet. The only color we can make out are her bright turquoise skinny jeans and her deep plum colored Frye boots. She has a backpack on with a rolled up blanket on it (classic!), and the only other visible thing is a large pin on her coat that says: I (heart) Jane Austen.
ELENA CAP: My second day here, I lost most of my cash to a pickpocket in the London Underground.
Elena is looking around in the dark, trying to make her way. Her face is the picture of consternation. She is very pretty, with dark thick eyelashes that make it look like she has eyeliner on all the time. Her eyes are a deep rich brown, her skin a lovely milk-and-coffee complexion. She is Indian/American, with thick, arched brows and the kind of cheekbones someone might kill for. Her hair is in a soft, wavy mohawk that usually floats to the left. It’s in a ombre style of coloring, going from a deep plum to fiery bright red at the front.
ELENA CAP: I am so sick of staying in hostels that reek of farts and armpits.
Elena is trying to walk carefully, but this isn’t going to go well.
ELENA CAP: I wanna sleep in a real bed and have a real showe--
She falls, splot! in some mud. Okay, time to find some shelter.
Elena pulls herself up, dripping with mud, looking extremely unhappy.
ELENA CAP: Okay, fuck this. Any sec now I’m going to fall to a screaming and untimely death in the dark....
Using her iphone, Elena looks around for shelter. It casts a beam of light.
ELENA CAP: There must be somewhere I can hole up...
The beam of her iphone hits on what looks like a gaping mouth in the hillside. It’s an arched doorway, overgrown with moss and grass that looks a bit like teet. It’s not really all that friendly looking to us, but Elena isn’t thinking all that clearly. There are a few large and broken stones near it that should signify that it used to be closed up. Note: It’s important that the hills here cover any sort of sign of the road ahead. We’re going to find out in a page or two that there was a town less than a mile from this place, she just couldn’t see it.
ELENA(muttering): Not exactly Bag End, is it?
Elena is inside, waving her phone around. Inside the hill, there is a relatively large room with stones propping it up. It has a low-ish ceiling, with dangling moss. At the back of the room is a large, round, stone casket. On top of it are three earthenware jars in strangely good shape, and one that is in pieces. There is a carving on it of a crudely drawn, wailing face. Something dark has stained the casket in long dried drips (blood) from the broken jar. There is a large crack along one side of the casket, jagged and dark.
ELENA: Yeah, this isn’t fucking creepy at all.
ELENA: Whatever, I’ll be gone as soon as there’s light outside.
Elena settles down with her back to the casket, looking out at the rain dripping down the doorway, a blanket from her pack around her shoulders. She is slumped down, and lights a cigarette, the lighter flame illuminating her face.
ELENA: Should I just keep talking to myself here? Sure, why not.
ELENA: It’s not weird at all, just filling up dead air, ha ha.
ELENA: Still, can’t get any worse--
Close on Elena’s now wide eyes.
We pull back to see a strange mist emanating from the crack in the coffin, kind of green and moving in a way mist should not. Elena does not see it yet, she still has her back to the coffin, but her posture has gone rigid.
ELENA: Elena, you definitely didn’t just hear a noise come from that coffin thing. You. Did. Not.
ELENA: Just gonna have a peek and realize I’m scaring myself for no...
Elena is looking up, mouth open, cigarette dangling, eyes wide and terrified.
Panel 3 (BIG)
We are looking up at what is very obviously a ghost in a misty, glowing, trailing shroud. Half of the ghost’s face is burned away, and what was once maybe a full head of fine red hair, is now a charred mess. The eyes are two burning pits of rage and madness, what is left of the face is middle-aged and probably quite beautiful, once. The mouth is a split horror, wide and endless, with a hanging jaw. It is clear that whoever she was, she died in agony. It is leaning down towards Elena with grasping, long, arms and hands, that don’t hang the way arms should. Elena is frozen, terrified, eyes bulging.
PAGE FOUR & FIVE SPREAD
Main image: The ghost is going to possess Elena after it kisses her, so the first two insets need to be up top, on the left hand side. The main image is the ghost embracing her and holding her in the air, sort of wrapped around her, and streaming into her mouth. Elena’s back should be arched, not sexy, but creepy and warped. Her hands are trying to grasp at the ghost, but they obviously can’t. We should be getting the impression that the ghost is consuming her. There are tears running down Elena’s cheeks.
Now, beyond that, we are also going to get inside the ghosts head as it possesses her. Which means we need images swirling around Elena, as if they are made of the ghosts foggy dress. The first are images of the ghost as a human, pretty, smiling, offering up “potions” to happy customers. She was a witch, but not a bad one. We need to see the village with some kind of recognizable landmark that we’ll see again when she burns it down. Maybe a stone cross? Or a few buildings? Then come men in dark robes, with angry but indistinct faces. They grab her , hang her up by her wrists painfully, stretch her on a rack. We should also see other women with her, maybe just faces, to let us know they were rounded up, put on trial. Finally she is being burned alive, half of her face melting in the flames. Then we see them putting her in the casket thing, a trap for her spirit.
INSET 1 (upper left)
The ghost is down at Elena’s level, her face close to hers. It is trying to smile, which should look awful and wrong. Her back is twisted, arching down at a strange, curved angle.
ELENA: What? You want what?
INSET (upper left)
The ghost kisses Elena, whose eyes go white, her back rigid.
ELENA CAP: Cold. She is. So. Cold.
ELENA CAP: And she hurts.
ELENA CAP: She hurts so much. Now I hurt. Like it will never end.
ELENA CAP: They burned her. I can smell her flesh...her hair...taste flames in my mouth...
ELENA CAP: I don’t want to know this...
ELENA CAP: What is she doing to me?
ELENA CAP: Where am I going?
INSET 3 (lower right)
A close up of Elena’s face, but the eyes are now a glowing, burning, green, with a cast over the pupils. She is smiling horribly, looking at her hand. Obvs need a diff style of balloon here to indicate it’s not Elena talking anymore.
GHOST/ELENA: Nice body. Warm again.
GHOST ELENA: I have work to do.
ELENA CAP: Oh.Shit.
It is now early morning. The possessed Elena is looking back at the door of the burial mound. It is no longer raining. She has also left all of Elena’s things inside because she doesn’t need them or know what they are. We’re going to “hear” Elena’s actual thoughts in caps from here on out, with her body doing whatever the ghost wants.
ELENA CAP: I can’t move my body! What the fuck did you do?
GHOST/ELENA: Calm, be calm. I am you now. I am this body.
ELENA CAP: NO!
The possessed Elena tilts her head, a hand outstretched. The burial mound opening crumbles inward.
GHOST/ELENA: I will show you what must be done.
We cut to Elena rounding a hill and seeing a small, run-down village. It is not at all far from the burial mound. Note: it is EXTREMELY important that this village be VERY close to cliffs overlooking the ocean and that we see something recognizable about it from the spread. A stone cross, a building or two, something to signify that this is the same village the witch lived in.
ELENA CAP: Shit. That was just around the bend? Worst. Luck. Ever.
GHOST/ELENA: Ah. Here were are. Home.
The ghost squints, confused. We can see cars in the village, modern things like electrical lines, etc. The ghost has no idea what these are, and no frame of reference. We’re about to find out she doesn’t really care, either.
GHOST/ELENA: Things have...changed.
ELENA CAP: No kidding. It must be hundreds of years since you croaked.
ELENA CAP: World has moved on, lady. You should, too.
GHOST ELENA: No matter.
Wide from behind Elena. A series of fires suddenly explode from different points in the village. This not normal fire, it is green and eldritch and strange.
GHOST ELENA: They will pay. They will all pay.
This is going to be a sort of quick succession of horrors. The ghost goes utterly batshit on this town while Elena has to “watch” from her head. It’s all awful. If the page could be framed in a kind of arch, like the doorway to the burial mound, that would be great.
Elena descends into the town, fire streaming around her, her hair wild. She is beautiful but incredibly terrifying. People are screaming. And running.
GHOST/ELENA: You will understand, sweet Elena. You will understand it had to be this way.
GHOST/ELENA: There must be justice.
ELENA CAP: Oh no, please, no.
Elena holds a man up who looks vaguely like someone from the splash who tortured our ghost, but everyone is an enemy to this ghost, the centuries have made her insane.
ELENA CAP: You love this. I can feel it.
GHOST/ELENA: They laughed while I burned. Did you know that?
ELENA CAP: Yes, I know it, because you know it. And I’m sorry, but...
She peels his skin off him as he screams.
ELENA CAP:... This is so wrong.
Elena just sets several other men and women on fire, they become running flames.
GHOST/ELENA: Wrong? I healed the sick. I helped them birth and grieve and die.
GHOST/ELENA: They deserve this.
ELENA CAP: But...these aren’t those people!
We pull back to see the village is an inferno, bodies beginning to char and smoke. Elena is a silhouette in front of them, the eyes of the ghost burning in her face.
GHOST/ELENA: All the same. Those people, these people. I can see it in you, in your memories. They are all the same.
GHOST/ELENA: So they will burn.
GHOST/ELENA: And then the world will burn, too.
Inside, Elena has had enough. She knows the ghost wants to do more, to find more people, her insanity and need for revenge will never end. It has consumed her. Somehow we have to visually convey this conflict in this panel, like maybe Elena stops her from hurting someone, confusing the ghost?
ELENA CAP: No. No more.
GHOST/ELENA; What...? You can’t...what are you doing?
Elena stumbles away from the wreckage of the town, towards the cliffs. The ghost is fighting her. To avoid looking comedic, the body language shouldn’t be overly dramatic. And it should be relatively tragic, as the ghost has control of say Elena’s face and looks upset, hurt, confused. She’s basically “pushing” the ghost out of her body.
GHOST/ ELENA: I need to finish this! I need to burn it all!
ELENA: I can’t. I’m sorry. I can’t let you.
GHOST/ELENA: Please! You don’t understand!
ELENA: I do. But you have to let it go.
Elena “pushes” the ghost out of her body so that they are standing face to face. Elena has NO idea she is right on the edge of a cliff. The ghost is reaching out for her, to warn her this time, but Elena is afraid of her and stepping back.
Elena teeters on the edge of the cliff, her eyes wide and horrified. The ghost should look sorry here, this is not what she wanted, either.It should be clear that she is going to fall. She has one hand out to the ghost but obviously that’s not going to do anything.
ELENA CAP: Ah, fuck...
Looking down, we see a broken Elena on the rocks below, waves washing over her. She is a sad and pitiful figure.
A now ghostly Elena looks at her body, sad and frustrated. This is not how things were supposed to go. The ghost of the witch is beside her, looking at her with pity.
ELENA CAP: I always wanted to travel. See the world. Go places. Do something with my life.
GHOST WITCH: Sorry. I’m so sorry...
ELENA: Yeah. Me too.
ELENA: Now what?
Ghostly Elena sits, her legs swinging over the edge of the cliff, looking out at the ocean. The ghost witch is watching her.
GHOST WITCH: We wait.
ELENA CAP: What a fucking trip.
qAnd there you are! A little glimpse into my writing process and, I hope, some useful tips for writing your own.