The other week I posted a few tweets about the practical steps I take when writing a comic book script. The thread took off and the initial tweet has now been viewed almost half a million times (!!!). So here’s the whole thread, all cleaned up and expanded on — hope it’s helpful! (And if you’re intrigued by my ideas, please do subscribe to my email newsletter and/or my Patreon about comics writing!
How I Write a Comic Book Script
A big note up front: Everyone has a different process! This is just what works for me, right now, for the most part, most of the time. Be sure to check out what other writers do as well — here’s a fun thread from Tim Seeley describing his process, for example. Then figure out what works for you and do that.
So here’s what I do:
1. Outline the whole thing. This is an entire topic unto itself. But if my outline is really working, it nails the big plot beats as well as the big emotional turning points and thematic brushstrokes — all the essential things that make the story work and matter. A great outline means the scripting goes MUCH more smoothly.
2. Break the outline down into pages.
3A. Break pages down into panels first, then add dialogue.
OR, depending on the scene and how I’m feeling:
3B: Hammer out some dialogue first, then break the pages down into panels.
NOTE: When determining panel breakdowns and page breaks, I always try end a page with some kind of mini cliffhanger. A question, a half finished thought, an action that gets completed on the next page. Gotta keep people turning pages!
4. Write from the beginning, but if I get stuck, skip around and write the easier scenes first.
5. Go back and write the harder scenes, which are easier now that I’ve done the rest.
6. If I’m really stuck on a scene/beat, call up my editor and talk it out. Editors are awesome. Sometimes they just nod and say “uh huh” and let me blab until I work it out. Sometimes they ask just the right questions. These calls ALWAYS help.
7. Rewrite the easier scenes now that I’ve written the harder scenes and know my story better.
8. Revisit the harder scenes again now that I’ve figured out what I needed to tweak in the easier scenes.
9. Go through and edit everything multiple times, paying special attention to little details, making sure I’m explaining what needs to be explained for the artist, and making sure that if, during revisions, I’ve added some detail or bit later in the script, I’m properly setting it up if necessary earlier in the script.
10. Turn it in when I run out of time.
11. Enjoy that fourteen minutes of calm you get after turning in a script.
12. Get feedback from my editors/creative collaborators and work on revisions.
13. Figure out what it’s REALLY all about and make the subtle dialogue and action tweaks that bring out that deeper theme/emotional thread.
Hardest parts of writing a script:
- The outline.
- The beginning (particularly working in exposition seamlessly in a serial story).
- The ending/cliffhanger.
- Pages 14-16 or so. Those beats before the climax.
(p.s. it’s all hard, sorry.)
There’s an interesting mechanical aspect to writing a script. Where you come up against page count limits, for example, and realize that helps you make decisions that work. For example, every once in a while, I’ll have a three page scene that’s hard to crack. So I’ll write everything that precedes & follows it. And suddenly I discover that there’s only a page left for the tricky scene — and that’s all it needed. Or maybe I don’t really need it at all.
(Relatedly, more than once, when I’ve had a huge amount of trouble figuring out how to crack a scene, I ultimately discovered that I didn’t need the scene. I had trouble cracking it because it didn’t belong.)
Two general notes to myself that always seems to work: Give your characters quiet moments that dramatize character, especially early in the script/story, and give the big emotional beats time to play out. Let it breathe when it needs to breathe.
There’s a kind of unspoken, panicky pressure, particularly in superhero comics, to blow something up pretty quickly. Understandable. Gotta grab people’s attention in five page previews. But action without emotional drama falls flat. Gotta take the time to build character and emotional drive.
Other ongoing activities essential to the writing process:
A. Drink a glass of water.
B. Get enough sleep and food.
C. Acknowledge that whatever you’re writing this very instant isn’t perfect, but you’re gonna revise it and make it better and “perfection” is an illusion anyway.
Finally, if you’re looking for more comics making advice from yours truly, please feel free to check out MAKE COMICS LIKE THE PROS, a how-to book I co-wrote with the great Fred Van Lente with amazing art by Colleen Coover.
And finally finally, if you like this kind of advice, please do subscribe to my revamped email newsletter, where I’ll be sharing this kind of thing regularly, along with all kinds of other sneak peeks and bonuses!
Thanks much and keep on writing!