How do you write a graphic novel?
It’s a question I’ve researched for many years. Unlike many other writing disciplines, there is no academic, industry, or even widely popular standard.
Everything I’ve come across usually comes down to someone just taking a pre-existing format they found from someone else and tweaking it to their needs or wants. I only came across a few examples of someone actually attempting to create a format or method from scratch.
Before I decided that I wanted to make film my primary artistic endeavor, I spent many years researching the various ways that comic books and graphic novels are written.
I worked and experimented with many different formats. None of them seemed to have the Goldilocks feel of “just right” for me. That was when in my arrogance like most young artsy-fartsy nerds, I was convinced that I could build the better mouse-trap. That I could create a format for comic book script that was superior to all the others that I had come across before me.
Needless to say, my hubris ended with me throwing in the towel after several attempts over a year or two.
But it wasn’t all for naught. I did learn some important things:
-There’s a major difference between scripts written by a writer for an artist to interpret/render and scripts written for yourself to both write and draw. A script written for yourself can be very vague and sparse on details, as you already know what you want and don’t have to explain it to someone else. But if written to be used by an artist, it’s always good to include too much detail or information than a lack of it.
-The script itself is never meant to be read or viewed by the intended audience. It’s written solely for the artist to render/interpret for the reader. It doesn’t matter in the end how it’s written if it fails to do it’s job (not engage the reader, but get the ideas across to the artist effectively, so that the artist can then realize it into something that engages the reader).
-The rules of formatting the script have to be consistent. If you have all the character’s dialogues in quotes, and all the actions in parentheses at the beginning of the script then it has to be the same all the way through it.
-Use multi-media. If there is a painting, a scene from a movie, a clip on YouTube showing a skateboard kick-flip, a link to a photo, the face of an actress, a song that evokes and helps to illustrate what you want to come across on the page (which the artist will draw) then there is no harm in providing these pieces of inspiration or reference to the artist.
At best the artist will get exactly what you mean, and at worst they will dismiss it and come up with something on their own, but will still understand what you were trying to get across. Because your “writing” is never meant to see the light of day, you can use anything you want to get your ideas across. Hell, if shooting a video of yourself doing a modern interpretive dance while wearing a cosplay outfit is the most effective way to impart something to the artist… then squeeze into that costume!
-Show the artist your pages as you are writing them. Don’t hold on to them until you are finally finished with the entire thing. Giving an artist as much lead time as possible to experiment, research, visualize, and design before a deadline is always helpful. Also I’ve found that many writers found their writing inspired/charged-up when they start to see thumbnails, character designs, and roughs of their pages as they are writing. Also some elements of the artwork, such as a character’s appearance, design or even the environment design are not what the writer initially imagined, and seeing them helps them to adjust or change what they are writing. Sometimes seeing an artist’s early roughs could inspire the writer to find new ideas and paths for their writing! So hoarding your pages until you’re DONE really doesn’t help anything, except your own ego.
During that time of research and experimentation I came across many formats for comic book/graphic novel scripts. Here is a quick down & dirty recap of the most common formats I came across:
THE MARVEL WAY
A format that was utilized heavily by Marvel Comics writers and editors. This method had you write up general descriptions of what was going on for a page and leave it for the artist to do most of the lifting and break down their own panel structures, angles, and compositions.
Then the writer would go over the artwork and place caption boxes with descriptives and narratives that were the comic book equivalent of a voice over in a film being spoken by usually a first person narrator, or a third person omnipotent narrator. And then also insert word balloons with the dialogue.
I thought this method worked well for someone who was both writing and drawing the story, but was a little too loose for my taste when a writer and an artist had to collaborate. Works pretty good for action-oriented stories that are on the shallow side for depth, theme, symbolism, and mood.
PANEL BY PANEL
This is exactly what it sounds like. A writer puts down everything in each panel. One at a time.
While this method allowed for a writer to give a lot of detail and control, it made things sucky for the artist that actually wants to contribute or use panels and visuals to tell the story.
I’ve found that a lot of control freaks, novelists, and people who tend to be lousy visual story tellers use this method. Which is hilarious because these type of storytellers that could use a visual artist’s gifts the most in making something work as a visual narrative.
Comics or graphic novels made in this manner tend to be smothered in caption boxes, word balloons, and have very static and non-dynamic visuals. It makes me wish a lot of times that what I was just reading plain old prose, because I could do better visualizing in my head. The writing in these types tend to be stronger (because of stronger more controlling writers) but it’s got the visual appeal of a multi-camera, 80’s sitcom on TV.
A subset of this variation that I found intriguing at first was having the writer actually draw out the panels for each page, and then write inside of each panel in text what should be drawn there.
THE MANGA METHOD
In the world of manga, a manga writer is expected to create a “Name.” It’s very similar to what we call thumbnails in America. The writer will actually draw out the panels and use stick figures and other visual symbols and proxies (like writing “Large Building Here”) in text behind a stick man to convey a background. The writer will also layout and insert all the word balloons and dialogues. This “Name” is then given to the artist who will then create a “Manuscript” from them. Which will be a rough sketch based on the writer’s “Name.”
I’ve always had issues with this method, because it relies on the writer to set a lot of the visual beats and can bind an artist’s flexibility. Also panel layouts, compositions, and flow tend to suck this way because a writer’s strong suit is not visual.
Although the artwork and actual draftsmanship in manga tend to be superior to many western comics, resulting in the actual image in each panel looking better, the panel layouts and flow really tend to be confusing to follow and lack cohesion.
Also called a script, a movie script, the teleplay. This is where some writers have gone to a format that is in wide use for the motion picture and television industry and there is a wide range of software and style standards that are already in existence. Why re-invent the wheel when you’ve got a working car, right?
I would say that of all the methods I researched, this method came the closest to what I felt was an effective way of writing for a comic book or graphic novel.
Film and TV are visual storytelling mediums, and so the screenplay seemed like a viable alternative at first. But I did find one major element that was lacking.
You’re like, huh? You see comics and graphic novels work one major visual element that makes them comics in the first place. That is juxtaposition.
That’s a fancy term for placing one panel next to another panel. You see in comics, the reader’s eyes traveling from one panel to the next and the reader’s mind filling in the gap between those panels (known as gutters) is one of the cornerstones of what makes a comic a comic. Without it, it’s not a comic anymore.
Screenplays are meant to be used for film and TV where you only see on panel the whole time (the screen).
Also the lack of accounting for the physical page that contains the panels can be problematic as well. So close, but no cigar.
It wasn’t until I had given up on comics and started shooting film that I learned to re-think not only on how to write comic book scripts but writing anything involving visual storytelling.
I know there’s got to be some kind of cliche floating out there that says in so many words:
It always takes someone or something from the outside to significantly innovate or change the status quo.
Cliche or not, that is what happened to me.
Once I started to read screenplays and write my own screenplays that I would shoot, it clicked in my head. How to write a comic book or graphic novel. I chuckled to myself at the time because, I thought to myself, “Why didn’t this happen when I was working on a comic?”
It took me leaving comics and going into film. Becoming an outsider to comics that I found my magic bullet for writing for graphic novels and comics.
A day late and a dollar short? Well, that’s where I learned that sometimes holding onto your old notes is a good thing. Because I am throwing my hat back into the ring! It’s going to be a while before I can shoot my own film. So in the meanwhile, I am working on cranking out a few comic book projects (an anthology and a full blown graphic novel).
So yay for me! 🙂
Here you go. My template/format for writing a graphic novel/comic book script. I even wrote a scene using the format as an example. I call it:
Please feel free to read and adapt the format to your own liking, but if you do, I would appreciate it if you could credit me for the format.
Also please do not embed or attach this document on your site without written permission from me. Feel free to link to my page here with the document, but no direct links to the document either.
I worked pretty hard on creating this thing, so please respect my work, and thanks for checking this out.
Would love to hear what you think about it. Drop me feedback, and I hope you find it helpful.