Plot to Script: This is How I Do It

Posted by cullenbunn on January 22, 2012  /   Posted in Comics, Writing

Plot to Script: This is How I Do It

Yeah… Sometimes it feels like that.

I’m frequently asked how I go about plotting and pacing a comic book script. My process has changed over the years, and I continue to shake up my methods and try new things. Still, there are some core steps I usually take that seem to work well for me. They might not work for anyone else, but if you’d like a behind-the-scenes look at how I work, here’s your chance.

What I’m presenting is a glimpse at how I planned issue 5 of The Sixth Gun. Much of my planning, as you’ll see, is done in a Moleskine notebook (sometimes more than one). In the early stages, I’m not concerned about the notes looking neat or being well-organized or even being all that legible. I’m more concerned with getting the pacing right, figuring out dialogue that says a little bit about the characters and moves the story forward, and making sure the issue is going to be enjoyable on its own and as part of the longer story.

Step 1 – Planning the Scenes

For our purposes here, let’s assume I already know what I want the issue to be about before I get to this stage. Honestly, sometimes I don’t. In those cases, this step becomes one helluva brainstorming session and a battering ram through writer’s block.

I start out by listing all of the scenes I’d like to appear in the book in a perfect world. I don’t worry about how many pages I have to work with (yet) and I don’t worry about the order in which the scenes will appear. I just want to list all of the story beats I’d like to include.

After I have the scenes listed, I draw two columns.

In the first column, I write a number representing how many pages I think the scene will take in the book. At this stage, I’m still not worrying about how many pages I’ll have in that issue. This is just a starting point. It helps me figure out which scenes need more “weight” than others.

In the second column, I add up all the page counts for the scenes. What I end up with, usually, is about 50 pages worth of scenes for a 22-page book.

So the final step (and often a painful one) is to go back and start reducing page counts. Sometimes I have to go through this several times, trimming a page out here and there. Sometimes, I need to combine scenes or cut scenes altogether to make it work.

In the end, though, I’ll have scenes that fit the issue I’m writing.

Usually, these scene breakdowns are much messier than this. I must have had an easy time with this one! Still, you’ll notice that I had to reduce the page counts on almost every scene. I also ended up scrapping the  “Drake gets Death’s guns” scene. I let that play out off-panel, and the issue was better for it.

Step 2 – Planning the Page Turns

For a book with ads (most Marvel and DC books for example) this step isn’t important. But for a book that has no ads… a book for which I have control over what happens on “the turn of the page”… I slave over this. I try to make sure big reveals and scene changes happen when the reader flips a page. I find it to be an effective way of enhancing the reader’s experience. I’ve changed entire books around because the page turns weren’t working the way I wanted.


It’s during this step that I put the scenes I’ve planned into the order they’ll appear in the issue. The scenes don’t always appear in chronological order. I try to order them in the way that’s going to give the story the most “punch.”

Step 3 – Roughing the Script

Some writers might go directly into scripting at this point, but I like a little more of a safety net. For me, the more prep work I do early on, the less time I have to spend during the actual scripting. If the story is clear once I sit down at the computer, I can devote more energy to “painting a picture” for the editors and artists. Obviously, I do a lot of work in longhand before I sit down at the computer. I like this because I can do the heavy lifting while sitting on the couch or watching my kid play at the park or while having a margarita.


I keep it pretty short and sweet at this point. Just a brief outline of what’s going to happen in each panel. In this case, it’s succinct enough that I can get three comic pages on one page of the notebook.


I don’t worry much about perfection at this stage. Perfection’s a myth created by people who don’t want you to finish a project. I don’t slow down too much for corrections. You’ll notice that I decided to flip panels 4.3 and 4.4 at some point while mapping them out. I just drew a couple of arrows to indicate that.

While I’m outlining the panel breakdown, I’ll often think of brief bits of dialogue. I’ll usually just go ahead and write them down in the margins or on the back of a page so I don’t forget. In this case, while outlining one of the final scenes of the issue, I stumbled on some dialogue for that scene and a scene that appeared much earlier. You’ll also notice that at some point my page numbering changed. For a little while, Page 23 vanished entirely!

Step 4 – Dialogue Brainstorming

Dialogue is tough for me. I want it to “sound” right, convey something about the character speaking, and push the story forward. As with the scene and panel breakdowns, doing a little pre-work on dialogue only helps me when the chips are down. This often works a lot like free-writing. I just pick one exchange, no matter where it will appear in the issue, and start writing it. One usually leads to another pretty smoothly.

This is some of the dialogue from the exchange between Drake and the General at the end of issue 5. I’m not gonna lie. Sometimes I sound these out and speak in the voice of the character (I do a  mean General Hume). The dialogue will often change once I get to the script, but this gives me a solid foundation to build on.

Step 5 – Scripting!

It’s all been leading up to this point. It’s time to sit at the computer and do the actual work of scripting the issue. If I’ve done everything else, this should be gravy.

My script format has changed over the years. I’m always tweaking it to try to find a better way to present the story. But all of the versions I’ve used started with me looking over one of Greg Rucka’s Queen and Country scripts and trying to copy his style. Someone once said my scripts read like technical instructions in terms of the format. You be the judge. They work for me.

In terms of detail, I’m somewhere in the middle. I’ve seen scripts that are really sparse, and I’ve seen scripts that have pages and pages of detail. For mine, I want to use enough detail to get my idea across while leaving plenty of room for collaboration with the artist. I tend to use some prose-like details here and there in order to convey some of the mood I’m going for. In the end, I want the script to be fun for the editor and the artist to read.

The script for Page 1 of the issue. You should be able to compare this to the panel outline I showed you earlier… and the pages of finished art Brian Hurtt turned in based on the script.When you look at the final art, you’ll notice that Brian made some changes from the script on the last panel of this page. That kind of stuff happens. Most of the time, Brian calls me or shoots me an e-mail with a suggested change. But he doesn’t need to do so most of the time. Part of working in comics is trusting your collaborators.

Format-wise, this script is pretty close to what I use currently. The biggest difference is that I’d never break a panel at the end of the page these days. I’d rather do a page break, leave a little note that the page is continued, and move the entire panel to the next page. It’s a quirky thing for me.

Another quirky thing for me: I like to indicate what is making the SFX. It’s a little unnecessary, but I like to think it gives the letterer a little help in how to present some of those SFX.

How long is a typical script? Here’s the answer! For a 24-page comic, this script was 50 pages. Some are longer. Some are shorter. You’ll find that earlier scripts are much longer because I spend more time in the description of characters and key locations.

I still love this exchange between Drake and the General.

I don’t do a lot of splash pages. I usually have too much story to get to. But in some cases a splash page is just needed.

Step 6 – Artist, Take it Away!

Now, I’m skipping an important element. The editing phase. There’s every possibility that the editor is going to come back with a few notes. At that point, it’s hopefully just a matter of tweaking a few panels or pieces of dialogue here and there. I’ve seen some notes, though, that have taken the whole thing back to the beginning.

Assuming editorial signs off on the script, it heads to the artist. The fun here is waiting to see what the artist does with your script. Enjoy it!

Page 1 – Notice the difference in the script and the final art. Brian changed the last panel of this page and the first panel of the next.

Page 2

Page 23

Page 24

Remember How I Said I’m Always Trying Different Stuff?

Way back when, I posted this somewhere. Once upon a time, I tried to outline pages of comics using a notebook and a bunch Post-It Notes. Each page of the notebook represented a page in the comic. Each Post-It represented a panel. That way, I could move stuff around and reorganize with ease. This was actually a fun way of working on a comic, but it took a little more time.

This shot is from my notes on the 6th issue of the series. You’ll notice I used yellow Post-Its for panels and blue Post-Its for bits of dialogue.

I Hope You’ve Found This Helpful or Interesting

Every writer approaches their work differently. While this method works for me, it might not be helpful for anyone else. If you feel like it, give it a shot. You might find bits and pieces of my process that help you out. Or this discussion of my process might lead you to develop something completely different. Either way, I hope this has given you an interesting look into how I go about writing one of my scripts.

If you have questions, send them my way and I’ll try to answer them.

 

12 Comments

  1. Will Hindmarch January 22, 2012 5:12 pm

    Just scratching the surface of this already-bookmarked post, which I expect to leave open in my browser for a good long time so I can read it and read it again. Thank you for this generous and clear-eyed look at your process. It doesn’t just inform so that I may do better work in the future, it encourages me to believe in my odd and developing process. I’d pay money to take this class if you taught it. Truly, many thanks.

  2. Rudy January 22, 2012 7:13 pm

    Thanks for the insight! Awesome stuff.

  3. Andrew Pettit January 22, 2012 10:11 pm

    This is a tremendous resource for any writer to draw from. Thank you so much for sharing.

  4. Paul Brian DeBerry (@soyourazombie) January 23, 2012 11:30 am

    Thank you for sharing. Love the Sixth Gun.

    After reading this I’m thinking I should change my method.

  5. Brad McLoughlin January 23, 2012 11:31 am

    Hey Cullen. I have a similar process, but less organised and effective. Care to trade?

  6. Andrew Williams January 23, 2012 5:56 pm

    Seems there’s a natural order to things. My method is very similar except my handwriting is worse. Thanks for sharing. it helps to know your on a track somebody else has used.

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  8. Rob Tracy January 24, 2012 3:17 am

    Just wanted to thank you for the blog. It was very informative and exactly the kind of thing I like to post over at my Webcomics Community site to help new comics people. If you ever will consider allowing me to republish it on my site let me know.

    In particular I liked the method you showed for paring down a story to proper size for the the allotted pages of the issue, I’ve read a lot of books and sort of searched around and couldn’t find information on this particular aspect of story prep no matter where I looked. Right now I’m reading Peter David’s “Writing For Comics and Graphic Novels” and so far I’m still striking out on this subject.

    Recently I had the opportunity to do some scripting for a HUGE agent in comics. It was an opportunity I hadn’t really earned and wasn’t ready for and I blew it. I got it mostly on my personal charm. But that only takes you so far.

    He asked for me to finish a script he started. He gave me the first 5 pages or so and I really struggled with the story because it wasn’t a subject I had a lot to say about. Then I did some research and finally I had an angle and I told a tale that I really liked. I thought it fit well in the existing canon, moved the overarching story along and brought some interesting new elements to the table.

    And it was almost 100 pages long.

    I sent it to him as is because I was simply at a loss as to how to pare it down. I write webcomics and the stories I tell are my own. That freedom allows me to pace things the way I want to with no restrictions for better or worse.

    When I presented it to him I sort of said “hey now you have three issues!” but he really only wanted one and I could tell right away I had lost the opportunity.

    Something like your notes here has a potential to really help. As you can see from the length of this post I’m in love with my own writing and need to develop some structure to get rid of the blah blah blah. At the very least your pointers give me a starting point to work on my own process of meeting page limits. It’s a huge help.

    If you ever have time I’d LOVE to discuss how your single issue paring and prepping fits into an overarching storyline. How you hold an entire multipart story arch in your hands and decide what plot elements go into which issue and why. Obviously you have experience in multipart series so your insight would be valuable.

    Thanks again for the article. Found it via Reddit and I’m grateful. If you ever get out to Wondercon or San Diego Comic Con drop me a line. I’m doing both this year (I have my own table at Wondercon but I’ll probably be working for someone else in San Diego).

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  10. cullenbunn January 24, 2012 7:02 pm

    I’m really glad everybody’s digging this process. I hope to do more of this kind of stuff soon!

  11. Anne Bean February 9, 2012 5:01 pm

    Thank you so much for posting this! This article helped me dig myself out of a sad plot hole and rewrite a 3-issue miniseries I’ve been working on. Your process is exactly what nobody seems to be writing about ….yet. I just studied a whole passel of stuff on film structure and this seems to jive really, really well with it. Thanks again for posting.

  12. Luke Zwanziger March 14, 2012 5:12 pm

    Cullen, Thank you for this post. I think you may be more methodical that I was with my book, but it certainly pays off.

    Your insights have helped me refocus a few areas, but ultimately encouraged me that I am on a good path with my methods. But no amount of method will replace good story which you have in spades, plus to have a collaborator like Brian is such a blessing I am sure.

    Will you be at Emerald City or Stumptown this year?

    Cheers,
    Luke Zwanziger

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