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.
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!
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.