Last week, I got an email from a reader who “had experience writing film scripts…and would like to convert a current film script to graphic novel format.” So I created a list of four tips for him to keep in mind during his adaptation, and I figured there might be others who could benefit from the same tips. Enjoy!
Note: Before adapting your screenplay to a comic script, know that many artists in the industry work from screenplay format, and if you hire a good comics artist, they can adapt the screenplay into static images and save you the trouble of doing the adaptation yourself. The tradeoff is relying on the artist to do more of the work, which will require more payment and trust in them to make decisions as your collaborator.
That being said, if you’re still keen to do the adaptation yourself, then hopefully the tips below are helpful.
* * *
1. Describe One Action at a Time
If you’ve read my script formatting post, Graphic Novel Script Format, then you know that there is no standard script format for writing graphic novels, but there are two main styles: Full Script and Marvel Method. A screenplay is like an unfinished Full Script, so let’s assume you’re adapting your screenplay into a Full Script.
The key difference between a screenplay and a graphic novel script is screenplays describe moving pictures, while comics scripts describe static pictures.
So, as you go through your adaptation, be mindful to describe ONE static moment at a time.
Example: As it is written, what does the following look like?
He picks up the phone.
It looks wrong because picking up the phone and speaking into the receiver are TWO actions, not ONE.
It should be written as follows:
He picks up the phone.
He holds the phone to his ear, upside down, and speaks into the wrong end.
When there are two or more actions in each moment, the artist will have to pick between them or add unnecessary panels to be true to your script.
A simple trick is to think of each comics panel like a still photograph. Like comics, photographs can capture only ONE visual moment at a time. There are technological tricks to imply movement (blur filters in Photoshop, etc.), but try not to use them. It’s better if each figure is frozen in time.
Separating every action from the other will make you discern which actions you need to get the story across, and clarify exactly what you want the artist to draw.
Exception: I can already hear the comic purists yelling, “Nah uh! What about the polyptych, huh?!”
Alright, alright! I was trying to keep it simple, but it’s true that an element of comics storytelling is the polyptych—as Scott McCloud defines it in Understanding Comics, “where a moving figure or figures is imposed over a continuous background.”
Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud
So, technically, many things could happen within a single panel. But I opted not to emphasize this storytelling tool because many of my screenwriting clients have used it as a crutch to doing the more difficult work of separating and pairing actions down. They try to cram in as much movement as they can, when it’s often not needed and the result is a mess.
If you’re new to writing comics, I’d highly highly highly suggest letting the artist suggest a panel like in the examples during the collaborations. Otherwise, assume you need to separate every action from the other.
2. Be Brief (<25 Words per Panel)
Most readers pick which graphic novels they want to read based on the quality of the visuals—much like we judge a book by its cover (even though we’re not supposed to). So, give the artist as much room as you can.
One way you can do that is to aim for fewer than 25 words of dialogue per panel. More words than that and the artist will have very little room to do the drawing.
Example: The panel below has 16 words and already it’s starting to get crowded.
Example: This panel has 31 words, and as you can see, the artist, Dave Gibbons, has had to make the character small in the panel to accommodate all the words.
Watchmen, written by Alan Moore, illustrated by Dave Gibbons.
I don’t mean to say you can’t have more than 25 words per panel, but be aware that the more words you have, the more difficult it will be for the artist to provide good and interesting visuals. And graphic novel readers are hungry for good visuals.
Visual space is your most valuable resource, so be brief.
This goes for the length of your script, too. Comics are really time-consuming and very labor intensive for the artist. Most graphic novels take 3–4 years to produce AFTER the publisher has purchased the script—usually because there are just so many drawings. A 100-page comics script is probably about 500 drawings.
The artist will have to do sketches, revisions, implement editorial notes, draw again, more notes, ink, more notes, lettering, more notes, color, etc. So the more panels you have, the longer it will take to produce. The longer it will take to produce, the more time an artist and/or publisher must be willing to commit to the project. So, make it easy for them to say yes.
Cut as many pages as you can to still tell the story you want to tell. Cut as many actions as you can to still get the point across. Cut as many lines of dialogue as you can. Cut as many words within that line of dialogue as you can. Be brief.
Edit down to only the things that MUST happen.
3. Describe ONLY What a Reader Can SEE.
Screenwriters typically get this lesson faster than novelists, but when writers start writing for graphic novels, they often over-describe. This is normal. They are not used to describing something for an artist, so they don’t yet know what is too little or too much information to get the drawing juuuust right. So, they often do too much, just in case.
Descriptions need to be ONLY what the reader can SEE.
Comics are a visual medium. If the reader can’t see something, it doesn’t actually exist.
Example: A boy lies in bed, staring up at the ceiling. He is angry because he thinks his mother is being unfair. It’s not his fault that the ceiling collapsed!
All I’ve SEEN in this example is a boy lying in bed, staring up at the ceiling. And he’s probably scowling, or something. The rest is a novelization of his feelings and backstory, which either need to be adapted to some kind of visual, or cut from the script. If you can’t see it, cut it.
It’s true that the artist will need to understand the nuances of a moment, but artists are smart and spelling everything out for them will feel disrespectful. Let the artist ask for clarification if something doesn’t make sense to them.
4. Rely on Action, Reaction and Gestures, Not Facial Expressions
Quite often, writers will use facial expressions as a crutch to depict the emotion of a moment, visually.
Simple emotions have an easier time being drawn and they do just as good a job as complex emotions because the reader will infer what a “frown” means within the context of the drama.
Besides, complex emotions behind a still face do not lead to a complex or rich character. Character is shown through actions and reactions to conflict. Stick to that. Otherwise, the artist will have to simplify the expressions for you.
Action, reaction, and gestures are more reliable tools in comics than facial expressions.
* * *
And there you go. If you stick to these 4 simple tips, then you’ll be ahead of 80% of the comics scripts I see from screenwriters.
Best of luck on your adaptation!
Announcing my new venture into children’s publishing. Danger & Doom: Brainless Brother is the first ebook in a hilarious and exciting new middle grade action/adventure series for kids ages 8-10.
What would you do if your brother lost his mind… literally?
Unusual, amazing, and terrible things always seem to happen to twin boys Daniel and Dominic—that’s why they renamed themselves Danger and Doom—and today, fifteen minutes before the biggest test of the year at school, Danger loses his mind… literally.
His runaway brain has a mind of its own, and it’s on the loose! Now it’s up to his bookworm brother, Doom, to find the clues, track down the brain, battle evil security guards and YouTube-crazy gamers at the greatest video game arcade in town, and somehow get the bitter and vengeful brain back into Danger’s head before the test begins.
Will he succeed? Or will he have a brainless brother forever?
I am SO excited about this project because Danger & Doom: Brainless Brother is the first ebook I’ve written for Reluctant Readers.
When I was a kid I hated books. I know that sounds strange—a writer and teacher of writing used to hate books—but it’s 100% true. If I were in school today I’d be called a “Reluctant Reader” (which, if you’re not savvy to the lingo, is often another way of saying “boy”).
Why was I so reluctant to read? Because I hated the boring textbooks and “classics” we read in class. There were no car chases, no ninjas, no explosions… there wasn’t even any slapstick humor.
The only thing I wanted to read were Calvin & Hobbes comic strips because the characters went on big, fantastic adventures, and always made me laugh. Why couldn’t books be more like that?
The answer is… they can be! But someone has to write them. So, that’s why I created Danger & Doom: Brainless Brother.
I wanted to give Reluctant Readers something that an 8-10 year-old me would’ve loved to read—and if I could create something entertaining enough to satisfy a kid who hates to read, then maybe it would also satisfy kids who already love to read. Judging by the reception its been receiving, we’re off to a good start:
“Exciting! … I could barely stop reading your story until I finished it!!”
— Christina (age 8)
— Martin (age 9)
“He laughed out loud. … An eight-year-old laughing out loud? Success!”
— Sarah, mother of Judson (age 8)
If you have a Reluctant Reader, or if you know someone with a Reluctant Reader, please share this ebook with them. I would love to give kids a fun reading experience, and I THANK YOU SO MUCH in advance for helping me do that.
(Illustrations © the AMAZING Jason Week.)
The following quote from reader, Paulie Cera, appeared in the comments section for Graphic Novel Script Format:
I was curious what your thoughts were regarding an ensemble cast of essential characters when writing the plot and/or story. How do you keep the story from getting too bloated, when there’s a few plot points & story arcs going on, each person with a their own back story that eventually intertwine? –Paulie Cera
Thanks for the question, Paulie!
I love ensemble casts. When done well, an ensemble cast can be a really interesting approach to telling a story. A great example of a graphic novel with an ensemble cast is American Born Chinese.
The trouble I have found in discussing “ensemble casts” is how that term is used.
WHAT IS AN “ENSEMBLE CAST”?
TVTropes.org provides a solid definition of “Ensemble Cast”:
In most cases, the protagonist is a defining element of fiction. It is he whom the plot revolves around and, usually, the one the audience is supposed to empathize with most.
However, some shows decide to do something different—there is no protagonist. The plot and its narrative don’t revolve around a single, “most important” main character. Instead, it shares a cast of characters with (almost) equal screentime and importance to the plot. This is called an Ensemble Cast. This type of narrative is interesting because it highlights the relations between different characters by taking away the importance of a single character.
In addition, it allows the writers to focus on different characters in different episodes freely, without worrying about giving the main character not enough screen time.
On the other hand, it can also result in a work that lacks focus and drive. Something must unite the events other than the main character. Most of these works therefore fix on a restricted setting and stick to it like glue.
In other words, a story with an ensemble cast is a collection of stories which may or may not interact with each other but are grouped based upon a single unifying theme (like the struggle for love, power, acceptance, etc.) and possibly a single unifying narrative motif (like setting, color, or a specific item, etc.). The collected stories are NOT grouped in support of a single story featuring a protagonist. For example: American Born Chinese, Magnolia, Nashville, Ragtime.
Unfortunately, I have often heard the term “ensemble cast” misused to mean: A cast of characters, but often larger than normal and arguably more interesting.
The threat of this misinterpretation is that writers assume that because they have an “ensemble cast” (which they don’t) all their many interesting characters need to be in the story (which is false). This leads to a story that is bloated and boring.
So, how do you know if you have an ensemble cast?
Assess whether you have a collection of stories about a single unifying theme, or if you have a large cast of characters supporting a single story. A simple way you could check is to look at the Eight Character Roles that are present in a story with a traditional, non-ensemble cast. If you can group all your characters into these eight roles, then you have a single story.
HOW TO KEEP YOUR ENSEMBLE-CAST STORY FROM BLOATING
“How do you keep the story from getting too bloated?” Well… it’s hard. 🙂 But the solution (whether you have an ensemble cast or not, actually) is simple: editing.
If you have an ensemble cast, then all the stories are grouped together intentionally to show the many different interpretations of a unifying theme through conflicting interactions. How much your characters must do to bring resolution to those conflicts will determine how big your story must be.
Once you figure out what is needed to bring resolution to the conflicts, then you edit out everything that is not needed (also, it goes without saying, edit out everything that is not about the unifying theme). If a lot is needed to bring resolution to the conflicts, then your story could be very, very long.
George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels are often more than a thousand pages each because his theme (the struggle for power) is presented through an insanely large war. The context of the war allows all the little conflicts within each of his many storylines play out. Eventually, all these storylines will collide or combine and bring resolution, but since winning this particular war is difficult to do, there’s reason for all the time spent chronicling the struggles of each character.
An ensemble story of any size, however, feels bloated when there’s either no conflict (drama for the sake of drama), the conflict at hand has nothing to do with the unifying theme (unfocused storytelling), or when the drama is unnecessarily repetitive (when two or more storylines feature characters who deal with the same thematic problem in the exact same thematic way, but the storylines are dressed in different circumstances).
In all these cases, editing will solve the problem.
(Note: Some readers like a rambling story, where not everything is pared down and focused on unifying thematic conflicts that must be resolved. However, that is a niche readership, so my advice is intended for the creation of mainstream stories.)
Editing is a HUGE topic, but I hope the advice above is a helpful place to start.
Hey everyone! These past four months have been amazing! Time has really flown and I’ve had a lot of momentum behind my writing. I feel truly blessed to be doing what I want to do in life and I can’t wait to see what 2013 will bring.
But what have I been up to?
MIDDLE GRADE NOVEL MANUSCRIPT
Did I finish the middle grade manuscript I set out to write in one month (see my post: Middle-Grade Novel Month)?
Well, I finished, but not in one month.
As you can see in the image above, the first pass took two months. Then, the manuscript needed some significant edits before I was comfortable with anyone reading it, and the edits took another month. So, to have a readable “first” draft, it took not one month but three.
I was bummed to not hit my one-month goal, but I learned a lot along the way.
I tracked my progress using this Time Tracker app, documenting what I was working on each day, how long it took to complete, what I struggled with, etc. With this data, I now have a better idea of what to expect from myself in reality instead of what I’d ideally like to be able to do. Now, I can set realistic goals instead of I-should-be-able-to-do-this goals, which will help me feel good as I accomplish tasks.
Now that I have a completed manuscript, what happens next?
After receiving some feedback, I recognize that there are two major problems to address in the next draft:
1) I need to let the reader spend more time with the characters before the action takes over. This is pretty typical of male authors, who are generally less inclined to talk about relationships and feelings than have things blow up. 🙂
& 2) I wrote the book to entice reluctant readers by including a high number of illustrations. In fact, I wrote it so the images were absolutely necessary to understand the story; if you didn’t look at the pictures, you wouldn’t understand what’s happening. But after reading the draft again recently, I realized that the project doesn’t need that style of writing. I was using images as a crutch because I’ve trained in graphic novel writing and that’s where I was more confident. So the next draft will be a more traditional novel approach.
I’m working on the second draft, now. My goal is to have a stronger next draft by April 2013.
GRAPHIC NOVEL ADAPTATION
Speaking of graphic novels… I’m going to be published!!!
In October, I was hired to write a graphic novel adaptation of a YA novel for Graphic Universe (GU). A friend from The Center for Cartoon Studies, Robyn Chapman, works as an Assistant Editor for GU and brought me in to write the script for her and Carol Burrell.
I’m afraid I can’t say too much more than that at the present moment, but it should be released in 2013. And I’m really excited!
It was a joy to work on and the script just poured out of me. It felt as natural as breathing. Once I’m able to relay a little more information, I plan to go into the step-by-step process of how I wrote the script.
Until then, here’s a simple trick I used to get started: I had a page limit of 92 pages, and the novel was 125. So, I had 1 comics page to present every 1.35 pages of text. If you can’t make the ratio work, page-by-page, then you have to start cutting moments with the least amount of plot and emotional weight.
Throughout November, Katherine and I prepared for the book launch by learning how to be an online business! Since the majority of people shop online, now, we needed to remake her website to be optimal for not only buying books but also establishing her brand as an illustrator.
In addition to that, we’ve been learning online marketing, social media marketing, and how to manage book signings and business parties. (With a great deal of help from S.S. Taylor and her husband Matt Dunne. Thanks, you two!)
It has been a lot of fun, but also a whole lot to learn.
That’s it for now. I’ll have more soon. Happy holidays, everyone.
I love it when my work surprises me. After months of plot development, character development, and thematic development, you’d think I’d have it all figured out, but I never do. Playing in the moment always produces the unexpected. It’s the best (and scariest) part about this practice.
Due to all the prep work I’ve done, I tend to know what will happen within a scene, I just don’t know how it will manifest. I let my characters tell me how. This results in surprises like unanticipated jokes, opportunities for subtext, new settings, or moments for characters to just be themselves.
For example, I blogged about an unexpected moment a few weeks ago, when David (the main character of my middle-grade novel about kid spies) got himself into trouble and I needed to learn YouTube Jiu-Jitsu to save him. I knew the fight scene would be there in the plot, but I didn’t know how it would play out. That is, typically, the unexpected I have come to expect.
This week, however, David really out-did himself. While writing the end of the second act, David and some other characters produced a whole new scene I hadn’t even considered. Bonus: It’s the best scene I’ve written, yet!
I thought everyone would want to go to the right, but they all wanted to go left, except for David. By placing David in a situation he didn’t like at all, he boiled over with emotion and brought the theme home with a lot of heart. In fact, there’s so much heart, I’m afraid to keep it in the story. Of course, I will keep it because the best stuff is what scares you (it’s a sign that you’ve hit on something honest which may upset people who don’t like what you have to say), but I didn’t know it would be there until it came out.
So, thanks David—and all your co-characters, as well—for surprising me with the best and scariest parts of my story. It would be nothing but plot without you.
After the most amazing page spread, ever, in my middle-grade novel about kid spies, I ran into a bit of trouble.
While prepping the novel I was always really excited about the most amazing page spread, ever. “How much fun can I pack into a single two-page image?” was the goal. I wasn’t nearly as excited about the really important heavy-with-exposition scene that follows. So, I glossed over it. I got the gist and moved on …until this week. 😦
I made this bed, so I had to lie in it. I had been having dessert for breakfast, lunch and dinner until suddenly it was Brussels sprouts time, baby! Fortunately, I survived the onslaught of Brussels sprouts, which wasn’t so bad after all, and I found moments of dessert along the way (What?).
One task that I enjoyed very much was designing the building for the headquarters. I imagined it to be an abandoned subway station, so I found all these great pictures online and I learned of a gorgeous abandoned subway station here in New York City at the end of the 6 line, The Old City Hall Station. Who has two thumbs and is going on a tour of The Old City Hall Station as soon as possible? This guy. 🙂
This week, I wrote what I’ve been eager to write for months: the most amazing page spread, ever!
As I’ve mentioned in earlier blog posts, I’m working on a middle-grade novel about kid spies, and to serve the reluctant readers of this world (like I was), I’m writing the book with the intention of including many high-action and comedic illustrations. This week, I got to write the most amazing page spread, ever, because it is packed with as many spy cliches (that we know and love) as possible.
In the scene, the main character, David, has just arrived at the headquarters of the secret agency and the first sight he sees are kids flying on jet packs, ejection seats, explosions, ninja fights, botched bomb defusions (with hilarious results), debonair tux fittings, and parodies of my favorite moments in spy media, including the laser scene from Goldfinger (Gold-finga! Bwa bwaaaaa daaaa!).
Enjoy (I sure did)!