Graphic Novel Script Format
Last summer, I worked as an Editorial Intern at First Second Books. One of my responsibilities was to read spec script submissions and I was floored by how many different formats were used for graphic novel scripts: screenplay format from a screenwriting software, stage play format written in Microsoft Word, prose outlines with sample pages of finished work…
I love reading scripts but sometimes the writer seemed to be making up the format as they went. I often found it difficult to make out what information was describing the action, what was a line of dialogue, who was saying which lines, what was background information unnecessary for the reader but potentially interesting for the artist, what was direction for the artist, etcetera.
Needless to say, reading those scripts was not fun.
A script is not just words on paper. A script is a visual experience for the reader.
A script is like a map for your story. The pictures and symbols on a map do not hold a candle to the actual experience of the trip, but reading a map can either be a simple, pain-free, enjoyable process for the reader that leads them from spot to spot along the journey or it can be just plain awful. The last thing that we want as writers is for our reader to get lost using our map.
This is why formatting your script in a clear, easy-to-follow way is so important.
Fortunately or unfortunately, a standard format for graphic novel scripts does not exist; at least, I haven’t found it. Depending on your intended approach to producing the comic, there are many accepted ways to approach formatting.
In the 1960’s, Stan Lee was responsible for writing more than 50 stories a month. To take the pressure off his shoulders, he would write a short paragraph of plot for each page of the comic and leave the comic artist to design the page. Only after everything was drawn did Stan write the dialogue for the story (which is why so much of the dialogue is expository – used to convey information when there was no room to do so visually).
If your intention is to just get work out the door, and/or give each role of production a good deal of autonomy, this hands-off approach, later coined as the “Marvel Method,” is a fantastic way to do that. (To the right and left are samples of Marvel Method-type scripts. Click the image to get an expanded view.)
If you prefer the opposite, hands-on, side of the spectrum, consider Alan Moore’s scripts, which rival the length of most novels. Moore wrote pages of prose for each panel, describing every element of every image in perfect detail. Needless to say, this approach offers the writer more control of the story and more responsibility. The best type of artist for this collaboration would be someone who just wants to draw and would appreciate all the homework you put in to make every last detail count (and doesn’t mind reading a lot).
When developing my own approach to writing scripts for graphic novels, instead of making formatting decisions based upon whomever I would be collaborating with – since I rarely know who that person will be until I have finished writing the script – I utilized my time spent as a reader of poorly formatted script submissions as my primary influence.
First and foremost, instead of using two or three script pages to describe one page of comics or one paragraph to describe five pages of comics, I try to have all of the panel descriptions and dialogue for each page of comics to be on each coinciding page of script. Everything that happens on page one of the comic is written on page one of the script. The same with page two and so on.
On the same note, I also arrange the pages during printing so that the even numbered pages (which are always on the left-hand side) are printed on the left-hand side and the odd numbered pages are on the right. This allows the reader to get a more accurate feel for pacing. For example, instead of imagining when the page turns take place, the reader actually turns the page on the page turns.
Second, I don’t separate thumbnails from the script. If thumbnail images are on a separate piece of paper, requiring the reader to turn their head back-and-forth to find the text that coincides with the image, they can easily get lost and frustrated. Having thumbnails on separate sheets of paper also requires more sheets of paper to be carried and kept organized. A 200-page script and two hundred pages of thumbnails is a lot of paper to lug around.
To address this, I adopted the format in the picture to the left and placed the thumbnail on the script page. Working in Microsoft Word (a software that the majority of people have access to and know how to use), I use the square tool bar to make small boxes and place them in the top right hand corner of the page. These are now my rough thumbnails. It’s not perfect, sometimes those boxes can be difficult to maneuver but it’s better than any alternative I’ve attempted, thus far. (To the right is an example from Archie Goodwin, who drew his panels in by hand — though, I would advise against putting them in the bottom right; readers generally tend to look top right before bottom right).
Lastly, I want the reader to be able to glance at my script and visually register the difference between a description of action, a line of dialogue, a character name, anything and everything they would need to know. Eventually, my hope is that they will forget about all the design work I’ve done and simply enjoy the story.
With all this said, I do not consider my suggestions to be the end-all, be-all. Much like the work samples above, my format works for me, and it’s still evolving. If something else works for you, please share it, I’d be up for trying something new.
(Note: The samples above are — in order of appearance — by Mark Waid, Scott Peterson, Roger Stern, Alan Moore, Scott McCloud and Archie Goodwin. With the exception of Moore’s script page, the samples were all taken from The DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics by Dennis O’Neil — an excellent introduction to writing comics.)