Updated: Jul 14, 2021
The other day, I put a call out to creative teams for a script written in a format that the entire team felt was helpful to them. You can view the script itself by downloading it below. Russell Lissau has made his notes on his format in red, while the series artist, Shawn Richison, adds his take on the format in black.
Although my basic format has stayed the same, my scripting style has evolved over the 20 years I've been making comics professionally. And by the same token, I’ve worked with a number of different writers in my 20 years in the biz, and one thing I know for sure is there is no "right" way to script a comic. What Russell has developed obviously works very well for him, and as the artist, I find it straightforward, and easy to follow.
I write full script. It's my story, and I want to tell the rest of the team what I see happening panel by panel with dialogue to match. Although I understand the necessity of "The Marvel Method" back when Stan Lee was writing nearly every Marvel comic, that format doesn't appeal to me at all. I have a story to tell, and I want to tell it. My first audience member really is the penciller.
I don’t know that I have a strong preference, really. Full script does take a lot of the guesswork out of a page; on the other hand, paragraph style (ie. the “Marvel Method”) leaves a lot more room for the penciller to work as a storyteller, also. Not all pencillers are comfortable with that degree of autonomy, I’d guess, but I do like to flex those muscles when I have the chance. With a script from Russell, though, you know exactly what the expectation is, and there aren’t any surprises down the road, so it makes life much easier editorially down the road. Until I misread or skip a sentence or something, and then he has to fix it in dialogue! My format is a blend of the script formats used by Devin Grayson and Greg Rucka, two writers whom I greatly admire and who helped me in my early days in the biz. Devin's a friend, and some of her scripts were on her website way back when; I forget how I got hold of Greg's. It's a simple format, with the pages and panels easily identifiable. Lines of dialogue are indented a bit and numbered. When reading a full script, as the artist, this clarity is a must. I want to know the who, what where, when and how, and Russell always delivers! My panel description typically is minimal, but it establishes where the scene is occuring, the time of day, who's in the panel and what's happening. If I want something very specific from an artist (say, an exterior shot of a casino that's off the Las Vegas strip), I'll include a hyperlink to photo reference. Why make the artist look for it? Or, worse yet, why make them guess and then they have to redraw it? Since the advent of the internet (which is to say, pretty well since I started drawing professionally) and moreover, the advent of embedded hyperlinks, this has been a real crowd-pleaser with pretty well every artist. Got a specific make or model of car you want in the scene? Send me a link. A unique locale that we’re going to feature? Send me a link! I cannot stress this enough, the more time the writer spends researching, the less time I have to [do the art] (only to be told after spending 2 hours image searching Tudor mansions, that it’s not *that* style of Tudor mansion, it’s this specific mansion or some such). Russell knows how to treat his artists, just let me say.
My descriptions are a lot sparser today than they were when I started. Today, a script for a 20-page comic book typically is 20-21 pages, one page for each comic book page. When I started, my scripts were 30-40 pages long. That's WAAAAY too much information. This also allows Russell to adhere to the “1 page of script = 1 page of art” rule, which I love. I’m drawing page 15 - I go to page 15 in the script. Even if the page is only “Splash page, the building explodes”, make that your one page and start a new page on the next page. It makes it SOOO much easier! You may also notice that I include panel layout directions in parentheses at the start of each panel description. For example: "Horizontal, top row." I write visually. I see the whole page in my head as I write, the panels shifting and reshifting and coming together like puzzle pieces. I want the artist to know how I see the page, and how I see the panels progressing. It helps that I have a solid understanding of the form, and of storytelling, so I know the value of using panel size to help build tension or move a story forward. For example, three small panels followed by a semi-splash at the bottom of the page gives the final panel even more impact than, say, a big panel at the top, two small ones in the middle and a horizontal across the bottom row.
I usually read this, and promptly forget it, since I too (unsurprisingly) see things visually. I appreciate the effort, but sometimes I get a cool idea for a layout from reading the panel descriptions, or I just have a visual in my head of how the page should look. Russell is pretty good at letting me have my way, unless there’s something that just doesn’t work for the story. Which is seldom. I think we ended up changing maybe 2 panels so far throughout the series (and one of those was me actually completely missing drawing a panel by accident, which caused Russell to have to do some fancy footwork in re-dialoguing a bit. He took it in stride, though, which speaks to the kind of collaborator he is!) I thumbnail layouts (but not the art itself) as I write, and those thumbnails match the panel descriptions. I always send the thumbnails to the artists. Most have said they're a huge help. It’s very cool to have that to fall back on, for those times where I don’t have any “brilliant” layout ideas – I can steal Russell’s! As I mention, however, I usually have my own view – what’s remarkable is how often we have the same, or at least very similar ideas, of panel layout.
But I also tell EVERY artist I work with that those directions are just suggestions. If they can layout a page in a way that serves the story better, they should. I only ask that they run radical ideas past me first so I can make sure they're not wrecking the flow of a page or the flow of the story – for example, adding a panel to a page in a way that eliminates a cliffhanger in the lower-right corner. Ultimately, I think this is what makes Russell’s scripting such a joy: he has a strong visual sense which is imperative in comics, and it comes across really clearly. He always lets me know what he wants, and gives me more than enough information to execute our shared vision to the best of my ability. At the same time, he is flexible with regard to layout and content, happy to let me move the story forward in a somewhat different way, if that’s what’s moving me creatively, while simultaneously keeping a hand on the reins, to make sure the main beats of the story are being presented in the most effective way possible.
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