Comic-Con 101: How to Get Your Comic Book Written


There is no doubt that comic books are a visual medium, but what gets lost in the shuffle is the art of writing. I’d be very comfortable in my retirement if I had a dime for every talented artist who launched a comic book that looked amazing but read like a bumper sticker written by a homeless guy high on paint fumes. You wouldn’t hire an artist who had minimal experience drawing comics and had only read one or two. Why do you think your story will be good if you’re a near-illiterate that’s only written what he was forced to in high school?

Don’t get me wrong. You don’t have to be Ernest Hemingway to write a comic book. Hell, you don’t even have to be Dean Koontz. But you should have a basic understanding of story structure and script format and read enough top-notch comic book classics to expect your comic to be any good. Let me tell you How to Get Your Comic Book Written.

Hiring a Writer:

If you’ve got lots of money and no time, consider hiring someone who can write. Some of the more talented artists should really give this a try. It doesn’t mean you have to share the rights necessarily. I know plenty of guys (myself included) that would be happy to crank out some scripts for a decent paycheck and free copies. Throw in a royalty payment on top of that? I’ll get you something nice. Here’s what you do:

Decide Your Budget:

Before you meet with any writers, decide your budget for the comic. Anything goes, but here are the basics:

1: Work for Hire: Straight-up pay to the writer, no rights, possible free copies, and royalties. Just like artists, the rate is dependent upon the time commitment. Pay more if you’re demanding and expect to go through many steps and rewrites. If not, pay less. You can pay a flat rate or by the page. Whatever you both agree upon.

2: Collaboration: You share the rights with the writer. Sometimes it’s an even split; sometimes, it’s a different split with some pay. It all depends upon what you agree with, but remember; in this scenario, you’re stuck with the writer in this project forever unless you include clauses in the contract that say otherwise.

Pros and Cons: A Work-for-hire is your employee, and you are the boss. Simple. You want a change; he makes it. You can discuss it, but in the end, it’s your call. Collaborators have to be more open to suggestions, but they are invested, so the pay is cheaper. It’s a trade-off. Depends upon the individuals in the deal. Choose wisely!

Photo by Pixabay

The Price:

The Federal minimum wage in the U.S. is $7.25 an hour. If I work on a script for a 22-page comic, I should be able to get it done in about three days. If I work 8 hours a day, that’s 24 hours, times $7.25 would be $174. But in most states, the minimum wage is closer to 10-15. Let’s say $12.50; that would be $300.

When I worked for a specific name-brand comic book company with a major IP, my top rate was $175 per page. We didn’t usually get entire issue assignments, but if I did, I would’ve been paid $3,850 for a 22-page issue. I believe that was considered one of the highest rates for writers at the time, so I don’t imagine the superhero publishers paying more than that unless it was a big name (or especially now).

That’s kind of the range you’re dealing with. You may decide to pay more or less. If I’m not working and you seem like a good guy, but you’re poor— I might do you a solid and take a pay cut if I have nothing to do. If you show up to our meeting in a Rolls Royce and brag about your Rolex, I’m going to expect top dollar or more.

Auditioning a Writer:

Writers typically audition differently than an artist. With an artist, time is a factor. Can they make deadlines? What is their output rate vs. quality, and when do you want to see the comic in comic stores? With writers, there are other factors besides time. As a professional, I’d have zero problems knocking out a 22-page superhero comic in a day. It ain’t Shakespeare.

But a project that takes place in, say, 1935 in a small Midwestern town in Iowa requires a bit of research, and that would add to my time. Also, if you have a draft of a script that I have to fix instead of starting fresh, that will take longer as I struggle to figure out what you need vs. what you expect me to keep in the script.

Image by Dream AI

So the easiest way to audition a writer is to look at their past work. What have they written? Have they written anything in the genre you want your story to be set in? Something comparable would also be acceptable. Comedy/Horror is close enough to Horror or Horror/Sci-Fi.

Read his stuff. If you need more than that to convince you, ask for samples in the genre you want to publish. You also want to ignore bad art since you’re hiring a writer, not an artist. What you’re looking for is a flow to the dialogue.

You can also check references and talk to artists and publishers the writer has previously worked for. This isn’t always possible or easy, but local comic creators tend to be a small community if the guy is local. Red flags include being late, unprofessional, demanding, sloppy with their work, etc. Don’t go by one recommendation, even if you get it from someone you think is reliable. You need two sources to verify.

As far as doing an actual audition, you can, but I would only put a small amount of stock in the audition story as a whole. It should be three pages done within a day or two. Writers tend to craft a narrative, then polish and rework it over more than just three pages. An audition script will tell you whether they can follow a coherent script format, develop interesting ideas, and whether their dialogue sounds good. Don’t expect much of a plot or character development in three pages. The writer’s published and polished work is better to look at for that purpose.

Also, look at their background, what they do, and the projects they’ve worked on in the past. Credits are everything to a writer, even if many credits don’t necessarily prove he’s good. It proves he’s at least competent to get and finish jobs.

Art by Niightcafe AI

Meeting the Writer

Start with the money. Don’t dance around it. Negotiate if you want, but get that settled first. Money makes a project serious. Don’t launch into a long dissertation about your idea until the writer is on board. (Even then, it’s best to wait until the contract is signed to give all the details.)

Once the writer is on board with the amount of pay or potential pay, make it clear to the writer what will happen and how you’d like the process to work. He may have his own ideas, and that’s fine. Work it out. Strike a deal, sign a contract.

Outlining What You Expect:

We’ll go through how to do it, but the bare minimum you’ll need from the writer is the script for the comic book (including the length of the final product) and a blurb for the solicitation for that story. If your comic is continuing, you might need a recap of the previous issue. You also should make the writer aware of anything else you need for the book, such as his bio (you’ll probably need for the website), character outlines (which you might also use for a website), and anything else you might foresee in the issue and/or graphic novel.

Keep the door open to basic rewrites (less than 10% of the total script) and modify dialogue balloons based on the artwork. You can have an editor do that, but consulting with the writer is probably better.

Comic Script Format:

It’s crucial that everyone involved with the project use and knows the same comic book script format. You can look online and make your own decision, but personally, I don’t do things the Marvel way. The Marvel way is to outline the book, have the artist draw it, and then write the word balloons based on the visuals. I think it’s more important to have a complete script so the artist knows what the character is saying and the expressions can match. You can modify the dialogue further as the word balloons are being dropped into the artwork.

Full scripts map out each and every panel. Personally, I use a modified version of the screenplay format. Your mileage may vary with others, but the main takeaway is that the writer should decide how many panels go on a page and what’s in each panel.

Photo by Pixabay

The Breakdown:

So for a 22-page comic, you want to have about 5 panels per page. I say about because you also will probably need at least one splash page (the whole page is the panel), two to six pages where you have less than five panels, and perhaps one where you have more. So roughly 100 panels total. Here’s the format I use:

PAGE 1

You want to renumber panels on each new page because the artist will likely print out your script and hold up the individual pages on his board for reference as he draws. He may not draw the pages in order, and you want to facilitate the art process as much as possible.

BIG PANEL 1: ESTABLISHING SHOT OF SKYSCRAPER-DAY

Describe what’s in the panel. You may only have to repeat character designs if they change throughout the story. The action and movement from panel to panel are the most important to the description. A trick I use from the screenplay format is when a character appears for the first time, put his name IN CAPS. You also want an excellent description of the character the first time we see him as well. You can have the writer do this separately so that the artist can start doing test drawings of the characters while the script is being finished.

CHARACTER NAME

Here, I put dialogue just like in a screenplay.

Some formats are like the ones below.

CHARACTER: The character says something. You can add stage direction as you would in a screenplay, but that’s a visual that should probably be in the description. Remember, you won’t have an actor saying the lines; the artist has to do that through expression and, perhaps to some extent, the lettering. Whichever way you choose to write your dialogue, make sure you always keep it that way throughout the script once you start using it. You might put words in bold or in another font to emphasize words.

SOUND EFFECT: Kablammo! (or whatever)

NARRATION

This tells the letterer to put these words in a box

rather than dialogue coming from a character.*

*EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a special description box used to explain something additional in comics. For instance, it might say, “As we learned in Issue #4.”

PANEL 2: INT. OFFICE-DAY

Above, I’m using a screenplay technique that tells the artist the time of day and whether or not it’s inside or outside. More important in a screenplay, but it’s a quick shorthand that works for comics. INT=Interior EXT=Exterior.

PANEL 3: ANGLE ON DANNY AT HIS DESK: CREDITS

Usually, the credits on a comic hit on the first page or the last, along with the story’s title. Sometimes, publishers will save the entire inside cover for the credits, so you won’t need to make room. In this panel, it’s a good visual to have a desk since the lettering can cover the desk and not an essential or complicated piece of artwork.

PAGE 2

SPLASH PAGE!

This is all one big panel, and it should be reserved for a significant moment in the comic.

Photo by Pixabay

A Special Note for Screenwriters:

Screenwriters, if this is your first time tackling a comic book script, understand that you can use the screenplay format. Each panel, however, is like its own scene. So unlike a screenplay, which is primarily dialogue-driven, you must tell the artist what to draw in each panel. It’s much more descriptive-heavy than a screenplay. You also want to avoid too much dialogue in one panel, which takes away from the visuals if the word balloon is too large. It’s much more slow and tedious to write comics than scripts.

A Special Note for Prose Writers:

You have the opposite problem. While you’re used to writing many descriptions, you won’t be used to the format. The format is critical because the artist is literally building the comic based on that. Follow the format. You’re not going for a flow in the script but in the combined dialogue and visuals. You may find this format more jarring than you’re used to writing.

A Special Note for New Writers:

Did you read a bunch of classic comics, as I suggested? Not the crappy ones, but the outstanding ones? Have you read a book like Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud and a book on scripting comics and the comic book medium in general? You should do that before you read my quick and dirty way to jumpstart the process, but okay, let’s do this.

Image by Nightcafe AI

Beyond the Format

Assuming you’re following the format so the artist knows what to draw, there are other things you have to consider when writing your story.

  1. Be aware of the Dialogue: Dialogue takes up space, so the more you have, the less room you have for visuals. You want to minimize the narration and dialogue as much as possible and let the visuals and action be part of the story. If you have a character saying more than three sentences in a row, splitting it over more than one panel is probably a good idea.
  2. Understand the Narration: Don’t describe things in the narration the reader can see. The narration is there to relay information that’s either too complex to draw or to streamline the story to get to the exciting visuals the reader wants to see.
  3. Action Takes Up Space: Action takes up a lot of space in comic books because you need to map out some of the punches and kicks or whatever. A lot of what you want to describe is the setup and then the end result of that action. Even a short struggle can take up two or three pages.
  4. Between the Panels: As Scott McCloud explains in Understanding Comics, the action happens between the panels. When you see a panel of a guy picking up an axe and then a house and a word balloon of someone screaming, the implication is that a murder occurred between those panels. Playing with the time between those panels is crucial to scripting a comic book and keeping on top of the story’s pacing.
  5. Action is Fast, Dialogue is Slow: When you have an action scene, there tends to be little or no dialogue, so readers will zip through those panels. When it gets dialogue-heavy, things slow down. This is going to impact your pacing, so be aware of it.
  6. Sound Effects: Save them for the big moments or to emphasize something. You can overuse these. Depending on the artist, the visuals alone may convey the atmosphere, making sound effects redundant.
  7. Movie Visuals are Similar: Comical scenes are light and airy, so the colors tend to be bright as well. Sinister moments tend to be dark and foreboding, so the visuals will tend to match them. Sometimes it depends upon the style of your artist. Washed-out colors can mean characters are in a world where everything isn’t so black and white (pardon the pun), whereas primary colors or simpler designs in the Simpsons and Mad Magazine means it will be a fun story.
  8. Movement is implied: You can’t show actual movement in a comic, so use the between panels to convey it. It’s like you’re picking out the best frames in a film to convey the story. You may have to add dialogue or narration to sell a complicated sequence.
  9. Sequences can also be implied: Once you understand how to use the suggested action between panels, other shortcuts can be used for different movements. It might be enough to show only two punches in a fight while implying that the battle lasted several minutes.
  10. Double up on movements for everyone: Depending on how good your artist is, the size of the panel, and the number of characters, you will want to double and triple up on movement within panels. For instance, during a fight, a character might be punching while he bumps into a table, knocking over a vase, which he later uses to smash into an opponent’s face. In the same sequence, the villain takes a punch, rallies back, and then takes a vase to the face. If you don’t describe all that, you leave a vacuum that may be filled with the artist’s imagination. That might be better or completely upset the vibe you’re looking for. Redoing panels is a pain and very time-consuming, so make sure you describe everything necessary in a panel.

Using the Three-Act Structure: In screenplays, we use this structure for the movie.

The first act introduces the character and the problem, the second act heightens the situation as things get worse, and the third act is where things reach a climax, and the story resolves itself. In a 22-page story, the first act should be 2-3 pages, the second act should be about 6-7 pages, and the third act should be 11-12 pages.

Why is the third act the largest? Because that’s usually where all the action takes place. If you’re new at this, you may have to go back and cut some stuff out at the beginning or spread out the dialogue. For screenwriters, think of an issue of a comic as an episode of a TV show and a graphic novel (usually 48-64 pages or more) a movie or novel.

Image from Pixabay

The Tone

Much of the story’s tone rests on your artist and your ability to convey that tone to him. Feel free to nudge him in the right direction. I have a space zombie story on The Webcomic Factory, and the artist added these cool sepia tones to make it look like a 70s-era Creepy story. The Pineys has covers in the style of the old pulp magazines and books. Ensure your whole creative team is on board with the tone before you go into production.

Writing Process

As the writer is crafting your script, it’s a good idea to pay him in installments as he completes the task. You might start with a good faith deposit of 10% and then split the payments into thirds or fourths, whatever works for you.

Some writers may balk at this, but tell them it’s best that you monitor the process to make sure he’s not going off in some weird direction. Don’t grill him over the first three pages if it’s close, you’re going to do some editing, and he’ll probably polish it several times before it’s finished. Check-in to ensure he hasn’t gone insane or misinterpreted some of your instructions.

Editing

The editing starts when the first draft is done. Read it thoroughly. Then reread it. Understand something you like will eventually wear off in terms of its novelty, so don’t expect to be blown away every time you read it. If you like it, move forward.

You’ll probably have some minor changes here and there. Go through them with your writer. He may have very specific reasons for doing things his way, and let him state that if it’s the case. Otherwise, he may shrug and say, “That’s fine.” It often depends on whether or not your changes add anything, don’t change anything, or completely fly in the face of the tone, plot, and/or character development.

You should offer to let him make the changes, especially if the changes are a little complicated. Otherwise, make them yourself or let a professional editor handle this phase of the operation. Keep in mind that’s just another expense.

If the script requires a significant change (like a whole additional character or the removal of one), you might have to offer the writer some extra money for his time. It depends on how badly that might impact the script and his writing speed. Hopefully, you can get the script where you want it without too many rewrites. I’d say, if you’re going to redo more than 30%, pony up some extra pay.

Image from Pixabay

If the Script is a Total Bust

Sometimes things go horribly wrong in this process. Perhaps the writer misrepresented his skills to you or himself. Maybe you needed to communicate what you wanted clearly. Perhaps you gave him too many parameters, and/or your idea sucks. Maybe you just hired the wrong guy.

In any case, you have a decision to make. Publishers often insert a “kill fee” into their contracts. If a script goes off the rails halfway through, you might pull the rip chord and give the writer a kill fee. This fee is less than the total amount, assuming he didn’t complete the script. Usually, this is whatever you’ve paid him up until now, possibly slightly more if you feel it’s more your fault than his.

If you’re a glutton for punishment, you might give him another shot at the title. I’ve been stuck in rewriting Hell on more than one occasion, and it is not fun, but in that case, you must pay the full amount. This is especially true if the writer didn’t ask for an additional fee. (Sometimes, writers are very proud and are determined to make their clients happy.)

The last option is you’re going to have to start over with a new writer. These things happen, so there’s no need for drama. Try to keep it professional. Thank the writer for his time. He may even feel bad enough to refund your fee (haha, no). And just because it didn’t work out on this project doesn’t mean he’s a lousy writer or your idea isn’t good. It may just be the stars are not aligning creatively. Part company on friendly terms and move on. Better this than trying to get an artist to fix it for you.

The Story Goes Into Production

Once you’ve finalized the script, it’s time to give it to the artist to get started. If you’re planning a long-term working relationship with a writer, once he has a handle on the character (and the artist does), he’ll feed the artist’s pages through you as he writes them.

As the artist works on the pages, have the writer work on all the extra stuff you might need for the comic. Keep his number handy in case the artist has a question or issue. As an artist lays out a book, he might have to combine a sequence or extend another. If you’re really stuck, you may have some leeway with adding extra pages by putting them on the inside covers or back of the comic.

If the opposite happens and the artist draws one less page (very unlikely), fill the page up with something. Consider adding a pin-up or a splash page for the last panel or the credit page. You might even have the writer write something about the characters, their world, and what they do.

If you are the artist, maintain your contact with the writer. If you are the publisher/editor, make sure you’re in every discussion about the project. This is a typical practice at larger publishers as creatives sometimes go off the reservation and decide together to make a decision on a book they’re working on because they consider it “their” book. At one comic book company, I was forbidden to talk directly to my artist for that very reason.

Photo by Pixabay

Lettering

As a writer/publisher/editor, I’ve found lettering to be a good way to do a final bit of editing on the dialogue. Sometimes, the artist just doesn’t leave enough room, and I’m forced to move word balloons or just cut back on dialogue. Be aware. It can be a chore, but it can also be a refinement of your product. If you’re working with a professional letterer, he’ll have some tricks to work the dialogue into tight panels.

An artist that also does his own lettering is often a Godsend because he is often keenly aware of the dialogue-to-space ratio inside a comic book panel. If you’re lucky enough to find an artist like this, thank your lucky stars.

Conclusion

Like artists, writers provide essential talent in the comic book industry and can bring your comic book to the next level. Not thinking seriously about who is writing your comic is like paying thousands to have your car painted and then going to the cheapest mechanic you can find. While the artist will bring the fans in, writers keep them and get them to ask for more.

Then again, I’m a writer, so I’m kinda biased!

Check out our previous Comic-Con 101, where we looked at comic book publishing.

That’s it for this week, fanboys. See you at the con!



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