Scriptwriting Graphic Novels – Tips and Resources

There are a lot of questions about “Scriptwriting” within the Kids Comics Unite community. How is graphic novel scriptwriting similar and different from writing a prose manuscript? How is it similar and different from writing a movie script?

To start off, I asked agent Janna Morishima, who specializes in working with graphic novelists, a few questions about scriptwriting for comics.

As a graphic novel creator, is it necessary to write a full script before pitching a GN project to agents and/or publishers?

Janna: My answer to this question is, “it depends on what type of a creator you are.”

If you’re a writer-only, and you’re pitching a graphic novel, yes, you definitely need to have written a full script. This case is somewhat similar to pitching a picture book manuscript; publishers definitely expect you to have a complete draft if you are solely the writer.

If you’re a writer-artist, your graphic novel proposal needs to convey the complete storyline, but there are different ways you could do this. You could do it by including:

  • a detailed synopsis, some sample pages, and thumbnails of the whole story
  • a synopsis, some sample pages, and complete script
  • a very detailed synopsis (almost a stand-in for the script) and sample pages
  • a synopsis, partial script, and sample pages

The upshot is that every graphic novel writer-artist works differently, and so how you present your work depends on your creative process.

The key is that you want an outsider to be able to read your material and have a very solid understanding of the whole story you’re planning to tell, and how you’ll tell it.

When in the process do you need to have the script complete? Does this differ if you are a writer only?

Janna: As mentioned above, if you’re writer only, you would most likely need to have the script complete when you’re pitching to publishers.

 If you’re a writer-artist, you need to have the storyline complete when pitching to publishers, but you could present that storyline in different ways (via detailed synopsis, thumbnails, and/or script).

How should you format your graphic novel script?

Janna: This is a controversial topic in comics, haha!

Some traditional comics publishers have standard formats for their scripts that they require people to follow. (For example, the Dark Horse script format is commonly shared online.)

Two well-known graphic novelists, Steenz and Camilla Zhang, created a “Standard Comic Script” format that you can download from Steenz’s website.

As an agent and editor who’s worked in graphic novel publishing for a long time, I have seen scripts formatted in a wide variety of ways. I personally don’t have a strong preference for a particular format as long as the script formatting is easy to read and consistent. These are the two things that matter the most, in my opinion: legibility and consistency.

Each of the following items should be formatted differently from each other to make the reading experience as intuitive as possible, and consistently the same throughout the script:

  • Art notes
  • Captions
  • Character dialogue
  • Panels and page breaks

What are the most common issues you see in graphic novel scripts?

Janna: The most common issues I see are: a) not enough art notes for an outsider to be able to envision what’s happening on the page; or b) too many art notes, to the point where the writer is micromanaging the artist.

Another script issue that happens often is writers who aren’t familiar enough with comics, and don’t fully understand how to tell stories effectively via sequential art. They might offer art notes that ask the illustrator to create wildly complex scenes; or have a scene that’s almost exclusively “talking heads” without enough visual variety. Or they might try to cram way too much dialogue into speech balloons, which makes the panels both hard to read, and also less visually dynamic and interesting.

Any other advice to creators working on a graphic novel script?

Janna: Read lots and lots of comics and graphic novels!

Reread your favorite comics and graphic novels, and try to deconstruct why you like them. You could even “reverse engineer” the script from the finished pages, and see how the creator told the story. (Or at least, how you would write the script based on the finished art.)

Graphic Novel Script Writing Resources

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March Workshop

Want to delve deeper into scriptwriting? Join Studio to attend Scriptwriting: Finding Your Process with Brigitta Blair on March 13th, 2024 (12:30 PM EST).

In this workshop Brigitta will talk through:

  • turning an outline into a manuscript,
  • the pros/cons of working with different scripting software; 
  • and how to optimize your script for page turns. 

She’ll also share a few tips on how she uses Scrivener to plot and automate her scripting process including pagination, styling, chapter breakdowns, and more! 

If you become a Studio member you will also get to attend our accountability and critique workshops!

March Challenge

For our March challenge, we are asking you to adapt prose into a script!!! We will post all the details of the challenge soon!

 

One thought on “Scriptwriting Graphic Novels – Tips and Resources

  1. As an author only, I look forward to this workshop!
    There’s a template I’m using that was recommended by an agent going crazy with the different formats. I don’t see it in the list: http://www.fredvanlente.com/comix.html.
    One thing that is different on this template is that all dialog and caption lines are numbered sequentially on each page, which is supposed to help the illustrator keep track of the different text lines. Also, the names and dialog are not centered but aligned vertically. I’d love to know if illustrators find this a good format to work from.

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