Graphic Novel Script Writing Strategies
November 23, 2011 6 Comments
As mentioned in a recent post, I am in the process of writing a graphic novel. That post focused on the “Whys” of graphic novel writing. This post will look at the actual process that I have been using to write the script for my graphic novel. I will not present this process as being the “best” or “only” way, and I have intentionally not titled this post, “How to Write a Graphic Novel.” If anything, it is simply, “How I am Writing a Graphic Novel.” *
OK, disclaimers out of the way, I’ll begin.
It’s worth pointing out that the process of writing my graphic novel (“grovel”, perhaps?) did not begin with a script. It began during a conversation with a friend—a very long conversation in which we developed an idea. That idea lingered in my mind for a few weeks, taking root, until I jotted down a few notes about it.
The types of things I wrote down were extremely macroscopic—the global view of my story. Where is the story taking place? When? What is that world like? At that point, I wasn’t writing about people or events or plot. I was painting the background of my story canvas.
As I look back at them now, those notes have very little to do with my story as it presently exists (that is, the details are too broad in their scope to be useful in any specific part of the script), but writing down my ideas was an important step in the story-development process. It allowed me to contextualize my story, and to move on to the next stage, which was to develop some characters.
I will pause here to say that I could have done things differently. Instead of focusing on characters at this point, I could have concentrated on plot. I could have mapped out the plot of my story in full, and then developed characters to fit that plot. However, I didn’t do that, and here is why:
My feeling is that a story that is developed using what I’ll call the “plot-first-characters-second” strategy will almost certainly read differently than the “characters-first-plot-second” strategy. The reason for this is simple. If the plot is the central aspect of the story, and the characters are created by the writer merely as a means of acting out that plot, then the characters may not only be two dimensional, but may also do things that are out of keeping with their character. The writer might get caught in a pickle, where the character has certain attributes (to use a hyperbolic example, let’s say the character is a sociopath and a murderer), but the plot requires that the character do something completely out of keeping his/her nature (say, slaving 9-5 to support an aging widow that lives down the hall).
Character-first-plot-second is, for me, a preferable strategy. Once I’ve developed a macroscopic perspective of my story’s world (the global view), I then populate that world with characters that I think will be interesting and useful. Of course, these characters can (and almost certainly will) change later on, or may be nixed entirely and replaced with someone better.
The important point is that developing (or perhaps, discovering) your characters early allows you as the writer to make the most of them. Let’s revisit that sociopath murderer. It’s reasonable to suspect that he probably would not selflessly help an old lady without some ulterior motive. A character-first-plot-second way of unfolding the same scenario described above might involve his schemes of supporting her for a time, but only to lull her into a false sense of security. After all, we’ve established that his nature (his character) is to want to murder her, right?
For me, the appeal of “character-first” is not only that the plot unfolds more organically, but that the plot can then make an impression on (and potentially alter) the character. Isn’t this what happens in real life? We all have personality traits, and because of those traits, we make decisions (I am more likely to be kind to children than to cuff them; it is more probable that I will wash a dirty cup than dash it against the wall). However, as we go through life (our plot, so to speak), we change subtly over time. For dynamic characters, it may be the same.
All that to say that I developed a list of potential characters for my story. Depending on the nature of the story that you are trying to tell, these characters may be tropes (that is, ready-made characters), or they may be super-original. The characters in my graphic novel are, I admit, a bit trope-ish. It’s a Steampunk story, after all, and it shouldn’t be too surprising to learn that the main character is the beautiful daughter of a professor, or that the antagonist is a power-crazed Count of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. However, there are ways to make these tropes fresh and interesting… I hope.
At this point, I injected my newly-minted characters into the world I’d already developed and watched them interact. For example, we have a megalomaniac (the Count) who desperately wants to acquire the chemical recipe for the “steamcell” developed by the professor. What is he willing to do to get it? What impact does that have on our beautiful heroine? Does she fight back? If not (her personality would give us a clue about whether she would fight back), then what does she do to escape?
Using a “character-first” strategy to developing the plot requires flexibility and time. However, it can also help you along, as the story may subsequently unfold in obvious ways. The beautiful heroine runs away. Where does she go? Well, you’ve already developed your world. Send her out into it! And when she gets there, make sure she interacts with the other characters you’ve already fleshed out.
Now comes the part that can be fun and frustrating (sometimes simultaneously): writing the script. My logic is that the more detailed the script, the easier it will be to actually start on the drafting of the graphic novel later on. The less you leave up for grabs now, the less you have to think about then.
First of all, what sort of layout do you want use for your graphic novel? Personally, I chose to use a 9-frames-per-page layout (3×3). Any layout is fine, of course. My basic template is shown below:
As you can see, I might choose to have 9 individual images on the page, or I could join some frames together to make larger images. For example, I could combine frames 1, 2, 4, and 5 into one big block, with the rest left as individual images. Or 1-9 might be a full-page image. 1-6 might be individual images, with 7-9 forming a long, horizontal image at the bottom. Lots of options.
Having this template in mind has helped me to write my script, because I am able to imagine my story as happening on a page as a series of images with text. Some concepts in the story are more important than others, and might necessitate larger images (combined frames). Additionally, some variety is good (page after page of 3×3 images might become monotonous after a while).
To illustrate how I’ve chosen to write my script, I’ve included a sample page below:
- At a glance, I want to see the Page Number, as well as what side of the book that page is on. Note that I mean the page number of the finished book, not the page number of my script. By “right-hand” and “left-hand”, I also mean of the finished book. (Imagine the book lying open on the floor in front of you.) This information is helpful because it will help you remember what information is also being shown on the opposing page.
- Each Panel is described in enough detail that, when it comes time to begin drafting the graphic novel, I can easily picture the scene. In the example above, you can see that Panels 2, 3, 5 & 6 are joined together to form one larger image.
- I use the term Caption to mean a text box that is not meant to represent a character’s direct speech. In the example above, Panels 2, 3, 5 & 6 will have a text box (caption) that says, “Port of Bremerhaven.”
- Speech bubbles are shown below each Panel description. In the example above you can see that I have written the name of the character who is speaking. I have also used a numbering system to show which speech bubble I intend to be read first. For example, the two speech bubbles in Panel 9 of the example above would not be read, “Miss, I’m Van Vechten”…”Excuse me?”; rather, the numbering system indicates that the opposite order is intended.
That’s my strategy in a nutshell. The rest, I suppose, boils down to willpower and how much time you’re able to put into it.
So, a recap of my main points:
- Develop a macroscopic perspective of your story world
- Decide whether you want to develop your plot first, or your characters first
- Plot-first stories can be exciting and compelling, but may result in flat or contradictory characters
- Character-first stories allow the plot to develop around characters that have already become familiar to the writer
- Some of the plot of character-first stories may present itself, because the writer can make decisions about the plot based on what the character(s) would probably do in a certain situation
- Visualizing your graphic novel will be easier if you develop a template
- Writing your script will be easier if you use (and stick to) a format that describes each image that will appear in the graphic novel, as well as all accompanying text
That’s it. I hope this is helpful information. If you have any questions you’d like to ask me directly, please don’t hesitate to contact me here.
Also, as an appendix to this post, I will add that a very comprehensive discussion of script writing formats can be found here, written by Tim Stout.
* You may be wondering why, despite that disclaimer, I used the words “How to” as a tag. Hey, we all want traffic on our blog!