There are many books on how to write comics, like the ever popular “How to draw comics the Marvel way“, but most of these books tend to skip over the most important part – coming up with a story!
This article is intended to give you a good start to coming up with a plot, planning and writing your story, structuring your plot and designing your setting and main character!
Writing a story is not just about sitting down at your computer, although that’s part of it. Whether you are looking at a blank piece of paper or a blank document on your computer screen, a blank page is never a good place to start!
In preparation for writing your comic book, you need to do some thinking first. This can be done in your head or with a mind map, scribbles in a notebook or on a napkin! But you need a starting point.
Why not just start drawing the comic?
Some artists are able to produce great work without so much as a written outline or just from a bunch of scribbles in a notebook. The reason I recommend writing a script is this: It gives you an opportunity to fix problems before you start drawing.
It limits the risk of running out of gas, resulting in a half-finished comic and a bruised ego.
The preparation that goes into writing a script is like the plans for a house: You need an action plan, a solid foundation and the right materials. You don’t just start building from a vague idea. Plan it, make the foundation and THEN start building. Your chances of succeeding will improve vastly.
Coming up with story ideas
How to get ideas for a story? Looking at newspaper articles can be an inspiration. Or take an existing story and change the genre or combine it with another story. Take a childhood memory, a dream or a story you heard someone else tell, change the elements around and ask the “what if?” question. What if this happende to me? To my brother-in-law? To Darth Vader or to Darkwing Duck? Try thinking in action and reaction, cause and effect. And write down notes to yourself, even if most of them are never used in a story!
My problem is usually that I have too many ideas! Not all of them belong in the same story, so I have to limit myself and weed out the stuff that isn’t absolutely necessary.
If you get stuck halfway through your story, don’t be discouraged. It happens to the best of us. Take some time off from staring at your computer screen, get out and get some fresh air. But bring a notebook, because ideas and solutions tend to come popping in your head when you least expect it! A lot of writers find solutions to story problems in the shower! But don’t bring a notebook in there…
If you need more help coming up with ideas, listen to this podcast episode.
How much preparation is needed?
In episode 1 of our comics tutorial, Story First, I propose a list of six things you need before you start working on your story:
- A genre
- A main character
- A setting
- A beginning
- A middle
- An end
You can expand this list with things like theme, villain, tone or the message you want to convey. But the above checklist is an absolute minimum, if you want to be able to sit down and write a comic book script.
Point 1: Your genre
Genre is great to start with, because it gives you a ton of ideas right off the bat. There are tropes and clichés in every genre, from western to sci-fi to detective stories and college humor. Use the beaten path as a starting off point and give it a more personal twist as the ball starts rolling. Don’t try to come up with a completely original story – because no such thing exists!
The setting is another great source of inspiration. Try to make the environment a character in itself, that helps set the mood and the tone of your story. An exotic location can also help set your story apart from others in the genre you’re working in. Imagine if your detective story took place in the snowy mountains? Or your fantasy story took place in a hot and humid jungle? Use the setting as a springboard for your imagination and let it contribute to the theme.
Point 2: Your main character
Your main character or your hero is the centre of the story. It’s how he or she chooses to react that makes up the action.
When designing your main character, here are a few guidelines:
- Likeability. We have to spend a lot of time with the main character, so give him or her some reedeming qualities!
- Don’t make them TOO heroic or flawless! We relate better to characters that we can see ourselves in.
- Every character needs to have both talents and flaws.
- Unlikely hero. Try thinking of the least capable person to experience your plot, and make that the hero.
- Make sure your characters have a will of their own, a motivation that drives them through the story. This goes for villains and minor characters too!
Your Comics plot
Points 3 to 6 is what is usually reffered to at the “plot”, what happens in the story.
The beginning is where we meet the main character, see the the world he lives in and a get a hint of the problems to come. We don’t have to know everything at this point, just enough to be able to follow the story. Some refer to this part of the story as “The Ordinary World” – but be careful not to make it TOO ordinary, and remember something out of the ordinary needs to happen to send our hero on his journey. Whether it is a physical or an emotional journey.
The middle part of the story is when things get complicated. Our hero has to go outside his comfort zone and get help from friends and allies. He has to continually work harder to achieve his goal.
Remember, that a story is like a piece of music. If all of it is a crescendo, it will sound like noise.
Pacing is important when writing comics. Let your hero succeed for a bit, before things get even more difficult. This is what is called turning points. Basically it means things don’t go as planned or as we expect.
Right before the conclusion to the story comes a place where all seems lost. Our hero has to use all that he has learnt and overcome his own fears, flaws and imperfections to overcome. A good rule of thumb is to make the ending logical and inevitable while at the same time being surprising and fresh. Easy, right?
The ending needs to satisfy our need for resolution. It has to tie up all (or at least most) loose ends and make sense according to the rest of the story. You need to know whether your story has a happy or unhappy ending before you start writing, because that’s what everything is sort of leading towards. It’s the destination of your writing journey. You can take almost all the detours you want, but without a destination in mind, you run the risk of rambling. Or even worse: never finishing.
Sticking to story structure may seem like a pain in the butt, but it’s really helpful to have a set of guidelines when you’re writing a story. Rules, dogmas and constrictions to limit your possibilities can actually result in a much more interesting story. Make up your own!
But, as my screenwriting teacher at the Danish film school said; there is only one rule. If it’s boring, rewrite it!
Write your own comic book script
Writing a script for a comic is different than writing a novel. To write comics is a form of visual storytelling, not unlike motion pictures. Your script can be written any way you like, as long as the person drawing it can understand what’s going on.
When writing your script, note that only two things will end up on the actual pages of the comic:
Pictures and dialogue.
The part you as the writer has most control over, is probably the dialogue, which ends up word for word on the page. When writing dialogue for comics, keep these things in mind:
- Keep it short! 2-3 sentences, max. Longer speeches can be broken down into several balloons/panels in order to keep your reader’s attention.
- Don’t serve cheese with cheese on top! If a character is saying something that is already apparent in the picture, cut or change the dialogue! Same goes for captions.
- Edit afterwards! When you see the sketched or finished pages, go through your dialogue again to check for spelling, clarity and cheese-with-cheese-on-top syndrome.
Hope this little article was helpful. If you want to know more about story structure and the nature of writing for comics, check out episode 2 of our online comics tutorials: Writing Your Script!.