A Screenplay is not a Comic Script

I think you’d be hard pressed to find some work of fiction, some type of writing, that you could NOT turn into a comic. That is to say, you could create a comic from notes on bar napkins, a published novel, heck I bet you could even create a comic using nothing but a movie as the source material.

If you’re making a comic yourself, like literally by yourself, it doesn’t really matter how you do it… only the final product matters. If you have some crazy process that gets you a beautiful finished product, good on ya mate.

But for those writing spec scripts, trying to write for others, or trying to entice others to their project, it pays to create scripts that open doors instead of closing them.

In 2020, there are a million writers writing screenplays and pawning them off as comic scripts.

If you want to be one of those guys… as you were.

But if you actually want to write comics, if you want to be a comic book writer, you should learn how to write an actual comic book script, not how to sell some other script as one.

There are lot of useful technique comics can borrow from screenplays.

For the innocent novice writer, it’s understandable to see some technical execution confusion. But for working and professional writers, knowing what transfers over and what doesn’t separates the riff from the raff.

Before we get into it, let’s put to bed, once and for all, why a straight screenplay script is not a comic script. Here’s why;

Director
Production Designer
Art Director
Costume Designer
Cinematographer …
Camera Assitant
Director of Photography
Scenic Artist
Set Decorator
Storyboard artist …
Makeup artist
Wardrobe stylist
Assistant Director
Production Assistant
Production Coordinator
Production Designer …
Script Supervisor
Sound Mixer
Special Effects Coordinator

oh yeah, and actors.

These are a few of the people involved in a film.

Individual roles dedicated to a specific area of production. In essence, a screenplay can deliver fairly minimal information and it’s someone’s specific job to interpret that information, its context, and otherwise apply their knowledge, experience and skill, to turn that information into some tangible, successful element.

If you think it’s the artist’s job to fill all these roles, you’re crazy… and mean to artists.

Ok, you still here?

Good.

Let’s showcase some specific examples of why a screenplay doesn’t hold up for comics;

 

THE FRENCH CONNECTION

Drug Dealer
I don’t…

Doyle
Ever pick your feet in Poughkeepsie?

Drug Dealer
What?

Doyle
Did you ever pick your feet in Poughkeepsie?

Drug Dealer
I don’t know what you’re talkin’ about.

Doyle
Were you ever in Poughkeepsie?

Drug Dealer
No… yeah…

Doyle
Did you ever sit on the edge of a bed, take off your socks
and stick your fingers between your toes?

Drug Dealer
Man, I’m clean.

Doyle
You made three sales to your roaches back there.
We had to chase you though all this shit and you tell me you’re clean?

Russo
Who stuck up the laundromat?

Doyle
How about that time you were picking your feet in Pougheepsie?

The drug dealers’ eyes go to Russo in panic, looking for the relief from the pressure of the inquisition.

Russo
(in pain)
You better give me the guy who got the old Jew or you better
give me something or you’re just a memory in this town.

Drug Dealer
That’s a lot o’ shit. I didn’t do nothin’.

14 dialogue exchanges, with for all intents and purposes not a single visual description (one minor one toward the end about the dealer’s eyes.). This is likely at least one page of comic with this volume of exchanges and dialogue, and there is literally, nothing cuing the artist as to how this should go down.

 

THE FRENCH CONNECTION

Mutchie

That’s right, he couldn’t fight legit. One night at the Garden about 1950, ’51—he fought either Jake LaMotta or Gus Lesnevish, I think it was—he took one o’those cream puff punches in the sixth—the laziest left you ever seen—missed him entirely. Down goes Blackjack without even workin’ up a sweat and the whole Garden gets up on its feet and I swear to Christ, everybody starts singin’
“Dance with Me Henry.”

75 words. Way too much for a single panel.

How many ways can you break the dialogue into how many panels?

Is one way to break it up more effective than the others?

Because if it is, and that’s NOT the method you write up, you’re producing a less effective script.

But ultimately, what works in film as a 30 second monologue (doesn’t work in comics), would be far more effective as caption narration over flashback action.

 

THE EXORCIST

EXTERIOR – IRAQ- NINEVEH- DAY

The old man arrives back at that dig site in a small jeep. As he pulls up two armed guards rush out. When they see who it is the old man gives them a wave and they slowly walk back to there quarters. The old man walks up the rocky mound and sees a huge statue of the demon Pazuzu, which has the head of the small rock he earlier found. He climbs to a higher point to get a closer look. When he reaches the highest point he looks at the statue dead on. He then turns his head as we hear rocks falling and sees a guard standing behind him. He then turns again when he hears two dogs savagely attacking each other. The noise is something of an evil nature. He looks again at the statue and we are then presented with a classic stand off side view of the old man and the statue as the noises rage on. We then fade to the sun slowly setting as the noises lower in volume.

Hey! this has some nice direction, this screenplay stuff is perfect for a comic.

NO.

Let’s break it down;

The old man arrives back at that dig site in a small jeep. As he pulls up two armed guards rush out. When they see who it is the old man gives them a wave and they slowly walk back to there quarters. The old man walks up the rocky mound and sees a huge statue of the demon Pazuzu, which has the head of the small rock he earlier found. He climbs to a higher point to get a closer look. When he reaches the highest point he looks at the statue dead on. He then turns his head as we hear rocks falling and sees a guard standing behind him. He then turns again when he hears two dogs savagely attacking each other. The noise is something of an evil nature. He looks again at the statue and we are then presented with a classic stand off side view of the old man and the statue as the noises rage on. We then fade to the sun slowly setting as the noises lower in volume.

This passage is 15 beats, give or take. One beat a panel, 3-5 panels per page, we’ve got 3-5 pages of comic in this passage alone.

Hang on we’re not done.

If you fill your page with this type of description (you shouldn’t, but let’s say you did), you could get almost double that amount of beats. So one page of screenplay delivering nearly 6-10 pages of comic content!

Tell me, when was the last time someone delivering a screenplay “comic script,” delivered a 2 page script for a complete issue?    Never says I.

BONUS on this example:

Did y’all notice the soundtrack emphasis in this excerpt from the Exorcist script? Of course you can have sound effects in a comic, but no matter how you crack it, comics DO NOT have soundtracks. Relying on film soundtracks in a comic script is a sure fire way to deliver less effective scripts.

 

BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA

JACK
Alright, where’s my truck, Wang?
I’m outta here. And my money, too.

WANG
Forget about your truck, Jack. You
don’t wanna go back there. You’ll
have to go through the Wing Kong
to get it. It’s insured, right?

JACK
Of course it is. But that’s not
the point.

WANG
The smart man comes back for it
later…

JACK
The smart man calls the cops!

WANG
Cops have better things to do than
get killed.

We showed the typical lack of visual description a screenplay gives in the first example. [Screenplays tend to focus on the scene setup, then briefly hit key actions of the scene.] Here we have another example of missing visual description, but I point it out for something more specific–LACK OF EMOTIONAL context.

As I point out in the Writer’s Guide, Emotional content is one of the essential elements of each and every comic panel. So not only do we not have visual cues to support the action in the screenplay, but how are the characters delivering these lines!?

JACK
Alright, where’s my truck, Wang?
I’m outta here. And my money, too.

How many ways can you say this line?

I can say it pissed. Irritated. Fearful. Sarcastically. Comically.  Those are just a few that pop in my head… and I’m no actor.

Leaving emotional context open to interpretation undermines narrative control–in a big way.

A good, effective scene, could die a horrible misinterpreted death.

For the record, you can use parentheticals in a screenplay. This can give emotional context, like the one from Jack’s first line I omitted to make the example more effective 😉

JACK
(pissed off)

But where parentheticals do contain emotional context, you use them in a script sparingly. Just like you don’t tell the director how to do his job filling your screenplay with camera direction, you don’t try to tell the actors how to do theirs. (Remember, the answer to why Screenplays aren’t Comic Scripts, there’s a lot of people, hopefully professionals, bringing their expertise to the table.)

 

CASABLANCA

Ilsa
Your secret will be safe with me. Ferrari is waiting for our answer.

At the bar Ferrari talks to a waiter.

Ferrari
Not more than fifty francs though.

Ilsa and Laszlo walk up to him.

Laszlo
We’ve decided, Signor Ferrari. For the president we’ll go on looking for two exit visas.
Thank you very much.

Ferrari
Well, good luck. But be careful.
( a flick of his eyes in the direction of the bazaar)
You know you’re being shadowed.

Laszlo glances in the direction of the bazaar.

Screenplays live in movement. Unless you’ve got a static insert of a letter or photo or something, everything is in motion and there is constant change (even if subtle) from micro-second, to micro-second.

While comics work to capture movement (and  there are some tricks), it is ultimately a static medium, locked into showcasing moments frozen in time.

What I explain in the “works in movies not in comics article” is that the constant movement and motion, supported (primarily) by actors, but by the lighting people, the art direction people, director, etc. all gives depth and purpose to every single second of a film.

With all these people doing their job, a screenplay can give super general stage direction, like what we see here in this Casablanca excerpt.

  • At the bar Ferrari talks to a waiter.
  • Ilsa and Laszlo walk up to him.
  • Laszlo glances in the direction of the bazaar.

These trivial actions carry no narrative. They work in film because of performance and motion, which steps in to create narrative.

Without performance and motion, a single frame captured from core stage direction translates to ineffective comic panels.

 

By the way, all the examples I’m giving here, are from solid movies. The big pink elephant in the room when writers deliver “comic screenplay scripts,” is that they assume they know how to write a good screenplay in the first place. Trust me, novice writers rarely do.

There’s a lot of technique and skill in writing a solid screenplay. And if you think a good screenplay causes problems converting to a comic, wait till you try it from a shitty screenplay.

Still thinkin’ screenplay is synonymous with comic script? Well you’re wrong sunshine, but what do I know?

I’m just a non-famous full-time mercenary writer, writing almost exclusively in comics and games for a decade or so :p

I’ve spent a few hours writing this article, but there are plenty of other examples I haven’t touched on.

I’ll come back and add some more as I think of them in my down time. Maybe eventually when the list is so long it takes you a couple hours to read this article,  y’all get it through your noggins that comics are there own medium which demand the attention and respect of a unique format and writing approach. Something the comic book writers reading this, already know. #justsayin▪

About the Author —
Nick Macari is a full-time freelance story consultant, developmental editor and writer, working primarily in the independent gaming and comic markets. His first published comic appeared on shelves via Diamond in the late 90’s. Today you can find his comic work on comixology, amazon and in select stores around the U.S.  Visit NickMacari.com for social media contacts and news on his latest releases.

 

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