Wednesday, June 27

How to write a comic

WITH THE SUBTERRANEAN I wanted a different tone from the comics I created in the past. So rather than rely on intuition or studying comic book writing I read several books on how to write screenplays. The best was Story by Robert McKee. Whether you write for comics or film I highly recommend this book. Another great book is Screenplay.

After absorbing the basic elements of screenwriting I started jotting down scenes on index card-sized sticky notes. Some of these story events, although highly creative, proved irrelevant to the story. But I recorded every idea because at this stage it's impossible to know every twist and turn of your plot. Some of these ideas were incorporated into the final comic. Others were sacrificed on the cutting room floor. I archived the rejected scenes for possible use in later episodes.

Within two months I recorded enough material on sticky notes that I could begin organizing my narrative.

I divided a spaceous wall in my studio, using string and tape, into three areas. I labeled the sections act one, act two, and act three. I sorted the events on the sticky notes into scenes that would be most appropriate for each act (see the books listed above for what needs to happen in acts and transitions). All introductory scenes ended up in act one. Some events were highly dramatic and ended up at the climax of the story in act three. Other events made nice transitions and I ordered them appropriately. This wall soon became a mass of notes, arrows, and strings giving order to what otherwise would have been an overly convoluted plot. My daughter called it my Beautiful Mind Wall. 

There were frustrating moments in the process. I would occasionally write myself into a dead-end and would have to reconfigure plot elements and resolve them. I frequently had to amp up the drama in slack passages.

It wasn't always easy. It was often quite challenging. But when it finally started coming together it was very satisfying and a great deal of fun.

Having a great script to work from is a great confidence booster. But despite my best efforts occasionally a scene didn't translate well into action that could be broken down into panels. So I had to refocus and revise my script on-the-fly.

I recently had to do this at the end of episode #3. In these cases I tightly storyboard all the action by writing the dialogue on small sticky notes and cutting them into round, balloon-like shapes. I then apply them onto a page to give an idea of how to divide the page into panels. I roughly sketch the panels and reposition the dialog balloons when necessary. I then roughly sketch in the figures and backgrounds. The whole idea is to keep everything in flux. Occasionally I redo a panel by completely obliterating the drawing beneath with a sticky note and reapplying balloons and drawings. It's a kind of visual brainstorming where anything can change at a moments notice.

I've included an example of page 25 from episode #3. Click on the image to see a larger version.

This is my process. Let me know what works for you.

Brad Teare June 2012


  1. Great summary of the process, Brad. I've used a similar system, except with a bulletin board, pushpins and 3x5 cards. The three act structure really focuses your brain. Did you write a logline, too?

  2. I originally used the logline "Two men want to destroy New York, two men want to save it". This sentence ended up in the animated trailer (and on the front cover of #1). But the thing I realized was that coupled with visuals it works but in the absence of them it isn't descriptive enough. So I do need to rework it before I run into a Hollywood executive on the elevator. This "working tagline" helped me focus on the antagonism of the heros and anti-heros as I wrote, emphasizing the jealousy and resentment the evil twins fostered. Thanks for mentioning this. I appreciate your comments!

  3. Hi Brad

    I agree with you – having a basic knowledge of how to write screenplays can help in the process of writing scripts for comics.

    My father worked in the film industry – he was the “budget guy” – and I also had opportunities to work on movie sets. I grew up reading movie scripts. Also my father and I often sat watching movies on TV, and he would make comments on what we were watching.

    One of the basic problems in writing movie scripts is that it’s easier to make the audience cry than it is to make them laugh. A good laugh – without using rude words – needs careful building and correct timing. It is difficult to explain this concept in a few words, but for a good example of perfect timing it’s worth watching Laurel and Hardy’s The Music Box. The concept of timing can be appreciated in the sequence in which Laurel and Hardy dismantle the crate containing the piano. On one level, Laurel and Hardy are simply moving planks of wood from one side of the room to the other. It is the timing with which this is done that builds the comedy.

    Timing, I think, is the first thing to watch while writing a script. It is the pace of the story that makes it engaging. Good scripts follow a curve: the story starts at a stable point, gradually goes up and then suddenly goes down, and just when it seems the story is going to end on a low point, a final twist pushes it up again. It doesn’t matter if the movie is a thriller or a rom com, if the timing is correct, the story will work.

    If the timing of a movie was wrong, I had a handy way to spot it: the snoring of my father.

    One game my father and I enjoyed was trying to finish a line delivered by an actor on the screen. We called this a “phoned line”. This doesn’t make much sense in English, I know, so I’ll try to explain it.

    Writing good dialogue is the most difficult part of writing any script. It doesn’t matter if it’s a screenplay, a script for the theatre, a children’s book or anything else. Good dialogue is always a winner, even when the plot is weak. It happens sometimes that the writer builds the dialogue in such a way that the sequence of lines can only end one way. It’s like when a phone rings: when you hear it, you know someone is calling.

    When the audience is able to finish an actor’s lines, then the script has a problem. Either that, or the writer did it on purpose, because it was useful to the plot, or…

    I know from experience that writing scripts for comics is completely different from writing a screenplay, but in either case, good dialogue is a must. Again, the timing with which the lines of dialogue are built is at the core of it.

    If I may suggest a method for understanding how this works: choose a very good movie, and download the script – there are several Internet databases where these can be found. Print out the script, then watch the movie while following the script. In this way you can appreciate the writing alongside the acting.

    Good books offer us the theory; a good film or play can show us the practical side of it.

    The worst part of writing is when ideas spring to mind at impossible hours of the morning, when I am too sleepy to get up and write them down. In the morning, they’re gone: I’ll never know if they would have worked.


  4. Antonella, I agree with you that timing is critically important but was unsure how to study it. I will definitely try your idea of reading a script while watching the film. Fantastic idea! Thanks for sharing those beautiful memories.


I look forward to your comments.