My latest work in comics just hit stores this week: Blood Bowl: Killer Contract #1 from Boom! Studios. It’s the first in a five-issue miniseries of comic books based upon my Blood Bowl novels, which are in turn based upon Jervis Johnson’s Blood Bowl board game.
I’ve written a handful of comics before, but this was the first time I’d tackled such a long story arc. Before I jumped in, I decided to see if anyone had come up with any new tools for writing comics that hadn’t been around the last time I’d given it a shot.
Unlike many other forms of writing, comics has no standard format. With a novel, there’s a certain accepted way in which to turn in your manuscript: generous margins, double-spaced text, numbered pages, etc. The format for screenplays has even less wiggle room.
With comics, though, the format can be whatever works best for you as the writers, as well as for everyone else you’re working with. Traditionally DC Comics works with a full script, which means you describe every page, every panel, every spoken, thought, or captioned word, and even every sound effect as you write the script. Marvel Comics, on the other hand, used to have the writer turn over page-by-page plots to the artist and then go back and fill in all the words later.
Today, most writers use full script, although not all, and many of those use something close to a screenplay format for their scripts. Some use Microsoft Word, Open Office, or another standard word processor. Others use Final Draft, the most popular of the screenplay-writing programs. This automatically pops in the correct indentations and styles that give a screenplay its distinctive look.
Me, I chose something entirely new: Scrivener. This is a new type of word processor that’s available exclusively for Mac OS X. It comes with all sorts of tools designed to help creative writers of all stripes in their craft. This includes a simulated corkboard for helping you breakdown a story scene by scene and then shift things around until it all works; a handy outliner; the ability to open and look at multiple parts of a project within a single window; even a full-screen mode that blocks out everything but the writing program, freeing you from other distractions.
I’ve used Scrivener for other projects, but for most books I go back to either Word or Pages. When it comes to comics, though, Scrivener really shines.
Comics have a strict format and many inherent tropes that writers have to keep in mind at all times. Most issues feature 22 pages of story. These pages are laid out in 2-page spreads, and the best time to build tension to a peak is on the last panel of a spread. The big reveals work better if they come after the reader turns a page after reading one of those pressure-ratcheting final panels.
In Scrivener, I use a free template that Antony Johnson devised for his comic book scripts. It’s proved so popular that it’s now included in the basic installation. In the template, you make each page into its own sub-document inside of the issue, and then make each panel into a sub-document of a page. This gives you a lot of flexibility for moving panels, pages, or entire scenes around in an intuitive and powerful way. You can fiddle with everything until you think you’ve got it just right.
Once I’m done, I export the document to Microsoft Word format so that my editor can read it, and the template automatically generates and includes page and panel numbers no matter how many times I’ve jiggered around any part of it.
I just finished writing issue #5 of Blood Bowl: Killer Contract last week, and I’ve put Scrivener away for a while. I’m already on the hunt for more comics to write, though, if only so I can put the program through its paces again.