Step 1: Script
Rats squeak and scrounge around on the cold, damp stone floor. There’s a leak in the ceiling, and their wet fur does little to help with the dank, musky smell that permeates the air.
A delicate ear twitches, and the rats scatter—disappearing who knows where.
A door swings open and the dim torch light flickers, “Don’t try any funny business, demon,” a voice spits, accompanied by heavy footfalls that echo through the cold corridor.
“Why,” another voice responds, “I wouldn’t dream of it, darling.” A playful lilt dances its way through the words.
I write my script in prose format, but it really doesn’t matter what it looks like—just that you write one at all! It’s super important!
I read a tweet once, it was aimed at indie game devs:
It’s about the common tendency that independant creators have of starting projects, then getting a new idea that seems so much more exciting than the one that’s currently being worked on.
But more than that, it’s the concept that while an idea is there in your head, it’s filled with infinite possibility—there’s so many different things that it could be, because it isn’t anything at all yet.
But when you start working on it, it ceases to have infinite possibility because suddenly, it already is something.
You could not write anything out at all and jump right into drawing a comic. I’ve done this many times before—I’d be like, “it’s only going to be like four pages, I don’t need to write a script for this!”
But, in going from idea straight to comic, all those infinite possibilities have to suddenly become…just one. And if you find that you didn’t pick the best possibility for that page or that panel…
Take it from me, it’s much harder to rearrange panels you’ve drawn and keep everything fitting on that one page, than it is to rearrange sentences in a text document!
So, I think, it’s important to confront the different ways you could approach an idea as early as possible with the least amount of commitment to one way.
Write it down, feel your idea out!!
Step 2: Find your beats
This is, obviously, a section from a larger script, but I cut it here because it felt like just enough to fit on one page without being too much.
It ended up being 8 beats which, in my experience with the dimensions I work at, at most on a single page I can only fit about 14 panels. That’s really pushing it though, on average my pages will only have 7-8! This one being 8 hits that nice comfortable zone
I prefer to keep the higher panel counts for high activity pages—the more panels you have, the smaller they have to be and thus the less time readers will be focused on them.
If there’s a lot of high action content happening, lots of smaller panels will create that du-du-du rapid fire high action feel, but if it’s a low action page, having lots of panels might make things feel hectic and rushed when it doesn’t want to be!
Too few panels though, and things will feel very slow. I have some pages that only have one to four panels, these are during very slow moments when I want there to be a lingering feeling.
Just something to think about when dividing up your script! For me, 8 is a nice average not-too-much is happening, without being too slow to progress things.
Step 3: divide the page & arrange your beats
So when I’m thumbnailing my comics and figuring out the panel layout, I don’t think of panels as boxes I’m arranging on the page—instead, I’m splitting the page up into sections.
It’s worth bearing in mind, as you read a comic, panels in a row will be read one after the other, but when you go to an entirely new row, your eyes have to go all the way back to the other side of the page.
That means there’s a slight disconnect between the panel on the right side, and the next panel on the left side.
If a series of beats are connected to each other, I try to keep all of them on the same row, and if a beat is not very connected to the other beat before it, I might put its panel onto a new row. As well, I’ll split a panel in half horizontally if they’re directly connected to each other, or if they’re happening at the same time!
But, grouping beats together, then dividing the page into rows that can hold these beats together is how I approach panelling a page
For further reading, I recommend picking up scott mccloud’s books “understanding comics” & “making comics”!
He has a lot of very useful things to say about the different types of panels, how the progression of time works in comics, and stuff like that… essential reads for anyone making comics!
Step 4: Thumbnails time babeyyyy
In writing, the common advice goes “show, don’t tell” this applies to many different aspects of writing, but especially to describing things.
The other advice is to describe using all five senses—sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste.
I prefer to write my scripts in prose format one because I grew up reading a lot of books for one, but for two because I think this is just as important to do in comics as it is in prose.
Of course, we only really have sight and sound to work with, we can’t describe the way something smells or how it tastes because we can only use visuals and the occasional onomatopeia in a comic,
But how you choose to frame your panels will communicate different things.
The dank, musky smell and scent of damp fur may not be something I can tell my readers about in a picture—but if I focus on the puddles on the floor, and show the rats’ wet fur… they’ll feel how dank it is anyway
This is not to say that I think you should write your script in prose—how you write your script is entirely up to you and your personal preferences as I said earlier—what matters is that you write one.
But, while composing the panels in your comic, consider what you’re communicating through them, and whether you’re telling what happens, or if you’re showing your readers what it feels like to be there and what your characters are going through.
It’ll help you compose more interesting pages!