How I Outline a Comic Book Script
If I’m working from a really, really good outline, I can write a comic book script in a day or two. The big trick, of course, is nailing down that outline. So how does that work?
The big challenge is that to nail down an solid outline for a single issue, I have to nail down a solid outline for the bigger story arc that single issue is part of…
…and to nail down that bigger story arc outline, I have to nail down my take on the characters, my big thematic premise, and the big bullet points of what happens in the plot and how each of those turning points affect/change my key characters.
All of this preliminary work of cracking the WHOLE story can take weeks or even months. For me, anyway, this is the hardest part of the whole process — figuring out central point of the story and my character’s journey.
This is the point at which I’m taking notes all the time, writing and rewriting, staring into space, reading all kinds of previous stories involving the characters, trying to fill my brain and empty it at the same time to figure out what my take is.
Of course, every once in a while, I figure these things out pretty fast and I’m off to the races. And then sometimes it literally takes me years to figure out what a story’s really all about. Like 20 years, sometimes.
But when I’m doing work-for-hire projects, I don’t have years. So I have to make some decisions pretty fast and just try them out. At this point, a good relationship with my editor is absolutely key.
When I have a great editor, I call ’em up, talk through everything, including all my terrible ideas, and pretty quickly figure out what works and doesn’t work. I LOVE MY EDITORS. (Thank you, editors, for saving me every day!)
Once I’ve figured out what my character really wants, the plot elements of the story tend to come together quickly. Or sometimes hashing through the plot elements that I have a gut feeling need to be in the story help me figure out what the character really wants.
Either way, by the end, I need to know what my character wants and develop a plot with escalating drama in which at every stage, our heroes are either getting closer or further away from achieving their goals.
I usually break that plot down into issues as I go along — it just helps me figure out how the story works by breaking it down into those smaller units. I end up with a document that lays out the big bullet points of the story issue by issue, from beginning to end.
And THEN I can start outlining the individual issues. Knowing what role a particular issue plays in the larger story is absolutely key for outlining it…
…it helps me make all kinds of decisions about the stakes and the nature of the emotional journey at this stage in the story, the plot elements I need to set up and pay off, and the way the tone of the story might shift at different stages.
So here we are, finally, at the stage of outlining an individual comic book issue. Here’s some stuff I try to keep in mind:
1. The opening scene needs to provide a real hook — something fun that makes the reader really pay attention as well as, ideally, something meaty on an emotional level that’s intriguing or affecting. The opening page in particular needs to make an impression.
2. Coming up with fresh ways to convey the essential expositional material in the opening pages of a serial story is always a challenge. Sometimes an almost jokey infodump can work…
…but mostly I try to find a way to build a dramatic scene that moves the story forward but in which someone still has a reason to say the things the audience needs to hear to understand what’s going on.
One dumb example is a villain demonstrating his character by berating a lackey who doesn’t fully understand what’s going on and needs to have things explained. Gets the exposition across and builds up the villain at the same time.
3. The final scene needs a cliffhanger of some kind. Some real hook to make readers feel like they HAVE to get the next issue. The challenge here is to have it be a SURPRISE but not have it be obscure or unearned.
4. Monthly comics are sold with 4 or 5 page previews, which means it’s a good, practical idea to have something really compelling happen in those first 4 or 5 pages, with a bit of a cliffhanger at the end of page 5.
Often, with superhero comics, it feels pretty critical to have some spectacular action in those first 4 or 5 pages. But always remember that action without emotional context is boring.
5. Each scene should end with a kind of question or cliffhanger that makes you want to know what happens next. Each scene should build in some way on the tension created by the previous scene — maybe answering some questions but raising others or amping up the emotional stakes.
6. Generally speaking but not always, a switch to a new location should happen on a new page.
7. Even if this issue is a middle chapter in a longer story, it should have its own internal beginning, middle, and end that make it satisfying to read as a story in and of itself. The characters should start in one place and end in another, both in terms of plot and emotion.
8. If a scene doesn’t move a character forward emotionally or plot-wise, it probably needs to be cut. If it only does one of those two things, it’s a good idea to think about how it could do both.
9. Generally speaking, giving emotional, character-turning-point scenes more room to breathe is always a smart move.
10. When breaking scenes down into panels, it’s usually a great idea to have the first panel of a new scene establish the location.
You can still move the plot/characters forward – with a wide exterior of a secret hideout, for example, you can have the first couple of lines pointing to a window. Keeps things moving, creates a little mystery & incentive to move your eyes to the next panel to see who’s talking.
11. When setting scenes up, always think about giving characters activity. Even if it’s a “talk” scene, let characters be doing something. Even pruning a houseplant. That gives you and the artist material to work with in showing emotion through subtle action.
12. If the ending is giving me trouble, I often look back to the beginning. Whatever’s been set up there usually gives the clue to how the thing needs to pay off. Conversely, knowing your ending gives you the chance to go back and rework your opening to better serve it.
13. Accept that you’ll forget a lot of this stuff and relearn it with every new project and script. I FORGET THIS STUFF ALL THE TIME AND CORRECT MYSELF MID-STREAM. Part of the process.
14. It’s often okay for some parts of an outline to be barebones stuff like “MASSIVE FIGHT.” But it’s also smart to note what the outcome of that fight is, both physically & emotionally, if only to remind yourself of the point of it all when it comes time to write it.
15. Sometimes I’ll toss in chunks of dialogue at the outline stage. Just because it helps me figure out the scene right then.
Probably the biggest take-away of all of this is that a solid outline gives me the chance to rough out all the working parts in the story. See it in order, see how it all builds. And if something doesn’t help build that story, it probably needs to go.
When I’ve really cracked the outline, I can sit down and hammer out the full script pretty quickly. Because I know what I’m writing and why. The whole process becomes more efficient – I don’t spend hours or days writing detailed full script scenes that don’t belong in the end.
In work-for-hire comics, submitting a detailed outline before going to full script tends to save me lots of grief. There can be some trepidation there – a fear that editors might not get what I’m really going for based on an outline…
…but I’ve generally found that good comics editors are very smart people who know how to read outlines. Giving them outlines lets us hammer out kinks at an early stage when it’s relatively painless. I’m MUCH happier tweaking an outline than rewriting pages of a full script.
As always, keep in mind that this is just how I do it. Everyone’s got their own path — read what other writers do and figure out what works for you!
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Something else worth noting: don’t worry about perfection, especially when outlining. The myth of perfection is a lie and a fantasy that will keep you from actually writing.
Get those rough ideas down on paper, no matter how imperfect they may seem. Then see how they look all together and tweak ’em, make ’em better. And tweak ’em some more. And fix ’em up some more. It’s all step by step. But you gotta take that first dumb, imperfect step fearlessly.