Carousel 030: Preparing the Script

Toucan reading a comic

Welcome to my 30th Carousel column! This month marks three years of my columns here on Comic-Con’s Toucan blog, and I’m glad to have you all aboard.

Today I’d like to describe six steps that will help you, the Artist, prepare a comics script to be drawn. Comics scripts don’t always arrive on your desk in their easiest-to-draw form—even when you’ve written the script yourself!—so it’s useful to comb through the script before you begin, in order to iron out any potential wrinkles. Supposing you’ve agreed to draw a comics story and the script has arrived in your inbox, what should you do before grabbing a pencil and diving in?

1. First, give the entire script a brisk read-through, beginning to end. This will familiarize you with its overall mood, and help you begin to visualize the story you’re about to tell. Even before you begin thumbnailing each page, this initial read-through will allow your subconscious mind to start formulating ideas.

2. Next, save the original script in a digital folder (see Carousel #10 for tips about using folders), in case you need to consult it later, and make yourself a second copy that you can chop up and change. Comb through this “edit copy” and delete or consolidate as many words as possible. The dialogue should remain intact, but you’ll want to get rid of any lengthy descriptions or asides that are inessential to the task of drawing the story. Sometimes the writer will “think on paper” with passages like this:

“Ben casts his troubled gaze out the window. He had never liked autumn days. The falling leaves remind him of death. ‘Autumn,’ he sighs, reflecting on seasons past. Think of this panel as his ‘Michael Corleone looking out at the lake’ moment. Use plenty of shadows and have fun with it!”

This, you will reduce to:

BEN (troubled, looking out window): Autumn.

You’ll need to trim the script as much as possible because you are going to be glancing back at it often while you draw, and you won’t have time on those occasions to wade through any superfluous text.

3. Count the panels on each page of the story, and include the panel-count beside each page number. The heading of each page should look something like this:

PAGE 1 (5 panels)

Panel 1

(And so forth.)

This panel-count will help you judge at a glance how much space you should grant each panel on that page. Three panels? Plenty of room to play in! Eight panels? You’ll need to do some squeezing.

If the writer has already included the panel-counts, count the panels anyway. Sometimes a writer will accidentally miscount the panels, which will cost you time and effort if you are thumbnailing a supposedly five-panel page and suddenly realize the page has six panels. (This is especially true of inset panels, which writers may fail to include in their panel count. If you were planning to squeeze Panel 5 into a narrow space, but then you discover in Panel 5’s description that it includes an inset panel, you’ll have to rework the whole page to make room for that inset. Count insets!)

4. Isolate the script of each comics page on its own page of text. Twenty-page comic? Twenty-page script. You don’t want the descriptions and dialogue for Page 1 to continue onto a second or third page of text, because then you’ll be flipping between multiple script pages while you draw Page 1, which is a hassle. If, instead, the script for each page of comics occupies its own text page, you can refer to it in its entirety at a glance.

Hopefully, deleting superfluous words (as we did in Step 2) will reduce the text of each page enough to fit it on a single sheet. If not, shrink the font size enough to make it fit.

5. Print out these script pages: one sheet of paper per page of your comic. Keep a cork-board near your workspace where you can pin up whichever page of script you are working from. This will allow you to glance at the script while you draw without cluttering up your screen with a text window—or, when drawing traditionally, your desk with an extra sheet of paper. (If you have multiple screens available, such as a laptop AND a tablet, you can skip printing anything and use one screen to display the script page while you draw on the other screen.)

However you arrange it, it’s important to refer to the script while you work because you’ll need to ensure that your characters’ faces match the moods described in the script. Otherwise, you risk forgetting that the shouting face you roughed-in earlier was supposed to look happy, and on your final pass you may end up making him looking angry, or vice versa. Many comics have been hampered by the omission of details that the artist forgot somewhere between the first read-through and the final art. Avoid that mistake!

6. Read the whole script again, this time prepared to add notes in red (or any color that stands out from the text). Circle or highlight any locations, objects, or outfits that are unfamiliar to you and may require reference. This will give you a  “shopping list” to refer to later when you gather reference photos to inform your drawings. (It’s best to gather reference all at once, after thumbnailing but before pencilling, so that you won’t have to interrupt your drawing time to hunt for it, piecemeal, later on.)

Look also for any panels where characters must interact with their surroundings, such as by opening a door or grabbing a prop, or by placing objects into their pocket or purse. Highlight those moments, reminding yourself to include a door or prop in that location, or to add a pocket or purse to the character’s outfit beforehand. For example, Page 1 of a script might say, “She enters  a nondescript house,” but later, Page 19 might say, “She ascends a stairway near the foyer; pulls a flashlight from her purse.” If you designed a stair-less house without checking the whole script, or failed to include a purse with her outfit from the beginning, you’ll have to go back and amend the intervening pages. Avoid that trouble by adding notes like “PURSE” and “STAIRS NEAR FOYER” to the description on Page 1, during this preliminary pass.

There. Now your script is ready to be thumbnailed! (Check out Carousel #12 for advice on that topic.) This whole process will take a couple of hours and may seem daunting, but it will fast become second nature, and in the long run it will spare you from a thousand little hassles that arise when you haven’t prepped your script. We all have our preferred methods, and these steps aren’t sacrosanct, but do give them a try and see if they don’t improve your workflow, and your results.

See you here next month!

Carousel by Jesse Hamm appears every month here on Toucan! Starting in March, Jesse moves to the third Tuesday of each month.

Written by