Last Updated on July 20, 2022 by Dr Sharon Baisil MD
Are you a creative writer with interest in comics? Or are you someone who has always loved comic books, even though you’ve never considered writing for them yourself?
Either way, knowing the tips and tricks of writing comics can make your experience a lot better.
Comic book writer and artist Russ Leach shares fifteen of his best tips for beginning comic book writers and artists.
#1 How to plan out a comic book before writing it
Comic books are broken into panels that tell the story. A panel is a single drawing with accompanying text. The trick to writing a comic book is to plan out the whole page before you write it.
Some writers will plot out an entire issue in advance, but this isn’t necessary for beginning writers. With planning, you can work up to plotting out an issue.
Russ recommends planning out the whole page in “thumbnail” form on paper. A thumbnail is just a little squiggle that lets you see how the panels flow from one to another. For your first story, stick with 3 or 4 panels per page until you get comfortable with the process.
Each panel should have clear action and dialogue that moves the story forward.
Russ says, “Thumbnails are great because you can plan, see if there is too much going on in any given panel and adjust as necessary. It’s also a powerful way to break down a script before you even write it.”
#2 Put your best work into the first 10 pages
Since you are writing for print, you have only so many pages to tell your story. As a result, editors are looking for stories that grab readers early on and don’t let go. Many writers will spend more time on the first issue because they know it is their best shot at getting a publisher’s attention.
Russ says, “The #1 mistake new writers make is not putting their absolute best work into the first ten pages of their comic book.”
#3 Start with a good hook
You’ve got just a few minutes to grab readers’ attention and keep them interested. As a result, it pays to start with an interesting hook.
This opening scene draws readers in, builds tension or action, and keeps them reading. You can set up your main character or introduce a mystery that keeps readers engaged.
A great comic book hook will leave people wanting to know what happens next. It’s the first step towards drawing readers into your story.
#4 Show, don’t tell
As a comic book writer, you need to understand the art of “show, don’t tell.” This is very important in comic books because the art tells the story.
Instead of describing things repeatedly or letting characters explain everything, it’s better to trust that readers will understand what is happening through the art.
Russ says, “Instead of writing a passage like this:
The villain laughs as he aims his gun at our intrepid hero! Our hero looks around and sees the dead body on the floor and realizes what has happened! He ducks behind a chair and tries to crawl out of the room!
A better way would be to write this:
The villain aims his gun. Our hero ducks behind a chair.”
#5 Know what your characters want and need
Think about your favorite movie or TV show. There is always something everyone wants, whether it’s money, power, information, or love. A good story always starts with what the main character wants.
Every scene and action should be about getting that thing. You can even break it down into a few categories: physical, emotional, and spiritual needs.
It is important to know what your characters want right from the start so the reader can follow along, but keep in mind that what your character needs may differ from what they want.
#6 Finding inspiration outside of comics
You can learn a lot from reading comic books, but they only tell a small part of the story. To write engaging stories, you need to know about psychology, sociology, and history.
Stan Lee once said, “Every writer is a frustrated actor who recites his lines in the hidden auditorium of his skull.”
In other words, you should be studying people and putting yourself in their shoes. You can find inspiration from all sorts of sources: movies, TV shows, historical events, and even comics themselves. Of course, it’s also important to read other comic books to see how the pros do it.
#7 Know your bad guys
A hero needs a villain, so you need to know who your bad guy is and what he wants. Your villain should be as interesting as possible for this conflict to work. This means giving them clear goals and motivations that readers can understand.
What if your villain isn’t inherently evil? Russ says, “The most interesting villains are not mustache-twirling evildoers, but ones who have a legitimate beef with the hero. Maybe they’re just an ordinary person doing what they think is best to protect themselves in a dangerous world.”
Even if you are writing for bad guys, they should still be interesting and complex characters. You may even want to re-think the idea of a villain altogether and make the hero face a problem or a great challenge.
#8 Don’t be afraid to rip up your script
If you don’t have a basic idea of your story, how can you fix things when they go wrong?
When writing your script, be sure to leave yourself room for improvisation. You might find a new way to show a scene or decide that some characters should change places so their actions will have more impact at the end.
#9 Be creative with your sound effects
If comic book readers are anything like Russ, they are probably tired of seeing words or phrases in ALL CAPS. There’s not a lot you can do with the old-school sound effect “BANG!” It might look cool once in a while, but it’s probably best to avoid them.
Instead of using plain sound effects, you can develop new ideas. For example, if someone fires a gun, you might see an icon like FIREWORKS popping up above the panel (the graphic). If your character is wearing earplugs, you could show this by adding hands clamped over ears or a symbol of someone shouting into a megaphone.
#10 Focus on the plot
In movies and TV shows, it’s usually good to start with an interesting plot and make sure there is conflict and tension throughout. This doesn’t mean you can’t have a plot twist, but they will lose interest if your readers get too far ahead of your characters. You don’t want to leave too much room for a chance with your story, so be careful about adding anything you haven’t thought through properly.
#11 The best heroes are flawed and vulnerable
According to Stan Lee, “What makes a hero is not his actions, but how he chooses to act.” Usually, the best characters learn and grow as the story progresses. Nobody’s perfect, and your characters need to face obstacles for them to reach their full potential.
#12 Use suspense effectively
Sometimes it’s good to build up suspense in your story before revealing secrets and big surprises. However, you also want to keep things interesting throughout, so don’t forget to use humor or dialogue to break the tension now and then.
Stan Lee says, “A writer should never have his characters take anything for granted.” If they are smart and know how to outwit their enemies, you need to put them in situations where they can’t just use their brains to solve the problem. This is good because it will force your characters to use other skills and tactics.
#13 Use a variety of panel layouts
The layout of your panels is very important. Don’t be afraid to play around with the order, size, and placement of your panels so you can tell the best story possible. Russ recommends trying out different panel sizes for drama or impact, overlapping them, or even making one big image that tells a scene in a single frame.
#14 Give your characters interesting things to do
Make the most of every panel by showing your characters up to. Show them thinking, working on gadgets, or playing video games while waiting for something exciting to happen. If they’re not doing anything, it’s like having them stand around with their hands in their pockets (and no one wants that).
#15 Keep an eye on the lettering
Lettering is hard work, but it’s also incredibly important. Make sure the text in your panel matches the tone in your comic book, or else you could lose your readers’ attention quickly.
The clever use of lettering can help your story flow without too many words clogging up the dialogue or captions. Lettering can also show sound effects, emotions, and even emphasis.
5 Ways to develop your comic book writing skills if you’re starting out
1. Read a lot of comics
There is nothing better for learning how to write comics than studying the work of other great comic book writers. Try to find a favorite series and follow it from issue one to the end, or track down as many back issues as you can.
Look out for any common themes running through your choices, and don’t be afraid to ask questions about what you perceive as successes or failures. You can even ask comic book writers for advice on Facebook, Twitter, or Reddit.
2. Practice writing “silent” comics
This is an exercise where you try and come up with a compelling story using only pictures (no text bubbles). It’s good for developing your storytelling skills; it helps you learn to rely more on your pictures than your words. This will help you perfect the art of “show don’t tell,” which is just as important for writing comics as it is for English essays or performance reports.
3. Write a screenplay first
Many comics are backed up by screenplays, so try delving into this genre before you write comics. It will help your story-telling skills; it’ll teach you how to describe the setting and characters through dialogue while avoiding long chunks of text or superfluous descriptions.
4. Learn about the craft
The best way to learn more about comic book writing is by seeking out some great blogs. There are so many talented people out there sharing their journey with you, and it’s all for free! Subscribe to some of the most popular ones like ComixTribe, Wikihow, Pixton or search “comic book writing” on Google.
5. Join a comics group
You can get feedback from professionals at any time by joining a comics writing group where you can post your ideas and ask questions. Sometimes it helps to bounce off other writers or hire a mentor to teach you the tricks of the trade.
Or even try taking a course online like Comics Experience, where you can read about comics writing and get advice from industry professionals. They even offer one-on-one consultations with comic book editors to help you polish your work.
Frequently Asked Questions about writing comic books
What are the basics of creating a comic book script?
The basics of a comic book script format are fairly straightforward. The creator will create the storyboard, which is essentially a list of panels that explains how each scene will go down in order. They then write the dialogue and draw out action sequences for each page to illustrate their vision.
The script then goes to the artist, who will turn it into artwork used for illustrating. The artist may also suggest changes or new ideas for plot points and character arcs, which can help refine the story even further before going through the second round of editing processes if necessary.
Once all of these phases have been completed on your comic book script – from start to finish – you’ll have a finished product!
How can you turn short stories into a comic?
If you’ve written a few short stories but aren’t quite ready to start on your comic book script, try taking a few of these ideas and creating a comic or a graphic novel out of them! Just make sure that the endings for each story tie together nicely.
For example, if there’s an issue where two characters are arguing about something in the background while another character is telling his secret life story. If you’re trying to turn that into five pages or less, you may want to offer a brief conclusion for the first character or indicate that they’ll be back later in the story.
The comic book script will allow these characters to interact and clarify how their lives are connected.
How do you write a comic caption?
Comic book scripts are also an excellent way to write comic captions. The caption box is the same size as a panel, so it won’t be too difficult if you’re already familiar with writing dialogue for other media.
The caption box is typically used for explaining the setting to readers, so you should take this opportunity to give them a quick description of what’s happening.
For example, “Superman walks across the street, no one cares because he’s too powerful.”
You can also use captions for extra information like “Watch out! Someone is flying toward me!” or ” Batman is in the alley with his utility belt.”
Can comics have narration?
You’re allowed to have a narrator in your comic book script if you want, but it’s not a requirement. This is a great way of showing the passage of time or setting up future events without writing out long passages about them.
One common mistake for beginners is that they need narration when there isn’t! In most cases, where someone talks over panels and doesn’t do anything besides talk, this narration is unnecessary.
How do you format comic book script pages?
Once you’ve decided on your story and characters, it’s time to get down to the nitty-gritty of writing a comic book script.
You’ll need an outline or a comprehensive list of all the things you want on each page (though some writers prefer not to use outlines). These will be different for every issue; they can range from 4 pages long with 10 panels per page to 12 and 48 panels. The more complicated the story, the more panels you’ll need.
You’ll also have a brief description of each page as well as an artist’s guide to show them what you want from your art. It will usually be about 3-4 pages long for 4 or 5 characters per page and two pages with 12 characters per page (if they’re all on one panel). If there is a dialogue in every panel, it may be a bit longer!
Am I writing a comic book script like if I were writing a movie script/screenplay?
Comic book writing is very different compared to screenwriting. A script represents one shot of the film, but a comic book has a three-act structure similar to novels, short stories, and plays; the three-act structure that you need to follow whether or not your character is named Batman, Spider-Man, or Tony Stark (Iron Man). Each comic book issue has an outline that will have the character’s name, their place in society (i.e., sidekick), and what kind of problems they will face. The story starts with a problem facing your main character and ends up resolving it so you can get back to the same sequence again next month!
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