Script Versus Breakdowns
There are several different approaches to creating the script for your graphic novel. The most common one is to use the method known as full script. This form works best if the writer is working with an artist, dividing the labor.
A full script is laid out essentially like a screen or teleplay, with all the dialogue complete and all the action described and blocked out in panels. The writer provides both the instruction and stage direction, describing physical appearances of various characters and objects and often suggesting panel composition. Even when working alone, this technique is very helpful.
LEGENDARY MOVIE DIRECTOR ORSON WELLES WAS A VERY BIG FAN OF COMICS, EVEN APPLYING LIGHTING TECHNIQUES AND CAMERA ANGLES INSPIRED BY BATMAN TO HIS MAGNUM OPUS, CITIZEN KANE. ACCORDING TO RECENT RUMORS, WELLES SERIOUSLY CONSIDERED MAKING A BATMAN MOVIE AS EARLY AS 1946 AND WENT SO FAR AS PRODUCING PRODUCTION DESIGNS, AN EARLY DRAFT OF A SCRIPT, AND SOME CASTING PHOTOGRAPHS FEATURING PROTOTYPES OF WHAT WOULD EVENTUALLY BECOME THE FINISHED COSTUMES.
When writing a full script, you will have to break down the story structure and be very meticulous in the way it plays out through the panels on every page. You can also decide the actual layout of the page, including how many panels to include and even their size. Conveying clear instructions from the writer to the artist is very important. If you describe an angry character in the script, make sure you add enough details so the artist will get that emotion across visually. State up front if the character's teeth are bared, his fists are clenched, or whether his eyes are narrowed or wide. Provide clear descriptions and instructions.
As you can see in the sample script page of Paladin Alpha (right, and opposite page), there are a number of cinematic-style directions, from medium views to close-ups and the individual visual elements in the panels that needed emphasis. The dialogue balloons are numbered for the convenience of the letterer. The artist Matt Roberts translated the script as well as the stage directions into a well-designed and dramatically composed page.
By choosing the full-script method, both the writer and artist are working within a well-defined structure. However, it's a more time-consuming process for the writer, and often the artist may find following the instructions restrictive. If you are both artist and writer, following this method may be overkill. You may find the next method easier.
In this technique, known in the 1960s as the Marvel Method, the writer provides the penciler with the basic plot either as a detailed synopsis or a general overview. This allows the artist to interpret the story in the way he thinks best, taking the responsibility of breaking it down into panels and pages. The writer comes in after the art is penciled and provides the dialogue.
When using the Marvel Method, the writer turns over the responsibility of pacing and story structure to the artist, which can be a heavy burden even if the artist enjoys having a great deal of control over the visual elements.
Veteran Marvel artist Don Heck told interviewer Les Daniels that it took him a while to adjust to this practice: “Stan (Lee) would call me up and he'd give me the first couple of pages over the phone and the last page. I'd say, ‘What about the stuff in between?’ and he'd say, ‘Fill it in.’”
While he was working on The Whisperer in Darkness, Heck was asked which method he preferred, the plot-first or the full-script method.
Paladin Alpha's script page (left) and finished page (right).
He responded, “Full script—don't make me do all the work!” However, some artists prefer the Marvel Method because it allows them to achieve their full potential, both as graphic storytellers and artists. Our preferred method is the thumbnail breakdown system. It works well for both scripter and artist. With this technique, the writer provides a rough sketch of each page, giving an idea of different perspectives (“camera” angles) and even indicating where the dialogue balloons are to be placed so as to achieve the best balance between the text and the visuals.
Artist Don Heck preferred the full-script method on The Whisper in Darkness graphic novel.
This method can be more time consuming for the writer than even full script, but in the long run it eases the responsibility on the artist because you have already storyboarded it, controlling the pacing and even indicating different lighting effects. You can see how artist Darryl Banks followed a crude layout to create a beautiful finished page (
Darryl Banks's layout reference (left) and finished page (right).