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Scripting Your Comics

This is Pi Day is my third attempt at publishing a web comic and I can state with unfiltered certainty that what killed, dead, full-stop, my first two attempts was overlooking the importance of writing.

Comics are visual storytelling.

Story.

Because without story, your comics are just doodles. Which is fine… if you want to make doodles. If you are passionate about doodling. If what is important to you is compelling visuals or realistic sketches or amazing colours filling the spaces between cleverly placed lines, then go ahead and ignore the story.

But they won’t be comics… or not likely very good ones.

Comics are a way of using images, sketches, shapes, colour, form, and pictures to tell a story. That story might be one sentence long. That story might fill up a whole page. That story might be longer than a Tolstoy epic. It doesn’t really matter how long your story is. Story plus art usually equals a comic.

So for me, putting story as a priority looks something like this…

A Seed of an Idea (Stage 1)

I tried using paper to keep track of this but in the end I’ve gone fully digital. I have a Google Doc called “Pi Day Ideas” that I can open from my computer or phone to jot down plot seeds.

The seed of a new comic might look something like this:

IDEA
Kid wants to play something "dumb"
Can't I'm busy.
Mom (off frame) - Can you take out the garbage?
Yells back: Can't I'm playing ____

In fact, while this looks a little loose and doesn’t make a bunch of sense, this is one of my more fleshed out IDEAs. For example, I have an entry in my document right now that just reads “shoveling snow” and another one that reads “lost in toy store” …either of which may become comics in the future, but haven’t hit that critical creative sweet spot quite yet.

The point of this stage is simple: that creativity strikes anytime, anywhere and while it takes an hour or two at a computer (with some coffee and the tunes cranked) to sketch out the first draft of an actual comic, it takes ten seconds (on my phone on the train) to jot down an IDEA for something that pops into my head wherever.

A Refined Script (Stage 2)

Of course, the IDEA only takes a comic so far.

Early on I would often skip stage 2 and transcribe an IDEA directly into a comic, but I’ve found (and if you’ve been following my comic from the beginning) that I’ve had to go back and create version 1.1 or version 1.2 of an early strip to make the joke more clear or less wordy or a little more funny.

Now I usually have a dedicated step that takes place at least a week (minimum… usually much longer) before any actual drawing where I will turn a seed into a SCRIPT.

This step involves a little more careful thought. Usually I’ve set aside a bit of time, I’ll read over my seed IDEA a few more times. I’ll poke it with a stick to see if it holds together. Drink some coffee. Check my email. Drink more coffee. And eventually things get tweaked, expanded, and turned into what in my mind would make a three-or-four-panel comic.

This is when it gets numbered and then starts to look something like this:

SCRIPT for 028
K: dad wanna have a tea party?
D: I'm busy right now. Later?
M: (of out frame) Can one of you come downstairs and empty the dishwasher?
D: (shouting & now having a tea party) We can't right now. We're busy!

….and even that might go through a number of revisions over weeks or a month, and if I was really meticulous I’d keep track of all my changes. But in reality, I’m not so I usually type over top of my IDEA turning it into a SCRIPT and then revise the SCRIPT over and over five, six or a dozen times… until I actually draw it into…

A Published Comic (Stage 3)

As I draw, and having outlined a bit of the visual language in the SCRIPT, the art starts to exert its opinion upon the final result. The flow of words. The cohesiveness of the joke. The actual white-space in the frame that I’ve left to type in the words themselves. So a SCRIPT like the one above gets a few more tweaks and comes out of the wash looking like this:

[ Comic: The Party Line from www.piday.ca ]

And how long did this take? Two months (not counting my November-long break).

I looked back and (like I wrote above I don’t keep meticulous historical records) but this particular comic came out in mid-December, it was drawn in early October, and the idea first shows up in my SCRIPT document sometime in September.

Two months. And I probably actually drew the thing, did the art part, on a lazy Saturday morning over an hour… so to be clear on the importance of script:

Time spent on art = 1 – 2 hours
Time spent on script = 2 months

Comics are visual STORYtelling.