When I begin writing a script, I first try to plan out the most important “beats” of the story. The beats are the key events and scenes that drive my story forward. I never begin writing until I have a solid idea of the twists and turns my plot will take.
An experienced writer has enough mastery of story structure and pacing that they can begin writing and let the story unfold naturally. I’m not quite there yet and I believe the majority of novice writers who try to “wing it” will end up with major pacing and structure problems. You wouldn’t build a house without a blueprint, would you?
To begin my outline, I plan the 4-5 most important events of a story. Then, I try to estimate how many pages each event will need. For my short story, “Swamp Magic,” I ended up with something like this:
- Set up in Church- 3 pages
- Gator Attack – 2 pages
- Warden meets Swamp Witch – 3 pages
- Showdown with the killer – 3 pages
- Total – 11 pages
This gives me a rough idea of how long my story will be an also keeps me on track while writing. By trying to adhere to this estimate, I keep myself from rambling and slowing down the pacing. I believe I am like most people in that I tend to write longer than planned. Having a page number to aim for helps me stay on track and helps to trim the fat.
After I have my basic outline, I expand on it even more. Every scene has the pages listed and I write down each beat that I want to hit for the page. Giving each page a specific purpose is a great way to make sure that I’m not fluffing up my page count. Novice writers often add unnecessary pages without realizing how much this can bog down a story. Movies can sometimes get away with a boring scene. A comic can’t.
Take “Jaws” for example. Think about how many scenes of open water that Spielberg showed where nothing happened, but he still created tension with that awesome soundtrack. Your comic book most likely won’t have a soundtrack. Readers will be looking at all the panels of open water wondering why they are wasting their time reading such a boring book! Besides, having extra pages and panels drives up your production costs. Artists don’t want to draw boring panels and I don’t want to pay them to!
Next, I break down the pages into the key beats or moments that each panel will contain. This is generally a single sentence or less per panel. Page 3 of Swamp Magic looked something like this:
Page 3 – Flashbacks
- Search party in woods
- Old time photo of Candaba
- Mob hanging Candaba
- Rope snapping
- Close up of priest
- Dead cattle in a field
(For those of you that noticed, George added in the awesome panel of Candaba in her cell – that was unscripted.)
I do this for every single page for the full issue. After I finish, I read the entire outline, making sure I’ve hit all the beats that I want to include in my story. I check for pacing issues and make sure every odd-numbered page ends with a hook to make the reader want to turn the page. By writing everything in this simplified format, it is very simple to see the whole story and make corrections before it is too late. This is also the part where I judge if a panel is “worthy” of being in the story. If the panel doesn’t move the story forward, it’s out!
After I have this full outline, it becomes a very simple matter of filling in the details. I don’t have to worry about “Writer’s Block” at this stage, because I’m just filling in blanks. I just add in a camera angle, a background, and voila. I’ve just written a comic script!
Writing the outline first doesn’t even slow you down. In fact, I think I save more time than if I wrote without an outline, because I don’t have to make any major revisions. It’s not very fun to finish writing an entire script only to find pacing issues throughout the whole story. My outline keeps the story tight and on track.
Everyone has a different process and some people may say an outline is too restricting. It doesn’t matter what process you use as long as the end result is the same. But, for writers that don’t know where to begin, using an outline will allow you to write freely without worrying about fundamentals. If I want an extra panel, I still add it. I combine panels and I remove panels. “Swamp Magic” was outlined for 11 pages, but during the production process, George and I bumped it up to 13. The outline is a just a path through the woods. I don’t always stay on it, but I don’t want to stray too far.
Steven Hudkins is an indie comics writer (despite his wallet’s objections). He was raised in the cornfields of Indiana, but is currently enjoying the sun and sand of California. Right now, he is hard at work on a supernatural adventure anthology called “The Warden”. You can read “Swamp Magic” in its entirety here. If you enjoy pulps and folklore, follow him on Twitter and Facebook.