Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Graphic novel manuscript formatting

A very interesting post by Tim Stout:

Last summer, I worked as an Editorial Intern at First Second Books. One of my responsibilities was to read spec script submissions and I was floored by how many different formats were used for graphic novel scripts: screenplay format from a screenwriting software, stage play format written in Microsoft Word, prose outlines with sample pages of finished work…

I love reading scripts but sometimes the writer seemed to be making up the format as they went. I often found it difficult to make out what information was describing the action, what was a line of dialogue, who was saying which lines, what was background information unnecessary for the reader but potentially interesting for the artist, what was direction for the artist, etcetera.

Needless to say, reading those scripts was not fun.


Fortunately or unfortunately, a standard format for graphic novel scripts does not exist; at least, I haven’t found it. Depending on your intended approach to producing the comic, there are many accepted ways to approach formatting.
He goes on to detail a number of different writing/formatting techniques, ranging from the "Marvel Method" developed by Stan Lee to Alan Moore's preference for writing "pages of prose for each panel, describing every element of every image in perfect detail."

My sister and I use an entirely different process. Jenni writes using a modified storyboard format, where she breaks out the narration, dialogue, and scene description into different blocks for each "panel." (In essence, imagine a storyboard without the actual drawing of what the camera sees—you're left with the dialogue, stage direction, and voice-over. We developed this because Jenni was familiar with storyboards from her years in TV advertising, and because she can't draw.) [UPDATE: See below.] Then I create disconnected thumbnail sketches, and Jenni uses them to work out a layout.

Tim discusses his own method:
First and foremost, instead of using two or three script pages to describe one page of comics or one paragraph to describe five pages of comics, I try to have all of the panel descriptions and dialogue for each page of comics to be on each coinciding page of script. Everything that happens on page one of the comic is written on page one of the script. The same with page two and so on.

On the same note, I also arrange the pages during printing so that the even numbered pages (which are always on the left-hand side) are printed on the left-hand side and the odd numbered pages are on the right. This allows the reader to get a more accurate feel for pacing. For example, instead of imagining when the page turns take place, the reader actually turns the page on the page turns.

Second, I don’t separate thumbnails from the script. If thumbnail images are on a separate piece of paper, requiring the reader to turn their head back-and-forth to find the text that coincides with the image, they can easily get lost and frustrated. Having thumbnails on separate sheets of paper also requires more sheets of paper to be carried and kept organized. A 200-page script and two hundred pages of thumbnails is a lot of paper to lug around.
I find it interesting that Jenni and I seem to be the only people who create the layout (Tim's "thumbnails"—he's referring to a thumbnail-sized sketch of the layout of panels on a page) AFTER the manuscript and sketches are done. Maybe it comes as a result of our backgrounds outside of comics; to me, it seems vary much akin to Jenni's experience of gathering a bunch of film footage and then cutting it together after the fact (perhaps quite differently from what the storyboards suggested prior to shooting) or my own experience as a graphic designer, where you take what's already written/pictured and then figure out a way for it to look good and paginate well.

I sort of can't imagine working on the layout at the same time as the initial story. It seems very restricting, and seems like it would make rewriting and editing the story extremely difficult—to me, the editing stage is exactly NOT the time to worry about how the layout is going to flow. You make sure the story works first, and only THEN do you finalize the layout.

UPDATE (06/22/2010, 10:22AM):

Just saw this very apropos The Comics Reporter interview with Gene Luen Yang, in which he discusses this very thing, and how he and a collaborator changed technique for a recent book:
SPURGEON: I'm really fascinated by the use of white space in "Urgent Request." Supposing that was your contribution, is there a thematic component in terms of the isolation the character feels, or were you perhaps more interested in how that imagery floating in space read? How cognizant are you of page design and the quality of the experience of reading that you're offering an audience?

YANG: Man, I wish I could take credit for that, but the white space was all Derek. I write in thumbnails, and the script I gave him was basically laid out on six-panel grids. He told me he wanted to try out this technique that was inspired by Chester Brown, where he'd draw all the panels first and then lay them out on the pages. He thought it would make for more controlled pacing. He was right. In that story, the white space becomes a part of the storytelling voice.
(Gene Luen Yang link via @editorgurl.)

UPDATE (06/22/2010, 1PM):

One last update, I swear. Managed to track down examples of our storyboard technique. Here's a page from the manuscript of BABYMOUSE: QUEEN OF THE WORLD (click to enlarge):


Chris A. Bolton said...

Interesting post! For my SMASH scripts, I use a mildly altered version of Dark Horse's script formatting.

I'm not sure why we found this or decided on it, but it works very well for us.

Unknown said...

I use a storyboarding format. I use plain old copy paper to keep it simple (and so I'm not worrying about wasting paper.)

timstout said...

Thanks for sharing my post, Matt! I really like your approach. I'll have to give it try. And thanks to my fellow-commenter, Chris Bolton, for his Dark House suggestion. Even MORE options for formatting!