Writing a script can be intimidating for those who aren’t professional writers or aren’t familiar with script formatting. But if you want to tell a story, and you’re not writing a novel, you’re probably going to need to write a script.
While much of this article applies no matter what media you plan to work in, and I’m sure screenwriters will be interested in the list at the end too, I’m focusing on scriptwriting for comic books because I can both draw and write. But also because it is an underserved part of the scriptwriting software market. I have a background in video production, so I’m no stranger to screenwriting. However I’m no longer all that interested in trying to create a film or video production – or a stage play for that matter – because they require so much overhead.
Even though some cell phones these days can record 4K video, you’re quickly limited by what you can do with just a camera and yourself. In addition to the script, a production will probably need things like actors, costumes, locations or sets, lighting, microphones – and in post an editor, music, sound effects. . .in other words you can’t really take it from concept to completion all by yourself.
A comic book, on the other hand, you can do all by yourself – or with one collaborator – because all you need are the script and the drawings. Which makes comic book creation arguably the most accessible form of visual storytelling! Plus distribution has never been easier – from something as simple as posting your work online or in your social media feeds as a webcomic, to making a downloadable e-book or Print-On-Demand copy to sell. You probably won’t get rich doing it or become the next Stan Lee, but your overhead can be so low it’s basically the materials (pencils, ink, and paper if you aren’t working digitally) and the time you spent creating it.
But regardless of the media, the production process all starts with the script!
“A Brief History of Scriptwriting”
Script writing for film and television is called “screenwriting” and the script is usually called either a “screenplay” or a “teleplay,” respectively. However there is also “video” script format which is used for live or live-to-tape television productions. Radio, of course, has it’s own conventions, as does writing a stage play. These formats are all extremely well established, rigidly structured, and forged from decades or centuries of practical use.
The modern teleplay was adapted from screenplays, video format from radio dramas, all adapted from stage play format. And stage play formats, in one form or another, go all the way back to Ancient Greece.
The Play’s The Thing
The first record of an actor appearing on stage playing a character was in 532 B.C.E. and we know his name was “Thepsis” (which is the origin of the word “thespian” for an actor). However those aren’t really plays the way we think of them, it was more like a monologue or dialogue involving only one or two actors with responses sung by a chorus.
When someone says “stage play” we’re probably thinking of William Shakespeare’s plays (take a look at them at the British Library: http://www.bl.uk/treasures/SiqDiscovery/ui/search.aspx). It still looks pretty cluttered to a modern eye, but we can assume they were functional given Shakespeare was a working playwright and his plays were performed regularly at the Globe Theater (and still are, albeit in a recreated one).
Nobody is actually certain when the first radio drama was broadcast, but even before that – before radio even existed – announcers and performances were scripted. The Théâtrophone in France was basically subscriber “cable radio” which began programming in 1881, which included announcers and live performances of plays. Though there was radio entertainment broadcasting in the early 1900’s (some claim as early as 1906), scripted radio dramas didn’t come about until the 1920’s, but remained popular entertainment into the 1950’s when it was supplanted by television.
In the earliest days of film at the end of the 19th century, when their full running time was maybe a minute or two, they weren’t so much stories as vignettes. The “scenarios,” as they were called, provided a brief summary of what to shoot. George Melies‘ 1902 film, “A Trip to the Moon,” is widely considered the first modern screenplay. Weighing in at just 30 lines it provided simple information about each shot, but also described the action and locations. The next year Edwin Porter‘s “The Great Train Robbery” made the first use of “Master Scene Format” – ditching the scene descriptors of a series of cuts in favor of structured scenes. And early screenwriters had a lot more control because the script wasn’t something a director was going to interpret – it was the shooting script.
The same year it was made, Porter’s movie was shown at “Tally’s Electric Theater” in Los Angeles, California which had opened 1902. Though some claim the first actual movie theaters – in the format we think of them – opened in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania and Aniche, France in 1905. As the medium exploded in popularity over the next decade (there were over 10,000 movie theaters by 1910) independent film makers and newly formed studios scrambled to make the content for all those screens. As film making became more complex and streamlined, the screenplay evolved with it. So the screenplay is, perhaps, not as directly descended from the stage play as we think.
Teleplays, the equivalent of screenplays for television and which follow a similar – but not exactly the same – format, came about much later. While we tend to think of television as starting in the 1950’s, the first scripted TV show – a one act play called “The Queen’s Messenger” – was broadcast on 11 September 1928!
Development and improvements continued into the 1930’s and through WWII. After the war television was no longer a broadcasting experiment it was a commercial medium. And the audience is not “captive” like they would be in a theater, so teleplays typically start with a “teaser” to pique the viewer’s curiosity, followed by opening titles, then a break for a commercial. The number of pages for each “Act” is primarily defined by where the commercial breaks will happen. Much of the early television content was more akin to stage plays in the sense that it was being broadcast live. You can see this even in the terminology where teleplays refer to Act One, Act Two, etc.,
Live, and so-called “live-to-tape,” programs later adapted the style of radio scripts and the three-column “Video Script” format as born, with one column with a number or timing cue, a “video” column with descriptions of each shot, and an “audio” column with the dialogue and sound cues.
The earliest comic books only date back to the mid-19th century. That still makes them older than television, radio, or film – which is why it is all the more surprising that script writing format for comic books still feels like it’s in its infancy. Unlike those other aforementioned media there isn’t an “industry standard” comic book scriptwriting format! Individual publishers may not really care what format the script is in, others may have defined their own submission guidelines.
INT. COFFEE SHOP – DAY
Our writer sits alone at a table near the back of a popular coffee shop. On the table in front of them is an open laptop and a large paper coffee cup. They have an eager look on their face, take a sip of their coffee, crack their knuckles and…there they sit with their hands hovering over the keyboard. The eager look on their face changes to one of fear and then confusion.
What am I supposed to do now?
So, yeah, there you are ready to bang out this script, you totally know what happens and you’ve got some great dialogue worked out in your head and scratched out on some napkins. . .but if there isn’t an “industry standard” for comic books how are you supposed to format this thing, what is a comic book script supposed to look like?!?
Well, since there isn’t an industry standard can you pretty much format it however you want? Maybe, but it might help to take a look at the submission guidelines for an actual comic book publisher like these guidelines from Dark Horse comics or take a look through the Comic Book Script Archive and see how the pros have done it.
But this isn’t an article about writing a script to submit to the big publishers! That’s because Marvel, DC, Image, and IDW don’t accept unsolicited scripts. Though DC does occasionally do talent workshops that might get you in the door, it doesn’t really matter what the big publishers preferred format (if any) may be since their submission guidelines are effectively: Don’t bother.
Some of the smaller publishers do accept unsolicited submissions, but only original material from a creative team (they don’t pair up artists and writers and don’t accept story ideas for existing titles). Antarctic Press is one of the few I can think of that accepts unsolicited materials without having to have a creative team, as well as submissions for it’s annual anthology. If you want to go that route I’d suggest checking out what, if any, the submission guidelines for each of the active entries on this list of comic book publishers: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_comics_publishing_companies.
But that’s getting ahead of ourselves! This is about independent creators who are just trying to get their ideas down on paper. Which is especially important if you’re collaborating with someone who will be doing the actual drawing – but it’s also for people who are both writing and drawing to help keep you on track. You wouldn’t start building a house without a blueprint, so you shouldn’t start making a comic book without a script.
One thing that will probably jump out at you (if you’ve ever read one) is how similar many of them are to screenplay format. That’s not by accident, of course! Screenplay format is very rigidly structured and has been used in fast-paced production environments for over a century. Visual storytelling is visual storytelling, and one of a screenplay’s next steps is “storyboarding” which is a lot like making a comic book of the script as a guide for making the movie.
Also, it’s because almost every script formatting software application available is geared toward writing screenplays.
The Application of Writing
Some of the inspiration for this post was my recent decision to make my own ScriptHelperX web app work in modern browsers. This is something I created about a thousand years ago (well last millennium) and it was primarily for quickly putting together rough drafts of corporate video and interactive/multimedia projects because the company I was working for said buying real scriptwriting software for me to use wasn’t in the budget.
However, there are actually options in it for writing comic book scripts, they just aren’t very obvious – which is why I wrote another post explaining how to use them.
But I’ll be the first to admit that ScriptHelperX is showing it’s age and is extremely limited and lacking in features. Wow, with a “sales pitch” like that you’d think I’ve never worked in Marketing or Advertising. HA!
I have long planned to rewrite ScriptHelperX – or rather replace it with something new and better, as retrofitting it is more trouble than it’s worth. I’m not primarily a software developer so why should I waste my time reinventing the wheel? First I had to see what is already out there…
Microsoft Word. Admit it, the thought crossed your mind. We’re talking about writing so why wouldn’t you consider the most-used word processing program that’s in practically every office in the world? Well, back in 1999 that was exactly what my employer said I should use and why they wouldn’t let me requisition specialty software for scriptwriting.
If you looked at some of those scripts in the Comic Book Script Archive you probably noticed a lot of them are actually Microsoft Word documents. And certainly, if that’s what you’ve got and that’s the software with which you’re most familiar, go right ahead and use it. It’s not a wrong choice if it’s right (or write) for you. In fact here’s a screenplay templates to get you started: http://www.und.edu/instruct/cjacobs/ScreenplayTemplate.dot – And some other ones plus info on using them: writingacademy.com/screenplay.html. If you use LibreOffice/OpenOffice you probably know Word templates don’t always render correctly, so here’s a native format one for you: http://9timezones.com/scr2.htm
The problem is that I hated every screenplay template for Word that I found. Or I should say that working with them was clunky and I found myself spending more time fighting the software to format properly than writing. YMMV.
So what about actual scriptwriting software dedicated to writing comic books? Well, the pickings are pretty slim. . .so much so you could say they’re almost non-existent.
ComixWriter is a proposed, dedicated comic book scripting solution that got a lot of press not long ago. The Kickstarter campaign is not only fully funded but met it’s stretch goal.
However, like many crowd-funded software projects it has also been accused of being “vaporware” that either doesn’t really exist or will never be good enough to release. An accusation leveled because the funding campaign began and ended in 2013 and the software still hasn’t been released. I don’t know if it’s “vaporware” or not, because they apparently at one time offered an early beta download to backers – but the project website is now defunct and the domain expired. Even if ComixWriter ever sees the light of day, it was supposed to cost $99, which is kind of pricey if you ask me. If I were you I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for it.
I bring it up only because this is one of the reasons I’m reluctant to start on revamping my own project. Nobody is paying me to do it, so it’s hard to justify the time and effort. I could try crowd-funding it, but I wouldn’t blame anyone for being apprehensive to back my project when a similar one that actually got funded never delivered.
So let’s concentrate on software that is actually available, FREE, and not a limited-use “trial” version. Here we go!
Windows & Mac
Celtx was the first screenwriting program I’d ever encountered that had a specific built-in function for scripting comic books. However, it certainly wasn’t perfect. For example if you tried to use the “adapt” function to/from screenplay format it would equate “storypage” to “scene” instead of the more logical “panel” to “scene.” Another problem is that Celtx, a free open-source desktop program, is no longer being developed. You can still find the last free desktop versions for Windows and Mac at that link above (sorry, I couldn’t find an archive of the Linux version).
The Celtx creators made the controversial decision, especially since they started as an open-source software project, to move to a cloud-based subscription model and stopped releasing their code. You can, of course, still sign up for the limited free account to write your scripts, but you also have to be comfortable with your work being stored in their cloud.
In addition to scriptwriting it has re-arrangeable “index cards” you can use to create an outline and then work your script from that, and storyboarding tools you could use to rough out panel compositions. But those only represent one small part of the software, it’s really designed as film and television PRODUCTION software. So Celtx can sometimes feel a bit like overkill.
Ah, so SIMPLICITY is what you want, eh? And you say you don’t want your work trapped in the cloud of some company that could go out of business? And you go on to say you’re poor and can’t afford to buy software or pay subscription fees?
I present Fountain! No, it’s not a software package, “Fountain” is a file format: http://fountain.io/ It’s definitely geared toward screenplays, and it assumes you kind of know what you’re doing (which maybe you do, maybe you don’t), but it was specifically designed to use nothing more complicated than an ordinary plain text file. No worries bout your hard work being trapped in someone’s cloud or locked away in a proprietary file format.
Fountain uses what is called “markdown” which will be familiar to anyone who has ever used GitHub, but let’s assume you’re not a web developer like I am and have no idea what “markdown” is. I’ll explain…
Markdown uses various characters before, after, or around text to “recognize” it semantically and style it properly for output. You can try it out for yourself online and even save your work to a file on your computer. Just looking at that sample script gives you a pretty good overview of what it recognizes and how it styles it, but here’s the complete reference for the Fountain Syntax: http://fountain.io/syntax
As I said, though, like pretty much every script writing format out there it’s laser focused on SCREEN writing, not comic books. But it’s flexible enough that you can easily use it for “screenplay style” comic scripts. As an example I took the Dark Horse submission guideline PDF and rewrote it in Fountain syntax.
Ok, so now that you know what Fountain is and how to use it, what program should you use to actually write your scripts? Well, because Fountain uses simple text files you could use Notepad or TextEdit or Word or whatever – it just has to be saved as a plain text file (HINT: save it with extension .txt and then change it by renaming the file to end in .fountain instead).
But that won’t show you the formatting like a program designed to understand Fountain does. What’s that? You thought I forgot you were poor and can’t afford to buy any fancy software? No, I didn’t forget, so here is a list of FREE Fountain-aware writing programs:
All Desktop platforms (Cloud-based)
Celtx Basic is a free subscription. It can import plain text files, but to the best of my knowledge doesn’t auto-format them if they’re Fountain files. It can, however, export to Fountain. Otherwise your stuff is in their cloud. Because we’re talking about the current, online-only Celtx and not the old desktop downloads I mentioned earlier. Those have no clue what Fountain syntax is in or out. Celtx has divided all the myriad functions into a bunch of separate native apps for both Android and iOS devices, I don’t know if the online interface is a responsive design or not.
All Platforms (Cloud-based)
Amazon Storywriter. If you’re broke because you bought too much stuff on Amazon that means you have an Amazon account, which is all you need to log in and use this program. Yes, it will store what you write in Amazon’s gigantic cloud, but the pixel pixies will let you have a copy. Bonus: responsive design means it also works on phones and tablets.
Writer is a free bare-bones screenwriting app that uses Fountain as it’s native file format. Exports to PDF, HTML, or Final Draft.
Windows & Linux
Trelby is a free desktop program that imports and exports various screenplay formats, including Fountain files. (Hint: Mac OS X users can run Trelby through WINE)
All Platforms (Online/Offline webapp)
Afterwriting is a free webapp that includes a Fountain editor, customizable PDF preview, Dropbox integration, and lets you download and run it locally and save your files locally too. Bonus: responsive design allows use on phones and tablets too.
Storyboard Fountain is probably the single most interesting program listed here for comic book artists and collaborators because it makes it really easy to lay out how the story will be told both in script form and in drawings. Like almost everything else here it’s intended for film and video projects, not comic books, but as I said “storyboards” are kind of like making a comic of the script anyway. Be forewarned, however, that this is “beta” software, so it may have some bugs.
All Platforms (Cloud-based)
WriterDuet – formerly called “Scripped” – is arguably one of the most popular options. It lives in the cloud like some of the others listed here, and like Celtx it has a free subscription level which is arguably feature-rich enough for comic book scriptwriting. Definitely worth considering if you want or need to collaborate with someone online. Bonus: responsive design allows you to use it on phones and tablets.
DubScript is a free screenplay editor that supports FDX, Trelby, Celtx (html), and of course Fountain. Great for those times when you’re out and about and the perfect scene or bit of dialogue comes into your head and you’ve got to get it down. TIP: It’s much easier to use on a tablet than a smartphone, but that’s true of all writing apps.
Ok, but what if you don’t care about “Fountain” format?
MyScreenPlay Free imports and exports a bunch of different file formats (notably not Fountain) and features an unusual “non-linear” editing system that allows you to move around any part of the script as if it was on an index card.
Windows & Mac
StoryTouch Basic requires you to register on their website to download it, but the truly interesting features are in the “Pro” version that costs money (however, they occasionally run a promotional code that lets Basic users upgrade for free!) I think the developer is located in Brazil, though, as the promo video explaining those features is in Portuguese – though the software is in English.
Adobe Story Free
All Desktop Platforms (Cloud-based)
Adobe Story Free – if you don’t already have an Adobe Creative Cloud account you can join and sign up for a free one which will get you access to the basic, free version. Much like Celtx, though, it is geared toward a film or television production workflow and may be feature overkill for comic book writers.
All Desktop Platforms (Cloud-based)
ScriptBuddy also requires you to sign up for a free account, though how feature-limited it is I can’t say. Despite the name suggesting this is collaboration software it isn’t. Instead you can post your scripts for review and feedback from other ScriptBuddy users. The subscription version is $5/month.
All Desktop Platforms (Cloud-based)
PlotBot is a free online writing and collaboration service that automatically handles the formatting for you. You have to sign up and you work in the cloud, but you can collaborate publicly or privately with as many other people as you like, and download your work as Final Draft XML or generic RTF files.
All Desktop Platforms (Online/Offline Webapp)
RawScripts , like PlotBot, requires you to sign up for an account to use it online. However the source code has also been released and is available on GitHub (https://github.com/ritchiewilson/rawscripts) and you can run it on a local server if you prefer.
All Desktop Platforms (Online/Offline Webapp)
Last and probably least, my own old webapp which I recently got working again in modern browsers. Run it from my website or download it and run it out of the unzipped folder.
So there you have it. A TON of options to get you started on whatever it is you plan to write. Ok, so yeah, most of them don’t have anything specifically to do with writing comic book scripts but I told you going in that it’s a seriously underserved market. Which is why I still may go through with plans to (re)write my own. . .but don’t wait for me, get writing!
Image: A mixed-media watercolor and ink illustration I made in 1995 depicting a hard-boiled 1950s screenwriter’s desk.