Friday, May 14, 2010

Scripting Shadowland: Daughters of the Shadow and new Alex Van Helsing edits

Tonight I'm working on two things-- the first draft of Shadowland: Daughters of the Shadow for Marvel, and edits on Alex Van Helsing: Voice of the Undead, or so it's currently called (that book is still a year from release, so really, you never can tell. But I think we've got our title.) I'll get to edits on Alex later-- that deserves its own post-- but I wanted to talk about scripts. You may know all of this already; if so I apologize, and I welcome comments and counters.

So holy mackerel, I'm writing a comic in the Marvel Universe. That's a first for me, as far as the mainline Marvel Universe goes. I've written comics for years-- for Image, and IDW, and Tokyopop and Humanoids-- but the closest I've gotten to Marvel have been "pocket universe" stories, such as Hulk: Broken Worlds and a one-shot called Strange Magic. (Oh, and novels.) Writing in the universe where Spidey and Daredevil are just down the street is a breathtaking challenge and opportunity.

I'll also get to story later, because I wanted to spend some time on scripting.

A comic book script, if you're curious, is a thing with almost no hard and fast format. There are some excellent books on writing comics; Denny O'Neil wrote a favorite of mine, The DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics, and he shows a format that doesn't look much like mine at all. His is very much designed for a universe of typing in a word processor or even a typewriter. Here's a look at it:
In O'Neil's scripts, he marks PAGES centered, PANELS on the side, and he even numbers the captions.

I don't do this at all-- here's a page from my script for a Hulk story I did a while back in an alternate-universe series called Broken Worlds.

-- which is to say, my scripts look like screenplays. I don't even number the captions. I do number the panels, but I don't bother to type PANEL before each panel, because once you get the idea that the numbers after every PAGE are panels, why waste ink?

Every writer does it differently, although most nowadays produce scripts that look a lot like screenplays. Stan Lee created the "classic Marvel" way of writing, which is to say no script at all; Lee wrote his early stories by providing several pages of plot synopsis; the artist would draw and Lee would then take a look at what he'd gotten back and put in the dialog and captions. This is how Lee was able to write so many comics-- while maintaining that recognizable voice.

The bottom line is that the script has to make sense to the artist and the editor-- it's a skeleton for the comic. Some writers are very prickly about their choices; if they break a page into five panels in the script, they mean five. I actually don't feel that way; I want to let the artist breathe; the caption breaks are there to give the artist a hint of the beats in the scene. To me, if a comic is like a film, the writer is the writer and the artist is the director. Except it's better than that, because when I get art back, I can tweak the dialog and captions through something called lettering guides, which I can blog about another time.

Of course let's say I have an editor who says, "Jason, in these parts we number our captions." And if so, that's why we are hired guns, and thy captions will be numbered. Rule #1: The editor is the boss. You are the gun.

Why do comics scripts look like screenplays today? I suspect it's because comics writers are more accustomed to reading screenplays, and many of them are also writing for TV and movies, and probably more importantly, because they tend to own screenwriting software like Final Draft, which makes scripting, with dialog centered and scene headings capped, easier than anything you could type by hand. Final Draft is not cheap-- Amazon has it for just south of $200-- but I couldn't function without it.

As writers, we can fall into the trap of obsessing about the minutiae of format and word counts and all the nuts and bolts of the business. I think this is because we believe in our hearts that these things are like magic words, and if we get them exactly right, we'll unlock all doors, and our work will be accepted, and readers will be thrilled. But the truth is that, as geeky as I can be about the nuts and bolts, these are just tools. I need to know how to use them, the way I need to know the rules of grammar. But no word count or format is going to create my work and get it accepted. Only the work in its totality can do that. That's a scary thought, but a freeing one if you have heart.

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