Unlike books and movies which don't have a defined length, Dark Horse comics are exactly 22-pages. Not only that, but each page should end on a mini-cliff hanger that entices the reader onward. So that it's not too cramped, each page should only have 1-5 panels. There shouldn't be more than three bubbles per panel, and not too many words per bubble. Phew! That's a lot to think about before you've even started writing! But constraints can be beneficial because they force the writer to think hard about their decisions.
For all of my writing, I use the so-helpful-I-can't-believe-more-people-don't-have-it program Scrivener. If you're a writer, I recommend that you stop reading this post now and go buy Scrivener. It will change your life for only $45!
You're back now? Okay, good. Let's continue.
Scrivener has a built in Comic Script template with excellent time-saving features that automate page and panel numbering, character names, and dialogue bubble directions. Think of Scrivener like a comprehensive notebook which stores everything you need for your story. Character descriptions. Locations. Outlines. Reference images. Plus, the program is customizable so you can shape it to how you like to write best. Since I'm a child of the Internet, I get super distracted on a computer (Thank you, Reddit). That's why I use Full Screen Composition mode to block out everything but the blank page.
I start each issue by creating 22 pages in the binder which I use as my outline. If I know the general structure for the issue, I make folders and name them according to the scene. Using some guestimation, I decide how many pages each scene should be, then put those pages into folders. This helps me think "Is this a short scene or a long scene?" and "What do I need to say in the amount of pages given?" As I write, I re-allocate pages to scenes that need more or less words. I prefer to discover the story as I write so that I can surprise myself, and hopefully the reader too. This method is much more difficult in comics which require strict rules.
Once all the pages are put into folders, I go page by page and write a one line synopsis of what is going to happen. This works well in Scrivener's index card view which allows you to quickly write notes and shuffle scenes around.
And finally, once the scenes are all in order and planned out, I can finally write the issue. As I mentioned in an earlier post, my first drafts are about building out the rough story and dialogue. "Get the right sentiment, not the right sentence." Some scenes do come out fully formed and it's in those moments I thank Darwin for small miracles. From here, I write and re-write until I've gotten what I want. That previous sentence is the longest part of the process and is something that each writer needs to figure out on their own. There will be another post on this topic soon.
If you're just starting out, I recommend reading Dark Horse's Writer Submission Guidelines which has a succinct overview of the process. They also provide a Sample Script too. Once my comic, Death Head, is released in July, I'll publish a follow-up post which takes you step-by-step through writing the first issue. I'll even throw in the approved script! For now, as a bonus to you writers, I've zipped up the Scrivener Comic Book template that I created and mentioned in this post (click here to download it). Good luck writing your comic!
For more behind the scenes of making comics, please check out my Dark Horse series: www.deathheadcomic.com.