My latest issue of Commando is out today, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to write about how I create a script. Buckle in, this is going to be one of my longer posts…
My inspiration for Commando comics can come from a bunch of different places. TV shows, larp events, conversations on Twitter, things I studied at university, these have all fed into issues. Most come from plugging together more than one source.
The immediate inspiration for Desert Vultures was the 80th anniversary of Operation Compass, the first big Allied push of the Western Desert Campaign. Anniversaries are handy things for Commando, as they’re a good way to hook people into an issue. Sometimes my editor at Commando will send me a list of anniversaries they’d like to cover, and I pitch to those. Sometimes I spot an opportunity and suggest it myself.
My biggest source of inspiration, as I recently discussed in a video interview, is history books. I read a lot of them, sometimes for pleasure, sometimes for other writing projects. Back when I was writing for War History Online, I read a lot about the Second World War, which meant that I already had ideas for how to look at the Western Desert campaign.
When looking for a Commando story, I’m often looking for a conflict between people on the same side, not just a fight against the enemy. In-group conflicts often lead to more interesting stories, as characters argue and compete with each other – think about all the twists and tensions in Game of Thrones. I also like to cover the international nature of the Allied war effort. Fortunately, bringing people from different backgrounds together often causes conflict, so that became the hook for Desert Vultures – French and British officers forced to work together despite their differences, one of them rigidly rule-bound, the other relaxed and improvisational. Could they achieve a shared goal?
Once I’ve got my inspiration, I write a pitch. This sets out the story in two ways – first as a three-sentence synopsis, giving the setting, the main character, and the hook for their story. Then a page-by-page breakdown of what will happen.
When I’m writing the pitch, my thinking is shaped by two things – the characters and the plot. As Robert McKee points out in his excellent book Story, these two aren’t separate, but it can still be useful to talk about them that way.
The character is the core of a Commando story. Readers have to care about the people they’re spending time with. That means making someone who’s interesting to Commando readers, and who will drive the story forward. There are dozens of different ways to achieve this, and I always consider the balance of competence, proactivity, and likability, as recommended by the team at Writing Excuses. Most importantly, the protagonist has to want something, to keep them motivated.
The nature of Commando does a lot to define the comic’s protagonists. They have to be involved in military activity, usually during the world wars. They need to have a mission or objective, something that propels the story forward, whether it’s saving lives, sinking a submarine, or perhaps escaping occupied territory. For Desert Vultures, it’s a specific military mission – finding and destroying a hidden Italian base.
The story is then driven by this mission. What does the protagonist have to do to achieve their objective? Who stands in the way? What setbacks do they face? I structure the broad strokes of the story around this, then flesh it out with cool details, often found in those books I mentioned. Give the plot a few twists, and I’ve soon got 63 bullet points, one for every page.
I send my pitch to my editor at Commando, then wait. After an editorial meeting, they come back to me with one of three responses:
- Yes, write it! My favourite response, for obvious reasons.
- No, this isn’t suitable. This one doesn’t happen often, as I have a good idea of what Commando are after, but just occasionally an idea isn’t right for them, or has already been used.
- Yes, but… The most common response. I’ve got a good idea, but it needs refinement. This might lead to a revised pitch, or just to me making some changes as I write the script.
Once the pitch has been approved and the outline adjusted, it’s time to write. My deadline is usually two or three months ahead, but I seldom wait that long, as I love writing comic scripts. As a fulltime freelance writer, I have the flexibility to make space in my schedule, but other projects sometimes have first dibs, especially if they’re on a deadline or offering a big payment. Within a few weeks of approval, I set aside some days when my focus will be on writing my script.
Having a detailed outline makes the writing relatively quick. I don’t have to think about the broad strokes of what’s on each page, just the details. How many pictures will there be? How will one lead to another, telling a clear and coherent story? What will everyone say?
For the flow of the images, a lot of my inspiration and guidance comes from comics guru Scott McCloud. His writing on comics is phenomenal and taught me about such critical topics as transitions. A comic isn’t just a bunch of pictures, it’s what’s implied by the way you move from one to the next, and thinking about that adds a lot of complexity.
I’ve recently changed my approached to scripting. At the time I wrote Desert Vultures, I wrote everything for one page, then moved on to the next, and so on, writing the descriptions and dialogue together. I’ve recently changed to writing all the descriptions first, then going back to the start and adding the dialogue. I find that works better for getting character voices right.
I’m no artist, but I do occasionally draw at the writing stage, to help me plan out the action. The things I draw are normally seen only by me and my waste paper bin, because I’m a terrible artist. But drawing can help me work out the flow of the panels, breaking a page down into a series of distinct images, each one with its own unique elements that together tell a story. Many stick men have died brutal deaths on scrap paper battlefields to improve my Commando scripts.
Writing dialogue is a funny thing. It’s never about being realistic, but it is about sounding realistic. In real life, people um and ah, they let sentences trail off and leave things half-said. They don’t deliver snappy dialogue while they’re busy fighting for their lives. But a story requires dialogue that flows while creating the illusion of people really talking. In the case of a comic like Commando, it means dreaming up things people could say while bullets whip past their heads or they punch each other in the face. It’s a fun challenge to create that sort of dialogue without it coming out stilted.
Creating distinct voices is important too. I’m the first to admit that I don’t always manage this, but if a character’s verbal ticks and preoccupations stand out, that makes them seem more real.
But the most important thing about writing isn’t any of these technical details. It’s sitting your arse down in the chair and having the discipline to keep going, even when you’re bored or distracted. Discipline, more than anything else, is how I get a script done.
Before I send a script off, I read it over a couple more times and make edits. This is usually just proofreading, as I’ve done my story edits at the pitching stage. Sometimes it’s adding more detail to the action of an image or sharpening up a piece of dialogue. Mostly, it’s finding my typos and grammatical errors.
If I have time, I leave a day or two between writing and editing. That way I can look at the script with fresh eyes. But the brutal truth is, often I need to be moving on to my next project. Then the script just gets left until after lunch, then given that polish and sent on its way.
Out of My Hands
From that point on, my work is done. The script vanishes into the ether for months on end, only to re-emerge some time later as a fully formed comic. To me, it’s magic, but this is where the hard work happens. I could never create the amazing images that Commando’s artists come up with. You’d have to ask one of them if you want to know how that part works.
Sometimes I’ll see the cover or snippets of art as Commando HQ build buzz for a release, but I don’t see the interiors until the issue comes out. This is also the point at which I get to read editorial changes to the story – how the team at Commando have sharpened up my dialogue, expanded on descriptive panels, or adjusted the plot beats to make the story even more exciting. The thrill of seeing a new Commando is as real for me the writer as for anyone reading it.
With a script finished, it’s time to go back to the beginning. Seek inspiration. Invent a character. Craft a pitch. Sit my arse down in my chair and start work on the next issue.
The circle of writing starts again.