Breaking Scenes Down

Okay so you have your scenes written out, now it’s time to really start building your script by breaking things down into pages and panels.

Again, I suggest you write your first draft freely before trying to follow all these tips. Let it come out naturally at least once.

After I finish writing a scene, I like to analyse what I’ve written so far by breaking the scene down into its components. I do this in three steps:

  • First, I split apart the individual actions of the scene

  • I then group those actions into pages

  • Finally, I use those now divided up actions to form panels

Each step has its own explicit purpose and by following them, I can create a solid, in depth script of each scene.

As I rearrange and rewrite scenes, I frequently jump back and forth between these three steps so don’t feel like you have to complete each one fully before moving forward.

Splitting Scenes Into Atoms

The first thing I do when breaking down a scene is to take my notes and split them up into atoms.

Mastering Comics by Jessica Abel and Matt Madden has an excellent section on this that I encourage you to check out.

So… what’s an atom?

Atoms are the elementary actions of a scene. Snapshots in time, comprising of a single action or state change. A dog lies down. Someone smiles. A gun fires. Atoms are just about the lowest level you can break a scene down into.

Any time something moves from one state to another, no matter how small the change, it can be considered as an atomic change.

Here’s an example scene from my comic:

Carson shoots fire at the drug dealer’s car. James shoots frost at the car to put out the fire. As the fire dissipates the car takes off. One of the drug dealers spots Faith in the road in front of them, pulls out a gun and shoots at Faith.

That scene broken into atoms might look like the following:

  • Carson shoots fire at the drug dealer’s car.
  • James shoots frost at the car to put out the fire.
  • The fire dissipates.
  • The car takes off.
  • One of the drug dealers spots Faith in the road.
  • The drug dealer reaches into the glove box.
  • The drug dealer pulls out a gun.
  • The drug dealer shoots at Faith.

Each atom contains a single action, independent from the fact that some of those actions could be done in parallel to each other. By breaking things down into atoms, we can easily identify every time something changes in a scene.

There are a couple reasons to break out the atoms of a scene:

  • It’s a good way to determine the length of a scene. The more actions you have to show, the longer the scene will be. Pulling out the atoms also makes it much easier to split up the story into pages (see the next section).

  • It can help reveal which moments can be merged together and which ones must stand on their own. (More on this in the “forming panels” section.)

Now, you don’t need to show absolutely every atom in a scene. Action scenes are more fast paced and so usually skip showing many atoms to match the speed. Intimate scenes are slow and can afford to show more atoms. Regardless of the pacing, there’s a minimum set of atoms you have to show for a scene to be comprehensible. Figure out that set of atoms and from there you can add more as needed.

All that said, I found that a lot of this part of the process can be glossed over. It’s not really necessary to break absolutely everything down. It’s just helpful if you’re struggling with organizing a particular scene.

Grouping Atoms Into Pages

Once I have all my atoms I start dividing them up into pages. Here are a few tips to determine the best places to split pages:

  • Avoid having too many or too few atoms in a page. Having too many atoms will result in cluttered pages. Too few will be a waste of space (unless an important action is taking place). This is more important when considering the actual panels of a page but since panels are built up of atoms, it’s good to catch any problems early on.

  • Pages should achieve something. In the previous section I mentioned that each scene should have a purpose. That same thing holds true for each page, just on a smaller scale. Whether it’s furthering the plot, revealing something about the characters or simply reinforcing the tone, each page should feel like it’s added something to your story.

  • Match natural pauses in dialogue and new scenes with page turns. It takes time to turn the page. This interrupts the pacing of a scene and is thus a good place to put quick breaks in your story. Avoid having jokes or conversations carry over through a page turn or changing scenes mid page (it can be done but it’s hard to get right). Of course this requires knowing what pages will be followed by page turns. Comics usually start with the first page on it’s own, pages two and three together, four and five together and so on but this isn’t a requirement.

  • Similarly, hide reveals behind page turns. When readers see two pages together, they can’t help but glance forward at both pages, spoiling any secrets you have in those pages. By placing reveals behind page turns, they will be more impactful for the reader.

  • As much as possible, end every page with a mystery that urges the reader to turn the page. You want to be constantly pulling your reader through your story. By adding a hook at the end of your pages, your reader will be more engaged and it will make for a smoother read. It doesn’t have to be a massive mystery, just something that makes us wonder what’s on the other side.

Here’s the previous scene split into pages:

Page 1

  • Carson shoots fire at the drug dealer’s car.
  • James shoots frost at the car to put out the fire.
  • The fire dissipates.
  • The car takes off.

Page 2

  • One of the drug dealers spots Faith in the road.
  • The drug dealer reaches into the glove box.
  • The drug dealer pulls out a gun.
  • The drug dealer shoots at Faith.

Notice how the final atom acts as a sort of cliffhanger for each page. How will the heroes respond to the car escaping? Where is it going? Does Faith get shot? These questions make us (hopefully) want to turn the page to find the answers.

At the same time though, each page feels like it achieves something. Carson shoots at the car, it drives away in response. The plot has progressed. Faith is standing in the road, the driver reacts by shooting at her. The tension grows.

Also notice how I divided the atoms here. I chose to split them up evenly, four per page. With that number I can get a better idea about whether or not everything is going to fit in the pages. Now, you don’t have to keep exactly the same number of atoms per page throughout your story, I just did so because I wanted to maintain the same pacing across the two pages.

Forming Panels

Once I have my atoms and page breaks, I can finally begin to construct my panels.

First off, what even IS a panel?

Well, when you really break it down, a panel is simply a snapshot in time used to express a series of actions. To put it in familiar words: a panel is a collection of one or more atoms.

Sometimes a panel will contain many different atoms and sometimes a single atom will stretch across multiple panels. The number of atoms that can fit in any given panel really depends on how parallelizable those atoms are.

Parallelizable Atoms

This concept of “parallelizable atoms” is very important to grasp so I pulled it into it’s own sub-section.

Two atoms can be said to be parallelizable if you can show them both happening together.

Let’s simplify things a bit: I want you to imagine a person alone, in an empty room.

The two atoms “the person smiles” and “the person opens the door” can be shown together. It is physically possible to draw the person opening the door while smiling.

However the atoms “the person opens the door” and “the person closes the door” are not parallelizable. No matter how hard you try, it’s pretty much impossible to show both the opening and closing of a door in one drawing, at least in a readable way.

If two atoms are NOT parallelizable (and you need to show them both), it’s almost ALWAYS a good idea to split them up into different panels.

Unfortunately, things get a little more complicated when you add more characters to the mix.

I said earlier that “a panel is a snapshot in time” but that’s not always true. In fact, panels can actually be used to show the progression of time. A series of snapshots can exist, all within the same panel.

This panel from Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics emphasizes this point perfectly.

As you read through the panel from left to right, time moves forward. The characters on the right side of the panel are at a later spot in time than those on the left. Here’s that same panel now split into different panels. It functions very similarly.

This effect can even be achieved with a single character as seen in the second panel of this Daredevil comic.

What really makes this effect work is the progression of the eye through the page. Just as people assume time is progressing forwards from one panel to the next, by constantly moving the reader forward within a panel, the reader will naturally assume time is moving forward as well.

This is why most writers stick to a single exchange per panel. Character 1 says something, character 2 responds. Time moves forward.

Including a counter-response by character 1 can often mess with the natural flow of time because it forces the reader backwards in the panel. It can work if done right but it’s hard to pull off cleanly. Here’s an example From Y the Last Man of it working fine.

Having more than one exchange usually only works if the counter-response is spoken in the same tone as the original statement and if that character’s expression wouldn’t have changed much.

Merging Atoms Into Panels

Now that you have a better understanding of atoms and the progression of time within a panel, it’s time to start building them. For real this time!

Your goal for this section is to take the atoms you have in a page and convert them into panels. Here are a few tips for how to do that:

  • Consider putting parallelizable atoms together. If you haven’t read back into the previous section on parallel atoms. Merging them together will help optimize the space on the page. Now, just because two atoms are parallelizable, doesn’t mean you SHOULD put them together…

  • Isolate essential atoms in their own panel to heighten their impact. Check out this panel from Y the Last Man. There’s just one action: Yorick pointing the gun. No dialogue, no other characters. It makes the moment way more powerful. Some might even choose to stretch an atom like this across multiple panels.

  • Match the pacing with the number of panels in the page. Larger panels take longer to absorb and lead to a slower moving scene. By adding lots of smaller panels, you can ramp up the pacing of a page. This is why action scenes in comics tend to have lots of panels whereas dialogue heavy ones don’t.

  • Cut unnecessary atoms. Everything in a panel that doesn’t have a purpose is just a distraction from the things that do have one. This could be as simple as helping to frame the scene for the reader. Just make sure there‘s a reason to put them in.

Here’s that scene with the completed art (no dialogue):

Okay okay I get it. Now that I have my panels broken down, how do I formalize it for my artist?

It’s time to write a script!