The panel breakdown stage is when the writer plans out how a scene will be split up over multiple panels and pages. It's like the best puzzle ever!
It's a process unique to comics. And from what I've read, everyone seems to have their own way of doing it. Through trial and error, I've settled on first writing out panel descriptions and dialogue; next, splitting those panels into page-sized chunks of 3 to 7 panels depending on the pacing I want; and, finally, to sketching out panel shapes and sizes that best fit the content.
When I'm away from my computer I might sketch these panel breakdowns on the back of an envelope, using my eraser almost as much as my pencil. Here are the panel breakdowns for a scene I wrote recently about Wilde's visit to Chicago.
|Panel breakdowns for the Chicago scene of Oscar Wilde Conquers America.|
But when I'm at my computer I have a different process. I put aside pencil and paper and instead use Adobe Illustrator. I've set up a page template in Illustrator that allows me to quickly visualise any arrangement of panels in a 3x3 grid or a 3x4 grid. Each section of gutter is on a different layer, so by toggling visibility on selected layers, I can get what I'm looking for.
|My Adobe Illustrator template for working on panel breakdowns.|
As you can see from the close up on my layers panel below, the gutters are split into Horizontal and Vertical. I have horizontal gutters at 1/4 of page width, 1/3, 1/2, 2/3, and 3/4. Each of these gutters is split into four sections: Left (L), Centre Left (CL), Centre Right (CR), and Right (R). Vertical gutters are at 1/3, 1/2, and 2/3 of page height. They are split into 6 numbered sections.
All of these sections might seem overkill, but it means that I can view any arrangement of panels without having to resize any of the paths that make up the gutters. It's really flexible.
|Close up of the Layers panel in Illustrator.|
Here is an example breakdown of the page on the top right of my back-of-the-envelope drawing. All I had to do was toggle off the visibility of the 1/3 and 2/3 horizontal and vertical gutters, and the 2nd and 3rd sections of the 1/2 vertical gutter. If I'm ever unsure which part of which gutter I need to shut off, I can just select it on the template, and the corresponding layer in the Layers panel is highlighted.
|An example breakdown, corresponding to the top right page in the first image.|
When I'm happy with a breakdown, I usually save it as a png file and import it into my script. That way, when I read back over the script later, I have a visual reminder of how I intended to break down the scene. Here is the script page that goes with the breakdown above (as you can see, I decided to re-jig the panels a little when I came to write the scene).
|An example script page, with the panel breakdown embedded as a png. This helps me to remember what I visualised when I was writing the scene, and may also be of use to the artist.|
If you have a copy of Illustrator (CS4 and above), you might like to try the template out. You can download it by clicking here.