Writing Comics in Ulysses

Ulysses-Mac-1024x1024So I’ve just recently switched to the Ulysses writing app. I’ve been using Scrivener for a few years, but the ongoing lack of iOS support is killing me, so I’m trying out Ulysses. My initial project on Ulysses is a six-issue comic script I’m writing on spec. Not the simplest project from a formatting perspective, but it’ll let me try out a number of the neato features in Ulysses.

Like Themes! And Filters! I needed to set these two features up properly in order to create a workable script-writing environment in Ulysses. Here’s how I did it.


Ulysses is a mostly plain-text editor. That is, it doesn’t allow you to set fonts or sizes or anything like that in the writing environment. Instead, you define different text elements using markup — simple text indicators that can be read in order to infer format and structure. So you start a line with a specific symbol in order to indicate a special heading or whatever, and then the system is able to output that line in whatever format (in theory) you desire. You don’t answer questions of font and format until you’re outputting a version of the piece for someone to read.

The idea is to ignore formatting and concentrate on the writing, but Ulysses does give you some visual indicators as you write. It does this using themes, which enable you to vary the colour and font weight (though not family or size) for various formats. As you type the necessary markup, Ulysses applies this tiny bit of formatting.

There are many available markup commands, with seven levels of headings, bold, italic, block quotes, lists and even links and images. But when I write a comic book script (I more or less follow Nate Piekos’ advice on script format), I only need a few:

  • Page Header
  • Panel Header
  • Description
  • Dialogue
  • Bold/Italic
The Theme Editor in Ulysses

The Theme Editor in Ulysses

That’s about it.

So my first step was to create a simple Theme that included just those elements. I just duplicated the standard Markdown theme and then deleted almost everything. Page Header got an opening symbol of PG, Panel Header got PN, and Dialogue got DD. Description is just the default format so it doesn’t need anything.


What my script looks like as I write.

So now when I start a new page, I just type “PG” and then “Page 3” and it appears as a bold header. Same thing with each new panel: just type “PN” and then “Panel 2” and there it is. Dialogue is just the same, with the added bonus that since I established Dialogue as a paragraph style instead of a structure style (like Page Header and Panel Header), a single return after a line of dialogue defaults to another Dialogue paragraph. A double return drops to regular text, ready for me to type PN and go on with the next panel.

Note that in the editor, it doesn’t display the dialogue indented or numbered. That will happen in another step I’ll need to figure out before this is fully completely ready to go — when I want to output a final draft I’ll need to develop a custom Style. Styles are the output “instructions” that Ulysses uses to produce its output. One problem at a time!


Workflowy, the best outlining tool anywhere.

Workflowy, the best outlining tool anywhere.

Now, my outlining/planning process works outwards: I start with a single sentence that sums up the whole story, break that out into a sentence per issue, break THAT out into five sentences per issue, and then write four pages per sentence, for a total of 20 pages, or however many I need. This idea comes from Randy Ingermason’s “Snowflake Method”, although I adjusted it a fair bit for comics (and my brain, which is not Randy’s).

I start any project in Workflowy, my dependable and simple outlining tool. List-making and nesting is effortless in Workflowy, so it’s easy to dive in and out of creative hierarchies. But once I’ve got the 5-sentences-per-issue stage done, Workflowy is no longer useful. I can’t write a script as a set of bullet points!

So I take that outline and copy/paste it straight into Ulysses. Dead simple. Ulysses also has a great “Split Here” trick that allows me to easily divide up the outline into separate sheets. What I want is a sort of hierarchy, where I can go from the single-sentence summation to a given page of comic book script effortlessly. So I put each sentence for the issue into its own sheet. I labelled all those outline sheets with a “snowflake” keyword, and then created a filter called “Outline” that only shows such sheets.

The outline transferred to Ulysses.

The outline transferred to Ulysses.

For each of the five sentences for a given issue, I then go ahead and create four sheets, one for each page that’s supposed to support that sentence. This is where I get to see if my story will actually operate properly — if I’ve created something that has the right number of beats, if I can get from point A to point B with sufficient ease. For each page I just jot down a quick sentence or fragment to indicate what’s going to happen on that page. It’s usually quite simple at this point; I’m just expanding each sentence out into four beats, and then I have a completely-outlined comic book! Heck, if I had a sufficiently ambitious artist I could just ship right now!

I wouldn’t do that. Promise.

But now I can just go page-by-page and create my panels and dialogue all that. If I’m stuck on a given page, I can just skip over it and go on to the next. I’ve still got a complete script, just at various levels of detail. I can now follow my immediate excitement, develop aspects I’m interested in, and be confident I have a full script that works beat by beat.

I keyword those pages with “page” and now I can create a filter that only shows me the actual script pages. If I want to check against the outline, I just hop over to the other filter and there it is. Ulysses does make tagging super-easy so thus far it seems like a winning system.

That’s It

I love simple structures so this is pretty exciting for me. Just a few formatting options and a keyword/filter system that keeps me on track and works for my methodology.

Next up, I’ll have to define a custom Style, so I can get Ulysses to output the final product for sharing with others, but for now this works great.

Table to Page 3: Perspective

The enigmatic smile is one of my best GM tools. When my players start asking questions I don’t have answers for, I just lean back and smile.

Then they start tossing the question amongst themselves, and usually they come up with a pretty good answer that I can use. When they discover that their hypothesis is close to the truth, they feel clever. Everyone wins.

As a GM, I am forever beset by the need to answer the question “What next? What next for our heroes?” The players and their characters have to be the focus of every scene, every moment. My real job, my top priority, is to engineer thrilling confrontations for the players so that their heroes can do big exciting heroic things. Sorting out every answer to every question is much further down the list.

Because my heroes ARE my audience, I never have to reveal anything they can’t see for themselves. So when they ask, “How come this dead bad guy didn’t even use this magic fireball wand,” I don’t have to have an answer. They don’t ever have to find out. In fact, I have learned that if I just lean back with that enigmatic smile and say, “Yes, indeed, why DIDN’T he?” my players will run with that ball through the endzone and right on out of the stadium.

Heroes ≠ Audience

This is still kind of a hard lesson for me. In a story, I can’t leave big mysteries lying around for my audience to solve for me. I have to provide those solutions for them.

This happened to me recently. The aforementioned fireball-wand-wielding bad guy didn’t use his fireball wand until the last minute, aboard the heroes’ ship. In a game, this would play out great: they’d get him aboard, he’d unveil the wand and then it’s roll initiative, here we go. Big fight. Thrilling confrontation. Good times. And if somebody asks, “Hey why didn’t he pull that out earlier and just sink us before we got to him?” I could just lean back with my enigmatic smile and say, “Indeed, why DIDN’T he?”

The enigmatic smile. Works every time.

Works in a game, anyway. It didn’t even occur to me that it was a hole in the story, because in GM-head it sets up the requisite thrilling confrontation.

But of course in a story, the reader gets to that moment and asks the same question, and I can’t lean back. They can’t see my enigmatic smile, and if they do hear me ask “Why indeed?” they’re just going to throw the book against the wall.

I spent days agonizing over this after my early reader pointed it out (always have an early reader to catch this stuff for you). How could I fix this? Could I somehow explain that the fireball wand needed special circumstances? Could I come up with a different sort of weapon that wouldn’t work at long range (but also didn’t just pop out of nowhere)? Walking to work, I thought about it. Lying in bed trying to sleep, I thought about it. Nothing.

Whatever I came up with, however I tried to spin it, I couldn’t come up with any way to gracefully show it to my audience. Sure, I could decide the wand didn’t work at long range, but then I’d have to find a way to explain that to the reader, and that just felt stupid. Awkward and inelegant. I had no idea how to accomplish this.

Audience ≠ Heroes

I sat down in front of the blank screen and started typing (sometimes that works better than thinking for me). And suddenly I wasn’t typing stuff about my heroes, but rather about the villain. And I realised how WRONG the GM-based point of view had been. I realised that I’d allowed my GM brain to limit my approach to the problem, without my even recognizing it. I’d actually been worrying about how to explain things to my HEROES, not my audience.

In my GM brain, they’re the same thing, and I had totally overlooked this false equivalency when writing.

Writing from the villain’s point of view, it was easy to explain to the audience why the villain didn’t use his weapon until it was too late, because I could just SHOW them.

So I did, and it worked.

*enigmatic smile*

Blood Star Eternal

When the Galactic Center starts to die, sun after sun collapsing into red dwarfs that cannot support life, human civilization has only one hope: the long-discredited research of Doctor Lanspar and her deep-space explorer, The Whimsy Decode. For decades the Doctor has tried to convince her colleagues that stars are sentient creatures with unthinkably long lifespans. Now she has to find a way to rebuild her aging ship and take it into the mind-bending world of living stars, racing against social collapse and vicious civil war to find a cure, only to discover that what’s happening has been long prophesied among the giant intelligences themselves: the coming of the BLOOD STAR ETERNAL. Can Doctor Lanspar and her heroic crew find a way to save two civilizations?

Tokyo Dragon Academy

Kim grew up in the high mountains, where the dragons are wild, and those who ride them even wilder. But when she and her rough-scaled mount, Tangleflame, get spotted by a travelling scout for the International Dragon Games, neither of them are ready for life in the wildest place of all: the biggest dragon-riding school in the world: TOKYO DRAGON ACADEMY! Kim and Tangleflame are dynamite on the field, but in the classroom and the hallways, Kim’s country ways and clumsy confusion dump her into one embarrassing situation after another. Sometimes she nearly gives up, but the constant support of her ferocious dragon keeps her determined to win this year’s Dragon Games and show everyone what she’s really made of!

Neon Blade: Genesis

The all-new beginning of the incredible NEON BLADE odyssey: NEON BLADE: GENESIS! Nano-scientist Doctor Talbot Gilgamesh is sure that he is on the cusp of a huge breakthrough in manifesting technology, but when Earth first faces the terrible onslaught of the Bone-Gnawers, all research is brought under the umbrella of the fledgling Tammuz Corporation, and Doctor Gilgamesh is forced to abandon his work for the greater good. He grows suspicious of the powers behind Tammuz, however, when it seems that elements of his technology are being applied without thought for the consequences. As the human race loses its grip on the planet, can Doctor Gilgamesh stop whoever has stolen his research before the entire solar system is consumed in self-replicating, intelligent nanomachines?

Vampire Waitress Girl

Maria is determined to make sure THIS job doesn’t end in disaster. She loves this truck stop, and she looks super-cute in the uniform! Plus her undead super-powers make sure rough customers don’t come back. Even learning that her new boss, Madam Bonatella, is a dedicated vampire hunter, isn’t enough to dissuade ever-optimistic Maria. She’s going to live a normal teenage girl life, no matter how many bodies it takes!

Robo Squad X

Lucius has dreamed all his life of joining the famous ROBO SQUADS, defenders of the human civilization against the radioactive mutants that prowl the Negative Zone, but when his first mission ends in ambush and chaos, it seems he might be done before he starts! Somehow the mutants are getting stronger, and one by one the Robo Squads are being picked off… almost as though they were set up. Squad X is all that’s left before Lucius makes the shocking discovery as to who’s behind it all, but will they be enough to turn the tide and save humanity?

Death Bride Overture

Yoshie has always dreamed of her perfect wedding — but she never imagined she’d be killed at the altar! Now she has to relive the violent destruction of her hopes and dreams over and over again in some demented afterlife, trying to piece together the mystery of who killed her and why… and try to remember exactly WHO she was supposed to be marrying. Angels descend and the veils of the afterlife are torn apart as Yoshie uses her ghostly time-travelling powers to uncover the truth!

Gothic Rocket Go

Sometimes it’s more trouble than it’s worth, having a spaceship with a mind of its own. Captain Ivanhoe and his sleek, sentient space cruiser, the Byron, travel the interstellar lanes seeking the mysterious Doctor Shiva, who alone possesses the cure to Ivanhoe’s terrible curse. The Captain’s longevity and superior strength come at a price: a terrible thirst for human blood! Left to his own miserable devices, Ivanhoe would stay clear of human space altogether, but Byron keeps “accidentally” running across delectable travelers. Is Byron up to something? Or is Ivanhoe just going mad?

Rhinestone Princess Memories

Once a sparkling line dancer, stomping and twirling in her cowboy boots with the best of them, Rina has been forced to return the cold and dismal world of her ninja family, and give up her dreams in exchange for the dreary life-or-death battles for the Soul Gems, those precious stones that preserve their holder’s lives for centuries. She longs to return to the glittering two-step, but when her old partner gets dragged into the battle, a Soul Gem is the only thing that can save his life and keep Rina dancing… forever!