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Comics Script Format Part-3

Started by Rob, October 11, 2010, 10:05:56 PM

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A writer's tutorial on presentation

Part 3

By Kurt Hathaway of

Read Part 1 here:

Read Part 2 here:

In the first two installments, I covered the basic idea behind script presentation. Rule number one is clarity!  Present your ideas in a clear way so that readers will understand your script without having to guess or wonder about any missing pieces. Detail, vocabulary, and creating a scene with words make up the backbone of a well-presented script.

Unlike screenplays, the typographical format isn't chiseled in stone, the basic point is to:

  • Present visual information in the panel descriptions with the larger details first... followed by smaller details.
  • Present artist's instructions and lettering elements separately.

Here are two variations of comics format styles -- both of which are generally acceptable. The use of underlines or italics is a style choice.

(script excerpt from "Phoenix Rise" courtesy of John Smith / [email protected])

Often a new page number is spelled out and the number of panels on the page is indicated at top.


PAGE FIFTEEN      5 PANELS                     

A small middle ages town with appropriately designed homes and buildings along the sides. The street is dirty and wet.

In the street, Catherine is flat on her back (Varslov has just slapped her down). Varslov stands over her menacingly, with three cronies behind him. All are dressed in peasant attire of the period. Varslov and his cronies are "The Grackle Gang" and have a tattoo of a black grackle (black myna-like bird with long tail feathers) on their bare arms.

Catherine is bleeding from the mouth, a package clutched under her arm.

Prince Russell, also in peasant clothing, is just coming around the corner to witness what takes place next. His sword is sheathed in its scabbard.

  • Varslov: Now, let's see what's in dat dere parcel. Then you gonna give Varslov a big kiss!

    Crony #1: Ha!

    Catherine: Stay away from me!

    Russell Caption: What's this? I'm in town for only a few minutes and already I encounter trouble? Maybe I should have stayed home.


PAGE FIFTEEN      5 PANELS                                          

A small middle ages town with appropriately designed homes and buildings along the sides. The street is dirty and wet.

In the street, Catherine is flat on her back (Varslov has just slapped her down). Varslov stands over her menacingly, with three cronies behind him. All are dressed in peasant attire of the period. Varslov and his cronies are "The Grackle Gang" and have a tattoo of a black grackle (black myna-like bird with long tail feathers) on their bare arms.

Catherine is bleeding from the mouth, a package clutched under her arm.

Prince Russell, also in peasant clothing, is just coming around the corner to witness what takes place next. His sword is sheathed in its scabbard.

  • Varslov:

    Crony #1:


    Russell Caption:


Each writer may have their own typographical preferences such as italics for descriptions or bolding the page numbers, but generally stick to clear presentation of the 3 main panel elements and your scripts will be better for it.

I highly recommend indenting all lettering elements, though.  But use the increase indent function in your software rather than the tab key.

This series would be too unwieldy if I were to cover every common grammatical, spelling, and syntax mistake, so I'll cover just those that seem to pop up a lot in amateur scripts that I have read recently.

"Alot" is not a word -- never has been -- and I pray it will never be -- even my word processor knows this! Just like "ahouse" or "ahelicopter" is not a word. Never submit a script with the non-word /alot/ in it. No one will take you seriously. Don't use it in scripts -- or anywhere else, for that matter. Remove it from your writing in all its forms -- even email. It's a plague on humanity.

And, while calvary is a real word, it does not mean soldiers on horseback as in here comes the... That word is cavalry.

Artist: Try and fit as many characters in this shot, please.   -incorrect

/Try and/ doesn't mean anything.

/AND/ is supposed to connect two complete ideas together [go to the market and buy milk, for example]. /TRY/ by itself is not a complete idea -- though /FIT AS MANY CHARACTERS/ is a complete idea.

Artist: Try to fit as many characters in this shot, please.   -correct

The only place I can think of where it makes any sense is: Try and try again. Otherwise, use /TRY TO/.

Contractions in dialogue sound a lot more natural to readers, so use them often. If your characters are American, they'll speak like Americans -- with lots of contractions.

You are right, Angela, it is not going to work.    - boo!

You're right, Angela, it's not going to work.    - better

But, as with all these rules -- there are exceptions. If your character speaks English as a second language, it's likely they'll speak without contractions. A Russian Scientist working in the USA or a Japanese exchange student would speak English as if it were new to them -- without contractions.

I see a lot of compound words broken up into two words for no good reason. Your self comes to mind. I've seen bar tender and up stairs, and a whole host of others that mystified me. Be aware of the words you're writing. Have a dictionary at your elbow and your web browser at (they also have a great thesaurus) while you're composing your script copy. Breaking up compound words is a sure sign of an amateur.

I see /who/ and /that/ often substituted for each other (TV sportscasters almost never get it right, but they're not writers) and it's maddening to hear -- and to read. Simply put: /who/ is a person... /that/ is a thing.

I have a wife that knits.    - wrong
I have a wife who knits.    - correct

I have a car that leaks oil.    - correct  (don't make me write "a car who")

The rules of grammar and the use of proper English can be broken many times when working with character dialogue. After all, not all people/characters speak the same or have the same level of education. In general, try to have relatively educated characters using proper English (even if all your friends don't know a that from a who).

If your story features a Harvard English professor dealing with an underworld thug, you may want to have the professor using proper English and the uneducated thug using improper English. But all your omniscient captions (as the author's voice) should all be in proper English -- as should all the panel descriptions.

It is my opinion that the word /only/ is the single-most misused word in the English language. If there is another, I don't know about it.

It's almost always in the wrong place in a sentence -- on TV, on the radio, in print ads, and in everyday conversation. A writer should know the difference and write accordingly.

The basic idea is that /only/ is most often used as a qualifier of another word. /Only one/ comes to mind.

I only want one hot dog, so I don't get too full.       - is wrong

This sentence is trying to indicate that the speaker wants one hot dog, and no more than that, but this sentence actually tells us the character "only wanted" the hot dog -- but didn't need it, wasn't hungry for it, etc. Not that one hot dog was enough for him. It's sloppy writing.

I want only one hot dog, so I don't get too full.       - is correct

When using the word /only/, you must ask yourself to what word the only refers and place it accordingly in the sentence.

A red corvette in my driveway -- it can only be Fred!    - wrong
A red corvette in my driveway -- it can be only Fred!    - correct

They only printed a few flyers for the dance.      - wrong
They printed only a few flyers for the dance.      - correct

/Only printed/ suggests the flyers were printed, but not distributed, not anything else.  If you misplace the word /only/, the reader must mentally rearrange your words to get the correct meaning -- and that's just not good writing to make the reader work that hard to fix your mistakes.

He only began playing baseball when his dad got that new job.    - wrong
He began playing baseball only when his dad got that new job.    - correct

Only bring me coffee in the morning.    - wrong
Bring me coffee only in the morning.    - correct

Be aware of your intended meaning and don't write a sentence that means something else. You won't confuse everybody, but you will confuse those who were paying attention in 8th grade English class (like editors, your main sales target). And with comics sales the way they are, let's not alienate anyone with confusion or they won't bother to read your next comics story.

These sentences are completely different:

I want to talk to only you.
I only want to talk to you.

/Only you/ and /only want to talk/ have totally different meanings -- both are correct, though -- depending on the intention of the writer. Know the difference and write accordingly.

The same is true for other qualifiers such as even, just, simply, and others.

I can't even get a B in Science class.       - wrong
I can't get even a B in Science class.       - correct

Just give me a minute.            - wrong
Give me just a minute.                 - correct

The general rule is the closer the qualifier is to the word it actually qualifies, the better -- as long as the sentence doesn't sound unwieldy. And if it does, consider removing the qualifier altogether.

Simply put, /it's/ is short for IT IS.

/Its/ is a possessive pronoun -- like yours and ours -- it indicates possession. I suppose I can understand the confusion. After all, its and it's is really an exception to the rule that the presence of an apostrophe indicates possession.

...the man's hat...
...Doris's new dress...
...the guitar's strings... boat's deck...
...the tiger moved closer. Its claws were outstretched... [no apostrophe]

If /its/ followed the usual apostrophe-possession rule, there'd be no difference between /it's/ and /its/.

Don't confuse these two.  /Lets/ means allows (it has other meanings, but for this purpose, allows will do as an example).

That small grate lets air in so we won't suffocate anytime soon.

/Let's/ is a contraction for "let us".

On the count of three, let's jump.

Adding an apostrophe to a non-possessive plural noun is another huge mistake I see way too often. The produce section of the supermarket is famous for these mistakes.

Never add an unnecessary /apostrophe-s/ when using non-possessive plural nouns (more than one of anything). Adding a simple /s/ will do.

The banana's are $1.30 a pound.
Kitten's for sale! All need good home's.
We need three touchdown's to win the game.
      >>>Ugh! All wrong! It actually hurt me to type those.

Learn and remember the difference between a non-possessive plural noun, a possessive noun, and a possessive plural noun. Punctuate accordingly.

Like the non-word /alot/, there is no such thing as the above. These are spelled /could've/, /would've/, /should've/ -- as in /could have/, /would have/, /should have/. They sound the same, but are contractions.

/You're/ is short for /you are/. As with most contractions, the apostrophe stands in for the missing letters -- in this case the /a/ in /are/.

/We're/ is short for /we are/ -- the apostrophe stands in for the missing /a/ in /are/ -- just as it is in /you're/.

/We've/ is short for /we have/ -- the apostrophe stands in for the missing /ha/ in /have/. The better you understand this substitution concept, the easier your command of contractions will be.

You're = You are
Your = ownership

If you're confused about your command of the difference, do this: when proofreading your script, read all /your/s and /you're/s as "you are". If it sounds correct, /you're/ is the way to go. If not, /your/ is correct.

/Every day/ and /everyday/ have different meanings and should not be transposed. /Every day/ as two words is an adjective followed by a noun.

/Everyday/ as one word is an adjective with no noun (until one is put behind it).

I have ice cream everyday.    - wrong
I have ice cream every day.    - correct

/Every/ is the adjective and /day/ is a noun (in addition to ice cream).

She wore her every day shoes. - wrong.
She wore her everyday shoes. - correct

/Everyday/ is an adjective. /Shoes/ is the noun.

You'll see these words mangled on supermarket signs, in TV ads, even at McDonald's (a multi-billion-dollar corporation can't hire a real proofreader?) but if you're a writer, you should know better.

Too often /less/ is used improperly when /fewer/ is proper.

The basic rule is:
Use /less/ with mass nouns.
Use /fewer/ with count nouns.

A count noun is just something you can count. Like "gallons of gasoline" or "players on a team".
Mass nouns are things that you can't count individually -- an indefinite amount. /Gasoline/ is an indefinite amount -- whereas /gallons of gasoline/ is not.

We need less gallons of gas.         -wrong (gallons can be counted)
We need fewer gallons of gas.      -correct

The team has less players this year.      -wrong (players can be counted)
The team has fewer players this year.            -correct

The exceptions are when time, money, or distance is the noun. Use /less/.

That football game lasted less than two hours.
I hope they got that used guitar for less than $600.
The walk-a-thon was less than 5 miles.

Do not tell people you are an inspiring writer -- unless you really are -- a motivational writer, for instance... like Tony Robbins. What you probably want to say is that you're an aspiring writer -- that is, learning the craft, practicing hard, but without professional credits.

If you've not been published and you call yourself an inspiring writer, no one will believe you're even an aspiring writer for making such a mistake.

For some reason, the most-often missed punctuation mark by new writers is the most common use of the comma. The only more simple punctuation is the period. Fortunately for my sanity, almost all writers get that one right.

It doesn't help that popular websites also mangle the comma's use by greeting browsers with "Hello Customer." Any 8th grader can tell you it's supposed to be "Hello, Customer."

For this reason, we pros laughingly call this mistake "e-mail punctuation," which is not a compliment to the writer's skills. It's one thing to email a pal to tell him about some exciting news:

bayonets and guns are gonna play at the forum next week... we should go

It's another to write an entire script and miss all the basic commas. Don't do it!

Any novel from any reputable publisher will show the pattern. When a character speaks to another character and calls them by name, use the comma before the name.

Don't think you'll get away with this, Harry!

It also applies when using a nickname, insulting slur, or affectionate appellation.

Don't think you'll get away with this, dirtbag!
Don't think you'll get away with this, gorgeous!
Don't think you'll get away with this, you two-timing shrew!

And after the name, too:

Harry, I need some money.
Honey, say you love me.
Coppers, come and get me!

Before & after:

Gee, honey, I didn't see you there.
I was thinking, Gene, about going fishing later on.
How about a different plan, sir, and fire all the new guys?

After all: /Shoot John!/ and /Shoot, John!/ Have two completely different meanings. Writing one rather than the other will result in your reader being confused.  

The basic idea is that in the example /Shoot, John!/ a character is telling John to shoot. In the other example someone is telling another character to shoot AT John. It's the difference between talking TO someone -- and talking ABOUT someone. Huge difference. Don't confuse your reader and don't confuse an editor or he won't return your calls.

I can't teach Adam!       (talking about Adam)
I can't teach, Adam!       (talking to Adam)

Both of these are correct sentences [with vastly different meaning], but they are not transposable with each other... the use depends on which meaning you intend. Use the wrong one, and you will lose your reader! The writer's number one no-no is to confuse the reader -- especially editors. Clarity is priority number one. Be clear, and make your words count!

Very often two words combined will create an adjective. For these, we use hyphens to join the words together.

Some examples:
good-looking, well-meaning, rock-hard, most-often, fast-talking, hard-working, even-tempered, fat-free, all-American, music-related, western-themed, battle-hardened, well-adjusted, bad-tasting, bite-sized, lightning-swift, strange-looking, spine-tingling, heaven-sent, death-defying, hair-raising... well, you get the idea.

It's really two distinct words that come together to create a single concept that becomes an adjective -- a word that describes a noun that follows.

Good looking girl  (a girl who is skilled at looking?)      - wrong
Good-looking girl  (a girl who looks good -- attractive)   - correct

Sometimes more than two words combine to create a single adjective:

Hard-to-find, young-at-heart, tough-to-conquer, cool-to-the-touch, etc.

When proofreading your work, keep an eye out for two or more words that combine to create a single adjective and add hyphens accordingly.

The exceptions are when an adverb is used.

/Finely tuned/ requires no hyphen. /Finely/ is an adverb -- and as such already functions as an adjective for /tuned/. The giveaway clue is the use of /-ly/ on the end [though not all adverbs do]. No hyphen is required when the adverb is already functioning as an adjective.


The fewer common mistakes you have in your script, the more polished it will look.  Try to keep them out of your correspondence, too, if you plan on presenting yourself as a writer.  Nothing says you're a writer better than well-written correspondence [this includes blogs, websites, and promotional materials in general].  Too many mistakes in your writing and there's not a good editor on the planet who will take you seriously.

Working with artists and a few words about contact information.

As always, I take comments, crits, and bags of money at:[email protected]

About the author:
Kurt Hathaway has been a comics freelancer for 25 years. His client list reads like a who's who of publishers: DC, Marvel, Image, Dark Horse, Eclipse, Malibu, and tons of others. He has thousands of lettering credits including two for Newsweek and Esquire magazines. A DC editor nicknamed him "The Comics Commando" for his timely delivery of deadline work.

He letters the webcomics "Master Jesus" and "Chicago 1968" both written by Len Kody.

In addition to lettering and logos, Kurt Hathaway's Cartoon Balloons Studio does custom font design, page/book/magazine design, pre-press (setting up press files for the printer), and animated motion graphics for video projects.

He's written material for Image Comics, DC Comics, Antarctic Press, Electronic Arts Playstation Division, and ABC/Disney Television. He's currently writing the comic series "Dawn of the Dread Force" for Jaran Studios.

(Editor's note: Whenever indentation was required as part of the formatting provided by the author I am forced to use a "list" tag from the forums. The list tag creates the indentation I require to properly represent the authors' intentions, however it is not designed for the purpose and leaves a small black dot at the first entry of every indented group. Please ignore this black dot. It is not part of the article as intended.)


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