Letter To An Aspiring Writer

[names & details changed;while this is specifically about comic book scripting, the bulk of the advice is applicable to all forms of writing]

Generic meaningless pleasantry!  Insincere inquiry to your health & happiness.  Even less sincere apology for tardiness of reply.

You have asked for honest feedback & honest feedback you shall receive.  There is no snark in the following.  I think you have some unfortunate habits as a writer; the good news is all of these habits can be corrected & replaced with better habits.

I did not finish reading your script.  I got to page 5 & threw in the towel; it was just too hard slogging.  The habits I wish to discuss with you were all readily apparent on those first 5 pages.

They almost always are.  One can take any 5 pages at random from any writer’s current output & tell if they are writing effectively or not.

Let us begin.

The first habit you need to acquire is Clarity.  Your story is hard to track.  The formatting makes it hard to read.  You have frequent grammatical & spelling errors that, while not so bad in & of themselves, when combined with other bad writing habits yank the reader out of the story.  Your panel descriptions are not well thought out.  The dialog is often superfluous, too often bald, and frankly just doesn’t sing.

(Go take a break from your computer.  Get a drink in the kitchen. Play a video game.  Don’t think about this letter until you’re done.

(Done?  Back?  Good.)

Now, as I said, you have some bad writing habits.  The good news is they all can be corrected.

Each panel description should be about the most important piece of information you want to convey in that panel.  The FIRST thing you describe is that key visual, because 9 times out of 10 the artist isn’t going to read much more.

Page 1 / Panel 1’s most important idea is that John is living out of his car.  Say that first.  Describe John & the car’s appearance briefly; only describe what the reader will see (obvious exceptions for something that isn’t visible / known in one panel but will be in another later on; i.e., “Though he lives in his car, John is dressed meticulously; we will later see he always takes great pride in his appearance no matter what.”).

When describing something, if at all possible do so in an orderly fashion, don’t skip about.  Start with a character’s head & work down to his feet or vice versa.  Describe only what is absolutely necessary for your artist to understand; let the artist interpret / stage sequences as they imagine them.

(Obviously there may be times when you will want to spell something out in detail; that’s okay but for the most part let the artist do the interpretive work.)

Describe only what can be visually depicted in that particular panel.  You wrote "John lost his passion for God a long time ago."

Try drawing a picture of a character losing his passion for God a long time ago.







Not so easy, is it?

That info may be important to understanding the character from a writer’s POV, but it really doesn’t help the artist.  Some characters who’ve lost their passion etc. are going to look despondent, others are going to look angry, others are going to look nonchalant.

“Despondent,” “angry”, “nonchalant” are things an artist can depict.

Paradoxically, the fewer words one uses, the briefer one’s description, the clearer the final image will be.  I tell aspiring screen & comics writers to read a lot of poetry.  Poets convey very vivid images & moods in just a handful of words.

Learn to use the right words.  As Mark Twain famously observed:  "The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter--it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning."

Whenever possible, use emotional descriptions; this is far more helpful to the artist than flat details.  “A spooky looking little girl,” “a charming old house,” “a lovable robot,” etc.

You say the pages will be broken down into a 9 panel vertical grid ala WATCHMEN, but then describe things better depicted with horizontal layouts.  Even WATCHMEN broke the pages up into different patterns though all of them were based on the original 9 panel grid.

Never hurts to use slug lines, viz:


Break up the dialog (inc. captions, etc.) so it’s easier to read:

CAPTION                                                             Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

DIALOG                                                                Natter natter natter.  Grommish  grommish .............................................................grommish.  Natter natter natter.  Grommish .............................................................grommish grommish.

Learn to differentiate between a caption (omniscient 3rd person) and narration (off panel character).  “Gudger, Tennessee” is a caption.  “Poor John, does he not learn?” is narration.  You can use either, neither, or both, but always use them in a way that is distinct.  You can simply label one CAPTION and the other NARRATION but they need to be differentiated (the letterer will use different box / balloon types & fonts to set them apart).

When you introduce a character, particularly an archetypical one, use caps.  “We see DEATH, a tall gaunt vampire-like creature dressed all in black.”  You only have to use all caps the first time; after that it can be Death, Mrs. Kelly, the Drunk Guy, Field Mouse #17, etc.

Try to avoid dialog that is too spot on (i.e., “bald”).

“I have felt terrible ever since my pet boa constrictor got sucked through the garbage disposal” is bald.

“Don’t say ‘garbage disposal’ -- it reminds me of…Cuddles…” is not.

I recommend reading Harold Pinter’s plays; he is a master at what is called elliptical dialog (i.e., dialog that discusses something without actually mentioning the subject).  One of his best plays is THE BIRTHDAY PARTY:  It’s about two gangsters who have tracked down a traitor to the gang & are going to take him away to murder him (here's a dialog excerpt).

“Gangster,” “gang,” “murder,” “kill,” kidnap” are never used in the play.  All they ever talk about is a birthday party that is being planned.

But the audience reads through the dialog & understands what is really going on.

Never have a character say what an artist can show.  If a woman is crying, don’t have her say, “My heart is breaking because of Ted” but rather just “Oh, Ted…”

You don't even need "Oh, Ted..." if Ted has been established as a character and was shown doing something that would break her heart.  Less is always more.

The audience needs some idea of what the story is about early on.  It doesn’t have to be what the story is really about (we don’t find out STAR WARS is about Luke Skywalker growing up until 20 minutes into the film) but we have to have some idea what the arena of conflict is (we do know STAR WARS is going to involve rebels fighting an evil galactic empire).

By the end of page 1 of WATCHMEN we know the story will involve the investigation of a violent death.  By page 2 we know it’s no ordinary violent death, by page 3 it’s apparent the story is going to involve at least in part a mystery of who would want to kill a retired superhero.

181 pages later WATCHMEN ends up being about something much, much different, but the audience at least has some starting point to work from.

There’s a difference between giving the audience a grounding point & being too explicit.  WATCHMAN would have sucked royally if Page 1 / Panel 1 had been Rorschach calling Night Owl and saying, “Somebody just killed the Comedian but I think it’s to cover up a vast conspiracy aimed at discrediting superheroes in order to achieve a far more sinister purpose.”

I’m going to close with that.  You have no habits that can’t be corrected with practice.  Keep plugging away; it’s the only way any of us learn.


P.S.  If you haven’t seen these blogposts of mine, please take a look at them:  I cover a lot of basics in them:

Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Rules For Writing Fiction [re-post]

10 Lessons For Young Designers By John C Jay Of Wieden+Kennedy [re-post]

A Few Rough Rules Of Thumb For Writing Comics / Graphic Novels

Script Writing For Comics / Graphic Novels

Creating Christian Graphic Novels


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Thinkage [updated]

Thinkage [updated]