The single most important difference between a screenplay and a comic book script is that a comic story is made up of frozen moments. Screen stills. Snapshots. While there is no “right” format for comics scripts (and we’ll get into the specifics of formatting later), they generally look something like this:
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PAGE THIRTEENPANEL ONE: GREEN LANTERN AND AQUAMAN DESCEND TO THE OCEAN DEPTHS. LANTERN’S IN A SMALL RING-GENERATED BUBBLE. AQUAMAN’S SWIMMING, BUBBLES SPILLING FROM HIS MOUTH WHEN HE SPEAKS. ARTIST NOTE: OVER THE COURSE OF THIS PAGE, THE WATER GETS MURKIER AND MURKIER.
1 AQUAMAN: Can you HEAR me?
2 GL: My ring’s translating your UNDERWATER SPEECH, if that’s the question. Guess if you can LIVE underwater, you can TALK there...
3 GL: Lead the way. I’ll take point once we hit bottom. Then I’ll need you to--
PANEL TWO: AQUAMAN FROWNS AT GL.
4 AQUAMAN: Why are you always giving ORDERS?
5 GL: Because I’m the team LEADER.
PANEL THREE: AQUAMAN STARES AT GL BLANKLY. NO DIALOGUE.
PANEL FOUR: SAME EXACT, EXCEPT AQUAMAN EXPLODES WITH LAUGHTER, CLUTCHING HIS SIDES. GL’S COMPLETELY BAFFLED.
6 AQUAMAN/dwindles: AH ha ha ha ha ha ha ha
7 GL: What? What’s so FUNNY?
8 AQUAMAN: YOU’RE not the leader of the Justice League. FLASH is the LEADER!
9 GL: ...
10 GL: What?
PANEL FIVE: AQUAMAN SWIMS ON, BARELY VISIBLE IN THE MURK. GL FOLLOWS.
11 AQUAMAN: The REST of us talked about this WEEKS ago! It’s OBVIOUS to US!
12 GL: Then why...
13 AQUAMAN: Why does Flash let you boss us AROUND? We just figured he was letting you be YOU.
PANEL SIX: GL, WITH SOME CONCERN, NOTICES HIS BUBBLE CRACKING. WATER’S ALMOST PITCH BLACK BY NOW.
14 SFX: krkK-KK-K
15 AQUAMAN: Careful. We’re at the deepest spot on EARTH. Pressure’s UNCANNY. Pump up the WILL POWER...
16 AQUAMAN: ...“leader.”
17 AQUAMAN/small: Heh.
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Frozen moments. No artist can illustrate, in one panel, “Tiffany gets up from her chair and answers the door” or “Vito sniffs the rose and puts it in his lapel,” or even “He blinks.” This isn’t a medium for fluid motion. You’re collaborating with an artist who can convey (generally speaking) one action per panel, no more. If you can’t imagine what a photograph of the moment would look like, neither can your artist envision it and force it out of his pencil. Frozen. Moments.
The second most important difference is that the comics page uses space the way film uses time. On your TV screen, the Battle of Trafalgar and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich are the same size--27” (or whatever) on the diagonal--and what indicates their relative significance to the story is how long the camera lingers on them. In comics, artists instead tend to indicate the importance of an image (a moment) by how large it is. An establishing shot of an alien-world landscape that’s supposed to be fascinating and breathtaking and jaw-dropping in its detail and splendor needs to be big, maybe a single image across facing pages. Conversely, unless that sandwich is the crowning punchline to some incredible dramatization of The History of Sandwiches, it probably doesn’t need to take up much room on the page. Even if it’s somehow, against all odds, a plot point (“PANEL TWO: IN A PANIC, THE MOBSTER STABS HIS HAND INTO THE BROWN PAPER BAG. PANEL THREE: CLOSE ON HIS HAND AS HE WITHDRAWS NOT A PISTOL BUT, RATHER, A PEANUT BUTTER AND JELLY SANDWICH. PANEL FOUR: AN EXPRESSION OF HORROR DAWNS ON HIM AS HE REALIZES HE GRABBED HIS SON’S LUNCH INSTEAD OF HIS OWN CAMOUFLAGED GUN.”), really, how big does that one image need to be to hit the beat? Not very; certainly not compared to the following moment where the defenseless mobster, armed only with a 400-calorie lunch treat, is gunned down by the time-traveling team of John Wilkes Booth, Squeaky Fromme, and Robot Al Capone 3000. (That’s a full-page image.)
There are at least forty other things vying for “third most important difference,” and we’ll get to those soon, but those are the big two.