Does Format Really Matter?

Someone was asking about script punctuation the other day, so I figured I’d compile that info in a quick article here… before I start I should probably address why format is important, and whether or not it really makes any difference in the first place…

Format absolutely matters… but not really. 

I’m a big advocate of a standardized comic script format… just like we have in screenplay land. But the dirty little secret is that nobody cares about format when the story is EPIC. I don’t care if you’re talking screenplay, comic, or prose manuscript. Gold is gold no matter what kind of box you package it in, and many blockbuster IPs have spawned from poorly formatted writing.

The rub of course is that most stories (yes, even yours) are NOT EPIC. And poorly formatted “good” or even “really good”, makes your work a harder sell.

And let’s clarify here, in comic land your script is (for all intents and purposes) an internal document for the production crew. If you’re writing and illustrating yourself (or even self-publishing to a large extent) format is irrelevant. Only the format of the final copy on page makes any difference to the audience…

So the real consideration of format relevancy is when your script is seen by other (industry) people. Most notably by an editor or publisher for publication consideration.

One of the most important things to remember in this regard is that when your pitching your script to someone, that someone is almost always going  to have a million other pitches they’re reviewing.


So the editor or publisher is sitting there, looking at let’s call it a dozen scripts that are all good or even really good, but the budget only allows for one property, so how does he decide? Beats me, but I can guarantee you the scripts that have format problems, inconsistencies and are going against the norm/tradition have a whammy against them… maybe the last whammy that knocks them outta the game.

No whammies, no whammies, no whammies, STOP!

So if you’re planning to get your script in front of someone, whether it’s an editor, publisher, name artist, or even somebody in the industry who just might be able to recommend you for work, there’s a lot of merit in using the right format.

That said, how bout us some punctuation?

Whenever I talk “rules” in writing, I like to say it’s not so much as what’s wrong or right… but what’s been done, established as tradition and generally come to be expected. How much you deviate from this is completely up to you, just be sure you know when and where you’re deviating.

Specifically on punctuation format I tend to say you can get away with anything in small doses. In large doses people will start to take notice.

Semis: What are they?
Get your head out of the gutter, Semicolons join two independent clauses. “The moon is out; the vampires hunt until dawn.”

Semicolons Yes or No:
Write dialogue the way the characters are speaking it. Semi’s are usually better captured with a full stop, em-dash (double dash), ellipsis or comma.

They’re acceptable in a script, though you don’t see them often.

Nick’s Choice:
Semicolons, what are those?


Em Dashes: What are they?
This thing,  “—” Em dashes are most commonly used to show an interruption in comics. They also express nonessential description, expressions, and other work typically handled by a comma, but with more emphasis.

Em Dash Yes or No:
On all my old manual typewriters em dashes don’t exist. Instead you hit the hyphen key twice. This became the tried and true method in comics (and writing in general).

In modern times all computers and printers handle the em dash, Option+shift+Hyphen on mac.

Nick’s Choice:
I’m a fan of both versions, em dashes and double dashes. Ironically, editors usually tell me to stop using whichever one I wind up using on a script. Just remember no spaces before OR after the em dash.


Ellipses: What are they?
Three consecutive spaced periods,  “. . .” Ellipses show an omission or interruption in thought. The Chicago manual calls for spaced periods, but Microsoft word converts to a single character (I’m sure you’re familiar with it) which I usually just pass on to the letterer.

Ellipses Yes or No:
As thoughts and dialogue are often interrupted in comics, ellipses are a long time tradition in comics. Traditionally in comics if you trail off with an ellipsis then have the same character continue, you pick up with another ellipsis.

Nick’s Choice:
I love me some ellipses. To me it’s a very natural part of dialogue and at times I catch myself overusing them. I personally buck the trend of “trail out, trail in” ellipses. You don’t do this in straight prose fiction and to me, the trail in ellipsis is superfluous.


Do you need to break dialogue at Em Dashes and ellipses?  No. Multiple em dashes or ellipses can be used within a single bubble, though they do offer natural breaking points. Also, too much punctuation in a bubble can quickly muddle the dialogue.


Style Declarations in Dialogue:
Here’s the key I use in a typical script;

Underline = bold

Italic = italic

Caps = display lettering

** Style sparingly. The more times you use emphasis, the less emphasis it carries.


Foreign languages:
I’ve seen this handled a few different ways-different fonts, different bubble colors… Most common is chevrons or angle brackets < foreign language written in plain English here >* (Often the first use of it in the issue will have an asterisk and adjoining editorial comment either in panel or at the bottom of the page).

Nick’s Choice:
Personally, I generally like to slip an occasional word in the characters native tongue, then just write the rest of the dialogue without any special considerations. This gives the flavor of the foreign language without requiring any additional considerations.

When you read an alien saying <Why don’t we go to the airport now?> Do you read it in your head in alien gibberish first “skweee skweee nwaa nee nooppiee? I don’t think I’ve ever done that, so why bother separating it out? Is it really adding to the mood/tone/style of the book?

The only time a visual identifier is really relevant, is when the story demands people conversing in the same scene and not understanding each other. But even then you can just as easily get the point across through regular dialogue.

Also, the chevrons become problematic if you’re writing a script with multiple foreign languages. It’s still a viable solution, but starts becoming a bit muddled and another element you need to keep track of while you write. As a general rule, I always try to keep it simple…▪

About the Author —
Nick Macari is a full-time freelance story consultant, developmental editor and writer, working primarily in the independent gaming and comic markets. His first published comic appeared on shelves via Diamond in the late 90’s. Today you can find his comic work on comixology, amazon and in select stores around the U.S.  Visit for social media contacts and news on his latest releases.