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Throughlines: Threads of the Story Tapestry

Ok, so you’ve got a futuristic, dystopic, anime-inspired, story idea for a script, with male and female MC leads… They start off cold towards each other and eventually fall in love with one another. You’ve got that much and the overall concept in your head, so you figure you can get to writing.

Lots of folks take this approach.

If you’re a bit more organized, you may even throw together a spiffy comprehensive outline and nail down a few specific scenes that capture the relationship.

But what if you’re not exactly sure how it needs to play out… what if you’re having trouble developing this love arc when you sit down to write the outline?

This is where handy dandy throughlines can really help organize and pull together a story.

If you’ve read Storycraft For Comics, you’re familiar with the term Throughline;

“Throughline is originally a theater term developed to give actors a broader understanding of their motivation at any given moment in a performance… not just looking at the present moment, but looking at the decisions and materials that lead to the moment, and the repercussions afterwards.”

In essence a throughline is a mini-outline.

A closer look at a specific element, tracking its changes over the course of the entire story.

At its most fundamental level it consists of a beginning and end, but since it always benefits from something happening in-between to showcase (or lead the reader through) the transformation, we through in a middle as well, reminiscent of classic three-act structure.

(As it turns out, I used this story setup above as the sample story in Storycraft, so I’ll run with the concept here.)

To capture the core of our love interest I might jot down;

* Kai and Molly hate each other.

* Kai and Molly warm up to each other.

* Kai and Molly openly confess their love for one another.

Notice that all three of these throughline beats are non-specific. Kai and Molly hating each other could be expressed in a million different ways. When a throughline beat is general direction I bold them in my bulleted list, as they often become a heading, with more specific, expressive beats supporting them immediately below it (more on that in a second).

Sometimes inspiration will come at you generalized like this, other times, it will come more specific:

* Molly tries to arrest Kai, the two have a knock down, drag out fight.

* Kai and Molly share noodles with one pair of chopsticks realizing they have more in common than they originally thought.

* Kai gives up his chance for freedom and riches and faces certain death to save Molly from the killer robot.

Generalized beats help define the bigger picture and give overall direction.

Specific beats express that bigger picture and give distinct points to build toward (or away from).

Though ultimately in the script everything will be expressed specifically, both types of beats are good for throughlines. Having a three part generalized throughline, is better than having no throughline at all…

Of course, the most effective throughlines will have more than a basic beginning, middle and end… In theory a throughline can have as many beats as it needs, as long as they all serve the narrative. Let’s take another look at our love arc here:

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Contracts 101 – [Download]

When working with intellectual properties, hiring freelancers and getting paid as a freelancer, you must use contracts on all substantial jobs.

LEGAL DISCLAIMER: I’m not a lawyer by any stretch of the imagination. Any advice or documents you find here (or anywhere on the site) should only be used as a starting point for your own research and due diligence. Hire a real lawyer before you sign anything or exchange money.

That said, I’m gonna post some of the documents I use from project to project, explain how I run my own stuff and my philosophy on contracts. You may find it works just fine for you or you may decide you require something significantly more robust and a lawyer on retainer (don’t say I didn’t warn you).

Most people have big misconceptions when it comes to contracts, especially folks in comics.

Contracts are merely capturing a negotiation and agreement in writing.

The basis of any negotiation is for each side to get what it wants. Primarily when dealing with comics, that’s gonna be:

The publisher wants to spend the least amount of money, for the most and best quality work. The freelancer wants to receive the most amount of money, for the least amount of work (work equating to time).

  • First and foremost contracts are about putting in writing what people are required to do and what they’re gonna get paid for doing it.
  • Deadlines/milestones both, for when the work is due and when the money is due, are also key components to a contract.
  • Last of the major contract considerations are rights of the work. Rights to work equal value, which potentially equals more money to whoever holds them at some point down the line. (But to call a spade a spade, most times on indie IPs, rights to work adds up to a whole lot of bupkis.)

Of course there are tons of other considerations, contracts can get insanely complex, but those are the main ones you’re most likely to be concerned with.

The Truth About Contracts

Contracts are not magical documents that bind their signees like a bottle binds a genie. Anyone can sign a contract then fuck all, do whatever they please (believe me it happens all the time).

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12 Tips for Spectacle Scripts

Article length: 3100 words (preview 700/wds)

Computer says Spectacle is “a visually striking performance or display”.

In comic writing (story) terms, it is a narrative that while may contain all the elements of genuine story, does not fully develop them, relying on superficial/surface elements (action, visual eye-candy, gratuitous genre convention, obligatory scenes and tropes) to engage the audience.

Often spectacle fiction is particularly weak in thematic expression (Master Theme), character development and plot. And often serves as the vehicle to showcase unchanging (non-arcing) protagonists, like James Bond, Indiana Jones, Mad Max and the like…

I’m not really a fan of pure spectacle fiction, as I feel theres always room to add substance to a story.

That said, I am a big fan of genre fiction, Sci-fi/Fantasy/Horror being three of the primary genres I work in. Because many elements and practices of writing good spectacle overlap into genuine story, understanding some of the mechanics of spectacle will serve to improve your writing whether or not you embark on a spectacle heavy script.

Ok, grab your mocha and let’s get into it…

The spectacle hurdle.

Without the real substance of genuine story, all the superficial elements are pushed front and center. Instead of taking the time to assemble a fine wardrobe, offer an intellectual greeting and discuss what makes you tick, you’re stripping off your story’s clothes in the middle of gym class and screaming as loud as you can “Yo, check me out!” (gratutious 80’s movie reference)

Only above average content survives this level of scrutiny.

Plainly put, if your material isn’t above average, you’re sunk.

So if you’re about to set sail into spectacle comic writing waters, you better put down the rum, and look to the horizon with every ounce of objectivity and honesty.

The waters of genuine story telling are forgiving, the seas of spectacle take no prisoners.


Art and Concept

First and foremost above average content must convey in the art. You can’t put forth spectacle, if the art isn’t—as the definition says—visually striking. The art has to dazzle and I mean, literally dazzle. It needs to be at the level where it impresses and engages the reader on its own. Pulling off a spectacle comic with subpar art is like watching a bad B movie with a $5 special effects budget—few brave souls can stand such entertainment, fewer yet actively seek it out.

Similarly, your concept must also be above average. Spectacle comics are about showing the reader only a portion of a complete story, but wowing them so much, they don’t care that they’re only getting half their money’s worth.

Some concepts (and characters) are just so damn engaging, interesting and entertaining, the reader accepts the shallow story for what it is—sheer spectacle. James Bond, Indiana Jones, Star Trek (remakes), Star Wars, to name a few.

If your concepts are average, or run-of-the-mill, you’re going to have a particularly hard time trying to impress the audience when showcasing them in spectacle.

I have other articles on the site and talk about discovering your best concepts in Storycraft for Comics. Suffice to say, if you’re setting out to write a spectacle heavy comic, only work with something that feels above average, or elicits an above average response when you pitch it to others. If you’re too close to the material and have lost your objectivity, hire a story consultant or developmental editor to let you know if you’re holding lead or gold.

Personal goals (and personal finances) play a tremendous role in writing. While there’s nothing wrong in pursuing a project for personal reasons, this website (and my books) assume your goal as a writer is to have some measure of commercial success. (All advice is presented from this mindset.)


  • Only proceed with a spectacle script if the concept and artist attached will be above average.


For the Love of It

This one is a bit abstract and people may be turned off that I’m taking the time to list it here. But the reality is, I can’t stress how important this is… When it comes to executing spectacle successfully, passion and love for the material shows in a big way.

Clearly, if you’re hired to produce a spectacle script for say a heist comic and cops’n’robbers isn’t your thing, I’m not suggesting you turn down a paying gig, BUT if you’re working on your own material, and trying to choose between a handful of IPs… I absolutely recommend stepping away from the spectacle project IF you’re not fully passionate and enamored by the material.

Do not misinterpret me here and think that love and passion will compensate for: bad art, a bad concept or just overall bad execution… it won’t. But love and passion for the source material have big impact in spectacle scripts.


  • Only proceed with a spectacle script if the source material truly resonates with you.
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6 Things Done Best In Comics

Article length: 4000 words (preview 1000/wds)

Comics are an incredible medium, art from the in-between space. Visual like movies, yet driven by words. Pictures powered by prose.

Having read comics for over 35 years, I’ve seen the trends come and go. Lots of folks say the medium has grown up. That today’s audiences are more sophisticated, their tastes more eclectic.

I’d agree that there’s definitely more people creating comics today, than the days when Stan Lee and Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson first started.

But I often wonder if many modern creators jump into the medium with a full appreciation of what it represents and where it came from. Or if they just look to comics as a quick fix—a production of their IP quicker than a novel and far cheaper than motion pictures.

Whatever the current cultural status of the medium and whatever the future holds, you’ve landed on this article of mine today… and today we’re gonna stop and take some time to discuss what makes a comic unique. We’re gonna reflect and analyze the medium itself, and see if we can’t grasp the concepts that thrust a comic toward its true and full potential.

Originally, I wanted to title this article something like “What you can do in comics, but not in the movies”. But in the last bunch of years, computer graphics have really come along. I’d argue that there is little (if anything) you can’t do in movies these days.

Subsequently, I gravitated toward the title, “What you can do in comics a hell of a lot cheaper than you can in the movies”. This works for a lot of what we’re gonna talk about, but to simplify it, I threw away any kind of stringent comparative format, we’re just gonna focus on the core strengths of the comic medium, bouncing around with comparisons to its sister mediums (movies and novel fiction) as it fits the discussion.

As a comic is a collaborative effort between 6 distinct roles: Writer, Editor, Penciler, Inker, Colorist and Letterer, the lines of a comic’s core strength do tend to blur among them. For the purposes of this article (as always on this site and in my books) we will be focusing from the writer’s perspective.

Lastly, before we get into it, this is gonna be one of those long articles, appx. 4000 words, (I actually think I’m gonna start referring to them as “epic” in my newsletter so people know they need to grab a full cup of coffee before reading). Today, I’m gonna get down the main ones that jump out in my brain.

All the ones I forget… I’ll come back and add them in at a later time (I’ve already got a follow up list).

#1) A Medium Without Limitations.

Anything you can imagine you can capture in a comic. Thats powerful stuff.

Given the opportunity of complete creative freedom, it almost seems a crime to do something ordinary… something, familiar.

Kinda like the one time you go to the world’s biggest ice-cream factory, with every conceivable flavor and order plain vanilla or chocolate.

Comics are the birthplace of the unfamiliar. A place where imagination rules supreme.

Of course, you can do anything you want in a novel or movie too, but unlike a movie, the costs of production don’t change at all based on what you’re capturing. A NYC dive bar scene, a exterior space station scene and a jungle location shoot all have different costs associated with them in film.

In comics, imagination comes at a flat page rate.

And while novels don’t share the financial commitments of film, they do require a significantly greater time commitment from the reader.

Whether you’re delving into fantastical worlds with a timeless message of good vs. evil, or setting out to challenge the political status quo, never forget comics were born as a medium to entertain. The moment you put an agenda (any agenda) ahead of entertainment, you’re pushing against nearly a hundred years (U.S. Comics) of tradition.

Practical way to exploit this aspect in your work:

It’s easy dummy, get creative.

Don’t go for low hanging fruit—familiar concepts. Give your readers an escape into a new, original exciting world.

If you’re developing a story of limited imagination, say the next Law and Order or a realistic portrayal of Amish high-school. Look in the mirror and say this out loud—seriously. “Ok, this comic isn’t relying on one of the core strengths of comics. I’ve got to work twice as hard and twice as smart to keep my readers engaged.”

In this latter scenario you’ve got to funnel your imaginative energy into all the other aspects of crafting the story. If you don’t, if you don’t recognize compensation is in order, your story will never live up to its full comic potential.

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Comic Pacing Decompression and Compression

In the Working Writer’s Guide to Comics and Graphic Novels I have a section dedicated to pacing. I cover the basics there, discussing the relevancy of panel counts, word counts and the content itself. One of the things I didn’t discuss is the more advanced concept of Decompression vs. Compression.

Whether or not you’re familiar with these two terms, if you’ve written any comics, you’ve already been implementing them.

As comics are not a complete look at an entire narrative, but rather glimpses of the most important (and hopefully entertaining) parts, comic scripting at its heart IS compression. Taking ten pounds of story and stuffing it into a one pound container.

Let’s look at the following scene breakdowns (not panel breakdowns).

Scene 1:

Our cop hero is transporting a criminal. The criminal gets loose in the back and has a wicked fight with our hero. The car crashes, the fight continues outside. Our hero gets splattered with acid, burnt with a flame thrower and his clothes are mostly torn from his body, before the criminal escapes.

Scene 2: Our hero now cleaned up and bandaged, walks into his captain’s office where he’s quickly chewed out for screwing up big time.

There are distinct visual changes between the scenes. Our hero is no longer covered in acid (it must have been washed off somewhere). He secured bandages and applied them to his burns. And found (bought, stole or by some other means procured) a change of clothes. None of which is shown to the reader. The reader (who’s paying attention) knows this all happened because the elements have visually changed. From scene 1, to scene 2, the story’s been compressed.

Technically, any time you condense story youre compressing and anytime you lengthen story youre decompressing.

Think of it as a sliding scale with compression at one end and decompression at the other. When you’re in the middle, creating “standard scenes”—3-5 pages, 3-5 panels per page (see the Scene Sizes article) you’re writing is balanced. Creating shorter scenes pushes you over toward the compression end, whereas, longer scenes send you over to the decompression side.

Pacing in a comic is NOT governed by one aspect alone and content has a lot to do with it. But as a very general rule, we can say, Compression speeds up, Decompression slows.

Closer to the ends of the scale, in the more extreme cases, there are some specific situations we can recognize and pay attention to.

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The Cost of Making Comics

The following article discusses the costs associated with the creative end of comic production, budget brackets, and both successful and unsuccessful methods to reduce these costs.

Before we get into it, I’d like to thank you for purchasing membership to the site and paying for this article. I hope everyone that visits my site recognizes it as a community for comic writers… as such, your support directly allows me the time to put out more articles and engage the community. Thank you.

It’s kind of ironic that my first paid membership article is going to be a very rough, uncomfortable one for many of you. A lot of people in the public forums don’t like me for my bold opinions. As I’ve stated elsewhere, a lot of my own clients grit their teeth when they receive feedback from me. Though they appreciate it at the end, it’s never easy for anyone to get tough love and honest feedback.

I recently finished reading Band of Brothers, by Stephen E. Ambrose… You might have seen the World War 2, HBO mini-series of it. Good book, good series. So the guy who trained Easy Company (the main group of soldiers of the story) was a guy named Herbert Sobel. A real hard ass who everyone in the company hated. But after they went through World War 2, lots of guys had a different opinion on him. One said (off the top of my head) “Sobel made Easy Company. His hard-ass training saved many of our lives in combat.”

Business (and comics) is war.

You may not take a bullet or have to jump out of a plane, but when your hard earned finances are on the line, it might feel just the same.

I’m hard on you boys (and girls, of course) because I want you guys to make it through. I want you to be successful. And telling you everything is peachy, not letting you know what the real world is like out there, while that approach might get me more likes on social media, it won’t get you any closer to your dreams.

So, How much does it cost to make a comic?

The answer I’m about to give will ruffle feathers for sure. There are variables. Lots of them.

A lot of folks will argue it’s almost impossible to answer this question, that there’s no set standard definition of a comic (for purposes of this article, we’re talking print books, not web comics). One guy drawing stick figure scribbles is just as much a comic as the latest Marvel book.

Art is subjective. And the value of art is prone to follow such subjectivity.

Who’s to say Scribbles is “wrong” for charging $200/page. And even if we all think he’s crazy, what if he actually finds someone to pay it? Shows what we know

So how can you quantify a universal price structure if one guy publishing doodles is considered the same product as a team of veteran professionals at marvel? You can’t, not really

But since saying “there is no standard budget for comic creation” doesn’t help anyone with anything, we can do better than simply guessing in the dark.

The most accurate method may be to collect portfolios and page rates from various artists and assign your own personal ranking of quality. After you’ve collected a good body of portfolios (and page rates) you should be able to gauge what costs will yield what quality books.

But there are problems with this method.

You have to know the artists (or at least where they are). You may have particular trouble contacting and getting rates from established pros, so that half of the equation may be lost to you. Overall it takes a lot of time for this type of due diligence. And most importantly, you might not have an eye for gauging quality.

In my article Writing for Free and Being a Shmoo, I link a page rate breakdown from bleeding cool that somewhat represents this approach. It’s one of the more accurate comic page rate breakdowns I’ve seen around the web.

But for folks coming to comics with little experience, I prefer to look broadly at budgets by focusing on another part of the equation.


If you have your finger on the pulse of how long it takes to produce a single comic page. You can multiply this figure by a generic hourly rate based on experience (I know, nobody goes by hourly—relax) and come up with a usable benchmark.

Here are the steps of traditional print comic production and my rough estimate of time required per page.

  • Writer 2 hours / page
  • Editor .5 hour / page
  • Penciler 8 hours / page
  • Inker 6 hours / page
  • Colorist 5 hours / page
  • Letterer .5 hour / page
  • Production Artist .5 hour / page
  • TOTAL: 22.5 hours production time per page

Before you bark about the numbers. Of course there is variance. A LOT OF VARIANCE.

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Conversation Vs. Dialogue

In Writing Natural Dialogue, I discuss a number of focal points to do just that. In this article we’re gonna discuss an important common problem and dive into a more advanced approach of structuring dialogue.

Understanding the difference between conversation and dialogue is key to good writing (especially in comics).

I see a lot of scripts these days where writers try to be uber-stylish and inject their scripts with natural sounding conversation. I call this the Tarantino effect. And it doesn’t work in comics.

I read a mainstream comic, from a well known writer a while back and for a few panels he had the main character repeating “Fuck.” Yeah, if my dog runs off into the woods, I’ll chase after him saying fuck, fuck, fuck. But who wants to read that story? That dialogue is empty, it’s literally, wasted space (as we’ll discuss in a minute).

Storytelling is not reality, its hyper-reality, dramatized-reality. Reality with a point youre trying to express.

The Tarantino effect doesn’t work in comics because, a) actor performances compensate in the movies (see Works in the Movies, Not in Comics), and b) Tarantino has his “A” game on when it comes to subtext and loading up his conversation dialogue with other elements of story. (Off the top of my head, I’d say he primarily showcases character development/personality, but I’ve never really analyzed his work). Whatever his formula, it’s his skillset… a very special talent and the reality is most folks can’t get there without a lot of time and effort honing their craft.

To avoid the Tarantino effect, I strongly suggest you establish yourself as a writer able to deliver solid dialogue before considering developing a conversational style.

So what’s the difference between Conversation and Dialogue and how can we capture the latter and avoid the former? First let’s define them.

Conversation is casual, spur-of-the-moment. The pace may meander. Subtext may be minimal or non-existant. It may have low or no significance.

Dialogue on the other hand is premeditated. It may sound natural, but its not natural. Every facet of it WORKS towards an end.

As a writer you always have to know at any given moment what that end is. If you don’t, if you have two or more characters talking and no clear intent in mind, you’ve got conversation—a waste of real-estate and a build toward potentially losing the reader.

Think of your dialogue as soldier about to drop out of Boeing C-17 over enemy territory. The more you know the intent of what you want to convey, the clearer the soldiers mission.

Each element of story you bring work into the dialogue makes the soldier more combat effective.

You reflect the story theme in your dialogue, you’ve just given your soldier an extra magazine. You pay attention to the pacing, slap on another. Foreshadowing plot, that’s a grenade. Subtext—give that solider a razor-sharp Ka-bar!

Beyond all the elements of story (everything discussed within this site and the books) we can bring to bear in dialogue, beyond the 9 points discussed the Natural Dialogue article, there are a few key more advanced considerations to keep your dialogue out of the realm of conversation:

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Outline Development

If you’re not running your writing with an outline, you’re either a genius talent or a lazy bastard… either way, I don’t like you.

You probably didn’t even bother to read my article Outline Basics. Shame, shame, shame, I know your name.

For the rest of us hard-working mortals, outlining is a critical step in the creative process. As I discuss in the above article (and Storycraft for Comics) outlines arrive first, in the simplified Skeletal form (basically a beat sheet) and second, in a more Comprehensive long form.

Since Skeletal outlines are fundamentally shorthand notes, there’s not too much to go over there as far as how you put down your details (the structural points themselves are the important part—different conversation)… but when you move into Comprehensive outlining… it’s crucial to work efficiently.

A cumbersome comprehensive outline, can quickly turn into an unwieldy document and make your life much more difficult than it should be.

To keep your Comp Outlines on point, keep the following categories of detail in mind:

  • Outline Level Details. (points that need further elaboration when scripted)
  • Script Level Details. (points that can be directly set into the final script)
  • Superfluous Details. (points that don’t appear in the script)
  • Backstory Details. (points that don’t appear directly in the script)

If you suffer from ADD and can’t continue to read, here’s the Cliffsnotes—use Script Level Details as little as possible and Superfluous details even less.

I’ll use “Robot Kids” the (deliberately badly titled) sample story and outline from Storycraft for Comics as an example.

In the skeletal outline for Robot Kids, I have the Inciting Decision structural point listed as simply “Molly saves Kai.”

For the purpose of a Skeletal Outline, no further detail is relevant to structuring the story. To understand the story, we don’t need to know how Molly does it… The key point (at that point in the creative process) is that we know the one main character saves the other. This is an Outline Level Detail (or more simply put, a basic concept beat).

Now when I build out the Skeletal Outline to the Comprehensive Outline, I might turn “Molly saves Kai” into:

“The cyborg cops capture Kai, restrain him and load him into a transport truck. Enroute to Central City, Molly intercepts the truck on her hover-cycle. Using her bionic gadgets and the help of Iblii, her mutant flying squirrel, she disables the truck and frees Kai. Together they flee into the toxic swamp where the cyborg cop pursuers refuse to give chase.”

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Character Personality

I’m working on a new character breakdown, trying to capture his personality in ink, so I have a strong foundation when I start scripting him. What do you think of what I have so far?

Heres Johnny!

  • Johnny is not just smart, he’s SUPER smart.
  • Since his near death experience, Johnny’s held a deep appreciation for life and values every moment.
  • Johnny struggles to get out of his dad’s (a world-famous NASA astronaut) shadow.
  • He’s often overwhelmed by strong personalities.
  • And is tight lipped about his shady past.

Is Johnny’s personality coming through?

Does this sound like someone YOU could capture in dialogue?

Many folks would say sure, but if you’re a regular reader of my site, you know the kung fu we practice here is an ancient and powerful art. And rarely do we accept things as they first appear.

The fundamental building block of story is characters. If your characters aren’t engaging, if nobody empathizes with them, your story is DOA (Dead On Arrival—good movie—the original 1950 one).

Throughout this site (and my books) I put a lot of emphasis on developing and showcasing character personalities (and their arcs, but that’s a different discussion).

I realized the other day, personality is something we take for granted. A critical aspect often overlooked or muddled up when writers sit down to structure their characters.

A little clear direction in detailing your characters’ personality will go a long way in creating an effective, engaging cast and dramatically improve your writing.

So first, let’s define personality…

Personality: Characteristics and qualities that form an individual’s distinctive character.

Personality really comes down to expression. Any way we express ourselves, is a conduit to reveal personality.

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