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TPG Week 93: Learning To Write Is A Hard Process

| October 5, 2012

It’s another installment of The Proving Grounds, and this time around, we have Tim Berry as our Brave One. It’s going to be LOTS of blue and red. Elderberries and leaches. So, it’s Steve Colle in blue, me in red, and we’ll see what happens from there!

 

Page One (five panels)

 

Panel 1. View inside a diner, evening. Here we meet Charles LaFortune. Caption in upper left hand corner for his name. (The caption is the letterer’s job and should be kept separate as CAPTION: CHARLES LAFORTUNE.) He is seated at the bar. A few seats down is a nondescript blonde woman looking at Charles. (Give us more description here. Is this a long shot or medium shot? Where is Charles seated at the bar? Is he on the left or right of the panel so we see him first or the length of bar first with him last? Is he centered? What are some of the conditions of the diner? Where is the woman seated in relation to Charles? Give us more than you have so we can get a better picture. Don’t be minimalist.)

 

Panel 2. Charles is looking down at his plate of food. Camera is in the seat next to him, looking down the bar. (If the camera is in the seat next to Charles, how do we see him eating his food? Which side of Charles is the seat on, left or right? He’s supposed to be in the shot, but that would mean that, in order to see him eating, the camera can’t be in the seat as that would make it too low in the shot. Is it actually at chest level or higher? Be more specific.)

 

Panel 3. Charles is still sitting at the bar, looking up at the waitress as she talks to him. The waitress has her breasts at his eye level. Same camera view as the last panel.  (I don’t get it. You’re introducing the waitress with her breasts at Charles’ eye level, which means that the previous panel’s shot needs to be at his eye level as he’s sitting. Is he hunched over? That’s the only way his eyes would be on her chest. Is the waitress directly in front of him? If so, then it’s not the same shot because you were looking down the bar/counter.)(And the waitress? Magically delicious.)

 

WAITRESS: How you doin’ (comma-fail) handsome? (Who served him if it wasn’t the waitress? This shouldn’t be their initial contact as he already has his food in front of him.)

 

CHARLES: … (Silence is silence, not in a word balloon. If you’re going to use the silent treatment, break this panel into three, the first asking the initial question, the second without text, and the third asking the next question with the response. That’s the proper use of pacing.)(I disagree. This is fine, because he’s talking in another balloon. This is showing a pause in speech. However, I would have had him answering her question in a balloon directly after this one. It makes the pause more immediate, rather than have her going on with more talking that doesn’t seem to connect to her first balloon.)

 

WAITRESS: Well (Unnecessary to the speech)my shift ends in a couple, (Period instead of a comma) (Capital W for new sentence) wanna get out of here?

 

CHARLES: Sure (Period)

 

Panel 4. Charles and the waitress head to the back door. Camera is behind the two as they push open the dirty metal door. They are surrounded by dirty dishes and trash cans piled with bags of trash waiting to be taken out. (First off, I thought you said the shift ended in a couple, then you jump ahead to them going out the back. Second, why are they going through the kitchen?? That’s wrong, even if she is trying to get him into the back alley. Go out the front, go around the corner of the building to the back alley. This is highly improbable.)

 

Panel 5. They exit into a dirty narrow alley. The ground is wet like it has just rained. Steam is pouring from a ground vent. The door is swinging shut behind them. The street is visible but no cars or people are on it. (This panel is unnecessary, as your hook panel should be Panel 1 of the next page, where she pushes him against the wall like she wants to make out. Hook the reader.)

 

So far I’m not getting into the story. You have a lot of elements that just don’t make sense, such as her dialogue, camera angles, and general lack of proper pacing. I hope it changes.

 

Okay! We’ve got P1 in the books, and methinks anyone who’s been reading these for a while knows what I’m going to say next.

 

This is crap.

 

What’s happening on this page that warrants a reader’s time? I’ll answer that with “Not a blessed thing.”

 

On P1, we have Charles sitting at a bar somewhere. We don’t know what kind of bar. I don’t know where you’re at, Tim, but in America, when I hear the word “bar,” I immediately think of a place where only alcohol is sold and consumed. Some people may think of Applebee’s as a bar, but to me, that’s a restaurant. Basically, I’m in a white void, as will be the unfortunate artist that has been hired to draw this.

 

As for this being a first page, it’s a pretty sorry excuse for one. Out of five panels, there’s only one panel in which someone speaks. And what’s so terrible about it is that what’s being said seems to be extremely improbable as well as having either little bearing on the story, or is just a very transparent excuse to get the reader to move on. And it comes in the middle of the page! Terrible!

 

What should have happened on this page? There are multiple ways that this first page could have been more exciting. The first and biggest thing? The characters have to act. Here, you just have them sitting/standing around with blank looks on their faces. Not good. What’s Charles’ emotional state? I have absolutely no idea, because not only do you not say, you also don’t give any cues about his body language. He could be bored, angry, upset, happy, or anything, really. You don’t say.

 

Who do I have a little bit of insight into? The magically delicious waitress. She’s sounding horny. And bored. Here’s the thing about her, though: most of the time, waitresses are incidental characters, and as such, they wouldn’t show up in a separate document that would give a character description that an artist would do up a design for. If she’s incidental, then she needs to be described. That’s important. The only thing you’ve said is that her breasts are eye-level with Chuck. You don’t say if they’re small, medium, or large, you haven’t said if she’s young or mature, you haven’t said anything about her build. She’s just there, appearing out of nowhere, and she starts talking, propositioning the guy.

 

Note that I haven’t dinged you on not describing Chuck. I’ve only said that you haven’t given him any emotion or anything for the artist to hook into so they can start drawing.

 

The caption? That’s going to make you miss having a flawless victory. The caption is something that’s broken out into its own element. More study is needed. Format is super-easy. This isn’t something that should have been missed.

 

The last thing about this page is this: again, I don’t know where you’re from, but Charles LaFortune is a well-known actor in Canada. Is this a problem? No, not really. I once named a character Conrad Bain, totally forgetting that was the real name of the father in Diff’rent Strokes. (I think I just aged myself there.) If you knew that Charles LaFortune is a well-known actor in Canada and named yours after him, and told people that, then you’re opening yourself up to a lawsuit if Charles takes offense at his “depiction.” Just look at what Todd McFarlane went through with Tony Twist. He lost that case to the tune of millions (a little over a million for damages, as well as his own court costs, and possibly the court costs of Anthony Twistelli, the hockey player Tony Twist was named after).

 

So, something you may want to rethink.

 

Anyway, there are a myriad number of ways that this page could have been more interesting. However, I can’t guide you on it because there’s no emotional content here. Nothing to hook into. If I had that emotional hook, then I could have been able to direct you better. Give me a hook, and I could be better.

Page Two (four panels)

Panel 1. She pushes him against the wall, leaving one hand on his shoulder. Camera is at eye level. Brick wall on the left, the two characters in the middle of the panel. The street is behind them. 

 

Panel 2. Same view as previous panel. The woman is now yelling at Charles. She has a small switchblade knife against his cheek. (This should be a close-up of the two faces, especially given the sudden change in the woman’s attitude. Also, a small switchblade knife isn’t as menacing as a regular one or even a butterfly knife. When I think small switchblade, I picture something to make a small cut, not the kind of damage that would make this a threatening scene.) (That blade? SO magically delicious it isn’t even funny.)

 

WOMAN (Shout or burst balloon): TELL ME WHAT YOU KNOW! (This doesn’t work. You have the woman asking what he did to his wife which is a direct action on his part, but starts out by asking what he knows, which makes his involvement indirect. Decide on which approach you want to take with this as they contradict one another.)

 

CHARLES: What the Hell?

 

WOMAN: WHAT DID YOU DO TO YOUR WIFE? WHERE IS SHE? 

 

Panel 3. Charles breaks loose and runs for the street. Same camera view just elevated above the character height. The woman is standing still watching Charles go, her back is to the camera. Charles is moving toward the street, slightly hunched over as he runs. (The camera now should pull back into a longer shot than the initial one when they first entered the alley. By keeping all three of these last shots the same distance, you’re not utilizing the camera effectively. It makes for a very boring sequence. By the way, why is he hunched over? She didn’t hit him in the stomach or do anything to create this reaction.)(Moving panel. Either that, or teleportation. You need another panel here for pacing.)

 

CHARLES: You crazy… (Double dash instead of ellipsis marks here, as his speech is more rushed instead of casually trailing off.)

 

WOMAN: WE WILL FIND YOU! (Why in the world isn’t she running after him?? She just let him go? After all that, all she can say emptily is WE WILL FIND YOU! You’ve already found him, lady!! Don’t let him get away!!)

 

Panel 4. Charles makes it to the street and skids to a halt. People are walking on the sidewalks. Shops with neon lights cover each side of the streets. Camera is looking down the street, with Charles on the left side of the panel. (Is this mimicking the same shot of him looking down the counter in the diner?) (This is another moving panel. Someone fix the very first line in order to make this a static image.)

 

I’m bored. Where your first page left me scratching my head, this page just makes me want to put the book back on the shelf. It’s all empty threat with a very bad use of camera work. I’m going to continue because I need to, not because I want to.

 

With P2 on the books, we have more terribleness in front of us!

 

Oh, my, where to start?

 

First, this still lacks emotional impact. I can’t get a read on anything, because there’s no emotional investment with any of this. Once again, the characters don’t act.

 

Girl pushes guy against the wall. So? Like Steve said, if you had put it across on P1, it may have had some impact as a page-turn. Like I said, the only hook was her seeming to be horny, so that would be a decent way to turn the page, because we’d then think we’d be treated to at least a liplock (kiss) when we turned the page. Having violence instead would have been nicely jarring.

 

So, he gets threatened with a magical blade, and then he breaks free and runs away. How does he break free? I dunno. What’s his state of mind? I dunno. How’s his emotional state? I dunno. What do I know? I know that we’ve got pacing issues and possibly some combined actions here.

 

The dialogue is terrible. Steve understands this, and gets to the heart of it. Not only is it backwards, it’s also inane.

 

Having the girl tell Charles “tell me what you know” starts a minor mystery. Why is she dressed as a waitress? Why is Chuck being followed? Why did she take him outside to then threaten him with a small knife?

 

Then, other questions start coming into play. Questions that you probably won’t like.

 

Okay, so she’s dressed as a waitress. She knows where Chuck is going to be. So that means she’s part of an organization. What kind of organization is so piss-poor that their “trained” operator is going to make crazy accusations and threaten a guy with a small knife? What organization is so piss-poor that their “trained” operator lets the guy get away without any type of struggle? What organization is so piss-poor that their “trained” operator makes a spectacle out of herself with all the yelling?

 

Another thing that I forgot to mention on P1, but that is more evident on P2: the time of day. You might be able to get away with some screaming in an alley late at night, but during the day? Probably not so much.

 

Also, what kind of alley is this? An alley in a small town is a much different thing than an alley in a big city. Because you’re failing to give details about anything important, the artist is forced to ask. Either that, or they’ll make stuff up themselves, and you’ll be frustrated one way or the other: because they either ask too many questions due to your failure to provide answers that the script should be giving, or because they drew all kinds of things you didn’t “ask” for because you failed to provide answers that the script should be giving. It’s no-win, and it’s all your fault.

 

 

 

Page Three (four panels) (Page break! Flawless victory lost for a second time!)

Panel 1. A man is walking up to Charles. This man is tall and skinny. He is bald but he is wearing a fedora type hat and an overcoat. Dark street behind him with buildings behind him. (What in the hell?! Okay, we finally have someone who’s been described! Not only that, we have something that could be taken as a time of day! If there were a camera angle in here as well, then this would have been the first eminently drawable panel of the lot. It’s still drawable, because the camera angle isn’t 100% necessary, but it would have been nice to “see” what you’re seeing.)

 

Panel 2. The man stops next to Charles and lights a cigarette. Camera is just over Charles shoulder looking at the man. Buildings in the background. (If Steve hadn’t gone on, I’d be stopping right here. The last panel could have been a moving panel, but the argument could be made that it isn’t. This, however, cannot be argued. This is a moving panel.)

 

Two silent panels. How does this get the momentum going? And are these twopanels from the same camera angle with the first having the man further away and the second with him right next to Charles?

 

Panel 3. Camera is in the street looking at the two men as they begin walking and talking. (Are they at a street corner instead, waiting to cross at a red light? That’s the only reason they would start talking as they are total strangers. Otherwise Charles could just ignore and avoid the man by walking ahead. This makes no sense.)

 

MAN: You seem lost.

 

CHARLES: You have no idea. (“Excuse me? Pardon me? What was that? What did you say?” These would all make sense as a response to a sudden comment starting a cold conversation, one that came out of nowhere. The man is being forward and Charles is about to tell him his life story.)

 

Panel 4. Same camera as last panel, new background, as they have been walking. The man has his hand on Charles’ shoulder.  (You’re being very economical with your camera, not wanting to waver from your regularity. There’s no adventure to the distance, angles, viewpoint, or anything else to make the images or the page interesting. And just as an aside, putting his hand on Charles’ shoulder would signal for them to stop walking, not continue walking.)

 

MAN: Look, I know something is wrong. I can just tell. (Long drawn out dialogue. Say it and get it over with, like “I can tell something is wrong.”)(Okay, sometimes, I’m a drama queen. I get it. I’m not going for drama here. I could say something like, “I just died a little bit in reading this line,” or “I just threw up a little bit in my mouth in reading this line,” but that isn’t helpful. What’s helpful? Tim, this is bad. It isn’t making any sense at all, and because I don’t know where it’s going, I can’t direct you toward having it make sense. But Steve’s suggestions are sound. I think the underlying problem is that besides not knowing how to write for comics yet, you also have no idea as to what pacing is. I’ve written Bolts & Nuts on this very subject. I highly suggest going back and reading the first 12 or so installments of B&N, right here at ComixTribe.)

 

CHARLES: I have no memory before today and some crazy woman just tried to cut me open. (And here’s the life story…)

 

MAN: Well, its (“it’s”) your lucky day.

 

I’m stopping here. It’s not my lucky day, because this is a boring script with nothing of interest to keep me going further. As a matter of fact, I read the entire twenty pages before starting this edit and there’s more nonsense to come, stuff that is so far fetched that I can’t bring myself to comment on it. This is not a good story. Even if it were well written, which it’s not, the content itself is just out there with no interconnection between scenes or characters. Nothing brings the story together. I’m sorry, Tim, but this needs a complete rethinking and definitely some more experience on your part in the facets of writing fiction.

 

Okay, let’s just run this down.

 

Format: This is the best thing I can say about this story. The format was pretty decent. Just a couple of gaffes, but that’s all. However, as I always say, format is the easiest thing to learn. However, this is going to take a LOT more work on your part before this becomes viable. In this instance, format should be the very last thing you learn.

 

Panel Descriptions: Mostly bad. I’m not going to go with terrible, but I’ll say mostly bad.

 

If you had done anything resembling proper establishing shots, then you would have been able to do the scripting shorthand that you generally have here. Without that establishing shot, you’re leaving out a LOT of information.

 

Remember, establishing shots need to answer Who, What, When, and Where. This can spread over two panels. If it doesn’t answer those questions, then you haven’t established anything.

 

Camera angles. Camera angles don’t have to be in every panel description. You can write them in such a way as the camera angle itself is obvious. For those times when it isn’t obvious, then you have to put them in. Wherever the camera is, remember that you’re writing from left to right (for American comics), and generally from top to bottom. Left to right, top to bottom. Generally. If you break this, know why you’re doing it. Make sure it’s for a purpose. If you don’t know why or how, then fall back to it: left to right, top to bottom.

 

Finally, you have to, have to, have to write in static images. You cannot draw an action. The medium won’t allow it. You can give the illusion of action, you can hint at action, you can intimate action, but action cannot be drawn. You have to kill the moving panels. You won’t get what you want if you don’t.

 

Pacing: Sucks. Terrible. Not good to the extreme. Take your pick.

 

There is no pace here. Pacing works like this, broken down from largest to smallest, and they all have to work together: number of scenes in a comic, number of pages in a scene, number of panels in a page, number of words in a panel. Comics have to have an ebb and flow. I’m not seeing any flow here, just an ebb. Not good.

 

Okay. Here we go: what happens within these three pages happens too fast. There’s no setting of anything. You don’t set the scene, you don’t heighten any drama, there’s no emotional content, and then people just start talking and spilling their guts at the drop of a hat.

 

When do we find out that Chuck has amnesia? On P3, after he’s been in a bar, and after he’s been attacked. Who does he tell? Some random stranger that just stops and talks to him. I absolutely love 80s horror movies. Bad acting, improbable actions, terrible dialogue. However, even a bad 80s movie is better paced and more probable than this. (There’s only one movie that I would ever inflict on someone that I truly hated: Malibu Beach Vampires. Bad acting, no plot, and just a terrible waste of film in every way. While this isn’t as bad as that—at least this has a storyline that I could begin to figure out—it’s in the realm of it.)

 

How can you fix the pacing? The first step is to make sure you have a scene in mind, and know what you want to happen in that single scene. Each scene should have a single goal/action assigned to it. Write it out first, as a single sentence. Then, the question becomes, how does the character move from the beginning of the scene to the end of it. If they have to do more than one thing, then you have to cut. If it is too easy for them to accomplish, then you have to add. It takes a little bit of time, but there’s no rush. It’s something that you have to do to improve, though, because the scene is the smallest unit of story in a comic.

 

Dialogue: Readable. It sounds a little stiff, but readable.

 

The main problem with the dialogue is that it doesn’t make any sense, when taken in context of what’s happened. Part of what’s missing is the emotional content, as well. Since no one has any emotion going on, I’m seeing bland-looking people yelling, running, and talking about their plight.

 

More things need to happen (pacing and plot) in order for the dialogue to make sense.

 

Content: Like Steve, I was bored. The reason is that no one has any expression. They’re just going through the motions. The bad thing? There are mysteries that you’re trying to set up, but because you’ve got no emotional content and you’ve got dialogue that doesn’t make much sense, I don’t care about the mysteries. As a reader, I’d be pretty upset if I paid money for this. Money and time. I could get one back, but not the other.

 

Editorially, I’m afraid Steve is correct: you need to learn how to write. It isn’t even learning how to write for comics, but how to write, period. Harsh, I know, but it’s like this: so far, your story has no emotional content, it has no sense of anything moving forward, things just happen because you want them to, and none of it makes sense.

 

My suggestion: work on short stories first. No more than 5 pages. Tell an entire story in 5 pages, with a beginning, middle, and end, and then work from there. I don’t care what medium it is, either: comics or prose. Just make sure that it has a beginning, middle, and end, and is done in 5 pages.

 

Read the first twelve Bolts & Nuts. There are 93 installments, and while I recommend reading them all, the first few should do you the most good.

 

This, Tim, was a drubbing. It seemed as though we didn’t have anything good to say, and generally, we didn’t. Don’t take it as us ganging up on you, being mean, or that we’re just assholes who don’t understand. Take it as a challenge to get better.

 

Liam Hayes needed a lot of work when he first started. However, by continually submitting to The Proving Grounds as well as some private editing, you can literally see his growth. You can do the same thing. I’m seeing the glimmer and the ideas, now it’s time to put in the work so that it comes out the way you want it to.

 

It isn’t easy. However, I believe the rewards are worth the effort.

 

And that’s all we have this week. Check the calendar to see who’s up next!

 

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Category: Columns, The Proving Grounds

About the Author ()

Steven is an editor/writer with such credits as Fallen Justice, the award nominated The Standard, and Bullet Time under his belt, as well as work published by DC Comics. Between he and his wife, there are 10 kids (!), so there is a lot of creativity all around him. Steven is also the editor in chief and co-creator of ComixTribe, whose mission statement is Creators Helping Creators Make Better Comics. If you're looking for editing, contact him at stevedforbes@gmail.com for rate inquiries.

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