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TPG Week 174: When Pacing Is The Only Thing Wrong

| April 25, 2014

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Welcome back to another installment of The Proving Grounds! This week, we have a new Brave One in Michael Mourounas! Let me also introduce a man who needs no introduction, as he was my first helper here at The Proving Grounds: Yannick Morin! Steve Colle is still on sabbatical, and will be for the near future, and Yannick has graciously stepped in to fill the void. So, we’ve got Yannick in green, I’m still in red, and let’s see what Michael does with

 

 

FORCED MARCH

 

PAGE ONE – 3 panels, one large across the top, and the others dispersed however is best (Funny you should phrase it that way because “however is best” is exactly how the artist is going to do it, no matter what you tell him. As a writer, the only power you have over layout pertains to the way it affects the story. Number of panels is the best example. Another example would be to require a larger panel for an establishing shot, but then again if your artist is any kind of competent, he’ll understand that establishing shots usually require larger panels. Moral of the story: stick to panel descriptions and dialogue and leave the layout to the artist. He’s as much a creator as you are and you’re just encroaching on his territory when you tell him how to build the page.)

 

Panel 1. A forest at night. Three soldiers crouch in a foxhole as mortar rounds splinter the surrounding trees. They are dressed in tattered US World War II uniforms. (I like this. As an opening establishing shot, it works. We have a WHERE, we have a WHEN, we have a WHO and we have a WHAT. The HOW can be surmised from the dialogue that follows so you get a pass. However, there’s just one little detail about the WHERE that could be specified: the Americans fought in more than one theater during WW2. A temperate European, a North African, a Scandinavian and a Pacific Island forest are widely different – sort those out for your artist.)

 

SFX:

HISSSS

KRAKOOM! (Sound effects rarely use exclamation marks, especially those already understood as loud noises like this one.)

 

SOLDIER 1

We’ll be sleeping in body bags by sun up for sure.

 

YOUNG HANS: (An American WW2 soldier named Hans? Not impossible, but highly improbable, especially in a work of fiction where nothing is left to chance. In fiction, everything has meaning for the reader, even the things you didn’t ascribe meaning to as a writer. So make sure you don’t inadvertently throw red herrings into the batch. Give me a WW2 setting and a guy named “Hans” and I – along with most of your readers – will assume that 1. the guy is German and 2. it has bearing on the story. Which it doesn’t as we find out by reading on.)

You’re leaving this hole alive, Private!

 

SOLDIER 2

C’mon, Hans. (Nice organic name drop.) You knew we weren’t leaving the minute you started to dig. (It’s not that big of a deal if you want to use double-spacing after a period in your panels descriptions. However, please use single-spacing in your dialogue, otherwise the letterer will have to fix your copy before he can use it.)(It’s just easier to use single spacing all the time. You don’t see double-spacing anymore except from those who haven’t been told the new standard. Single is the new standard.)

 

Panel 2. A close shot of Hans’ eyes, grey with cataracts, their expression one of surprise, as if just pulled from a dream. The signs of old age are apparent. (I know what you’re trying to do: you’re going for a match cut. The problem is that you’re missing at least a panel for it to work. In order to properly show what you asked in the first panel, the artist had to pull the camera back. Now it’s all the way in to show old Hans’s eyes. Apart from the name, there’s nothing linking the previous panel to this one. That’s why you’d need an extra panel to first show young Hans’s eyes – probably a medium shot – and then transition into old Hans’s eyes.)

 

DOCTOR (OP)

Hans?

 

Panel 3. A view of Hans’ hospital room, and the near-future city below it. Hans stands before a large window looking out, dressed in a hospital gown and clearly leaning on a movable rack of fluid bags. The Doctor sits in a small chair near the empty bed. (Is it night or day? I only know it’s day because people have dinner later on. Another question: where is the camera? Is it outside the window looking in, thus showing Hans facing us and allowing us to see his expression? Or is it inside the room, behind Hans, thus showing us the futuristic view? Both are important here – Hans’s expression to convey meaning to his line and the view to give us a sense of the setting – but unless you’re working with a stellar artist who can suggest some visual tricks to circumvent your dilemma (cutaway view? outdoor setting reflected in window with facing character? character’s face reflected in glass over futuristic vista?), you’ll have to choose. This all stems from the fact that you called for a shot of something small and detailed (the contents of a hospital room) and of something vast and imprecise (a whole city) in the same panel. It’s bound to have your artist scratching his head.)

 

(And don’t let me start about where the doctor will fit into all this.)

 

DOCTOR

What’s on your mind?

 

HANS

The bombshells . . . I miss them the most. (Remember when I said everything could have meaning for the reader? This is a perfect example. By putting emphasis on the word “them,” you immediately set up an opposition in the reader’s mind. He misses them unlike what? His war buddies? You haven’t spent enough panels showing us any significant relationship with them. Other people like his wife and son? The following pages show that he doesn’t seem to have let them go in his heart. And you don’t make him into a Nick Fury-like grizzled old war hound that has nothing to live for except warmongering. So this whole line in fact is allowing us to read a lot more into this comic than what you had intended. Anyway, this is one case where emphasis can surely be left out. And knowing Steven, he’ll tell you to drop it for ALL of your dialogue since it’s too dangerous for people’s reading of the lines to differ from yours and thus pull them out of the story.) (Yannick knows me so well, folks…!)

 

P1 is down!

As a page, this generally works. I’m with Yannick on the missing panel for the match cut. Only three panels to this page? You’ve got space for 2-3 more, because you have so little dialogue. And you’re going to need that space in order to give this page what it needs in order to be fleshed out.

A competent artist would turn this into at least a five-panel page, adding a panel for the match cut, and another panel for the setting of the city. This leaves you holding the bag somewhat for the dialogue, but that’s okay. Dialogue can be added later. (The unspoken caveat being that the dialogue be good.)

I like the organic name drop, but I’m with Yannick in that the name Hans just doesn’t ring true. Not for the Allies. Automatically, readers will think that he’s German, and, in being German, that he’s Axis.

Again, this page generally works, but the pacing is off a bit. That’s the biggest problem with this page.

PAGE TWO – Five panels, the largest on the bottom. (Like I told you before, any artist worth his salt will build a layout that lends the most importance to what needs it. Your job is to make it clear what’s important. Don’t forget that the artist is a storyteller in his own right and, as such, he too has ways to bring out the best in the narrative, ways you, as a writer, might not have thought off.)

 

Panel 1. The Doctor sits studying a chart, behind him a battery of blinking monitors and machinery. A young man of 35.

 

DOCTOR

Have you given anymore (two words: “any more”) thought to what we’ve discussed? (There’s an entire discussion about anymore vs any more. Right now, I’m with Yannick about its usage here.)

 

HANS (OP)

That’sAll I doanymore is think anymore, Doc. (Fixed this sentence so it made sense. Also, here’s another good example of emphasis pulling readers out of the story. The way I had read it, the emphasis went on “think,” but then I saw it was on “do” instead. Better take the emphasis out then and not risk having your reader go “buh?”)(Or, it could be on “all,” which is where I would have put it. Two different readers putting the emphasis in two different places.)

 

Panel 2. A shot of the hallway outside Hans’ room. Elderly patients wait against the wall, eyes on the floor. One is breath-masked and lying unconscious on a cart, pushed by a nurse with a blank expression. (I like this shot. It uses contrast between image and dialogue to bring another layer of meaning to the doctor’s lines. This shows that you understand subtext and can apply it to comic writing. I wish more authors would grasp that concept. The only thing: have the door to Hans’s room appear in the shot with Hans in silhouette against the window’s light. This links the shot with the one before and helps the reader transition between panels. Always try to have at least one element that links your consecutive shots together.)

 

CAPTION/DOCTOR

There have been a number of new developments concerning your treatments. Nanotechnology has gotten more stable. More efficient.” (First, take out the quotes. Quotes in captions denote that the speaker is not present in the scene. It’s a voice-over. Now that this notion is out of the way, get rid of the caption box and use a tailless speech balloon instead. When characters speak through captions, it’s seen as internal monologue, which this isn’t as it’s clearly spoken as part of the conversation between the two characters.)(Wellllll… I’m gonna disagree with Yannick. The voice-over was used correctly, just the way it is. The caption with the quotes is correct in that a person is speaking out loud to another, and that person isn’t in the immediate vicinity of the shown panel to warrant a word balloon. Would I have gone tailless with a word balloon here? Maybe. But I wouldn’t say that what’s here is incorrect.)

 

Panel 3. A shot outside of the hospital. Nameless suited men and women walk with rushed paces, cell phones to their ears. A bustling city around them. (This however doesn’t work. You’re trying to go with the same technique as in your previous panel, but three things prevent it from being effective. First, there’s no real relation between the dialogue and the art, either in opposition or in conjugation. Second, nothing links this to the previous panel or even the one before; the shot could come from an entirely different story. And third, your camera is moving too far and too fast. You took us out into the hallway, now you need to bring us back in again, not fling us to some random location. This is a VERY short comic. You don’t have the panel-count to waste on sight-seeing.)

 

CAPTION/DOCTOR

It’s not unreasonable to think we could extend your life expectancy another ten years beyond what was previously thought possible.” (If you were to keep this shot, the quotation marks would work here because the doctor is absent form the depicted scene. But this panel needs to change anyway.)

 

Panel 4. Hans turns slightly toward the Doctor, smirking.

 

HANS

Doc, I’m 157 years old already–

 

Panel 5. A graveyard. Hans in a black suit standing before a gravestone that reads the following: Elizabeth Jeager, 1923 – 2032, Beloved Mother & Wife. (Too much, too soon in too little space. If your earlier romp through the city was a slight bend in your story’s flight-plan, this is a huge detour that will have you running out of fuel and crashing. In the space of a single page – which I’ll remind you is a full quarter of your comic – you’ve had the camera visit four separate locations (three if your count the hallway as part of the same location as the room but still). Don’t jerk your reader around like this; you’re going to give him narrative whiplash. If you want to make sure the reader doesn’t get pulled out of a short story, limit your locations to as few as possible. Right now, we have the WW2 setting, the futuristic hospital, and later the doctor’s house. Stick to those. Another reason to not use this shot is that it doesn’t bring anything useful to the story. Like I always say, writing comics is the art of cramming cargo ships of story into a thimble of space; it’s even truer for short comics, and doubly so for something that’s half the size of your run-of-the-mill short. What do you want to convey here? That his wife died a long time ago. Actually seeing her grave is unnecessary. What can you do that conveys the same idea but keeps the story rooted to the same location? Here’s my suggestion. Panel 4: instead of just smirking, Hans looks down at his hand. Panel 5: close up on his hand where we can see him rubbing a tarnished wedding band. Done.)

 

CAPTION/HANS

–Whatever I had worth living for was taken from me long ago.

 

P2, and it’s all about the pacing.

That’s what Yannick is talking about here. The pacing of the page is off. Since the previous page was off, that means that half the story has pacing issues.

When you’re writing, you have to think what images will not only tell the story you want to tell, but will also affect the reader in a way that you wish. These panels don’t do it. (I do like Yannick’s suggestion, though. It’s pitch-perfect for what’s being said.)

This story is only four pages. Ultra-short. Want it to be more effective? You have to raise the panel count a bit, and you have to be extremely judicious in the panels you show.

I always go back to Amazing Fantasy 15 when I talk about pacing. It’s the debut of Spider-Man, we all know that, but that story is not a full 22 pages. It’s 11 pages, and told in 2 parts (5 and 6 pages, respectively). We got an entire origin story for a character that’s lasted decades, and it was done in 11 pages. Every panel pushes the story forward. That isn’t the same here. Your dialogue works, but the images you’re showing don’t.

I could start to have a connection with the story, but the images are stopping me. They’re not pushing me away, but they aren’t connecting me to the dialogue.

Everyone knows that I love movies. Some movies should never have existed (Beverly Hills Cop III), and others are just sublime in their terribleness (Plan 9 From Outer Space). A memorable movie with good dialogue that would have been better if the scenes were a bit different: the 1984 version of Dune. I mean, come on! Who didn’t want to be the Kwisatz Haderach, or at least have weirding weapons? However, there were some scenes that don’t work as well as they could have, despite the dialogue.

That’s what’s going on here. You have some decent dialogue, but you’re hampering yourself with what you’re choosing to show.

PAGE THREE – Four panels, however fits best. (Yup.)

 

(This whole page feels off to me. I understand what you’re going for, but it seems to me there would be a more effective way to go about it. Let’s see what we can do…)

 

Panel 1. The Doctor, still sitting, now looks at Hans who is off panel. Visibly frustrated. (Why is the doctor still sitting down in this panel and getting up in the next? If you want him up to join Hans at the window, you should have done it in the previous page, where there was enough focus elsewhere to make it plausible to take the time to stand up while off-panel (instead of magically teleporting like he does here). The page-turn also helps “bury” this action in a physical transition of the comic.)(This isn’t a page turn. Eyes just move over to the right off of P2.)

 

DOCTOR

What about your son? Isn’t he something worth living for. (Interrogation mark instead of period) (Why only have the doctor in this shot? Why have only him talking? What is so important that you need to focus on him? I think Hans is equally if not more important and, as such, I feel like you should move his next line up into this panel and make both characters present in the shot.)

 

Panel 2. A shot from outside the window, with Hans in the foreground and the Doctor behind him, now standing. (You’re about to go back into flashback mode, back to WW2. Instead of just flipping the channel for a second, ease your reader into the flashback with a match cut and back out again. This will ensure that your flashback is more organically embedded into your very short comic. Otherwise, it’s just another jarring jerk of the steering wheel. Thus, in this panel, let the sunlight splash across the character’s faces.)

 

HANS

My son’s an old man now, Doc. With a family of his own, and no time for an artifact that can’t stay buried.

 

DOCTOR

And what of the sunset then? Surely that beauty is not lost on you! (If this line were alone in the panel – as I suggested – it would have a lot more dramatic weight.)

 

Panel 3. A ruined French town. A young Hans witnesses the sunset from the back of a military jeep on the eve of some great victory. (If you show Hans from the back here, it’s as if the camera swung 180 degrees in space AND in time, thus better superposing the doctor’s previous line onto Hans’s memory of that time he survived mortars to see another sunset.)

 

CAPTION/HANS (Now is the time to use quotation marks since the speaker is located in another time and place. If you don’t, it looks as if Hans is just thinking these lines instead of speaking them to the doctor. But a tailless balloon would work here also or, better yet, a speech balloon whose tail extends from the previous panel.)

No. Not lost. Never lost.

 

Panel 4. Back in the hospital room. Hans has finally turned toward the Doctor. His skin is nearly transparent, revealing the blood vessels underneath. His mouth is smiling. (Don’t forget the sunlight again to ease back out of the flashback.)

 

HANS

But I’ve seen more than my fair share. Wouldn’t want to be greedy, now would we?

 

P3, and I’m still not connecting.

Another problem with the story is that there isn’t a lot of dialogue, and I’m not happy with the amount of stressors here. Once in a while is fine, but right now, there are too many.

Stressors are a strange beast. Yannick and I have already demonstrated that different readers will put stress on different words, leading you as the writer to be “wrong,” and as soon as you are, the reader comes out of the story a bit. Not fun for the reader, and not “good” for your storytelling abilities.

I personally try not to put stressors anywhere unless absolutely necessary. What this does is it allows the reader to put stress wherever they wish, but when you use it sparingly (like paprika), then your reader will be more likely to put the stressor where you want it, instead of where they want it.

See what I did there? I put in a stressor, but since I haven’t used one before, you read it where I wanted you to read it. Even though most of my words have a lilt and thrust all their own, because I haven’t used a stressor overmuch, you read it the way I wanted you to read it.

Stressors, to my mind, are best used when there is little to no chance of getting it “wrong.” Using the sentence where I used the stressor, there is little chance of a reader putting the stress anywhere except where I put it. Sure, there is a place or two before then where I could have used one, but I refrained, and I pulled it out for use at the last possible instant.

There is no hard and fast “rule” for using stressors. It comes with time. But the fewer you use, the fewer instances you have to be “wrong,” and the more your reader will enjoy your tale.

PAGE FOUR – Six panels, arranged as such: two small, one wide, two small, one wide. (Leave that to the artist.)

 

Panel 1. The Doctor’s flat, the hallway as he takes off his coat. His son Alex rushes to meet him in the foreground. (I understand you have little space to spare, but this is quite an abrupt transition form one location to the other. Have you considered making this panel an establishing shot of the building and then show the doctor being greeted by his wife in the next panel?)

 

ALEX (Making this panel an establishing shot means this line here would be OP.)

Dad!

 

Panel 2. The Doctor’s Wife greets him, their son still beside. We see only their legs and feet. (Why? Why show only their feet? Especially since one of the most important lines of this comic is in this panel. That “Worth living for” is the indicator marks the change in the doctor’s viewpoint. Isn’t that the whole point of your ending? To show how meeting a man who has lived too long has changed the doctor’s stance on immortality? By showing feet instead of the doctor, you’re robbing the reader of a crucial piece in your story’s mechanics. Heck, this line alone is worth isolating in its own panel.)(Extremely true. Every word.)

 

WIFE

How was your day, Honey?

 

DOCTOR

Worth living for.

 

Panel 3. Dinner. The Wife and son sit across from each other, with the Doctor at the head in the middle. The flat is very modern and very expensive. They each look only at their food. (Moving the action to the dining room a few minutes later doesn’t accomplish anything. The dialogue here could very well be spoken right after the previous exchange, in the same location.)

 

ALEX

I met a girl at school today. Her name is Lynda.

 

WIFE

Don’t forget, Alex. Tonight are your shots.

(Mmm. I wouldn’t say that this dialogue could be in the same location, but I wouldn’t call this scintillating dinner conversation, either.)

 

Panel 4. A dimly lit bedroom in the Doctor’s flat. This shot is POV from the Doctor’s eyes, looking down at the injection gun resting in his hands. (Three problems here…)

 

(First, how is the reader supposed to understand that the location has changed if you start with a POV shot on an object in someone’s hands?)

 

(Second, another location change? This is your third location in almost as many panels. In a four-page comic. This is too much. Writing short comics isn’t about scrunching up a regular-sized comic into a smaller page-count. It’s about taking what is ESSENTIAL to the story and present it in an effective and elegant way. I’m using “essential” here in its primary meaning, as in what constitutes the essence of the story. It’s not about the people with cellphones; it’s about the possibility to live longer. It’s not about standing at his wife’s grave; it’s about missing her. It’s not about having dinner and putting the kids to bed; it’s about whether we really do live the life we have. That last point could be better served by having your whole page occur in the same hallway. In fact, it will come across as more eloquent and powerful because the reader will focus on what is going on between and inside characters rather than on how to follow them from room to room.)

 

(Finally, why be so literal? You went and did the same thing with his wife’s grave above. It’s not because injections are mentioned that you need to show us the injector. I know you’re capable of more subtlety because you’ve done it already with the panel in the hospital hallway.)

 

DOCTOR

You know what?

 

Panel 5. A close shot of Alex. A look of confusion and fear in the moonlit darkness.

 

ALEX

What?

 

DOCTOR (OP)

I don’t think you need this tonight. (Here’s a problem with dialog placement and pacing. The most important part of this exchange is the doctor’s answer. The previous two lines (“You know what?” and “What?”) are just setup. If you want to lend the answer more dramatic weight, you need to isolate is in its own panel. There’s also an issue with the art accompanying the lines. In any good comic, the art and dialogue will play off each other, each conferring to the other a power they couldn’t have on their own. Here, the setup lines should show Alex’s worried face, thus allowing us to share his worry before the revealed answer. Then, when the doctor’s line comes, we need to see his face, as this panel is the manifestation of the character having been transformed by the storyline. It’s about him changing, not about his son getting shots or not. It’s the payoff for the entire comic so it needs to be given central stage.)

 

Panel 6. The Doctor and Alex sit across from each other, the moon and the city skyline through the window between them. (Want a cool thematic echo? Make it a sunset instead. You’ll tie back into the exchange with Hans and drive further home the idea of making each sunset be worth it instead of accumulating as many as you can.)

 

DOCTOR

Tell me more about this girl from school . . . (Make this an ellipsis instead of three periods separated by spaces.)(Why is it that, as a “writer,” you don’t know basic punctuation? Why is it that there are a lot of “writers” that don’t know basic ending punctuation?)Tell me more about Lynda.

 

(Like I said, rewrite this page, setting it all in the hallway. That way, we can focus on the story rather than the change in locations.)

 

(One last thing: reconsider how useful the character of the wife is to the comic. In short stories, you should always strive for the bare minimum in quantity of elements while going for the maximum in quality of meaning. That means if you can eliminate something and still get your point across, that means it was garbage in the first place and you should get rid of it.)

 

This page had the most panels of any in the story. You know why? Because you had a little bit more story to tell, but you didn’t want to go to five pages, so you “crammed” more story in the last page. We’ll talk about it more in the rundown.

 

Speaking of which…

 

Format: Flawless Victory! There isn’t anything else that can be said. Good work.

 

Panel Descriptions: I didn’t say it, but they could use a little beefing up. Not by much, don’t get me wrong, but just a little. At least for the establishing shots. Everything else can be left alone as long as the establishing shots give everything they’re supposed to.

 

Pacing: This is the biggest problem with the entire piece.

 

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: pacing, from largest to smallest, is the amount of scenes in a story, the amount of pages per scene, the amount of panels per page, and the amount of words per panel/page/scene.

 

What you did was have a small amount of panels per page at the start, and then had to “cram” panels for the final page, but at the same time, you didn’t show everything you needed to in order to make the story as effective as possible. You went around the world a few times, when what you needed to do was to keep it all local.

 

You’re telling a short story, and you want it to be powerful. You’ve done part of that by keeping the cast of characters relatively small, but it could be even smaller by not traipsing hither and yon. Keep it compact. You didn’t do that, and thus, are squandering the power you could have built in your story.

 

Pacing isn’t just about numbers, it’s also about what you show. You didn’t show the powerful scenes (as well as enough of them) when you should have. Thus, the dialogue, which was pretty decent, wasn’t used to best effect. Again, Dune. (I’ve read the books, I’ve seen the movie as well as the mini-series. The mini was a better adaptation. Compare and contrast the two iterations and you’ll see what I mean. The mini-series has a better pace because it was allowed to breathe more.)

 

This story doesn’t need breathing room. It needs better choices by the writer when picking the panels to show. This is part of pacing.

 

Dialogue: Pretty decent. There isn’t much I would change. Learn ending punctuation. I say this a lot more often than I should. (And if I have to say it once, that’s a lot more often than I should.) I don’t expect perfection, but we live in the internet age. We have instant access to more information than any human knows what to do with. Use it.

 

Content: As a reader, this would be a story I could get behind and say good things about, after it goes through an editorial process. This is a story that I wouldn’t be sad that I read. Definitely worth the time.

 

Editorially, this needs some work, basically on the pacing. I’ve beat that horse to death, however, that’s really the only thing that needs fixing. Everything else would be tweaked a bit off of that.

 

And that’s it for this week! Check the calendar to see who’s next!

 

Also, we’re getting close to the end of our scripts! Submit now, because the wait isn’t long!

 

Like what you see? Sam and Yannick are available for your editing needs. You can email Sam here and Yannick here. My info is below.

 

Click here to make comments in the forum!

 

 

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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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