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TPG Week 220: Writing Challenge Entry 5

| March 14, 2015

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Welcome back, one and all, to The Proving Grounds! This week, we have Brave One Stewart Vernon. We also have Liam Hayes in blue, and I’m the guy in red.

Like I’ve said a few weeks ago, we have some things going on for the next few weeks. The writing challenge I ran a few weeks ago over at Digital Webbing. The rules were simple:

The story cannot be longer than 5 pages

The story cannot be a tragedy

There must be an artificial intelligence involved

There must be at least 50 words of spoken dialogue

The word “enlightenment” must be in the dialogue

String cheese must be an object, not just mentioned

We good? Let’s see what Stewart has with

Life’s Cheeses

Page 1

Three equally-sized panels on this page.

  1. Panel 1

Full width of page, 1/3 of page in height. (You’re going out of your way to control the artist. Back off a little.) Street level view, looking slightly towards the sky (Time of day?) from the front of the National Institute of Proficiency Studies. External of building is traditional 20th century three-story library-like in appearance, name of building in large letters over the main entrance. Main entrance has multiple entry/exit door. Sign/plaque in front of building, at bottom of entry stairs, with the same name as on the building. No dialog. (Why is the dialogue direction in the panel description?)

  1. Panel 2

Full width of page, 1/3 of page in height. Just inside main doors. Eye-level view of large waiting room full of people. The room is largely undecorated, clean in appearance with only bean-bag-style couches with lots of teen-aged kids sitting atop them. Boys and girls, filling the room sitting and waiting. No specific dialog, but some crowd murmuring to indicate that there is noise in the room. (More dialogue direction in the panel description. Worse than that, you’ve described dialogue instead of actually putting it into your script. How is the artist supposed to show the crowd murmuring?) (This can be done, it’s just lazy, and won’t come off all that well.)

  1. Panel 3

Full width of page, 1/3 of page in height. Sitting/eye-level zoomed in now on a particular bean-bag couch on the left side of the room, with two boys sitting and talking. (We should see these guys in the previous panel. Also, what are their expressions?) (Are they main characters? If they aren’t, the artist should know. If they are, the artist should know who they are.)

Boy 1: “Did anyone tell you what to expect?”

Boy 2: “No. I asked my parents, but they would not say.”

Hmm… Wasted space on this page. You’ve opened up a minor mystery, but it’s not enough as far as I’m concerned. Beef this page up some more.

Okay. We have P1 down. Don’t we all feel better?

There are things I’m not too happy with, and most of it has to do with the dialogue.

First things first. Dialogue is simple. This isn’t prose. Unless you’re quoting something, or you’re doing a voice-over caption, there are no quotation marks in dialogue. Just don’t do it. It’s more work for the letterer to remove them.

Next, unless that dialogue actually needs stressors, don’t write the dialogue in italics. Again, more work for the letterer. Just don’t do it.

Finally, the last line of dialogue reads extremely stiff. I’m hoping there’s a reason for that, which is why I put it last. (This is me giving Stewart the benefit of the doubt.) How would this be loosened up, Frank?

I’m not overly happy about the control over the panel sizes, but I can let it go. It generally works.

Like Liam said, there’s a minor mystery here (that turn of phrase sounds familiar…), but I’m not sure there’s enough to really get the reader hooked in and turn the page.

That murmuring you wanted? That isn’t going to be represented well. Sure, there can be balloons with squiggly lines in them in order to show that people are talking, but what’s the reason behind it? If they’re talking, then give them actual conversation. Or, show them doing things that causes conversation, and let the artist depict that. When it comes to the murmuring, you’re almost writing prose.

Page 2

Four equally-sized panels on this page. All panels from the same sitting/eye-level point of view established on the last panel of page 1. (Free the artist from their constraints.) (The problem with a four-panel grid is simple: even though we read left-to-right, some readers may want to go down, especially if the letterer puts a balloon on the bottom of panel 1. That’s where the reader’s eye is led. If you take off the artistic shackles, then the artist would better be able to lead the eye with the art, and make the job of the letterer a little easier.)

  1. Panel 1

Still on the two boys talking, still sitting on the bean-bag couch. (Expressions? Actions?)

Boy 1: “I asked my older brother, but he wouldn’t say either.”

Boy 2: “Isn’t that weird?”

This panel could be moved to the previous page to flesh it out.

  1. Panel 2

Same two boys talking, but a girl has approached them and is standing beside where they sit. (Nobody has emotions in this story.) (This could be considered a moving panel as written. As drawn, though, she’s just teleported into view.)

Girl: “Hi, I couldn’t help but hear you two talking…”

Boy 1: “That’s ok, (Okay.) you can join us if you want.”

  1. Panel 3

The girl has now taken a seat in between the two boys on the bean-bag couch.

Boy 2: “We were just saying how weird it is that no one will tell us what is going to happen.” (Kind of forced and repetitious that line. Come at it in a way that makes your repeated information sound fresh.)

Girl: “I know, I can’t find anyone here who knows anything.”

Boy 1: “Or if they know, they will not share.” (These are teenagers, right? Teenagers don’t speak like this.)

  1. Panel 4

The three teens are still talking on the couch, when a voice in the air interrupts them briefly and calls out a name. (More letterer direction!) One of the boys recognizes it as his name and begins to stand. (Moving panel!)

Announcement Voice: “Tommy Kirk”

Boy 1 (hereafter referred as Tommy): (Why not just name him at the start and be done with it?) “That’s me. I guess I’m about to find out what happens.”

Boy 2: “Good luck, Tommy.”

Girl: “Goodbye.” (Teenagers don’t say “goodbye”. They say “bye” or “cya” or “whatever lolz” or something. You’re writing them way too formalized.)

You really need to work on your dialogue. Other than that, the minor mystery is preserved. Let’s see if it can carry you onwards.

P2.

For whatever reason, this scene reminds me of Freddy Vs Jason, where the kids are “trapped” in the institution, and they’re talking. They aren’t necessarily talking in code, but they’re talking about something mysterious.

The same thing is going on, here. The kids are speaking cryptically.

The problem is, specifically as Liam said, kids don’t speak like this. I’ve got teenagers. Hell, I’ve got smart teenagers. They don’t speak like this. Most adults don’t speak like this. It’s killing me.

Finally, characters need to act. These kids sound like they’re zombies, and they’re acting like it, too. They’re literally just sitting around. Are they moving? No. No gesticulations. And they talk like robots.

There are four panels here. This is P2. So far, we have a total of 7 panels, and these kids haven’t moved, and they haven’t really said much. Two pages out of a max of five, and nothing much has happened.

As for the challenge, so far we’ve got at least 50 words of spoken dialogue. There’s still plenty of time for the other things to occur. I just don’t want things to get tight. It’s bad enough that I’m starting to get bored.

Page 3

Six panels on this page, of varying sizes as necessary. (Redundant.)

  1. Panel 1

Standing eye-level view (You’ve a lot of this camera-level dictation. Personally, I let artists pick whichever angle is best. They’re better at it then I am.) from the side as Tommy is walking away from the two friends he had been talking to on the couch, and toward a set of double-doors on the right side of the room. These doors were not previously visible. It is as if they only appeared once he started walking towards them. Tommy is talking to himself as he walks. (That last line is redundant.) (No one else in this crowded room sees the doors, either? Unlikely.)

Tommy: “That’s odd. I don’t remember seeing those doors before.”

  1. Panel 2

Eye-level view from behind Tommy, as he stands in front of the double-doors, reaching out to open them, but before he can do that a flash of light appears in front of him. (Moving panel. It’s also vague. A flash of light? In what sense? How can that be drawn?)

Tommy: “I wonder how I know I’m supposed to go this way.” (I’m not a smart guy. I say this a lot because it’s true. There’s one thing that I do know, though, and that’s bad dialogue. This? This made my stomach flip. It also makes no sense in relation to the moving action of the panel.)

  1. Panel 3

Same view as previous panel, but now both Tommy and the doorway have disappeared. Only a crackling in the air is passing evidence that anything happened, and everyone else in the room seems oblivious. (This is not clear. Not clear at all. You may need two panels, one showing Tommy and the door in full, and one showing them disappeared. As you have this, we’re only seeing the back of Tommy so the people in the room aren’t even visible.)

Sound effect: “Shhhhhzzzzzt”

  1. Panel 4

Eye-level view from the side of a large dark room, Tommy to the left partially in shadows, a table in the center in a brightly lit area, and a barely visible large metallic shine to the right in another dark area. (Nope. This is practically a scene change. You need a page turn for this to be made clear.)

Announcement Voice: “Tommy Kirk. Step forward and make your choice.” (Where is this coming from? Off-panel? The shrine? Is it a caption? (It could just be tailless. I can see that.)

  1. Panel 5

View from the perspective of Tommy, looking down in front of a large buffet table. (Where did this come from?) Many large platters, covered in metallic domes, are on the table.

Tommy: “What am I supposed to choose?” (If we’re looking through his perspective, this is coming from off-panel.)

Announcement Voice: “Tommy Kirk. Make your choice.”

  1. Panel 6

Same view as panel 5, but with Tommy’s hand now pointing towards one of the large covered platters on the buffet table.

Tommy: “That one.”

Announcement Voice: “Very well.”

A lot of issues on this page. I’m still vaguely intrigued, though.

Moving panels, actions that don’t match the dialogue, characters still acting like zombies… The only thing that’s missing is a clown, a stripper, and a can opener for weasel-meat.

There’s a mystery here, though. “What’s going on” is the question on everyone’s mind. The only problem is that it’s being a bit drawn out. Liam may be interested, but I’m bored—even though we’ve changed locations and things may be coming to a head.

We haven’t reached the Line of Demarcation (yet), but my interest is waning.

Guess it’s story time.

I had very little thoughts about what I was going to do after high school. I didn’t know what I wanted to “be” when I grew up, and college didn’t seem like a waste of time, but it did seem very expensive. I grew up only about 20 minutes from Hofstra University, and while I can’t say that I feel like I grew up in a college town, I think that I took having a well-known university in my backyard gave me a sense of entitlement.

My older cousin Jamel went into the Marines right out of high school. He’s a year older than I, so I was still a senior when he came home. He was a reservist, and he told me all the fun things he did while in boot camp. It sounded like lots of fun. I wanted to do it.

I also knew that my hometown was something of a trap. If I didn’t go away, I would never be able to get away, and I knew lots of people who were never going to amount to much of anything. I didn’t want that to be me. I wanted to see something of the world. I wanted to escape the trap.

My parents were okay with the decision. My father understood, but I don’t think my mother really got it. They’re middle-class, struggling to get along, like everyone else. Going to college would have put a huge burden of debt on everyone, and they probably felt like they dodged a bullet with that one. I dunno.

When I went in to the recruiter’s office with my father, they had me take two tests. One was math, one was English. Multiple choice. The head recruiter sat my father down to watch some videos, while I went into a small room to take the mock assessment tests. The first one was math. I forget the time limit on it, but I finished it in about 10 minutes. My father saw me and smiled. The recruiter asked me if anything was wrong. I said no, that I was finished, and handed him the test. He looked incredulous, but I only got two wrong on that one. (Math isn’t my strong suit.) The recruiter was shocked. My father just chuckled and smiled. I was handed the English test, and went back to the room.

I finished that test in about 5 minutes, and scored perfectly on it.

That’s when the recruiter took me seriously. He was thoroughly impressed with the test scores, and he wanted to sign me up as soon as possible. My father laughed some more, seeing the recruiter’s reactions to my tests. I chuckled a bit as well.

Eventually, I went on to take the ASVAB. That was a long, boring test. My first recruiter had moved on to a different office, and I had another one take my case. She told me that I could have any job I wanted, as long as it wasn’t working on a car. (I have almost zero mechanical aptitude or interest.) She then helped me to figure out a job that would also translate to having a job in the real world once I got out.

I learned a lot about myself while I was in the Corps. Things I don’t think I’d have found out if I had gone to college. I think I’d be even more insufferable than I am right now if I had gone to straight to college.

I watch a lot of shows. I could have been a lawyer. One of my classmates is one. We were rivals in school. I didn’t like him, and I don’t know if he liked me. But I could have been a lawyer. I have no real interest in the law, though. Not in that way. Just like I have no real interest in medicine, but I could have been a doctor. I’m not smart, but I’m capable of learning things, and I’m a hard worker.

I’ve got just enough talent to be decent at just about anything I put my mind to. I’d never be a professional athlete. I’m not talented like that, and I know it. I’m smart enough to know what I can and can’t do.

The point of all this? There isn’t one. But it’s more interesting than what we have here, methinks.

Page 4

Five panels on this page, of varying sizes as needed.

  1. Panel 1

Still from Tommy’s view, but the lighting is now changed. The table is now dark except for the platter he selected. Now the far side of the room in front of him is lit and you can clearly see the large computer mainframe before him. The mainframe covers the entire wall and has lots of lights and buttons and many large viewing screens. Some of the screens are of the waiting room, one is of Tommy standing in this room, and one screen in the center of the mainframe is blank. (I presumed he was looking directly down at the table. We’re going to have to angle up a fair bit to see the mainframe.)

Announcement Voice: “Louise, it is time.”

Tommy: “Louise?”

  1. Panel 2

From Tommy’s view, (Ack! Vary the angles somewhat.) now looking to the left side of the room a panel opens in the wall and out walks an adult woman. (Moving panel.) She is wearing a plain grey uniform with only the name “L.O.U.I.S.E.” imprinted across her chest. No dialog on this panel.

  1. Panel 3

Louise is now on the other side of the table facing Tommy. The mainframe can be clearly seen behind her, and she is standing in the spotlight holding the platter that Tommy had selected. In one hand she holds the platter, in the other she is lifting the cover to reveal an assortment of cheeses underneath. The cheeses are arranged from left-to-right and are obviously different kinds of cheeses (cheddar, swiss, bleu, etc.) with the final one on the right being a stick of string cheese. (We need two panels for this. One of her picking the platter up, and another of her revealing its contents.)

Louise: “Please take one.”

Tommy: “I don’t understand. I’m not even hungry.”

Announcement Voice: “Tommy Kirk. Make your choice.”

  1. Panel 4

Still from Tommy’s point of view, everything the same as the previous panel but with Tommy’s hand now reaching for the string cheese. (Why from his perspective again? Just have a close up of the string cheese.)

Tommy: “I don’t understand, but I’ll take this one.”

Louise: “Thank you.”

  1. Panel 5

The light is off over the table now, Louise is barely visible leaving towards the left of the room by the same panel in which she had originally entered. Tommy is standing alone again facing the mainframe and holding the stick of string cheese.

Announcement Voice: “You have chosen well.”

Tommy: “String cheese, (I’d swap that comma for a question mark.) is that what this is all about?”

This story had better have a great point or twist. Otherwise, this is going to end in bewilderment and frustration. Let’s see where this goes.

P4, and just like Jimmy with his cracked corn…no one cares.

Which is a shame.

Storytelling is mostly about rhythm. You can get away with a lot if you have a good rhythm. P1 establishes no real rhythm, P2 shows that the kids are automatons, P3 shows that no one knows what’s going on and that no one really cares, and P4 continues on in that vein.

Still no Line of Demarcation, unless you want to call this boring. It isn’t crap. I’m just not interested.

The big thing here is that you have to learn what the reader can and cannot see, especially if you’re using the character’s eyes as the camera. Panel 1 doesn’t work in this regard.

Also be aware of light and darkness. These can be your friends, but they can also be tricky. Light sources always have to be taken into account, no matter where you are and what you’re writing. Always account for a light source.

At least the string cheese made an appearance.

I guess the word “enlightenment” will be on the next (and final) page.

Page 5

Six panels of varying sizes as necessary. (Still redundant, this.)

  1. Panel 1

The center screen of the mainframe that was previously blank, now has an image of Tommy holding the string cheese but walking outside the building. Tommy is, of course, still inside and staring at the mainframe trying to understand what has happened. (This’ll only work if we also see Tommy in the panel. But I don’t know how much detail you’re going get from the screen if you show him. Perhaps have him stood just in front of the monitor.) (This is a Matrix: Revolutions fail.)

Announcement Voice: “Not string cheese specifically, no. It is about choice. Life is about choice.”

Tommy: “I’m still not sure I understand.”

  1. Panel 2

Same as previous panel. (Why? What’s he doing on the screen now? Boring panel.) (Not boring as much as lazy.)

Announcement Voice: “Some find it hard to choose, others choose impulsively and have regrets. A rare few take the string cheese.”

Tommy: “I wasn’t really hungry, I didn’t understand the choice, but I like playing with the strings.” (Tommy’s beginning to sound a little young for his age. Isn’t he completely freaked out by this? I’m not believing his reactions. They’re that of a child.)

  1. Panel 3

Same as previous panel. (Why?) (Laziness abounds!)

Announcement Voice: “You understand more than you think, Tommy Kirk. It is not about the cheese. It is about enlightenment. Do not fear choice.” (And there goes the final piece of the challenge.)

Tommy: “So now what do I do?”

  1. Panel 4

Same as previous panel (Argh! This is such a boring page so far.) but the room is now well lit and there is a door labeled “Exit” at the far side of the room beside the mainframe. (I don’t think we’ll see this door with this angle.)

Announcement Voice: “The choice was always yours. You just needed to know that. Go forth, Tommy Kirk, and make choices.” (Right here? Right near the end? The Line of Demarcation.)

Tommy: “Thank you.”

  1. Panel 5

Tommy is now outside the rear of the building, with the Exit door disappearing behind him. He is looking down at the string cheese, smiling, as he begins to peel at the strings. (Moving panel! Also, this is a massive jump in time. A page turn may be necessary.)

Tommy: “I wonder what happens if you pick a different cheese.”

  1. Panel 6

Same panel design as Panel 3 from Page 4, but with a different teenager in the room. Louise is again on the other side of the time (Table?) but this time facing a girl from the waiting room. This time the platter held by Louise is an assortment of candies arranged from left-to-right (a sucker, a chocolate bar, a piece of gum, etc.) with the final one on the right being not candy, but still a stick of string cheese.

Louise: “Please take one.”

Girl (hereafter referred to as Mary): “I don’t understand. I’m not hungry.”

Announcement Voice: “Mary Simms. Make your choice.”

Huh.

Well, that left me unsatisfied. Did I just not get it? Was there anything to get? What was your point? There seems to be one in there somewhere, but it’s not clear.

Technically, you don’t seem to understand the medium you’re writing for. I can tell you’re not visualizing the panels in your mind’s eye. The lack of static images spells that out. So do the lack of varying camera angles. Also, letterer direction doesn’t belong in panel descriptions. The letterer needs to see clearly where the information they need to do their job is. Anything else is at best irritating, and at worst going to affect the actual page.

Additionally, you need to act your characters. Not one of them expressed any kind of emotion throughout the story. This is achieved through expressions and body language. Two elements of storytelling you’re just ignoring. Use them to connect to your readers.

Well, that turned into crap. Thought we’d make it to the finish line. Let’s run this down.

Format: Flawless Victory! Someone did some studying. However, format is the easiest part of scripting. (It’s why I get so annoyed. Format is so easy. Doing it wrong by being inconsistent just blows my mind.)

Panel Descriptions: These need some work.

Camera angles aren’t always necessary. They help to give the artist an idea of what you’re seeing in your head, but they aren’t always necessarily spelled out. They don’t always have to be. Sometimes, it’s good to just let the artist do their thing.

This is especially helpful when you have the same panel description over and over again to no good use. There was no reason for the repetition.

Also, characters have to act. I think the only acting that was done was the pointing out of the covered tray. Everything else was a lot of non-acting. It was boring.

Things need to be varied.

Pacing: I’ve seen glaciers that moved faster, which is saying something, because this is a short story with a relatively low panel count, and not that many words. It’s going to fly by, but reading it felt like a drag.

It’s perception, of course. And the reason I had that perception is because no one acted, everyone had the same voice, and no one did anything that came even close to breaking up the pace. Actions and dialogue, Stewart, not just how many panels and pages.

How many panels and pages are directly dependent upon what’s going on in the scene. They are not entities unto themselves, like dialogue is.

This dragged.

Dialogue: None of these characters emote! Go here. That should help you.

Characters also have to have different voices. Besides sounding like robots, they also don’t sound like kids.

Content: This was fine (if boring), until we get to the last page. Then, we get to the entire point of the story: make choices. As a reader, I found this stupid. What if he chose roquefort cheese instead? Nothing happens to the outcome at all, because he made a choice. Stupid. Nothing at all mattered as long as a choice was made. Why is that stupid? Because everything is a choice. Not making a choice is a choice. There is nothing to do but to make a choice. It’s a terrible setup.

Editorially, this needs a lot of work. It’s all over the place, so I won’t rehash it. This met all of the criteria for the writing challenge, and it even makes it as a story, if only just barely, but it still needs something to help put it over the top. Sense would help.

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

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

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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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