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TPG Week 3: A 2 Page Story

| January 14, 2011 | 15 Comments
Mercury Poisoning
Script by Jon Otomo

Page 1:

Panel 1:

A display screen.  There’s a man who looks like he’s been through hell, in glasses, a scientist type, wearing a lab coat.  He’s an older gentleman with white hair, would be clean cut if it were in place.  He looks like he’s been sweating, nervous and scared.  Behind him is a futuristic lab, microscopes, computers.  The man is looking into the camera, pleadingly. (Almost, but not quite. Are we JUST seeing the frame of the display screen? Is there anything else around it? How can we tell this is a display screen? Now, I also want you to understand, this is comics, not film. You’re not going to get the depth you might be wanting with this view. And what’s going on in the background? Is anything out of whack? It seems very sedate.)

Man:  If this thing is on, this is Mercury Base calling.  Please, do not send ships.  It’s much too dangerous. (If this is coming out from the display, then his balloon should be electric. Because you didn’t make the note, the letterer is going to assume that it’s a regular balloon. That is, of course, unless they’re looking out for you. then they’ll fix it.)

Panel 2:  The same shot, the man looking off to the side.

Man:  I don’t know how much time I have left, so I’ll begin here.  We discovered a microbacterial form of life here. (I’m having a logic problem here. If he doesn’t know how long he has, why does it sound like he’s starting from the beginning? I’m getting an Airplane moment here. First, the earth cooled off, and then the dinosaurs came… It’s panel 2, and I’m already going to tell you to cut to the chase. Not to mention, the dialogue is awkward. Too many “here”s.)

Panel 3:  Cut to a microscope slide, blobs looking like they’re moving.  (I’m having another logic problem. If this is a person talking, where did the slideshow come from? He had time to do that, and place the camera there to record the slides? No. I’m not buying it.)

Man:  It’s resistant to heat, to cold.  Impervious to disease. (This is nothing but an info-dump. Pretty inelegant, too. This is reminding me of a movie made for SyFy, and that’s not good. And this guy sounds too calm to me by far. That’s the first part. The second part is this: where is he? Is he supposed to be coming from off panel? If so, then the letterer needs a notation. Is this supoposed to be a caption? If so, then the letterer needs a notation. Because right now, you have him speaking on panel, and he doesn’t appear there.)

Panel 4: A security camera from the upper corner of the room looking down is the perspective.  A fuzzy picture, time stamped.  The man is there in his lab coat, looking into the microscope.  There is another, a female, younger, pretty standing by.   (No. Basically what you’ve done is gone into a flashback. While I have no problem with flashbacks, going into one three panels into the story isn’t good. Is this supposed to be the inciting incident? What is supposed to draw the reader in? What’s supposed to be unique about this setup? Nothing, really. And what does the woman look like? You went far enough to describe the man, why not describe her, instead of just sketching her in? What is she doing? What is she wearing?)

Man:  It seems so foolish now, but we tried to play God.  We spliced the genes with our own cell samples, to see if it would form resistances to fight disease. (Just like every other bad science fiction movie. Really ho-hum. That’s just from a content standpoint. Now, here’s your real problem: you still have things to learn when it comes to comic book scripting format. Why? Because the way you have it right now, the letterer would put the words in his mouth, as the letterer should, because the character is on screen. However, it should really be a caption.)

Panel 5:  The woman, fainting into the man’s arms from the same shot as the last one. (Okay, first he’s looking into the microscope, and next, he’s catching a fainting woman. That’s as fast as the Flash. No, I’m not buying it.)

Man:  At first, I chalked it up to exhaustion.  (Again, this needs to be a caption.)

Page 2: (Page break)

Panel 1:  A security camera shot of a different room a tight crew quarters, metallic bed in which the woman is laying down, covered up in a blanket.  The man is at her side, holding a towel to her head.  She’s starting to develop a vein like structure on her face, hardened and gray.   (The first sentence is a run-on, and it’s lying, not laying. Now, what is the view? Not only that, why THIS view? Can we see the man’s face? If we can see the woman’s face, how much detail is there? Because that level of detail is also going to be applied to the room.)

Man:  Even if I knew what was going on, there was nothing I could do about it.  (Caption.)

Panel 2:  Similar shot from another corner of the room, the man crying on her, the towel up over her face to signify she’s dead. (No. The reason why is because the previous panel was coming from a security camera. You now cannot have another view from a different angle. I can suspend my disbelief for one camera, but not for two.)

Man:  She was so beautiful, so young.  Her whole life in front of her.  (Caption.)

Panel 3:  The man pounding his fist against her bedside, looking upward and screaming bloody murder in front of the dead body. (What does this panel do to push the story forward? Nothing. This panel needs to be cut.)

Man:  I wasted so much time grieving.  (Caption. And then put it in the previous panel.)

Panel 4:  Security camera back in the lab, he’s back looking in the microscope, alone. (They’re on Mercury by themselves? That’s what you just told me. They’re on a different planet, and they are alone. I have done what your readers are going to do: I have rolled my eyes, and put the book back on the shelf.)

Man:  And then so much more trying to find a cure that didn’t exist. (Caption.)

Panel 5:  The original shot, the man looking into the camera, holding up his arm where it’s showing the same veiny gray look like the woman had when she was dying.   He is looking to the camera, sad.  (Could this have been evident in the first panel, too? Just asking.)

Man:  I hope someone gets this message.  Stay away from Mercury.  This is only a planet of death, now. (Comma.)

Okay. Let’s run it down:

This is bad.

To be totally fair, when Jon first wrote to me, he let me know that the script was bad. He has thoughts about the basic idea, but knows that the execution of this particular story was bad. Now, let’s take a closer look at it.

Format: There are different ways to write a comic book script. There is no real “right” way to do it. That being said, there are wrong ways to do it.

In Bolts & Nuts, I give a sample of what a comic script should look like. I go over it a couple of times, because it’s important. Your format here is generally fine, but you’re missing a big part: captions. On the surface, the way you have it now, the man should be in every panel, because he have him speaking as if he’s in every panel. This is both a Format problem, as well as one for Dialogue. Know what captions are, and how to use them correctly for comics.

The second thing with your format is the lack of page breaks.

Every time you type Page 2 or Page 3 or whatever, make sure you insert a page break. Notice, I did NOT say “hit enter until you reach the next page.” I said to insert a Page Break. If you just hit enter, the only thing you’re doing is falsely adding lines, and when your editor goes to do their job, the page numbers are going to be all over the place. This only serves to frustrate your editor, and really, they have more than enough to do than to fix your easily fixable formatting errors. Page Break. (I also suggest adding a header to every script you write, with your name, contact info, name of the project, and the issue number. This isn’t necessary for TPG, but it’s a good habit to get into.)

Dialogue: Ah, dialogue. The most subjective part of a script. First, let’s talk about the format part of it.

Most of your dialogue is wrong. It’s not the man talking, as you would have it if this script were to be produced with no questions asked. His talking is mostly done in captions, as a voice over. It should look like this:

Caption (Man): “I have no real lines here. It’s just taking up space for this example.”

You can either write Caption or Cap, because they’re both the same thing. Because he’s actually talking and it’s a voice over, you need the quotation marks. If this were an internal monologue, then you wouldn’t have to worry about the quotation marks.

Now, I also want you to realize that whenever you have a lot of voice over or internal monologue, you’re putting a barrier up between you and the audience. Especially if it’s internal monologue that is unrelieved by spoken dialogue. What happens is that the reader subconsciously “sits back” and allows the story to be told to them, instead of being more actively involved with the story. This isn’t something you want. It still happens when you have the voice-over, but to a lesser degree. There’s still the sense that the dialogue is being spoken, and thus, happening “now.” I’m basically talking about a component of Time in comics, and I get more into that in Bolts & Nuts.

As for the dialogue itself, it’s not terrible, it just doesn’t feel all that urgent to me. Your character is too calm by far for my tastes. It belies the anxiety you describe in the first panel.

Content: No, this isn’t good.

From just a storytelling standpoint, this story is too short. You haven’t set up anything at all. There’s no indication of where this takes place at, who’s watching the monitor (or recieves the message), how big the base is, how long they’ve been there, how many people are on the base, how the contamination got loose, how it spread, what makes it dangerous–there’s literally NOTHING here, to include a timeframe.

How is this really a story? Sure, technically it is. It has a beginning, middle, and end. Unfortunately, a story is much more than that. This isn’t really much of a story. Too many unanswered questions.

There’s no real scope here. How is it a planet of the dead when there are only 2 people on it to begin with? What happened to everyone else? In order to have impact, you need to have more than 2 people dead. That will give you scope, even with 2 pages. (I keep wanting to say that the story could have been longer, but then I keep seeing ways to keep it at 2 pages and give it scope.)

The story is also basically every bad sci-fi picture ever made in the 70’s. Splicing DNA to an alien microbe or something, and then not understanding the outcome–which you never explained, by the way. You never explained the outcome or how it kills. That’s not just lazy, that’s bad storytelling. To be honest, I don’t know which is worse.

Another big flaw of this piece is that no one is named, anywhere. It’s just a guy talking about himself and a girl. Neither have names. How are people supposed to identify with the characters? Names help with that. Without them, the piece is that much weaker.

Okay. I think I’ve said enough. I’ve got more here in notes and corrections than you have in script. In all, I think this needs a complete rewrite from start to finish..

That’s it for this week! Check the list to see who’s up next! See you in seven.

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Category: 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 for rate inquiries.

Comments (15)

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  1. John Lees says:

    This is a tricky one, Jon. It kinda reads like a trailer for what could be a pretty interesting full-length comic – giving us only a snippet of plot with a bunch of quite-cut images that do more to create a general atmosphere and take us through a narrative.

    I just fear that, with the kind of story you’re doing here, 2 pages just isn’t enough. I don’t think unoriginality is necessarily a death knell. You can tell a story that has been told 100 times before, if you tell it well. But doing so would require time and pages, building up suspense before the arrival of the inevitable. As it stands, with just 2 pages it just comes across like the man giving us a synopsis of the real story.

    A lot of the other problems Steve has with the script all stem from this unforgiving brevity that required you to squeeze the whole plot in. The lack of a sense of place? No real room for establishing shots. With more space, you could effectively give over a page to just a series of establishing shots taking us through the various key locations of the base. Dialogue, I think what you have is often pretty good, if not for the fact you’re trying to squeeze too much of it in and your lack of space requires every line to be strictly expositional.

    So I’d be interested to see you try another submission, Jon. Perhaps this time the first few pages of a longer work. Because trying to tell all this story in 2 pages? You’re really making things hard for yourself. I couldn’t do it.

    • Thanks for commenting, John!

      As I said in the edits, I kept wanting to push this out a few more pages. 5 pages would give it the necessary room to breathe, 8 pages would be luxurious, and a whole 11 would be out of this world.

      I could easily see this as a 5 page story. Just something that’s quick and dirty. 2 pages, while it can be done, just isn’t enough. And yes, it can be done. You’d just be upping the panel count somewhat.

      It would be fun, though. I wonder if anyone would be interested in re-writing this as a challenge, doing it in 5 pages.

  2. “Panel 3: Cut to a microscope slide, blobs looking like they’re moving.”

    I’m pretty shocked that Steven didn’t call this a moving panel. I guess there could be a way of making blobs appear to be moving, but I don’t know what it would be.

    Overall, I agree with Steven and John: 10 panels is simply not enough for this story to be told effectively in. I would be up for the challenge of trying to re-write it in 5 pages, maybe later today.

    Nice name though.

  3. Right, as per Steven’s challenge I have attempted a slightly longer version of this story. I did it in 4 pages, rather than 5 though. I’ve not added in any scenes, just given it a little room to breathe. I’m not claiming that it is any better objectively, but I think that the extra space helps.

    Page 1 (6 panels)

    Panel 1

    Close on a display monitor. The image is low quality so appears grainy, blue and white and has white streaks across it. It shows a close up shot of a man in his late 50s wearing glasses and a scruffy lab coat. This is Dr Trevor Heath. His hair is white and thinning on top. He has a few beads of sweat running down his brow. He is leaning over, reaching out to and looking at something just to the left of the panel. The stretch has pulled his sleeve slightly up his arm and the tips some odd looking grey vein-like growths can be seen on his arm. The background is a windowless laboratory filled with glassware and burners, etc, much of which is broken, but the closeness of the man and the low quality of the image makes this hard to make out. We can’t necessarily see it from this angle, but he is sitting down.

    Dr Heath(elec, mutter): Is this thing on? Two PhDs and I can’t even work a…

    Panel 2

    The same display monitor. Heath is now looking strait out at us. He looks very serious and business-like. He has just pulled his sleeve back down to cover the growths on his arm, and his left hand is still holding his right cuff.

    Dr Heath(elec): Hello, my name is Dr Trevor Heath. I am hereby declaring Caloris Base and the surrounding area a quarantine zone.

    Dr Heath(elec): Any attempt to enter will result in your death. This is not a threat, this is…

    Panel 3

    The same display monitor. Heath has clasped his hands in front of himself, and has hung his head, apparently intently studying his knuckles.

    Panel 4

    The same display monitor. Heath is sitting in a similar position, but has raised his head slightly to look out at is again. There are tears in his eyes.

    Dr Heath(elec): Human beings always seem to think that they are in charge of nature.

    Panel 5

    The same display monitor. Heath is peering skywards, holding his hands up beside his head is a gesture of mock despair. Although his body language and expression are supposed to be comical, there are tears beginning to run down his cheeks.

    Dr Heath(elec): and then a flood or a volcano kills a hundred thousand of us, and we act… surprised…

    Page 1 (continued)

    The same display monitor. Heath has slumped foreword, dejected, peering down at his toes.

    Dr Heath(elec): We’re not in charge of nature. We don’t control it.

    Dr Heath(elec): We don’t control anything.

    Page 2 (5 panels)

    Panel 1

    A high wide shot of the lab we were just in, but this time not from a grainy monitor. It is a small room with no windows and unpainted metal walls It is lit by several fluorescent light tubes on the ceiling (which we can’t see, because this is a high shot looking down, but just so you know)This is several hours ago, and the lab is tidy, with no broken equipment, just lots of expensive glassware, such as pittetts and titration tubes. In the centre of the room is a desk covered in paperwork, culture trays and even more glassware. Standing at the desk looking through a microscope is Heath. His lab coat is not tattered, and he does not look nearly as stressed in this scene as he did in the last. If we see his arms then there are no odd growths on them yet.

    Cap: Caloris Base, The Caloris Basin, Mercury

    Cap: Population: 2

    Cap: 12 hours earlier.

    Cap(Heath): So when I say that this was not our fault…

    Dr Heath(mutter): …what…

    Panel 2

    low medium shot of Heath’s face. He has lifted his head from the microscope and is looking down in utter surprise.

    Cap(Heath): …that it was only human nature…

    Dr Heath(mutter): …remarkable

    Panel 3

    Medium shot of Heath. He has turned towards the door of the lab and is calling out.

    Cap(Heath): …you’ll know what I mean.

    Dr Heath: Linda! Linda, you have to come and see this!

    Panel 4

    Wider shot of the lab. Linda (Dr Linda Bowman) has arrived at the door. She is an attractive woman in her mid thirties wearing a lab coat, sensible shoes and a lab coat. Her attractiveness is somewhat detracted from by the fact that she does not look completely healthy. Her skin is somewhat pale, her face is a bit gaunt and the beginnings of some grey vein like growths can be seen at the base of her neck. She looks as if she would much rather be in bed than in the lab right now. Her hand is over her mouth, as if she is coughing Heath is standing in the fore ground of the panel off to the side. He is facing Linda, which is away from us.

    Dr Bowman: What is it, Trevor? I’m absolutely exhausted.

    Dr Heath: Is this the culture you spliced together yesterday?

    Page 2 (continued)

    Panel 5

    Medium shot of Bowman as she peers though the microscope. What we can see of her expression looks confused. Behind her Heath is watching on, smiling.

    Dr Bowman: It is, but there are so many…

    Page 3 (4 panels)

    Panel 1

    Medium shot of the two scientists facing each-other. Heath looks delighted, and is offering out his hand for an handshake. Bowman has her hand over her mouth again.

    Dr Heath: Congratulations Dr Bowman, you’ve successfully created the first Earth/Mercury hybrid microbe!

    Dr Bowman:

    Cap(Heath): It…

    Panel 2

    Same angle, but now Bowman is holding out her hand which is covered in blood.

    Dr Heath: Linda!

    Cap(Heath): …happened…

    Panel 3

    Same angle. Bowman’s eyes have rolled up into the back of her head. Heath is leaning forward, about to catch her if she falls. He looks pretty worried.

    Cap(Heath): …so…

    Panel 4

    Same Angle. Bowman has collapsed into Heath’s arms, completely unconscious.

    Cap(Heath): …fast

    Page 4 (6 panels)

    Panel 1

    Back to the display monitor from page 1. Heath is still sitting in pretty much the same way he was in page 1 panel 6.

    Cap: Caloris Base, The Caloris Basin, Mercury

    Cap: Population: 1

    Cap: Now

    Panel 2

    The same display monitor. Heath is sitting in a similar position, but is now looking strait out at us. He has gripped one of his sleeves with the opposite hand.

    Dr Heath: In the short time I’ve had I’ve subjected the culture to every anti-microbial substance and condition available to me.

    Dr Heath: Given the nature of this base, that’s most of them.

    Panel 3

    The same display monitor. Heath has pulled his sleeve right up to reveal the growths we caught a glimpse of earlier. They are large and well defined and growing all the way up his arm. He seems fascinated by them.

    Dr Heath: I’ve been on this base for 11 months. 11 months of recycled air and artificial light.

    Dr Heath: I think I might go outside for a walk.

    Panel 4

    The same display monitor. Heath has stood up so we can no longer see his head, just the mid-section of his body.

    Dr Heath: I may be some time.

    Panel 5

    The same display monitor. Heath is no longer on shot, leaving a grainy and hard to make out shot of the lab.

    Page 4 (continued)

    Panel 6

    The same shot, but perhaps with different graininess and interference.

    Cap: Caloris Base, The Caloris Basin, Mercury

    Cap: Population: 0

  4. John Lees says:

    I think this was a great effort from Jamie.

    Interestingly, the story takes twice the number of pages to get across about half as much narrative as the original script. Jamie is less interested in giving us all the details of the disease and showing us the various stages of plot development than Jon, meaning this script has less of a sense of being dragged back and forth all over the place. Instead, we’ve got a more contained story that recognises the limits of its page count, and instead acts as a simple character piece.

    While the previous script had no names, here one of the first lines is “My name is Trevor Heath.” And what follows is a lot more interested in how what has happened has affected him than the specifics of what happened. Even the two-page scene sandwiched between the bookending monologues covers less ground, creating a sense of stillness that the previous script sorely needed. Indeed, here a whole page is given over to a single moment acted out in slow motion. We’re left knowing little about the disease. But the disease isn’t the important thing we’ve to take away from the scene. It’s the loss of Linda.

    The opening page really makes use of the increased legroom provided by more pages. What a gift a silent beat can be – the kind of thing a writer can enjoy when they don’t require every panel to cram in their exposition. The whole page gives us a real sense of Heath’s emotional turmoil, with Jamie going into nice detail regarding Heath’s various expressions that I imagine a good artist would find a gift to portray.

    Or they would, if they got to draw the actual images, unfiltered through grainy video feed. And this remains a big flaw of the script, carried over from the story’s original concept. Looking at bitty images through a screen is not the most exciting visual, especially not for an opening page that needs to hook you. But it’s a toughie. I get its necessity in terms of the story’s framing, and in allowing Heath a chance to monologue, but how can we make the image more dynamic?

    One possible idea could be, with the first page, don’t have a recording camera, just have Heath speaking, apparently to an off-panel figure, as if he’s confiding his experiences. Then, in the last page, when he walks off to die, perhaps reveal in the last panel that he’s been talking all this time to an empty chair. Gives the reader a little twist, while enhancing the key theme Jamie has inserted: Heath’s crushing loneliness. Just an idea.

    Speaking of the ending, I think this is perhaps the area where the biggest improvement on the original lies. Rather than ending with a simple statement of fact, Jamie once again makes it about character, with a heartbreaking yet utterly understandable decision made by the departing Heath.

    As an aside, it could be I’ve been watching too much “Deadwood”, but I read this entire script picturing Powers Boothe as Dr. Heath in my head. And this could be the cause of my positive impressions, as it’s a scientific fact that Powers Boothe makes everything he’s in 17% better.

  5. I’m enjoying reading these columns and have been taking notes from the first three Proving Ground columns. Have prepared my first aid kit for the red pen bloodiness next week. 🙂

  6. Now, as to Jamie’s rewrite:

    It was definitely a different approach. I won’t say “better,” but it was different. I liked it.

    Why? Because, as John pointed out, it went from a plot-piece to a character piece. Like I ‘splained in my notes, by naming the characters, you’re able to identify with them more. I liked how Jamie was able to pull emotion out of the story by making it more about the people. He slowed it down a lot from the breakneck pace that it was, and let it breathe a little.

    Sure, there were still some problems. The first being the lack of captions in the first panel, P1. I’d have liked for there to be at least a caption letting us know where we were, as well as WHEN we were, very much like he did later in the piece. Just leave out the population number at first, because it plays a very big part of the story later.

    I’m still missing the scope of the story. It feels like there were only 2 people on the planet still. I didn’t like that. I’m always thinking, “Where are the other people?” When I was co-writing Fallen Justice with Cary, I told him I was thinking about something, and finally hit upon it: where were the other heroes? What were they doing while Justice Theta was going about his mission? I like having the feeling of a fully-realized universe. This feels very empty to me.

    And lastly, as John mentioned, I think the biggest barrier is the grainy feel you’re overlaying on the piece. Does it have to be crystal clear? No. But you could have some panels that are messed up in the transmission. I think that would work better than a grainy overlay.

    In all, I liked this approach a lot.

    Anyone else?

    • james fairlie says:

      Wicked 🙂

      I’m glad people seem to be generally liking what I did. I completely agree with the negative problems that John and Steven pointed out, but I hope that even with a few issues Jon can get something out of seeing a different approach.

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