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TPG Week 116: Uneven Dialogue Hurts You

| March 15, 2013


It’s another installment of The Proving Grounds! This week, we have Matt Cartmell, who hails from somewhere in the UK. Let’s make it Stonehengeshire. Why not? As always, we have Steve Colle in blue, I’m in red, and Matt brings us a story of




PAGE ONE (six panels)

Panel 1. A beautiful aerial view of a rainforest with a wide river passing through it. Below us we can see an eagle flying over the river. A huge tree can be seen poking up through the trees also, which we will come to.

The story again, my boy? Oh, if you insist… look to your right, see that river over there?
(This caption is not doing its job. First of all, you have the dialogue reading as if someone is talking to someone else, but we never see either of those people. Second, you could have gone straight to “See that river over there?” instead of going on and on with “The story again, my boy? Oh, if you insist…” This doesn’t add anything to the story whatsoever. The reader doesn’t care if the story has been told before. They just care about hearing it for the first time. And “Oh, if you insist” makes us think that insistence was made previously, but you didn’t show that. Moral of this rant: Get to the point.)

Panel 2. The view shifts to river level. The river is huge and surrounded on both sides by deep forest. The eagle is swooping downward towards the river, a blur of motion.


Well,That river’s course takes it south of this city – some 300 quantrils south… all the way to the jungle!(End with a period instead of an exclamation mark. And by the way, what exactly is a “quantril”? I looked it up and found nothing online. This made me think your story was taking place on another planet, but reading further ahead, it actually takes place in Peru. Using made up words like this causes the reader to have a pre-established idea of setting and situation. Unless it actually is somewhere unearthly, keep with the terms that we speak here, on Earth.)

Panel 3. The eagle – now unblurred – flies away from the river with a fish squirming in its beak. The view has shifted to the left to reveal a young woman, LEB, is kneeling on grass beside the water and looks up in surprise at the eagle. She wears a ceremonial white dress and beside her on the ground is a head dress that looks like an exotic bird. (If I were the artist, I’d ask something like this: Does it look like the animal is sitting on the headdress or is the design itself meant to represent the animal, such as DC’s HAWKMAN character?)

It takes all manner of strange fish down there, all carrying their messages from the big city. But none of those fish were stranger than the creatures of Boris. (This line reads really poorly. Strange fish carrying messages? What messages? Are they like carrier pigeons? And the idea of “none stranger than the creatures of Boris”? This again sets up an expectation that this is otherworldly, but is it? Not if it’s taking place in Peru.)

Panel 4. We go closer in to see that LEB is standing up and places the head dress on her head. She is a beautiful brunette, tall and skinny, and hippyish. (What do you mean by “hippyish”, which isn’t a word? Do you mean “hippie-ish”, looking like a hippie [which can be spelled as “hippy” as well]? Or do you mean that she’s hippy, having wide hips?)

Panel 5. We follow LEB, wearing her head dress, as she walks down a jungle path away from the river, pulling a creeper to the side and curving her hip attractively. (Here you refer to her hip being curled, making me think the above reference to her being “hippyish” has to do with her hips being wider. Is that what you were trying to say? I don’t think so, but I could be wrong.) All around are creepers and green foliage and there is also a snake deeply hidden. (You have a panel here that is one of six, which makes this image quite a bit smaller than if it were, say, one of three. With that said, you have a “snake deeply hidden”, meaning that not only is it hidden, but unless he’s obvious, we’re not going to see it. In other words, redundant. Get rid of this from the description.)

Panel 6. Closer behind LEB, we see that she is now walking through a gap into a clearing in the jungle. Through the hanging creepers we can make out other people wearing animal based head dresses.

It was among these bizarre folk that we first discovered Brother Anselm. But that was before he was brought here, to…
(I know you’re trying to lead into a reveal by ending with “to…”, but it isn’t working. As a matter of fact, this whole line is too staged. Having watched a lot of kids/pre-teen shows because of the ages of my children, this is the kind of lead in I’d expect for that age group. Having read ahead, however, I realized that this isn’t a story for them, but for an older audience, with cigarettes and psychedelic/stoned reactions to ingesting something from the aforementioned jungle.)


Two things wrong with this page: First, the captions are unnecessary. The visuals are doing the job for you. I realize that later in the story, there will probably be a time when they actually discover this “Brother Anselm”, but you don’t need to pre-introduce him here. Let the story unfold naturally. The next thing, which is even more important, is the needlessness for this page as a whole. You don’t need this kind of build up. Get straight to the establishing shot on the next page (which I’ll discuss more about when we get there).

So, we’ve got P1 on the books. Lots of stress, getting that first page in, isn’t it? Well, let’s see what we have.

Right at the outset, we have a story with no time of day. I know, I looked, and I didn’t find it. I’m assuming it’s daytime, but I hate to assume. It should have been there in the first panel. Other than that, there aren’t many real problems with the panel descriptions. They can be drawn, but there are a couple of places where it could have been made more clear.

Where does the problem come in? At first glance, it’s coming from the dialogue.

Steve is right when he says that it sounds like the captions are talking to someone else. They’re called voice-over captions. If that’s the case, these are wrong, because you’re missing the quotation marks.

But here’s where I start to disagree with my esteemed colleague. (See how I worked “Colle” into “colleague”? Screw the fact that the word is spelled that way! I’m clever, dammit!)

Here’s my thing: I like the direction of the dialogue. Taking out good chunks of it would be getting rid of the flavor and the characterization that’s being shown. Does some of it tell while it’s showing? Sure. And that can be gotten around. But overall, I think that the dialogue is helping to establish the tone of the story being told.

Is this page a waste? I don’t know yet. I do know that we have a moving panel, a bit of clarity problem, and a person who seems to be magically delicious. Leb just appears out of nowhere, and probably should have been seen in the second panel.


PAGE TWO (one panel)

Panel 1. A view from above a large clearing in the jungle. In the middle of it is a huge tree, covered in vines etc, just like those ancient 200ft high trees in the Amazon. (Name the tree. It’s the Kapok Tree. Why name it? Because your artist shouldn’t have to research what the tallest tree in the Amazon is. That’s your job. I simply looked up “tallest tree in the amazon” online and it gave me the answer. Again, your job. Next, how high up do you see the camera being? That’s a tall tree, so we may not be seeing any vegetables, for example. Figure this one out.) It is the only one in this clearing. Covering the tree are around 10 ramshackle tree houses, which are linked via ladders, ropes etc.  The tree is decorated with all manner of banners, ropes and pretty items. There are also some huts around the base of the tree. Around the tree is a lot of clear land where vegetables are being grown.

In the foreground we can see a circle of 14 PEOPLE dressed in white ceremonial dresses and headdresses. They hold hands and apart from a gap in the circle which LEB is walking towards. The gap is beside a bearded man called BORIS, who we will come to. The sun is shining and all of these scenes should be imbued with the glorious natural beauty. (Sorry, but this is the description to a second panel. Your first was an extreme long high angle shot and this one is a long shot at ground level. There’s no way this would all be one image.)

Part One
(Here’s where you’ve mistaken the title for a caption. If you had gone from “But that was before he was brought here, to…” Ubiquity, then I could have seen it as a caption, but the second you put “Part One” in there, it made it a title, which is written as TITLE: Ubiquity Part One.)

Page Two down and you have the spot where the story should actually begin, with an establishing shot and subsequent shot of the group congregating on the ground below. With that said, there needs to be text on this page (actually, it would have needed text added even in its previous state). Suggested direction: Use Boris’s dialogue to pull us in, introducing us to the group and the importance of the tree.

So, we now have two pages done, and what do we have? A great case of elderberries! There’s nothing going on with this page that warrants a full splash. This is nothing but padding. What’s the point of it?

And the silent page isn’t working, either. You started a minor mystery on the first page, but then failed to follow up on it on this page. So, not only do we have a waste of space, we also have a case of the dropsies. Ungood.

Steve calls it a starting point, but without any copy to draw you in, without any context (because the first page isn’t doing much to provide that), there’s nothing here to make the reader want to continue.

Does the first page work? I don’t know. Does the second page? Definitely not. Couple that with P1, and there’s still nothing to draw you in. So, as of right now, there’s still no story, so the first two pages aren’t working, and either need to be combined or cut.

Let’s see what P3 does.

PAGE THREE (four panels)

Panel 1. BORIS speaks, with the huge tree behind him. He is holding hands with people on both sides. He is clearly the leader, and is sermonising. He is a large guy with a thick ginger beard and long hair who does appear to be truly Christ-like in his religious fervour. He wears the most impressive headpiece, made to look like a monkey, along with the same white ceremonial clothing. (You say he’s wearing the most impressive headpiece, but to me, it sounds like just another animal hat. What makes it THE MOST impressive? Is it the intricacies in the details or perhaps the material it is made of? Explain.)

Fellow forest-folk! Behold Eternal Tree, the ancient wonder that shields and protects us all, be we bird, ape or frog! (Not liking this dialogue for at least two reasons: 1) The people aren’t tourists from what I can gather, so Boris is saying “Behold” to people who already live there, and 2) I find it funny that you say that the tree protects animals, but forget to mention people in that list.)

Panel 2. BORIS, surrounded by a section of the circle of worshipers – around five of them. On his right, holding his hand, is LEB. On Boris’ right is GUY, a typically hippyish (There’s that word again: “hippyish”. Can you say, instead, that he is hippy looking or that he looks like a hippy?) young man with a joyous naivete about him. (How do you want the artist to show “joyous naivete”? Give us more of a visual direction in how his facial expression and body language will represent that character trait.) He wears a treefrog headpiece. They all look on at Boris with adoration, most obviously LEB. (Why “most obviously LEB”? You haven’t established a personal relationship at this point between the two characters, so this is not “obvious”. Besides, you also state that they all look at Boris with adoration, meaning you’d have to show even MORE adoration on the part of Leb. See what I mean?) The OTHER TWO WORSHIPPERS (You said there were around five worshippers at the beginning of this panel description, but then only count four, with Leb, Guy, and these two others. If it’s four, say four, not “around five”.) wear headpieces of a crocodile and a wolf. All of them wear white ceremonial dresses embellished with flowers. (This “flower” detail should have been mentioned when the introduction of the white garb was first made. Now it’s an afterthought, forcing the artist to go back and add those details.)

Your energy is the energy of the Earth, whose eternal spirit – which we know as Aan – is passed from grass blade to sapling to rose plant. (There was a definite stop in the flow of your dialogue with the convenient addition of “which we know as Aan”. If Boris is trying to create a soothing mood, he’d let his words flow out, not add a by-the-way statement. And again, this sounds like he’s talking to tourists or newcomers.)

Panel 3. BORIS, seen from the side reaches his arm outwards as he continues his passionate eulogy. (This whole “passionate eulogy” thing is prose writing and doesn’t help the artist to envision the image. In other words, it has no place in a panel description.)

Aan is the sub-atomic elemental seed in all green matter, which may allow us creatures to achieve eternal status… if we can but find it within us. (Terrible. Is he a scientist, spouting off technical facts? Also, this is, for lack of a better term, wishy-washy. Eternal status? How? And that last bit of “if we but find it within us”? This is just plain not good.)

Panel 4. FIVE WORSHIPPERS, all with their own jungle-creature head pieces, stand hand in hand listening to Boris with adoration. In the background we can the tree houses, and in one of the windows is the shadowy outline of someone watching – ANSELM. (Where is your camera? Are these the same “five people” who you had standing around Boris in an earlier panel or are they the people who are opposite Boris in the circle? You’re also being awfully specific with your numbering. Is there a reason for five people and only five being in this panel? You also state that they are wearing other jungle creature headpieces. Can two people have the same headdress? Finally, unless you can tell it’s Anselm in the window, don’t name him. It’s needless information. Leave it as a simple silhouette.)

And so, eat the leaves of this forest, breath breathe its sweet breath, feel the sticky dew on the grass beneath our feet, and be at one with the ever-living spirit!

This was not a good page. You spent four panels doing something that could have been shown in one. You also have so little text that you’ve tried spreading out amongst those four panels, making it one pause after another. If all dialogue were in one panel, then you wouldn’t have those pauses created by multiple stills. I’m going to go one more page before stopping.

P3…and everyone is unhappy.

Okay, here’s the thing: the panel descriptions are okay, needing some polish. The dialogue? Oh. My. Wow. Terrible doesn’t even begin to approach the description of how bad this is. It’s just wrong, from top to bottom.

The first thing that we need to do is ask ourselves a question: what is it that the dialogue is supposed to do here? The second question is what do you want the reader to take away from it?

There is no part of this dialogue that is either edifying or illuminating. It tries, but it says a whole hell of a lot of nothing.

Want to read a damned good sermon? Go here. It’s from a book by Roger Zelazny, entitled Lord of Light. That sermon had something to say. What you wrote here? It does absolutely nothing.

Then you had to go and ruin it even more with the talk of sub-atomics. It’s crap. Think of a mixture of fruits and jet planes. See how they don’t mesh? Neither does talk of sub-atomics. Because you don’t have any other overly scientific words here, it jumps out in a terrible, terrible way. It removes the credibility of every single thing said before it, and lessens your credibility as a writer.

I read this more than I wanted to, trying to figure out what you were attempting, and I only got a headache for my trouble. So, here’s a real question to answer: what was I supposed to take away from this? I know what I got, but what was it you wanted me to get?

What’s worse is that I’m still waiting for the story to start. Steve’s about to cut you off at the knees, and we’re no closer to understanding what is supposed to be going on. Does that mean I’m interested? Not in the least. It’s boring, on top of being inane.


PAGE FOUR (four panels)

Panel 1. We cut to ANSELM seated in his small tree house, overlooking the ceremony. He is sitting at the window watching with an air of lazy cynicism. His room is sparse and wooden. Behind him is his small bed, and a shelf contains a few meagre belongings. ANSELM is good-looking, with dark hair and reminiscent of a young Clint Eastwood – mysterious and with an air of danger. He wears simple clothes – jeans and a check shirt, perhaps some Converse. He is lighting a cigarette with a match. (People wearing shamanistic animal headdresses in the woods, tree houses…and a guy wearing jeans and some Converse sneakers. No. You set up one expectation, and then go totally against the grain.)

But be true to this spirit, brothers and sisters, and always allow the light to pervade your soul…(You don’t need this dialogue here. Let the visual play out the feeling for this image.)(Yes, you do. Well, not this dialogue, because it’s terrible, but some dialogue from the sermon, so that it ties the two locations together.)

Panel 2. Close up of the used match being placed on top of another on the window ledge, making a cross pattern. (What for? What is this panel for?)

Brother Anselm! (Finally! It only took four pages, but someone is finally named where a reader can see it!)

Panel 3. CHARITY, a sweet and innocent-looking girl wearing the white ceremonial clothes and a headdress of a parrot sticks her head through the hatch in the tree house floor, standing on a ladder, as ANSELM looks on.

It’s time for praise! Say you’ll come with me!

Panel 4. Leaning back with his feet against the window edge, ANSELM looks up and flicks his cigarette out of the window. (He just lit the cigarette. Why would he just as suddenly throw it out the window?)(Because it’s cool! It goes along with terrible storytelling! Oh, I wasn’t supposed to say that?)

Not today, Charity. (Another name! We’ll even talk about the disparity in a little bit, before the rundown.)


Okay, Matt. Let’s cut straight to the chase. Out of four pages, you can more effectively make one. You have a lot of filler here that isn’t serving any purpose but to slow the pace. Cut to the chase. Here’s how:


PAGE ONE, Three panels.


Panel 1 shows an establishing high angle shot of the tree, the tree houses, and the people in the circle on the ground.




Panel 2 is a low angle shot from the ground looking up at Boris and the couple of people on either side of him, with the silhouette in the window of the tree house in the far background.


CHARITY (the balloon coming from the window): BROTHER ANSELM!


Panel 3 shows a medium shot of Anselm in the window, leaning back with his feet against the windowsill, lighting his cigarette. In the background we see Charity popping her head up through the hole in the floor.


CHARITY: It’s time for praise! Say you’ll come with me!


ANSELM: Not today, Charity.


See? We get the same amount of details just from those three panels. We don’t need to hear Boris’ sermon as we have Charity say “It’s time for praise!” You’re still getting the descriptions of the garment and headdress as well as what Anselm is wearing. And moreover, you have a hook from your first page to your second, all within one page. I haven’t read the rest of your script, but if there’s more of the same, make sure to re-approach and reimagine it.


Let’s take a look at P4 before running this down.

I no longer know what to make of this. It starts off on P1 as possibly some other world or time. Then it winds into a “sermon” so bad that it brings tears to the eyes, and just when you think you have a handle on it, there’s Rocko’s Modern Life wearing a checkered shirt, jeans, and Converse. Makes me wonder when Sho Nuff is going to appear. (Anyone get that without looking it up?)

Now, on P4, we have dialogue that’s important. It’s the first place where the reader will find out the name of a character. And then we get a two-fer! We get two names on this page, and it doesn’t even sound forced! That’s absolutely great! Now, let’s take a closer look at what we have with this dialogue.

Charity calls him “brother” Anselem. Generally, that title or honorific would mean he’s part of the clergy. He should probably be down there with the unnamed sermon-giver. He, in turn, calls her simply by her name. There is no title or honorific given.

So, here’s the mystery: is he part of this community, or is he outside of it? If he’s outside of it, then I can sorta-kinda see that. If he’s in it, why is he not dressed appropriately? If he isn’t part of it, this gives a good reason why he’s just calling her by her name. So, which is it?

I’m willing to give the benefit of the doubt, but it only stretches so far. Anyway, I just wanted to point that out.

Let’s run this down.

Format: Flawless Victory!

Panel Descriptions: Generally drawable. There are a few things going on here that need to be done, though.

First, the descriptions for the main characters need to go. They don’t belong here. The artist is going to do character designs long before they start drawing pages.

Next, a camera angle would help some of these panels when it comes to clarity. (I keep wanting to say Claritin clear, but nevermind me.) They aren’t needed in every case, but it can definitely help to put one in.

Don’t forget to think things through when you write. Don’t just vomit the words all over the page. P2 is a classic example of this. You started one place, and then ended up somewhere else. This page isn’t drawable. (This is why I said they’re generally drawable. It gives leeway for things that aren’t.)

Pacing: Un-good, in the extreme.

Nothing happens. Nothing that anyone wants to read, that is. You took four pages to do what Steve did in one. Granted, he cut out the sermon, but that part was doing much more harm than good. Basically, you have four pages of padding. Not good at all.

Dialogue: The first page shows promise. That sermon shows the opposite of promise. It looks like two different people wrote it. Whoever wrote that…shouldn’t.

I’ll call the writing of the dialogue uneven. Like I said, I liked the first page. It just needs a polish and a clarification of who’s actually speaking. The sermon, really, is the weakest part of this entire thing, which is a shame, because it’s also the longest piece of dialogue we get to see. It needs to be cut, wholesale (as Steve did), and if it is important, it needs to be rewritten.

Again, you need to keep in mind who the sermon is for, and what you want the reader to take away from it. The only thing they’re taking away from this is that you don’t know what you’re talking about. That isn’t the impression you want to leave.

Content: As a reader, I’m not interested. There’s nothing here to draw me in, nothing here to let me know anything about the story, and actually enough to turn me off from reading more. Reading that sermon…I wouldn’t have anything good to say about what I just read. You know that vocal minority that feels the need to write in and not have anything good to say? They’d go rabid over this. And they’d be right.

Editorially, this is not good, but only from a pacing standpoint. There may be some rearranging going on, in order to get things moving and interesting. The pacing is what’s killing you. It could be interesting, but no one is going to know, because you’re turning them off by not having anything interesting going on in the first few pages, and actually turning people off with whatever that religious ritual was supposed to be.

Here’s the thing about rituals, folks: if you’re going to use one, make sure that it’s interesting, either in what’s being done or what’s being said. One or the other will work, but having both be interesting would be best. This was neither.

The only really bad things were that sermon and the fact that it’s boring. Fix those, and it will be much better.

And that’s all for this week. Check the calendar to see who’s 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 for rate inquiries.

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