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TPG Week 123: Dialogue Is Necessary To Keep Readers

| May 3, 2013


Welcome, one and all, to another installment of The Proving Grounds!


A little housekeeping before we get too deep: we’re still looking for scripts, writers! We can’t do it without you. If you enjoy the learning every week, become part of the process! Which would you rather have: a safe environment where learning is the name of the game, or to send your script out into the wild with the possibility of not hearing back from the company? Would you rather put up your script at a forum where the probability of having it critiqued is low, or submit it to a place where you’re guaranteed a response? Let’s send those scripts in!


Okay, with that out of the way, we have new Brave One in Chris Gerwel, hailing from Astromech, Tennessee (I have no idea, but Astromech sounded unusual for a town’s name). As usual, we have Steve Colle in blue, and I’m in red. Let’s see how Chris wields


The Iron Chain



PAGE 1, Panel 1:(This isn’t incorrect. It’s a little redundant, but it isn’t incorrect. If this helps you to keep your pages and panels straight, go for it.)

Establishing long shot of ATTICUS GREY, his younger half-brother LEVI HULL, and his step-father HENRY HULL standing on a hill overlooking the Hull Farm in the late afternoon. The sun is casting an angry red glow across the sere landscape, composed of rolling hills covered with dry grasses and scattered rocks. The boys and their stepfather are standing above a thin trail that winds through the hills towards the Hull Farm, which lies nestled in the valley below. (I’m not sure where these characters are placed in relation to the camera from what you’ve written here. Are they in the foreground, middle ground, or background? You say a long shot, but is this more of an extreme long shot to really get a sense of the expanse of the land? How close are they to the hanging body before they realize the mother is strung up?)

The small farmhouse should be shadowed in the distance. (Okay, so we’ve eliminated the background as a possibility for the above character placement, but just how far away is this shadowed farmhouse? And do you mean silhouetted when you say “shadowed” or can we make out details on the house?) It is a rough, poor affair, barely large enough for the family of four. Next to the farmhouse should be a pen for livestock. The livestock should be visibly different from “normal” livestock: consistent (not mutations) but clearly visually distinct. (“Not mutations” creates a hard visual to attain. Do you mean they have llamas instead of cattle, for example? The idea of having an atypical livestock would definitely be viewed as different. Is this what you meant?) Some distance from the livestock is a small copse of trees. (Is this to the side of the livestock or further back in the shot?) ELENA GREY, the mother of ATTICUS and LEVI and wife of HENRY HULL hangs by the neck from one of the trees. Her features are cast in a black shadow and her long dress is splayed out by a gentle breeze. She has been hanged by MATTHEW BRICK, and her husband and sons are just discovering this as they return home from the town of Goodwell. (This last line isn’t a visual cue to the other creators, so it becomes extraneous information. Take it out.)


I’ll tell you right now, this image doesn’t warrant a full page the way you’ve established it. There’s no real sense of drama pulling the reader in with your choice of shot as you have the body hanging from the tree in the distance, not to mention the very limited text on this page. Not working. With that said, what would happen if you had the trio in the background coming into the foreground where we have the hung body of Elena Grey? This could warrant the full page because it’s giving us a good strong hook. Another problem is the inaction of the three male characters. Give them life. By having them approaching the background from the foreground, we don’t even see their faces to gauge emotional reaction to what lies in the distance. Make them move as a reaction to what they see. This would be even more powerful if they were in the distance, the kids running to where the body hangs, the father still, stunned by what has happened to his wife. Play with the emotions of your reader by giving them something and someone to care about.


The Hull Homestead, Oklahoma Territory


August 8th, 1884

FRAME-LESS MESSAGE: (Chapter title)



Okay, we’ve now got P1 on the books.


I’m not a fan of it.


As a panel description, this cannot be drawn. You give at least two indications of where the camera could be, and then you continue from there. Not good. While this could be a page powerful enough to warrant a splash, it isn’t there yet because you haven’t decided what the view is as yet.


Remember that splash pages should be as powerful as possible. Something that’ll warrant the space. Know what this means? It means you need more. More what? Dialogue.


You only have two captions here, and while they let the reader know the where and the when, there should be a lot more giving the what. Know what you can do with the dialogue? You can lead the reader’s eyes around to the important stuff with it. If you were to put the camera behind the people and have them looking at the house and the tree with the swinging corpse, you could put dialogue near the corpse, drawing attention to it.


The other thing the dialogue will do is give us a reason to turn the page. Right now, I’d love to know why I’m reading this story. As it stands, I have little incentive to turn the page. That makes this a waste of space. Give the reader something to read. Add words. The caveat here, of course, is that the words must matter.



PAGE 2 (FIVE PANELS): (Page break)

PAGE 2, Panel 1.

Close up of HENRY’s feet running across the dusty trail. (How is the reader supposed to know whose feet these are?)

PAGE 2, Panel 2.

Close up of ATTICUS and LEVI’s (smaller) feet running towards home. ATTICUS is leading the way, with LEVI being dragged along. (How is the reader supposed to know that one person is being dragged along?)


I’m not getting what the purpose of these two shots is. Why have close-ups of their feet? Is the emotion in their feet or in their eyes and facial expressions? If you had established them running on the first page, you wouldn’t need these. You could even go so far as to have a shot of one set of eyes in the top panel, those being of the person who is most affected by the situation (probably those of Henry Hull) and then his feet running to not only catch up to his boys, but to show his determination to get to the scene of the incident. This eye-shot would create a connection for the reader, something they could relate to from their lives when they have experienced a sense of loss.

PAGE 2, Panel 3 (Most Important Panel).

Medium shot from below adult eye-level. The goal is for the tree and ELENA to loom large over the children. ATTICUS and LEVI stand with their backs to the camera: they stand stiff and staring, and ATTICUS is holding LEVI’s hand. HENRY is lunging for the rope around the tree, his movements desperate. The desperation in his action needs to stand in stark contrast to the frozen tableau of ATTICUS and LEVI. (This is pretty damned specific. You could simply say that you have a low angle shot or even a more dramatic worm’s eye view from behind the still boys while their father tries desperately to untie the rope to save his wife who is obviously already dead. My questions would be the following: Does he have a knife on him? In his desperation, would he lunge for the rope or for his wife, trying to lift her body to relieve the pressure around her neck? Which is more realistic given his situation, emotional state, and the fact his boys are watching? Is he crying or maintaining a strong demeanor in front of his sons? All of these questions are valid in determining more information for the artist, instead of placing focus on the house.)

ELENA hangs still above the children, her dress limp and her features shrouded in shadow. The house sits perfectly still in the background: the door slightly ajar. (The house shouldn’t really be a focus in this shot. All focus should be on that tree and the four characters.) A crude message has been carved into the tree. The words are scratchy, angry, ill-spelled and ill-formed:


Worned you to sell.

PAGE 2, Panel 4

Close up of HENRY’s face shouting over his shoulder at ATTICUS.


Get Levi inside!


The above panel could have just as well been incorporated into the previous panel. Don’t draw out your actions for the sake of elongating the story.

PAGE 2, Panel 5

Close up of ATTICUS and LEVI’s silent faces. ATTICUS should be visible from around the waist up, and his little brother should come up to a little below his shoulder. ATTICUS should be staring wide-eyed at the camera. His face needs to communicate tension, a struggle to control his emotions for the sake of his brother and his father. LEVI should have tears streaming down his face. ATTICUS should be reaching down to hold tightly to his brother’s hand. (Very wordy, and the last part of the holding hands wouldn’t even be in the shot if you’re concentrating on a close-up of their faces.)


I would have liked to have seen more dialogue here, even if it were just an addition in the last panel of “ATTICUS! I SAID GET YOUR BROTHER IN THE HOUSE!” Right now it just seems minimal. I understand you’re going for the visual being the key dramatic player, but it doesn’t seem like enough to me. At least add to that last panel.


P2. Bah.


I’m not going to call it crap. I see that this is supposed to be emotional. I get it. However, what you’re choosing as the important shots for the panels are bleeding the emotion right out of it.


I understand the panels with the feet. I get it. What I’m not getting is the almost total lack of dialogue here. The lack of emotion is even more obvious with the lack of dialogue.


I now have some reason as to why we’re reading it, but is it enough to continue reading? I don’t know. That ambivalence may work in your favor to eke out another page of interest. What you need to do, though, is make sure that that page is worth reading. If it isn’t, you’re going to lose your readers.


Dialogue. Add it. The lack of it is killing you here.


PAGE 3 (FIVE PANELS): (Page break.)

One long vertical panel along the left-hand side with four stacked panels along the right-hand side of the page.

PAGE 3, Panel 1.

Establishing shot, medium distance. Bird’s eye view over the heads of the characters. It’s early afternoon, now. (Your previous scene took place in the late afternoon and this takes place in early afternoon. How do you show that difference and is it really necessary to specify late or early afternoon? Not really.) ATTICUS, LEVI and HENRY are standing around a freshly dug grave at the foot of the tree where ELENA was hanged. A wooden grave marker leans at an angle in the dirt, and a dirty shovel leans against the tree trunk.

ATTICUS is holding LEVI’s hand again, while LEVI is tightly gripping a fistful of posies. The boys are dressed in their Sunday best. HENRY stands to one side, also dressed in his best though his pants are streaked with dirt and mud. His shirtsleeves are rolled up above his elbows and there is sweat on his brow. In one hand he is clutching a rosary, with a simple wooden cross. The three of them are staring at ELENA’s grave.


August 9th, 1884

This kind of drastic full-day time jump is usually better suited to a back-to-back page instead of a facing page. Something to remember as you go forward.

PAGE 3, Panel 2.

Close up on ATTICUS’ face. His expression is tight, his face turned down. He speaks quietly. His eyes should not be seen.


Are you going to make this right, Henry?


Ain’t no way to make this right, son.

PAGE 3, Panel 3.

Close up on ATTICUS’ face. He raises his head, and there are tears streaming down his cheeks. His eyes are furious, though.


If my real pa were alive, he’d find Matthew Brick and put him in the ground.

PAGE 3, Panel 4.

Close up on HENRY’s face. His eyes are sad and tired. Sweat glistens on his forehead, and he is staring at his wife’s grave with great sadness in his eyes. (I’m trying to fully visualize this image as you have a close-up with him staring at his wife’s grave. Does this mean his head is down? You could have put the focus on his conversation with Atticus and have him looking at the camera, which would have allowed the reader to see full on the sadness and tiredness in his eyes.)


Maybe so. (Comma instead of period here.) but your ma would’ve taken care of you. It’s just us now. You and Levi need me here.

PAGE 3, Panel 5.

Pull back to a medium-view shot over ATTICUS’ shoulder. ATTICUS is standing alone above ELENA’s grave with his back to the camera. HENRY is holding open the door for LEVI, and LEVI is passing inside. The posies that LEVI was holding before should now be resting on ELENA’s grave. (When did the posies get put on the grave?) HENRY looks back over his shoulder at ATTICUS.


You’re just afraid.


Take as long as you need to pay your respects.. (Three dots for an ellipsis.)

This is a pretty good page, but three things I want to mention: First, try not to design the page for the artist unless it’s absolutely crucial to the story. This wasn’t one of those crucial moments from what I can tell as I can see a variety of page layouts for this sequence. Let them do their job. Second, we’re at Page Three and you haven’t named Atticus in your dialogue yet. I’ve given you one way of doing it, now here’s another: Have his name said at the end of the last line of “Take as long as you need to pay your respects, Atticus.” Easy enough. Third, you have opportunity for a bit of anger to be expressed by Atticus and defensiveness on the part of Henry, but instead you stick with minimal dialogue. Take the opportunities where they lie to develop your characters and their relationships.


P3, and it’s only a little better than P2.


Okay, let’s talk about formatting a little bit more first.


See how every element is butted up against each other? That makes it pretty difficult to read. Every element should have a space between it. You do that, and the readability level of this script goes up one hundred fold.


Now, you finally have some dialogue worth reading. That’s great. Too little, too late? I don’t think so. It’s still enough to be ambivalent about. Minor mystery about what’s going on, and that is what’s going to keep the readers here. It would have been easier done if there were more dialogue to read in the first two pages, though. You could have ramped up the emotion through the roof if you had more (good) dialogue on the first two pages. Captions would do wonders.




PAGE 4, Panel 1:

It is nighttime, and the farm house is dark and quiet. (Establish that it’s nighttime and forego the other details that we don’t need. A close-up of ATTICUS lying on his back in bed, the blanket pulled up to his chin. His eyes are open and he is staring up at the ceiling (camera). A window above his bed (A skylight or do you mean the window is at his head?) is open, and moonlight is streaming into the room.

PAGE 4, Panel 2:

Pull back and display the farm house’s main room. LEVI is asleep in a small bed along one wall. He is lying on his side, his eyes closed. (Why is this important?) A rough-hewn table occupies the middle of the room, with several hand-carved chairs around it. (Why is the state and manufacture of the dining set important?) Several coals smolder in the hearth, though they don’t really add much light to the room. (Why introduce the coals lighting the room if they’re not providing light?) The wooden door to HENRY and ELENA’s (now HENRY’s) room is closed. (Why not leave it open to show it leads into a bedroom? This way he can also listen for the boys.) Across the room from LEVI, ATTICUS is sitting up in bed, pushing the blanket aside. He is fully dressed. His feet dangle from the bed, just barely touching the floor. He is not wearing shoes: they are neatly lined up on the floor by his feet. Shelves with various objects line the room, and on one of the shelves is a small closed case about large enough to hold a pistol. (A LOT of needless details in this panel description and also a lot of details that the artist will need to ensure make it into the image. It was making me dizzy trying to picture how everything was going to be placed. Not good.)

SFX 1:

Rustle (You really don’t need this sound effect. Wait for the upcoming, more important sound at the end of this page.)

PAGE 4, Panel 3:

Forced perspective from ATTICUS point-of-view. His hands are reaching forward towards the pistol case. His hands are just about to grip the sides of the case.


So we start off with Atticus in bed staring at the ceiling, then he sits up, and then has somehow made it across the room to the pistol case? That’s fast.

PAGE 4, Panel 4:

Close-up of the open case. Inside is a workman-like Colt pistol with a fine wooden grip. A worn box of bullets is tucked into the corner of the case. ATTICUS trails the fingers of one hand along the grip. (This should be a three-step process, where he has the case in his hands, opens it, and then runs his fingers along the grip. It doesn’t work as two because you miss the action of the case being opened, creating a jump cut.)

PAGE 4, Panel 5:

Extreme close-up of ATTICUS’ now-shod foot (When did he put the shoes on?) depressing one of the floor boards.

SFX 2:


I understand what you’re trying to do on this page, but it isn’t being presented effectively. You have jumps in actions and in some cases, details that are either extraneous or unclear.


P4, and I’m not impressed.


So the boy’s going to try and get his revenge. The problems here are tri-fold:


First, you have too many details in the panel description. Clarity is and will always be your first job. If it isn’t clear, you don’t have any reason to write it.


Second, you don’t have much continuity between panels. First he’s unshod, then he’s shod, with no putting on of the shoes in-between, and more.


Third, again, the lack of dialogue. Would it be absolutely necessary here? No, not at all. IF. If you had more dialogue on the first two pages, you wouldn’t need any dialogue here. But since you continue to go the minimalist route, you’re needing dialogue here in order to keep the reader’s interest.


What you have here isn’t fluff. All of the panels are needed. What you haven’t remembered is that books are meant to be read. What I mean by that is there aren’t enough words on the page to keep the reader here.


For a reader, this story will pass by extremely fast. The first page is a splash, the second page has almost no dialogue, the third page has some, but this page is again silent. An extremely fast read. You can do better.


PAGE 5 (FIVE PANELS) (Page break.)

PAGE 5, Panel 1:

Medium-range shot of ATTICUS frozen on tip-toes with HENRY’s pistol in one hand. LEVI is now sitting up in bed, wearing a nightshirt. His eyes are wide and his hair is tousled. LEVI is to the left of ATTICUS, and his face should be slightly angled towards his older brother.



PAGE 5, Panel 2:

Close up of ATTICUS’ face. He has one finger up to his mouth and he’s shushing LEVI.


Shhh. Quiet.

PAGE 5, Panel 3:

Close up of LEVI’s face. The boy’s eyes are wide and he looks frightened.


What are you doing? Where are you going?

PAGE 5, Panel 4: (Most Important Panel)

Close up over ATTICUS’ shoulder. ATTICUS is pulling the blanket back up over LEVI, tucking the younger kid into bed.


I’m going to find Matthew Brick.


Can I come with you?


I need your help, but I need it here. Help Henry with the farm.

PAGE 5, Panel 5:

Wide-angle shot, showing ATTICUS pulling on a duster too large for him and opening the farm’s main door. LEVI is propped up on his elbow.


Be careful.

I’m going to stop here. You’ve got some serious ups and downs when it comes to your writing, Chris. Some written pages in your script work better than others and you’ve got a definite vision established of how you want the pages to look. You aren’t giving much leeway for artistic interpretation, though. The artist could probably bring something to the table, but may feel constrained by the way you hand-hold them through the panels and page designs. It’s a precarious balance beam you’re walking as you try to satisfy your viewpoint. I hope you find an artist who will accept those restrictions. I’m definitely getting the feeling that you could have introduced more dialogue into this story. It’s basic right now, providing just enough to do the job of moving it forward, but not enough to elaborate on character building. We’ll see what Steven has to say.


That was a slog. Or maybe I’m just getting back up to speed after a cross-country move. Who knows? Let’s run it down.


Format: Page breaks and spaces between all of your elements. Again, this’ll make it that much easier to read.


Panel Descriptions: These could be a lot better. Clarity. If you cut down on what is the sometimes almost prosaic descriptions as well as stop having a stranglehold over each and every little detail of the panel and stick to the important information that can be drawn, and you’ll be well on your way. What you have here is doing what it needs to do, but only barely. It can be so much better.


Pacing: Deplorable. It would be so much better if you selected your shots better and added more dialogue. That’s the biggest thing this piece is missing: dialogue. Without it, it’s going to be an extremely fast read.


Dialogue: There isn’t a lot here to comment on. That’s a problem. This story would have been a lot better with more to read. Half of the emotional punch is in the dialogue. It is used in two ways: either in delivering the emotional payload, or in its absence in a tense scene. You don’t have enough here to go one way or the other, which leaves you in a position of having to add words in order to justify your silences. P4 could have been silent, but only if there were more to read on the preceding pages.


Content: This is something I could probably read, given more of a reason to do so. As a reader, I probably wouldn’t have made it past P3 before wanting something interesting or explanatory to happen, though.


Editorially, this doesn’t need a rewrite. It just needs more dialogue and to have the panel descriptions cleaned up. You’d keep more interest that way.


And that’s it. Again, we’re still looking for scripts, writers. We’re here for you, and we literally cannot do it without you. Thanks in advance.


That’s really it, now. 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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