TPG Week 198: How To Bore In Five Pages

| October 10, 2014




Welcome back, one and all, to The Proving Grounds! This week, we have another entry from Chelsea Smith! We also have Liam Hayes in blue, and I’m looking rather svelte in red, and we’ll see what Chelsea does with


PAGE ONE (six panels)

Panel one: Daytime. Animal shelter. A miserable, lonely, three-legged cat sits in her enclosure, staring forward through the glass. She has the standard fare. A blanket, a food bowl, a water bowl, toy, and a litter box. Nothing special. Out of shot, a pair of women talk. (I’m not a know-it-all, I swear. However, my cat only has two paws. His two hind paws are gone. So, the question to ask is, which leg is missing?)

TALBOT (OP): You say she’s friendly?

VOLUNTEER (OP): Oh yes, she’s just the sweetest thing. It’s a real shame about her leg. (Comma-fail.)

Panel two: Wider shot of the shelter. (Do we see other enclosures?) More people walk by (This is first we’ve heard of people walking by.), not looking down at her enclosure. The cat places one paw on the window.

TALBOT (OP): Did she get in a fight?

VOLUNTEER (OP): No. Hit by a car. She can move just fine and all, but (That comma should be here.) so far, nobody’s wanted the tripod.

Panel three: The cat continues to stare through the glass, but the focus is no longer on her. Behind her, visible through the bars in the back of her enclosure (Hmm. These bars have just jumped in. I pictured the back of the enclosure being a brick wall. Why does the enclosure have a window in the front and bars in the back? That seems odd.), a stiff-backed black woman named DR. TALBOT, dressed in casual but nice clothes (perhaps a bit too nice to wear to an animal shelter) speaks with one of the shelter volunteers. (These characters have just popped into the scene. We should’ve seen them in panel one and two if the back of the enclosure is merely bars.)

(This panel has just thrown me completely out of the story.)

TALBOT: She’s tolerant?

VOLUNTEER: Sure. Poor thing’s starved for attention. Would you like to hold her?

TALBOT: That’s all right. I’m already sure she’s exactly what I’m looking for.

Panel four: The cat is plucked unceremoniously from her cage, her eyes wide with surprise, her fur bunching around her neck . (Who’s doing this?)

Panel five: The volunteer sets the cat in a carrier. (Where? Why? How?)

VOLUNTEER: She’s up to date on her vaccinations, she’s been fixed. Just be sure to sign the paperwork and pay the adoption fee. You’re absolutely sure you have everything you need? You don’t want a trial period? (Ouch. That’s a lot of text. Cut this down.)(It isn’t too bad. There’s space. However, I’d break it into two balloons, placing the questions in their own separate balloon.)

TALBOT: I’m sure. I’ve been prepping to adopt for weeks.

Panel six: The cat stares out from the carrier, curious, huddled and uncertain.

TALBOT (OP): This is the one.


Missing establish shot on this page. Get one in. Anchor the reader. There’s also missing story. A shame, really. That last panel could be an effective hook with the suggestion of something untoward or interesting.

P1 is down!

I’m underwhelmed.

Personally, I’m with Liam. This needs an establishing shot. Start outside of the shop, and then go inside. Voice over captions for the establishing shot, and then we can have the off-panel dialogue from there.

Here’s what I saw when you spoke of enclosures clear plastic all around, with air holes cut into the back. I wasn’t imagining anything with bars. Know what that means? You didn’t tell the artist what you saw in your head, because like Liam said, those bars seemingly come out of nowhere. If you do a better job describing the surroundings, your artist will be better able to give you what you’re asking for.

P1 does something that a lot of new writers do, though. It does a whole lot of nothing. This seems to be a short story. That means you have to get into it faster. Right now, there’s no real reason for the reader to turn the page, except that it’s a short story. They’re not vested in anything that’s going on, which means they’re turning the page due to habit, not because they’re interested.

PAGE TWO (seven panels)

Panel one: Talbot and the cat now sit in a comfortable office, all warm tones and gentle light. (More importantly, what’s the time of day?) The walls are lined with books. It is a therapist’s office, designed for comfort. Talbot herself sits in a tall, cozy armchair, a clipboard in her lap, still dressed in her nice business casual clothes. The cat sits in the carrier on the floor next to her, bored and despondent. This is not how she pictured getting out of the shelter. (That last line is prose.) (This will have some trouble being drawn. Who’s brave enough to tell me why?)

(Why silent? You could get some character building in, even if she’s just talking to the cat.)

Panel two: A door opens into the room and in walks (That’s all moving action. Rewrite it for comics.) a brown-haired man with a blank expression dressed all in black. His shoulders are stiff. His neck is tense. He’s ready for a fight.

(Again. No dialogue. But the guy’s angry. When people are angry, they want to let you know. Angry people don’t shut up.)

Panel three: Small panel. At the sight of him, the cat sits up, her curiosity piqued. (Who cares what the cat thinks about the guy?)

Panel four: 017 (Who? What?) takes a seat on a long couch (Magical pop in couch.) opposite Talbot, machine(Dash.)like, his eyes downcast. (Machine-like? Impossible. This is a moving panel.)

Panel five: Talbot smiles at him. (More description needed. What’s the shot and who’s in it?)

TALBOT: It’s good to see you, Mr. Gray. I hope you’re doing well.

Panel six: 017 stares blankly forward.

Panel seven: Talbot sighs (Sighing is dialogue. You can’t draw a sigh.) and marks something on her clipboard. In the corner of the panel, the cat glances up at her, curious. (You can’t have a glancing look in comics. It’s a moving panel.)

TALBOT: All right. Operative 017, you’re doing well?


SEVEN panels for a guy to walk in and sit down. Waste much? This is not going well.

P2, and we have a couple of things going on.

The first thing are moving panels. Chelsea had a problem with this last time, and there was no attempt made to rewrite this script and send it back in. That’s neither here nor there, though. It’s just something that’s part of her current writing, and hopefully, she’ll work to correct it.

The second thing that’s going on here is simply this: nothing.

P1 introduces a cat and two characters. P2 introduces another character. What does the character do? Comes in and sits down. Know who cares? No one. Why? Because nothing happens to make us care about it. Since nothing happens and no one cares, why should anyone read this?

PAGE THREE (eight panels)

Panel one: 017 does respond to this (More prose. We can see that he responds from the presence of his dialogue.), still stiff-backed and stoic. (Where’s Talbot? She’s got dialogue in this panel.)

017: Yes.

TALBOT: Have you been smuggling anything into your room? Razors, knives, sharp objects?

017: No.

TALBOT: Do you understand why you’ve been suspended from active duty?

Panel two: 017 stares forward blankly, not answering. (Pointless panel.)

Panel three: The cat begins to paw at the door of her carrier, trying to open it. (Another pointless panel.)(You can’t begin to do an action in comics. You either do it, or you don’t. Moving panel.)

PANEL FOUR: Talbot reaches down to open the latch on the cat’s door. (Okay. Someone want to tell me what’s wrong with this panel?)

TALBOT: I’d like to try something different, 017.

(This is a good panel to hook reader interest.)


Panel Five: Talbot pulls the cat out of the carrier, holding her in her lap. (She can’t do both in a static panel. And what’s her expression?)

TALBOT: This cat came from the shelter. (That line invalidates the entire first page. You’ve just saved yourself some space.) She was injured, like you, and will need you to take care of her. She can be your friend, if you let her. And you can talk to her. (She’s going to give 017, who I presume is a dangerous mental patient from your talk of sharp objects, an animal. That’s borderline unethical. You need to address that in your story or the reader’s going to be thrown out of it. Perhaps have this as a last ditch attempt to help him. Otherwise, I can see no logic for it.)

Panel Six: Talbot sets the cat on the couch next to 017. (Expressions? Camera angle? More needed.)

Panel Seven: 017’s eyes flick down to this bizarre thing the therapist is trying to dump on him, while the cat stares with open interest, even excitement. (Prosaic.)

TALBOT (OP): You need to name her. She’s yours now. (These lines sound better reversed.)

Panel Eight: 017 stares down, his eyes half lidded with memory. (How’s that going to be drawn? It isn’t, really.)

So far, you’ve one page of story for three pages of comic. That means your pacing is off, dramatically. Page one isn’t needed at all, and half the panels on pages two and three are necessary.

P3 is down, and I see people heading for the exits.

I’m not a huge wrestling fan. I kinda dropped out of that when I was a teenager. However, I would only watch WWF. (Screw this WWE nonsense.) I was a Hulkamaniac, and I couldn’t stand Randy Savage.

I had gone out on a date. A girl I had met over the phone (she was a friend of one of my classmates) wanted to see me after we had been talking on the phone for a few weeks, and her brother had tickets to a wrestling event. It was free, we were chaperoned, so I went.

It was my first (and only) live wrestling event. It was for the WCW. The Nature Boy Ric Flair was there, as was the American Dream. (Dusty Rhodes was fat even then, so I have no idea how he thought of himself as the American dream .) The seats were bad, though, and there wasn’t a large screen monitor to see the action in the ring, so while I liked the energy in the arena, I was bored. And I was trapped. I was a young teenager and couldn’t drive, so I couldn’t go anywhere.

My date? I don’t remember what she looked like. Attractive? Dunno. But she didn’t make that much of an impression on me in that department. Here’s what I remember: it was nighttime when I got back home. I got out of the car, excited about the date. It was a bit cool, and there was dew on the ground. I ran, slipped, and fell, immediately going into a roll. I popped up, embarrassed, and waved to indicate that I was okay, but they were already driving away. I went into the house.

The next day, I get a phone call from another girl—a friend of the girl I had gone out with the night before. I was told that she wouldn’t be contacting me anymore, and that she thought I was ugly. Not just ugly. Ugly like the gum on the bottom of your shoe.

That hurt.

The girl who called to tell me? She wanted to see me herself so she could compare. (She didn’t.)

See what happened here? I told a short story, and more happened in it than in these pages. P3 makes this piece a complete failure. More nothing happens. Fun, right?

Prince has a lyric near the end of If I Was Your Girlfriend. Basically, after sex, he says that they could just lay there and wonder what silence looks like. Wondering what silence looks like? More interesting than this script.

And the hell of it is this: there’s a high number of panels here. It feels like Chelsea tried to stuff a lot of story in here, but because nothing is moving, there’s lots of wasted space here.

Nothing happens. Nothing. I know that it seems interesting, but I was informed that I was ugly, like gum stuck to the bottom of your shoe. I personally believe that’s a lie, just like I also personally believe that there’s no story here yet.

Liam’s right in that you could have saved yourself a page by cutting P1. You always want to start as late as possible, and catch people up organically. This? This makes me want to watch Ben Can’t-Act-fleck in Daredevil. Or maybe Man-Thing. That was a terrible movie, too. But at least more happened there than in this piece.

PAGE FOUR (seven panels)

Panel one: 017 speaks. (Wow. That actually tells the artist nothing. It says exactly the same as the line of dialogue does.)

017: Koshka.

Panel two: Talbot is momentarily (Panels, by their definition, are captured moments. This is unneeded.) surprised.

Panel three: Talbot regains her composure and marks something down on her clipboard, torn between amusement and concern. (Hard to show, that. Mild amusement works better. She’s not completely amused for her concern.) (This actually cannot be drawn. Why? Moving panel.)

TALBOT: Koshka means ‘cat’ in Russian.

Panel four: Close on the cat, now Koshka, starts sniffing at 017’s knuckles. (Grammar.) They are red, scabbed, and somewhat bruised.

TALBOT (OP): Why Russian? Have you been thinking about what happened in Samara?

PANEL SIX: 017’s expression twists briefly with pain, though he struggles to maintain control. (This is dangerously close to prose. Focus on what we’re seeing.)

Panel six: Close on Koshka as she leans forward and tries to lick one of his knuckles, all her shyness gone.

Panel seven: Alarmed, 017 pulls his hand away, out of Koshka’s reach. (What’s the shot here? What’s the cat doing?)

Another page of virtually nothing. You’re wasting a lot of space on panels in which nothing is said, either by the dialogue or the art itself.

P4, and it’s a waste of space.

Nothing new here. The same thing happens as happened before: nothing.

PAGE FIVE (six panels)

Panel one: Undeterred, Koshka begins trying to nuzzle into 017’s side, happily convinced that this human is going to love her. 017 grows uncomfortable (He is uncomfortable or he isn’t. There’s no sense of anything growing in a single panel.), gripping the cushions (Magical pop-in cushions.) on the plush couch tightly.

Panel two: 017 has enough. He stands and moves to the other side of the couch, leaving Koshka in his spot, surprised and more than a little upset. (Moving panel, this.)

Panel three: 017 sits on the other side of the couch, an arm’s length from the cat. Koshka settles down in his former spot, her expression glum, saying quite clearly “Fine. I just wanted your spot, anyway.” (No idea how that can be said clearly through static art.) 017’s expressionless mask returns.

Panel four: Talbot taps her pen against the clipboard, surveying the two of them. (Expression?)

Panel five: Koshka and 017 sit on the couch, resolutely ignoring each other while Talbot speaks.

TALBOT (OP): I’ve already had everything you’ll need for her moved to your room.

PANEL SIX: The scene shifts (Inorganic scene transition. You’ll want to avoid these halfway through a page.) as 017 opens the door to Koshka’s carrier in a bleak cell of a room. There are solid gray walls made of concrete, a twin-sized bed, made with military precision, and a night stand. The only thing hanging on the wall is a single clock. (Light source and time of day?)

TALBOT (Caption): You can go ahead and get her settled in.

I’m going to stop here. This is going to need a thorough rewrite. Don’t feel bad. Writing is rewriting.

Now, there’s a lot of wasted space in this story. Silent panels which add neither character nor advance the story do not a good read make. To fix this, I recommend you combine pages two and three into one with panel four on page three as a hook. You don’t need page one at all. You practically told us everything that page told us in one line of dialogue in panel five on page three. Speaking of dialogue, add more of it. I looked ahead and saw six consecutive pages devoid of any speech. Not good. Dialogue is great. It’s how we communicate as human beings, and we’re naturally drawn to it. Draw the reader in similarly.

Technically, you’ve got thin descriptions that often veer into prose. Objects also pop into your scenes quite often. This isn’t like prose where you can describe as you go, building the scene piece by piece. This is comics. You must describe everything in the scene for the artist as soon as we see it.

Liam has stopped, so the torture can stop, so I can run this down!

Format: Flawless Victory. And, really, that’s the only good thing about this.

Panel Descriptions: Decidedly not good.

They are all generally weak, they generally do not describe a static action, they are generally prosaic, and sometimes, they defy the ability to be drawn. It’s just a study in not-good.

Pacing: There’s a whole lotta nothing going on!

In five pages, we see a cat, we see a shrink, we see a guy who may need to be locked up…and that’s all we really know. Five pages of it. I’d rather watch water mate. I’m going to take this ans an entire scene, and call it unnecessary. We don’t learn anything except that the cat gets a name. Effective, right?

Also, there are too many panels here for absolutely nothing to happen. Too many panels, too many silent panels. (We’re going to talk about those in a bit.)

Pacing, from smallest to largest, is the number of scenes in a book, the number of pages in a scene, the number of panels in a page, and the number of words per panel/page/scene. Things have to happen in each panel in order to push the story forward. For five pages, nothing happens. Condense. Get to the heart of the matter as quickly as you can. You have to capture a reader’s interest, and you won’t do it with this pacing.

Dialogue: What little of it there is reads fine. You just need to learn the art of breaking the dialogue into its own balloons. That’s your job, not the letterer’s, not the editor’s. The editor will help you with it, but it’s primarily your job. Learn to do your job.

Content: As a reader, I’d be wondering how this got published. Extremely slow, by far. No, I’m not a fan of the slow burn. Not when it isn’t interesting. Not when I can see where things need to be cut.

Editorially, this needs a complete rewrite, from end to end. This entire first scene could probably be cut. I’d look to see what the first issue is about, and then do some rearranging so that the first scene is at least interesting. I’d also have a conversation with Chelsea to see what it is she wanted to accomplish with this story, and then tailor the edits to make sure she accomplished those goals. Right now, I think the only goal is to bore the reader into submission. Not good.

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 for rate inquiries.

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