TPG Week 219: Writing Challenge Entry 4

| March 7, 2015


Hello, one and all, and welcome back to another installment of The Proving Grounds! We’re still in the writing challenge that I ran over at Digital Webbing, and this week’s entry comes from someone who’s no stranger here: Schuyler Van Gunten!


I’m also alone this week, so we all know how this is going to go.


Schuyler even did me the favor of putting the rules in. So, let’s all see how he does with


By Schuyler Van Gunten


Charles- Distraught scientist with troubles at home. He has black hair and brown eyes. He is middle aged and has a tannish skin color. His hair is always pointing awkwardly in different directions. He is tall and thin. His clothes are wrinkled, as is the lab coat he wears over them. He looks like maybe he had some Indian (India, not American Native) in his lineage.

Bobby- Charles’ carefree lab assistant, he is younger, and black. He keeps his clothes and his lab coat neat. Bobby is short and stout and has short clean dreadlocks. He is a happier person than Charles.

Arti– is a person with an artificial brain that was developed by Charles. Arti looks like a regular old white guy. Except his skull cap is metal thus he has no hair. He rides a wheel chair. Arti has blue eyes. He has a real innocent childlike look to his face.

Rules- The story cannot be longer than 5 pages.  

The story cannot be a tragedy.  

There must be an artificial intelligence involved.

There must be at least 50 words of spoken dialogue.  

The word “enlightenment” must be in the dialogue.

String cheese must be an object, not just mentioned.

The challenge ends on 1/10/15.


PAGE ONE (five panels)

Panel 1. Late Morning. Charles is walking towards us, away from his suburban home. He is throwing his hands in the air and he looks exasperated (Moving panel, but I can see it.). His front door is open and his wife stands in the open door, and she is furious. Charles on the right in the foreground and his wife on the left in the background. There is nothing special about the entrance of Charles’ home.


Charles Alexander Whitney! If you walk away from me right now, we are finished!


I’m already late! What do you want me to do?!

Panel 2. Charles is running down a white hallway with grey trim. It should look very much like a hospital. Charles is running from the left side of the panel to the right. Tom stands on the right side of the panel with one hand out to stop Charles and the other pointing a thumb over his shoulder. Tom has a small smirk and his chin pointed at Charles in a mocking look. (This isn’t going to turn out right. Where do you place the camera? If Chuck is on the left and Tom is on the right, and you have Chuck running from left-to-right, then the camera has to be straight on so we can see the left-to-right running. Now, in order to show that and have the characters in the frame, the camera has to be pulled out. In order to pull the camera out, we have to be looking down a different hallway. That’s the only way this comes close to working. However, the only way that even works is if the two characters are relatively close to one another—but you say they’re at opposite ends of the panel. This doesn’t work because you don’t have enough space to place the camera. The pose of Tom is strange, too. I wouldn’t have him looking like a traffic cop.)


Whoa, where ya goin, Charles? I just saw your robot in the lunchroom. (Okay, folks—if you’re going to shorten a word, you need an apostrophe to take the place of the missing letter(s). So, it should be goin’.)

Panel 3. Charles has stopped and he scowls at Tom.


Arti is not a robot, Tom. Only his brain is artificial, the rest of him is human.

Panel 4. Front View of Charles, motion lines show him do a double take. Waist up on Charles with white and grey hallway stretching behind him, a door can be seen on the right side of the hallway. Leave room above Charles for letters so the motion lines are not obscured. (This could be executed better. What’s his expression?)


Wait! He’s in the cafeteria?!

TOM (op):

Yeah, last I saw, he was eating string cheese and making fart noises. What did you call him? ‘A revolution in artificial enlightenment’?

Panel 5. Charles is panel left, walking away from us. Tom is panel right, and in the foreground facing us. Tom has a small frown. (So, this is P1, right? Then why is Chuck walking toward the left, out of the book? Not a good look.)


Screw you, Tom. Why don’t you go back to your jet fuel?


It’s rocket fuel, and it’s going to be awesome.

P1 is down.

Not too bad so far. Schuyler seems to be reaching for comedy here, but it doesn’t feel like he’s going all the way.

Why do I say comedy? The double-take. They shouldn’t be used in comics except for comedic effect. The reason why is simple: they look silly. You’re compressing two conflicting emotions into a single panel, and the double-take is best done when there’s something humorous going on. Otherwise, it’s going to break up the flow, especially if you’re working on a serious piece.

The other big thing is panel 2. You don’t have to be a physicist in order to write comics. You do need to be cognizant of what can and can’t be done in the space provided, however. Panel 2 can’t be drawn the way it’s described. It’s a matter of space.

Tight spaces will kill you, folks. I’ve had writers write scenes in cars, on trains, and other tight locations. There are a limited number of places where you can put the camera. Know what it is you’re writing, visualize it, so you can effectively write it.

PAGE TWO (five panels)

Panel 1. Wide Panel. Arti and others sit in the cafeteria. Arti’s wheelchair is pulled up to the cafeteria table and he sits center panel. The tables are bench style, so he sits at the head of the table. Arti has a stick of string cheese in his hand, and is burping. There are five engineers with lab coats, including Bobby, around Arti all looking at him with smiles or outright laughing. Bobby sits on Arti’s left side. Beyond Arti is another table with a man taking notes, using a stylus on an ipad looking thing. The cafeteria is mostly empty. Charles speaks from off panel right.




Why the hell is he eating in here?! And he is eating string cheese! (This second line is redundant, because it was already stated that he’s eating string cheese. You’ve already got the object, and stated it. Saying it again isn’t necessary.)

Panel 2. The back/top of Charles’ head is in the foreground now. The table sits horizontal across the panel. Two or three of the engineers have their backs to us, and do not turn. The others look down at their food, except Bobby who looks up at Charles. No one is laughing or smiling anymore. Arti looks at Bobby with his eyebrows raised.


He said that you told him he could come here today. And it’s not string cheese, it’s Kobo’s ‘Cheese Peel’. (Semantics. And not funny, at that.)

Panel 3. Charles is furious and he has yanked Arti’s wheel chair from the table. Motion lines show the sudden movement. Arti tries to steady himself with eyes wide. The camera faces them. Bobby and the engineer across from him both have their arms or parts of their bodies on panel, framing it.

I don’t care what brand the cheese is! Come one Arti, I think you’ve had enough calories for today!

Panel 4. Profile of Charles pushing Arti down the hall. He pushes him left to right. Charles is still mad. Arti looks to the right with his eyes (towards us).


You lied to Bobby, Arti. We never discussed you eating in the cafeteria.


I am sorry I lied, Charles. I just wanted to meet some people. I want to be liked. I want friends.

Panel 5. Charles is standing in the doorway of Arti’s room, with the grey and white walls of the hallway behind him. The walls of Arti’s room are red, framing Charles. Arti’s room is dark so Charles may be slightly silhouetted. Arti is off panel towards the bottom of the panel.


Listen, Arti. You’ll be able to walk in a couple weeks and we can go out then. For now, you’ll just have to live with the fact that Bobby and I are your only friends. Okay?

ARTI (op):

Yes, Charles.

P2 is down, and again, it feels like Schuyler is trying to be funny, but I’m not even faintly amused.

This is a better page than P1, though.

Let’s see where P3 takes us.

PAGE THREE (six panels)

Panel 1. Charles walks down the grey and white hallway, a man in a lab coat passing him.

THOUGHT (Charles):

This is turning out to be a perfect day. Now General Vasquez is going to tear me a new one. (This is late. I don’t like thought balloons to come into play this late. I like them to be as early as possible. There should have been one on P1.)

Panel 2. Charles is entering his outer lab, which is a receptionist area. It is small but neat. Charles is entering through a door on the left. There is another door in the center with a plaque that reads ‘Lab’. On the right is a small desk where a receptionist sits with his left side to us. His name is James, and he has blonde hair and blue eyes. He is young. The reception area is well lit.

Oh, God! (The pacing is off right here. Felix, why do I say this?)


The General is waiting on your tele-chat.


Thank you, James.

Panel 3. Charles is entering his lab from the left. In the center of the panel is his large tele-chat screen with a Hispanic man wearing a general’s uniform. He looks mad. On the right is an MRI machine. Charles has his head hung in despair. It is darker in here than the reception area. (What branch of service are we talking about? An Army general is different from an Air Force general, is different from a Marine Corps general. The Navy doesn’t have generals.)


I have been waiting for you, Charles. I understand there was an incident in the research facility mess hall.


You don’t have to spy on me


I would be amiss if I did not look after my investments. It has come to my attention that this particular investment is not working. (This is wrong two ways. Rin, you’re up.)

Panel 4. Front view of Charles wringing his hands. Motion lines or not, up to the artist. Behind him is a work bench with a fancy, robot, soldering arm. There are circuit boards littering the bench and some on the ground by it. They look they fell off.


You’re pulling my funding!


It’s worse than that, Charles. Arti and all the research belongs to us. You will have to power him down for transport.


It was just one incident! It has already been contained!

Panel 5. Charles has his back to us in the foreground. General Vasquez is on his tele-chat in the background, he has one eyebrow raised. The MRI machine is on our right.


Come clean with me, Charles. You’re A.I. was in the mess hall making fart jokes. (There’s a difference between your and you’re.)


He has only been on line for a short time! He has the mind of a child!

Panel 6. Charles faces the camera looking down in total despair. He has his right side to us, and the door to his lab is in the background. General Vasquez speaks from off panel right.


Yes. Well, we aren’t interested in raising children. I want him off line within the hour. And, I shouldn’t have to remind you how illegal it is to copy or delete any data.


Of course not, General.

P3, and things start to fall off the rails.

And, really, this is no longer interesting. Not crap—it’s just not an interesting story.

When I was a kid, I guess you could say I had a pretty active imagination. I loved to read, I loved comics, I loved cartoons. I didn’t have many friends, but my cousin Jamel was my best friend. He’s my elder by a year.

I had many interests as a kid. This was the 80s, and everyone was getting into computers and robotics. I had an interest, and wanted to build R2-D2. I loved that robot. He was much cooler than C-3PO.

I took out some books from the school library, wanting to learn how to build a robot. (In retrospect, these books were so generic as to be useless, but I didn’t know that then.) I had imagination. I just wanted things to be built the way they were on television or in the movies. You can learn kung-fu in just a few minutes and then go kill the evil master in the movies. Building a robot was much easier than that. Press a few buttons, glue some parts together (I didn’t have access to any other tools like they did in the movies), and then your robot is ready to rock and roll!

Jamel came over to spend the weekend one time. I’m about 10, maybe, making him 11. I forget what my mother had made for dinner, but whatever it was gave me gas.

Of course, I’m still on the robot kick. We decide to build some robots from some electric parts I had. I had an electric race track, and one of the cars stopped working. We dismantled it, and starting putting the parts back together in weird ways. We were going to build two robots. They were pretty small in stature, but it was going to be fun.

Well, the gas I had needed to come out, because it would not be contained any more. No burping for me, though. That would have been too good, right? Instead, I started farting.

We were working on our robots in my room, in two separate areas. I was trying not to be embarrassed by my gas, and I didn’t want to make the farts loud. I was hoping for just a nice, quiet seepage of air out my butt. A hiss, that would have literally been like a valve relieving pressure.

No such luck.

I started farting, and they came out in small pips and squeaks. Stuttering, and high pitched.

Jamel looks up at me instantly and asks what that was. He looks tense. I then say excuse me as a long, loud one rips out of me. I feel much better. Then he relaxes, says, Oh, it was you. At first, I thought your robot had really come to life.

I couldn’t help it. I laughed. Then he joined in…until he smelled what came out of my ass. Then I laughed even harder, because it did smell. It wasn’t terrible, but yeah, it definitely wasn’t roses.

So, we’ve got farts, we’ve got robots, we’ve got at least a smile, if not a chuckle or two.

And that story is better than what we’re reading right now.

PAGE FOUR (four panels)

Panel 1. Bobby is walking towards us, the front doors of the research facility behind him. He has his cell phone up to his ear. He is dressed in his civilian clothes now, and wears a newsboy cap.


Hey, Charles, I got all that data put into the comp–

Panel 2. Bobby is stopped the doorway of the building still behind him. He looks devastated.


Panel 3. Bobby is walking back into the building.


All because he went to the lunchroom?!

Panel 4. Charles sits at his workbench facing us but his head is in his arms. His phone sits facing up on the bench. There are more circuit boards on the floor that were pushed off to make room for his moping. The room is dimly lit and there is a blue glow from the tele-chat, off panel.

BOBBY (elec, from the phone):

Listen, Charles. I know you are having a hard time at home right now, so let me do the dirty work on this one. Okay?


Thanks, Bobby. You’re a good friend.

P4, and another meh page.

I’ve seen salted peanuts that weren’t as dull as this.

PAGE FIVE (five panels)

Panel 1. Bobby stands in Arti’s room handing him the newsboy cap. Arti sits in his wheelchair with a mind puzzle in his lap. It looks like a rubrics (Rubik’s) cube, but it is electronic and has some lights on it. Arti has a confused look on his face.


Thanks for covering for me earlier.


Covering for you?


When you didn’t tell Charles that it was my idea to go to the lunchroom, you ‘covered for me’. Thanks.

Panel 2. Bobby has his back to us as he is pushing Arti out the door of his dorm.


Where are we going?


We are leaving. Put on the hat.

Panel 3. Bobby is pushing Arti down the white and grey hallway. Arti wears the newsboy cap, and looks like a normal guy in a wheelchair. (I understand the fact that he has a chrome dome of sorts, but really: how many other people in wheelchairs are there in the facility? I’m willing to wager it isn’t a large number. My point being: the disguise doesn’t help very much.)


Why are we leaving?


Because they want me turn you off, so they can transport you, which might seem okay. But, what it really means is they are going to tinker with your thinker.

Panel 4. Profile. Arti tries to look up at Bobby as they walk but it is awkward. They are moving left to right. There is a man at a security desk in the background reading a newspaper.


You are sacrificing your career to save me? Is it because you feel responsible for taking me to the cafeteria?

Panel 5. Bobby is pushing Arti away from the front doors, towards us. Arti is smiling very contently.


Maybe But it’s really because I like you, Arti. I don’t want some spooks to tinker with my friend’s thinker.

Okay. Right at the end here, we reached the Line of Demarcation.

All the rules are followed, so there’s that. However, this really isn’t a short story. This is the beginning of a larger story that Schuyler tried to squeeze down to 5 pages. A story has a beginning, middle, and end. There’s no end here.

Let’s run it down.

Format: Flawless Victory. I’m not surprised over this.

Panel Descriptions: They need some work. Not a lot, and they are better than what I’ve generally seen coming from Schuyler. It’s the tight places that tried to kill you.

Pacing: Terrible. Absolutely.

Again, this isn’t a story. It’s like a full 22p book had the beginning chopped off, and this is the result. There’s no resolution.

P1—the character leaves home, even though his wife is threatening to leave. Why? This isn’t touched on at all, and thus, it could be cut.

The ending is where things really fall down. This isn’t the end; it just stops because you reached the page limit. There’s no resolution here. The first three pages are all about Chuck in relation to Arti, then the last two become about Bobby. It comes out of nowhere. I understand the reason why, but at the same time, it feels like a bait and switch.

I once read a trilogy of books by Mercedes Lackey (which is actually a husband and wife team), and was dissatisfied with it. The main characters were going about their business for the entire book, and then the last 8th of each book, a villain appeared and was then dispatched. The same thing happened with the first Twilight book. (Yes, I read the first book, and was disappointed with it, too.)

You have a decent amount of panels per page, but Pacing isn’t just about panels and words per page—it’s also about what gets done. You started out fine, but you didn’t stick the landing.

Whose story is this? It’s not Chuck’s, because he doesn’t do anything. It isn’t Arti’s, even though the story is about him. It isn’t Bobby’s, even though he comes and does something near the page limit (notice I said page limit and not end ). Since the story isn’t any one person’s, there isn’t any arc. I could cut the first two pages and not severely impact the story in a meaningful way. This makes the first two pages padding.

Dialogue: I had no real problems with it. What how you do dialect, or shave syllables off words. You need that apostrophe at the end, otherwise it will look like a misspellin’. The apostrophe says I know what I’m doing. Leaving it off says that you don’t. And no, the apostrophe does not only take the place of a single letter. Consider the word can’t .

Content: This is crap, because this isn’t a story. As a reader, I’d be upset with this because there’s no arc. I was forced to see 50 Shades of Grey, and was shocked to see there was no end. We got a beginning, we got something of a middle, and then the credits rolled. Yes, it was stupid, as I was painfully aware of before I even went inside the theater, but for there to be no arc in the entire movie, and for it to be released in theaters? That was shocking. The same thing here.

Editorially, this needs a rewrite. The first thing to ask is what is the story about? Friendship. Got that. Now, how to really express that in five pages? More about Bobby and Arti and less about Chuck. This will give a story arc. You’d still need something for the ending.

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.

Click here to make comments in the forum!

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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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