Jim Zub lays it down.

Over on Jim Zub’s blog, he’s posted up a comic script critique he gave to a student. There’s a LOT of great gems in this piece, and although the specifics might not relate to your story, trust me, there’s knowledge that applies to EVERY story in this piece.

Here’s Jim:

One of my students from Seneca College (where I teach Animation courses) sent me two finished comic scripts for feedback. I don’t normally have time for this kind of critique, but we’ve talked quite a bit in the class about his desire to create comics and I wanted to encourage him to continue and push him to dig deeper. Here’s the feedback I sent, since I think a lot of the critique I write applies to new writers just starting out.

(Please do NOT send me your pitches/scripts for feedback. I really don’t have the time to review them. I did this as a personal favour for someone I know. I can’t spend all my time critiquing the work of strangers, especially with my insane work schedule right now).

Hi (name removed),

Sorry for the delay in getting back to you on this.

First off, congrats! Writing stories is tough and creating something new for yourself, especially the first few times, is always an intense uphill battle. You’ve finished a draft and that’s worthy of praise.

I read through both scripts and have quite a few thoughts, but I want you to know that I’m giving critique because I want your skills to improve and feel you’re capable of learning from the feedback rather than taking it personally. Tastes vary and what works for one person won’t necessarily work for another, but getting feedback and deciding what criticism is valid for yourself is key.

TITLE: I’ve been told by several people that titling a story something negative can create a subconscious negative impression of the story itself. I know what you’re going for with that title and it’s okay, but I thought I’d mention that right out the gate.

FORMAT: Many of your panel descriptions are too brief and far too generic. You don’t have to create flowery prose for a comic script, but you do need to have enough material in there for the artist (unless you’re drawing it yourself?) to draw inspiration from. Using terms like “the city”, “the bank”, “the police station” doesn’t give us a sense of the place or atmosphere. What kind of city is this? What impression do these places give? Rich, poor, modern, historic – what do we need to know about these places to help us visualize them?

Always impart relevant information the very first time it’s required. You have several pages mentioning the crowd of people at the start of the story before you include information on the fact that there are mutants mixed in with that crowd. You also don’t mention that the main hero guy is wearing tech on his wrist until later when he uses it.

Remember that ‘page turns’ happen on even page numbers. You have several surprise/big reveal moments happening on odd page numbers, which means that if this was a printed comic the reader would already have seen the big moment with their peripheral vision as they read along.

PLOT: Your core story (cops investigating a superhero murder, a lesser hero murdering the #1 hero they’re jealous of) is really, really well worn cliché ground that’s been done many times before. Every twist and reveal is exactly what I expected it would be as I was reading. There’s nothing new here that hasn’t been done in other places.

One of the toughest things about creating new stories and being inspired by all kinds of different sources is that your earliest stories tend to be Frankenstein monsters of all your influences as you learn about form and storytelling methods. In that way, that’s exactly what you’ve done here. It’s competent, follows narrative logic and all wraps up cleanly. I think you’ve learned a lot just by writing this… BUT, it doesn’t have anything new/different/unexpected to say about superheroes, murder, or police work. The tropes are locked in place and a reader who knows the genres you’re taking from enough to want to read this will also see nothing here to excite them.

RESEARCH: After reading the story I don’t get the impression that you’ve done any research at all in to how actual murder investigations are conducted. Go beyond base level clichés and easy 1 note solutions. Even if you don’t use 90% of the research you do on actual police work, you can enrich the story with a 10% extra dose of reality by doing the legwork and finding out about the real thing. Everything goes too smoothly for your loser cops. They stumble across evidence and solve everything without breaking a sweat. They don’t follow any kind of protocol and just sort of stumble along and have it all go their way.

Same thing with the technology. Everything comes across as generic and too simple. They don’t give a sense of high-tech/future tech or any kind of specific reality. They’re just sci-fi-style shortcuts without anything new/unexpected.

DIALOGUE: If the entire story played out in a generic way but the characters were unique and witty the story could still be entertaining. What really hurts it for me is that your dialogue is just as cliché as the plot. Every character says the expected thing in the blandest way possible to move the plot forward. Everyone’s dialogue is interchangeable. There’s no personality coming through in the way they speak or their attitudes. They spout plot facts and move to the next scene.

This is where research can really come into it. Enrich the characters with facts about their lives, the city the story takes place in, the things that are happening before the story ever began. How did they end up where they are in the police force? What do they do when they’re not working? Who are they and why should we care?

Read the dialogue out loud. Get into character and say it differently for each person. How can you make the characters more distinctive sounding? How can you strengthen their personalities through the way they speak?

Again, I get that you’re playing with clichés, but would it kill you to have a woman (multiple women) in this story anywhere? Two superheroes, multiple bank robbers, cops, the police chief… they’re all guys. Don’t fall into the toxic head space that guys are protagonists and women are background material. It’s bullshit.

THEME: What is the theme of the story? What are you trying to say above and beyond the basic sequence of events? Not every story will be deep and meaningful, but finding a message/theme can be a helpful way of pushing yourself with bigger ideas to help drive the story.

I’m not saying you have to force a ‘deep’ moral core into it by any means, all kinds of fun stories can be built on silly/slight premises, but right now there’s absolutely nothing beyond the sequence of events and those events are generic.

Say something you believe in, not just what you think the audience wants to hear.

I know the above may come across as harsh, but I really do want to reinforce that you’ve done a good thing by completing these scripts. The only way to really learn storytelling is to do it. Reading tutorials and how-to books can’t replace the work itself. These scripts are the building blocks towards your improvement and you should be proud of that, even when I’m cutting deep with my criticism. I hear far too many people tell me they want to write stories and create things and then lament that they never have the time or make other excuses. You’re doing it and that is worthy. Keep doing. Keep building, self analysing, and improving.

© 2021