We’re going to look today at some of the other elements of storytelling that are critical to an audiences enjoyment. There are obviously many different ways to enjoy a story, and the thoughts below are my own solutions. The important part for you is that you consider these things. How you deal with them is what makes you unique
Plot is what happens to your characters. Whether you choose to work out everything in advance, or let things develop as you go along is your choice. But if plotting were all that there was to writing, then there would be a lot more good books. A mechanical, predictable plot is a sure turn off, but then so is a rambling, incoherent one. No matter which approach you take, you have to have some idea of the story you are trying to tell. You don’t have to be a fanatic about it, because you can address problems in your second, third, fourth and fifth drafts.
Selection is what parts of the story you choose to tell. Every one of those choices needs to add something to the story, whether it be plot, characterization, foreshadowing or whatever. The obvious example of what not to do is detailing a person going from point A to point B. Unless it is germane to the story, is an exercise in tedium: She unlocks the car, gets in, starts the ignition, drives down certain streets, pulls into a parking place, turns off the ignition, gets out of the car, locks it and goes inside. Wowzer. Better than Sominex.
Thanks to TV and movies, now even novels and comics can say “I need to go to 5th street” and cut directly there.
However, use the same tedious details of the trip and add someone mysterious following her every move and you have the basis for a suspenseful sequence.
There is only one tool that I am aware of to help you select what to include, and that is to ask yourself, “What do I want my reader to know at this particular moment?” It’s as simple and as complicated as that. If you’ll refer back to Wednesday’s reviews of Dominion and The Exorcist:the Beginning, you’ll see that the exact same sequence, that of Merrin choosing which of his parishoners are to be shot by Nazis, presented in two completely different ways, to differing effects.
Pacing is the rate at which your story unfolds. Popular fiction,as opposed to literary fiction, tends to rely on a fast pace. Action, baby, action is the writer’s equivalent of drill, baby, drill. The problem most people have with this approach is that speed is relative; fast is only fast if there is something slow to contrast it against; otherwise, fast is normal speed. A story in any medium that moves at a rapid-fire pace continuously soon becomes a monotone, dragging a story down to the level of bad pulp fiction. Such a pace allows for little character development or nuanced details.
As far as comics go, you have two major tools for working out your pacing: 1. how much you decide to reveal in each panel and 2. the number and arrangement of panels per page.
Pacing is not always about speed, either. It can affect meaning as well. Here are two silly examples.
This comes back to the “read like a writer” guideline I mentioned last week. Look carefully at your favorite comics and see how the writer and artist have broken down their story into discreet bits. Grab a sheet of blank paper and scribble out some alternate ways of doing the same page,combining or separating dialogue, rearranging panels and composition. Even if the result is terrible, it will be instructive to figure out why.
Dialogue is the toughest nut to crack. It has to be believable, and sound like real speech, but it is actually very stylized and selective. Even so called slice of life conversations are stylized representations of conversation, and still aimed at creating a mood or effect or convey a storypoint. However, take stylization too far, add lots of slangy catch-phrases, or affected speech patterns and you stray into satire or humiliation. It can also date your story, and not in a pleasant way. Trying to read 19th century pulp fiction can be a real slog because it was common to render all the ethnic dialogue phonetically. Get an Irishman, a Chinese and a Brit together in a conversation and I’ll take a root canal, please.
Some questions to ask yourself: 1. What do I need this character to say here that adds to the story? 2. How would this particular character say it?
The other thing you need to work on is listening. No two people talk alike. There are patterns that we all have, some concise, some rambling, some full of big words….the variations are endless. Then you have to distill that down to something usable. As an example, you might here someone talking like this:
Ah…y’know, you uh take..uh..Reno…no, Rogers… is it Reno or Rogers…I think it’s Rogers. Pretty sure it’s Rogers, yeah. So take Rogers down to , uh, that big blue, you know, ugly building, kinda dirty tan….used to be a bar or something, I never went in it, not my kind of place, my dad says it was a gas station when he was a kid, only one downtown..uh, you know..the Blue Dome, yeah, got that Big Blue dome thingee on top, on Third…can’t miss it.
A little of this goes a long long way. But the staggered speech pattern is useful, as is the habit of irrelevant digression. We can use these and edit the sentence a bit, then apply these techniques to the characters other lines:
Take..uh..Reno…no, Rogers… is it Reno or Rogers…Pretty sure it’s Rogers, yeah. So take Rogers down to , uh, you know, ugly building, kinda dirty tan….used to be a bar or something… got that Big Blue dome thingee on top, the Blue Dome, yeah,…can’t miss it.
And, uh, if you see Mary…I mean, even if you just talk to her, doesn’t matter if it’s, you know, in person, tell her I said, uh, well, just tell her I said ‘hi.’ Martin says ‘hi.’
Comics are a visual medium first, so there is also the issue of what pictures the dialogue is played against. Here’s some chatroom give and take I got from a website:
I like that
cool. Be there.
Realistic, maybe, but I’ll drink a glass of tepid, used dishwater for excitement. As a scene of two teens chatting with each other, if there’s some larger context and the conversation didn’t go on as long as most chatroom conversations do, then it could work. For instance, one of the teens is planning a suicide as he chats, or while someone else is torturing an animal in the next room. Suddenly, the mundane becomes monstrous… and effective.
Robert McKee, in his book, Story (which I highly recommend) has this observation, which is pretty far-reaching, but which fits nicely right here: If the scene is about what it seems to be about, it’s a badly written scene.
Rewriting is, for all us normal folks, a fact of life. Maybe there have been a few geniuses that turned out memorable material without any revision, but none come to mind. Susan Clark worked on her wonderful novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrel, for ten years, until she got it right.
Everyone I’ve ever known who prided themselves on being able to turn around a half-hour animation script over a weekend –and there were quite a few– wrote umitigated crap. Studio execs loved them because of the fast turnaround. The people who had to then make the cartoon hated them because nothing was thought through, nothing made sense. Batman would be tied up in one scene and free in the next with no clue as to what had happened.
Me, I work on the story right up to the moment I post the strip, and sometimes even after that. My process is 1. Write a rough outline, 2. Make notes on the outline, 3. Write a complete script, breaking the story down into panels and writing captions and dialogue, 4. Make notes on the script, 5. Revise the script as I am drawing it, changing dialogue, adding characters and story beats, 6. Revise the script as I am coloring it, changing dialogue, adding characters and story beats.
This would obviously be harder to do if I were writing for a company, or working with another artist.
If you are working with another artist, then you can go through the same steps, you’ll just work them all out on paper first, and make the script as detailed as you can. Samples of comic scripts are available all over the place, and Denny O’Neill has a good primer on the subject.
Criticism is something we all need, something that helps us grow. But you have to be judicious in whom you ask for it. There are three basic flavors:
Worst Kind #1: People who love what you do, no mater what.
Worst Kind #2: People who never like anything, and can only give you vague notions as to why.
Worthless Kind: People who try to get you to tell their story instead of yours
Wonderful Kind: People who tell you what they really think think and why.
Sometimes this will be a good thing, they really will love your work. Other times, you may hate what they say; get a six-pack of thick skin and get used to it. They are helping you. You don’t have to agree with them, don’t have to like it, don’t have to incorporate any of it; just listen for anything that strikes you as useful, absorb that and forget you ever heard the rest. There will always be somebody who doesn’t like your story. So what? Some people think Stephen King is a hack, others revile John Irving for his meandering plots, Moby Dick has put as many people to sleep as it has excited others. If you’re only looking for pats on the back, you’ll never grow as a writer.
You have to do it. You can think about it, talk about, dream about, argue about it, screw around in your head with it forever, and you still will never be a writer until you put it down in some readable format. You don’t need an audience –J. D. Salinger made it into his nineties avoiding one– but most of us do desire one. All it takes, as a teacher once told me, you have to find people whose taste is as bad as your own.
What you write may truly be terrible, but let me invite you to do it anyway. Do your worst, be gloriously, liberatingly bad; vomit out volumes of convoluted, ill-conceived prose, purge yourself of the scabs and decay that have grown around your creativity and one day, probably not as far off as you might think, you will look back at the previous day’s writing and say, “Hey, that’s not bad.”
I wish that for all of you.
Now I have to learn how to use this screen capture software so I can do a tutorial for next week’s topic, design and layout.
Have a good weekend.
Before I launch into this week’s topic, I want to clear up something about previous posts. Nothing in them is meant to discourage anyone from doing a webcomic. Au contraire, I want to encourage you to do your comic, BUT without a foundation from which to plan your work, it’s easy to get all balled up and frustrated, turn off readers and finally chuck the whole thing. I don’t care to set your standards for you, I only want you to be able to choose your standards from real knowledge of what you are getting into.
Doing Lovecrat is Missing is one of he most exciting, fun and satisfying things I’ve ever done, and I want you to have that experience as well. It is a lot of work, but then isn’t everything that’s worthwhile? And it’s a marathon, not a sprint.
Now let’s get on to the guidelines I use for my work:
1. Read like a writer
Every book and teacher I am aware of agrees that to be a writer one has to read. I’ve always read a lot, but that never seemed to help me as a writer. For years I was baffled by plotting, characterization, dramatic tension and so on.
Finally an author of young adult novels, Anna Myers, added the ‘..like a writer’ tag, and suddenly -really, a matter of a few months–my entire knowledge of writing shifted and transformed into the real deal. Maybe it’s a no-brainer for most of you, but it was an entirely new perspective for me.
But what the heck does it really mean?
For me, it meant reading a book once to enjoy the story, and a second time to mark every passage with a code letter that told me the function of each paragraph and line of dialog in the book. By code, I merely mean C=Characterizaion, P-planting something for later uset, F= foreshadowing, S=story or plot point, etc.
Some paragraphs had multiple functions, and so got multiple letters, and some were easier to identify than others, but I would not move on until I had analyzed and identified the function of each element of the book. It’s like breaking down a car engine.I still do it. Currently I am working on Stephen King’s The Green Mile.
I no longer do it with every book, ut I am much more conscious as I am reading through the first time of what is going on, just as I notice the editing while watching a movie. When I really like or really hate a book, I go back to marking the book up. Bad books are harder to do, but you can learn a lot about what not to do. You not only learn how a particular author gets particular effects, you get an insight into the whole process.
Listening is a life skill that a lot of people never learn. You no doubt know a dozen people right off the top of your head that don’t or won’t do it. If you are a good listener, you might still not listen to yourself well beyond “I’m hungry” or “I”m sleepy.”
For me, it’s the most important writing skill I know, and I learned it from the same lady, Anna Myers. It’s about sitting in front of your typewriter and letting your story come to you from the inside, rather than forcing it onto the page from the outside It’s a vey meditative state, but once you get proficient at it you will be amazed at how much creative stuff will whisper itself to you, stuff you could never have made up, things about your characters that you would have never known in advance, lines of dialogue that fit your character and story tone.
For more on this, see number 6 below
3. Turn it upside down or inside out
At some time in the past, all cliches were fresh innovations, a simple truth or twist presented to thwart the readers expectations. They are victims of their own success, and they still occur to most new writers. The danger is in succumbing to the temptation.
I took a class in creative problem solving years ago, and is still by far the most valuable class I’ve ever taken. I use things I learned every day of my life in some way or another. Most of the material is available in books like Lateral Thinking, Conceptual Blockbusting, A Whack on the Side of the Head and others, and you will do yourself a big life favor by reading one or all of them and doing the exercises.
The major obstacles to this line of thinking are preconceptions and taboos. You might really feel strongly that your character has to be all good, and the character may be fighting you. The more you force your idea, the more hackneyed your writing will be. And if the character or other cliche suggests a solution that abhors or disgusts you, you need to at least think it through. Another better solution will likely present itself, but if you turn it off, you can constipate yourself, creatively speaking.
The essence of the techniques is simply to approach any problem without preconceptions, seeing it from new viewpoints. Easy to say, hard to do.
You can take the advice literally: when I am storyboarding and run into a staging problem, I will often imagine the scene taking place on the ceiling. Silly as that may sound, 99% of the time it helps solve the issue at hand, simply because of the new perspective.
It can also mean simply challenging assumptions. At one time, heroes and heroines were all good.That became predictable and cliched Someone somewhere along the way challenged that by asking “What if the really good guy has a fault? Or several faults? What if the good guy is only good relative to the bad guy, the lesser of two evils?” Now that has become a cliche, though it still allows for a lot of variation as far as which faults you choose.
Reverse the situation, play it for laughs, write it as a sermon–approach it from as many different angles as you can, and you will find your way past the cliche into something fresh.
4 ‘Write’ every day
This is another canard propagated by writing manuals and teachers, and I have to say, for thirty years I found it impossible to do.There is always something important -the roof leaks, the carbattery is dead, a deadline looms-waiting to interrupt the flow. But you’ll notice that I put quotes around ‘write.’ And that’s because I redefined the term.
Now I do ‘write’ every single day. But I consider writing a letter or blog post writing, I consider reading a book for study writing, I consider analyzing a movie or tv show’s script while I am watching it writing. I work on my stories as often as I can, but I believe writing is more than just putting words down on paper. Study and exercise are all part of the process.
Someday I hope I can get to the point where I write four hours every morning, but it ain’t happening anytime soon. But after years of frustration with my own ineptitude, I have now developed habits that have carried me through two novels and my comic strip… by ‘writing’ everyday, my way.
5. Tell the ‘truth’
This isn’t some big philosophical issue, especially as stories are lies anyway. It’s not about exacting historical detail or facts of any kind. The truth simply means the truth of your character(s) and the context in which they find themselves.
Characters who have no depth, who only act on one virtue like honesty or courage are rightly called cardboard, due to their shallowness. Stories that violate the world that the author creates are melodramas of the worst sort. Most bad movies and novels, such as Plan 9 from Outer Space or XXXXX are bad because of these two faults. The characters act unbelievably in situations that disregard the ‘reality’ of the story.
‘Reality’ doesn’t mean our world. Looney Tunes cartoons have a ‘reality’ of their own making, which has its own rules, as does any science fiction movie. You can create whatever reality you want, you just don’t want to violate it. In Desperate Housewives it would be a violation of that reality to suddenly have a werewolf stalking the neighborhood. Obviously in The Wolfman, that ‘reality’ allows for werewolves but would probably stumble if it depended too much on infidelity and soap opera tropes.In this case, truth really is what you make it.
In Hitchcock’s film The Wrong Man, the Henry Fonda character is a devout Roman Catholic. He isn’t perfect, but everything he says or does filters through his religious outlook, whether for or against; the other characters do not have this perspective. To have him ignore this fundamental part of his character without addressing the act would not be telling the truth about him.
In the film In Bruges, written and directed by Martin McDonagh, Ralph Fiennes plays a psychotic killer who is guided by a very strict code of ethics. In the end, when he inadvertantly violates one of his rules, he kills himself because he has to be true to himself.
McDonagh’s plays are well worth reading to see how a master writer can create wild, outlandish characters in wild outlandish situations who are true to their wild, outlandish natures without ever lacking credibility. They are masterfully crafted. The Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Lonesome West, The Lieutenant of Innishmore and The Pillow Man are great primers for storytelling.
As I mentioned, I don’t always get to write on my stories everyday; even when I do, I sometimes do so only with great effort. In both cases, I’ve found that certain writing exercises are very helpful for priming the pump and freeing the mind. Best part is that they take only a few minutes.
My personal favorite, which I think I made up myself, is to write a stream of consciousness paragraph for about ten minutes. The only restriction is that grammar and sentence structure must be adhered to. Otherwise, I put down the first words that come into my head. It really opens my mind up to other possibilities when I actually do start to write for real. Here’s an example, written on the fly:
The dubious pattern of strucural engineering presented in the dovecoat was mystifyingly obese. It had neither feathers nor a banana, yet still managed a creative and obdurate ramification that was unhindered by fluff and powder of any sort. Hells bells, I queried, shivering in the windy gulch of my subconscious. The right snowstorm has yet to flinch in the face of disaster, yet here I am clowning around like at Castle Muckross, the very pinnacle of oblivion. Get the hence. The roundabout measurement of world history is a token of esteem when it comes to panhandling, and neither the strong nor the wicked profit much from twining in the afternoon(unless, of course, they are baffled.) It’s a worrisome monarch butterfly that carries no moss,or that’s what I have come to receive.
If that sounds silly to you, fine. I have pages and pages of this stuff and find it really helpful, but i accept your disdain. My point is that you need to find exercises that work for you. Nothing can get you past procrastination an writer’s block faster.
7. Always have a plan; always feel free to ignore it
In my everyday life, I schedule just about everything. I make plans, and alternate plans. Again, I’m not very formal, but I always start with a clear idea of what I am attempting to do or say, and the order in which I will do or say it.
Then I forget about it and get to work.
When I was at the American Film Institute in the directing program, I would post a shot list every morning of every shot I wanted to get and the order in which I felt it was easiest to shoot them. Then we would discuss it, make changes, and start shooting. As the day wore on and realities like time and electrical outages and actors who couldn’t remember lines bore down on us, we adapted to the situation, combining shots, tossing others out, etc.
But we never got lost in the confusion. We always had a document that we could go back to, to make sure we got all the important stuff, to see what we had left, to see what might be best to shoot next and what we might cheat.
This is handy with a story as well. My outlines are loose, ragged, generalized, detailing the parts I know, asking questions about the parts I don’t. For a novel , this would amount to a first draft. For my comic, it is 15 pages to guide me though more than once I have gone off in completely different directions. The good news is that I knew I was going off in a different direction, and thus could accomodate the ripple effect that such a move causes through the rest of the story. And when I get confused about who is doing what for what reason, I can go back and straighten it our quickly.I was comfortable with whatever creative thoughts came to mind rather than struggling to keep my story on track.
8. Write what you love; you can learn what you don’t know
One of the oldest and most deleterious writing advice is to ‘write what you know.’ When you don’t know anything, that pretty much puts an end to your writing career.
Of course we all know something: our experience of the world. That is what the advice actually means, write what you know and think and perceive of the world. You don’t have to ‘know’ about grocery stores, mortuaries, spaceships or the like in order to write about them, because details about those, though they may inform and influence your story, are essentially window dressing. All of that can be learned through research, or a friend. Stephen King always gives credit to the folks who vet his books as regards firearms, explosives, medical procedures and so on.
It’s your characters and your story that you need to know, and that comes from inside you. It’s probably not the best choice to write a romantic novel if you’ve had no experience of romance. Horror novels, no matter how far out, are still grounded in fear, which everyone has experienced at one time or another. Most emotions are the same whether they are directed at a potato or a tumor or a squiggly, writhing thing from beyond. Disgust is disgust, fear is fear; you transfer your own personal reactions and emotions to another object, through your character.
9. Not knowing is the best part
A lot of my friends enjoy trying to figure out what will happen next on Lost. I don’t bother with it. I am so enthralled with not knowing what comes next for a change that I don’t want to spoil it by guessing.
Nothing pleases me more than to read a book or see a movie that takes me someplace I never expected to go. Leonard Bernstein calls this “the violation of expectations,” and believes it is a cornerstone of all great art. I couldn’t agree more.
Many people hated The English Patient, because they couldn’t understand it. I didn’t care for it that much myself when I saw it the first time. But I was intrigued and saw it a second time. Wow. What a movie. The skill with which the filmmaker tells his story entirely out of chronological order is amazing, and at the core is a terrific story. But it takes patience, something that is in short supply in these fast paced times.
Pulp Fiction is similarly fascinating for the same reason.
But even in a linear story, there is nothing more boring than knowing every beat of the story to come in the first ten minutes. This is my big gripe against Avatar. Beautiful as it is, it was obvious from the get-go that the guy would infiltrate the aliens, find they were really good folks, turn on his bosses and become one of the tribe. Same story as Dances with Wolves and a million lesser movies.
In writing my own stories, my enchantment with not knowing exactly what is going to happen ratchets up about a thousand per cent. There is no feeling quite like coming up to a point in your story and discovering something that you could never have thought of in advance, be it a twist, a character flaw, a new character, a subtext.
This is why I write such loose outlines. I crave that feeling like a drug, and it happens with greater frequency the more I write. In a young adult novel I wrote, I didn’t know the climax of the book until I got to that page, and then it all fell into place. Yes, it’s still unpublished, but I am as proud of that novel as if it outsold Harry Potter, though obviously not as rich.
10. Trust yourself
It goes without saying that you can’t utilize some of the above guides, notably 2, 5, 6, 7 and 9, unless you can first get to this point. It’s hard, because we all want our writing to come out right the first time through. We fear failure. We have preconceptions and filters.
Gotta get past all that.
And the best way to do it is to remember that nobody ever has to see your mistakes. You’re going to make them, everybody does, so get them out of your system early on. Confidence and trust come with practie, like anything else. Remember learning to ride a bicycle? Remember the moment when you first made it without the training wheels?
If you can learn to put down what comes to mind, remembering that you can delete it in an instant, you’ll open up those channels to your real thoughts and emotions and creativity. This is why writing can be therapeutic.
And it feels good, too.
That’s it for this week. Next week, we’ll look at dialogue, pace, taking criticism, and getting your ideas down on paper.
Have a good weekend.
I am going to do something different today. I’m going to put what would normally be the end of my post, Larry’s Personal Writing Guidleines, first. You will either be intrigued enough to read the rest of the article, or get all you need from it up front, or even decide it’s of no interest to begin with.
These are the things that guide everything I write. They are not rules, nor are they the combined Ten Habits of Highly Successful Writers. They have been gathered over a number of years from a lot of different sources, but they don’t necessarily reflect any school of thought or any one teacher; they are in no particular order, though some are more essential to me than others.
I want to emphasize that this list is what works for me. It may work for you, it may not, but if at worst it sets you on the track of compiling your own guidelines, I’ll consider it a successful post.
1. Read like a writer
3. Turn it upside down or inside out
4 ‘Write’ every day
5. Tell the ‘truth’
7. Always have a plan; always feel free to ignore it
8. Write what you love; you can learn what you don’t know
9. Not knowing is the best part
10. Trust yourself
I’ll go into each in greater detail next week, but first we need to ramp up to actually writing.
Wow. That’s a tall order, because the term itself covers so many different kinds of writing, maybe even all kinds of writing, maybe even everything in life.
Isn’t a recipe the origin story of a particular dish? Isn’t a poem the story of an emotional experience? Heck, even a painting can be looked at as the story of what one artist was doing at a particular moment in time.
Lying to cover up something you’ve done contains all the classic elements of a story: beginning-middle-end, conflict, resolution, and so on; and to you, it is complete in itself; to someone who knows you are lying, it is an oblique story about the lengths to which a frightened or shamed person will go.
Most of the stories we are concerned with here have no other intent other than to entertain or inform, but even a history of, say, the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, needs to be told dramatically, intriguingly. David McCullough’s The Great Bridge is one of my favorite reads of all time, but those events, and the interpretation of what they mean, are filtered through a consciousness that sees the world in one particular way. Someone else could tell the same story from a different point of view and have just as readable a book.
At the other end, the Errol Flynn movie The Charge of the Light Brigade is pure fiction saddled with an historic title, but its purpose wasn’t to teach or to misinform, only to get the audience caught up in romance and thrilling adventure, with an emotional payoff.
So to get back to the point and define story, I’d go with this: a purposely manipulative ordering of events and actions, real or imagined, in order to bring forth an intended response from the reader/listener.
A simpler definition might be lies, though that sounds a bit harsh.
For our purposes here, I am going to make that intended response “interest.” Whether we want to write Ulysses or X-Men or A World Lit Only By Fire, we want and need to interest our readers. That doesn’t mean always making them happy, or giving them nothing but gratifying experiences. Who was happy when Hedwig got snuffed in Harry Potter & the Deadly Hallows? Can Eraserhead be considered uplifting? Conan Doyle killed off his famous detective in The Final Problem and got even more interest from outraged fans, a thought surely behind all the various deaths and resurrections of Batman, Superman, Captain America and so on.
Happy endings have nothing to do with satisfying stories; happy endings,as Orson Welles once said, merely depend on where you stop the story.
Some folks define story as plot, the main beats of the story arc. This threw me for a lot of years, because I bought into it, along with the idea that you had to have everything worked out in advance. Some people can and do work this way. I find it boring to the point of wanting to trim fingernails or watch reruns of Operacion Repo.
I like the story to be able to breathe and develop as the writing progresses. Most of the best moments in Lovecraft is Missing, at least for me, are things I didn’t know were going to happen until I got to that part of the story. If I’m surprised or delighted or creeped out, I figure you will be too.
For me, the plot develops out of the character’s choices. not my own. If I force them to do things they wouldn’t ordinarily do, my story goes flat. That’s the definition of pulp writing for me, and that holds no interest for me (even though I am writing about pulp writing:-))
From working out my idea I have a big-picture notion of where the story is going to go, maybe even an idea of how it will end, and a few big set pieces that I’d like to work in, maybe some philosophical point. But I’m not married to any of it. The ending I conceived for LIM is not the ending I currently have in mind, and the ending that appears may be different yet. The characters will tell me.
This assumes I have also worked a bit on my characters and have an idea of who they are, which I have. Still not enough to write that full-scale biography, but I am much more comfortable with them all, yet still am open to new revelations that could change my attitude toward them.
With that in mind, I write an outline.
Wait a minute.
Didn’t I just say I didn’t like to work out everything in advance? Yes, I did, but it’s no contradiction. See Guideline # 7 above. If you don’t have a plan, it’s easy to get lost; if you do have a plan, you are free to ignore it, but can always retreat to it if the way gets murky.
Honestly, outline is probably too grandiose a term for what I do.It isn’t formal, isn’t meant to solve every problem, and isn’t meant for anyone else to read; I put in lots of questions, leave a million holes with notes like “Something scary needs to happen here, but to who and what is it?” and ” How the heck does this connect with anything else in the story” and “Does this contradict what I said about her earlier?”
I use it to solely to explore my characters operating within the context of my idea. When you put your characters in particular situations, how they react will tell you a lot about them. You may never use that incident, but in a different situation, you will be able to hear your character more clearly.
It also takes me one step closer to committing to the tone and approach I am going to take with the story. Think of it as your sophomore year of college: you need to declare a major, but there’s still some wiggle room left.
Put another way, it’s that old saw about driving across the country at night: the headlights only show you a few feet of the path in front of you, but you can make the whole journey that way.
My outline for LIM ws 15 pages long, broken down into six issues. Here’s a sample from my Master Plot Outline for LIM Book 2 that became the three page sequence in Jackey’s loft:
Jackey’s office. Lots of odd scientific equipment.
Start with P is 500 years old. I’ve killed him twice, once in 1916 in the Ukraine and again in 1921 in XXXXXX. I think he finds me amusing. Did you find Mr. Lovecraft? Keep animosity between J and N. Get in Win’s correspondence. Howard’s a great one for writing letters (use later?) Why did they want you? Win’s scar is hidden from Jackey – win doesn’t know why.. Issues of Weird Tales, which gets Win’s notice. Doesn’t see Call ms, or the other stories (Re-An in Home Brew, Festival in WT 1.25, LF in Home Brew 1923,United Amateur, etc. and so on.) J gives Pauline and Hayden Larch file to Nan-how does she react?. Need to know how they are tied to her. Jackey and Nan, for different reasons, want to find Nikola. Win wants to find Howard. Is there a problem? He vanished before I got there. His name is turning up with alarming frequency. HPL a reporter.He may be more significant than I at first thought. J really thinks HPL is helping P, and thus is very dangerous. Prove me wrong. Help me find him. Significant to what? Time to rest. I drugged the tea. How tie HPL and P together? Set up some possible ulterior motive for Jackey, like winning converts or something that Nan can really harp on. And let it be just possible that she’s right.
P, for Paracelsus, and Nikola were some of the names I considered for the villain when I first put these thoughts down. There was no reason to correct my master plot, because it only has to make sense to me. I ‘drive’ all the way to the end of the story this way, and though I may return and make notes on it as I go along, I don’t rewrite any of it, even if I’ve gone off in a new direction.
A lot of this stuff got thrown out, or moved, or changed. Feel free to pause now and check out those pages in the archive for comparison.
Real comics have a fairly standard format; webcomics do not. You have to decide what approach,you’re going to take, which will be one of three choices :gag, serial story, or a combination of the two. They will be modified by whether you want your strip to be serious or comedic.
Gag strips are largely self-contained, though there may be themes and continuing characters, just like in the newspapers. (Anybody else remember those?) There a ton of gag webcomics, and the quality runs the gamut from incredibly bad to incredibly funny, from incredibly coarse to incredibly sanctimonious. Some have readers in the tens of thousands, others get less than 50 readers a day, and those numbers don’t always relate to the quality of the strip.
Many post two or three times a week, which is impressive. Just because the strips are short doesn’t mean they are easy to write. In a lot of ways, it’s harder. You can’t tread water like you can in a serial story. When I think of guys like Bill Watterson (Calvin and Hobbes), Patrick McDonnel (Mutts), Gary Larson (The Far Side) and Scott Adams(Dilbert), who turned out five high quality dailies and a Sunday every week for years, I am awe-struck.
Gag strips can be funny (Something Positive(comedic gag strip with continuing characters and some continuing storylines), Boodachitaville (comedic gags with continuing characters but no story arcs), or just weird, like The Secret Knots (dramatic gag strip, meaning the pages are largely self-contained, though some have a continuity) A Softer World (stand alone gags, which can be funny and/or painful). And let us not forget those Lovecraftian classics, El Joven Lovecraft and The Unspeakable Vault of Doom.
Serial stories can be comedic or dramatic, though they tend toward the former. Fantasy, Anime and Zombies are big, and story arcs can run a year or more. I’ve never cared for fantasy, a bias I admit, so I can’t really recommend any strips, though several at Top Web Comics get tens of thousands of votes every month. Somebody likes them. And I’ve mentioned The Zombie Hunters, Everydy Decay and The Meek before. I immodestly think Lovecraft is Missing has its merits as well.:-) Dungeons and Dorks is a comedic serial story.
Okay, that’s it for this week. Next week , in the cleverly named Story, Pt. 2, I’ll go through the whys and wherefores of my guidelines one by one, and the following week, in Pt. 3,we’ll really get down to the nuts and bolts of writing a story.
Have a good weekend.
Not to be a party pooper, but there isn’t a page for this week, either. Inb fact, I am so slammed I am going to take a short break until the first week in April and get ahead. It is ridiculous for me to be trying to rush something through the night before when I know it isn’t good enough. Not striving for perfect, but a guy has to have standards.
In the meantime, my series on how to make a webcomic will continue every Wednesday, and in one week I will be debuting an odd new feature, entitled Ogg the Monster. Written by George Nelson, Ogg is making his first public appearance here. His first adventure isn’t Lovecraftian, but I enjoyed it so much that I offered to serialize it. After some months of hemming and hawing, Mr. Nelson finally relented. I’ll be putting up a chapter every Tuesday and Thursday for your reading pleasure.
Finally, pal Joe Pearson’s animated feature, War of the Worlds:Goliath, opens this weekend. If the title alone isn’t enough to draw you in, watch the trailers on YouTube. C’mon. Teddy Roosevelt – mech warriors-martians. What’s not to like?
Have a good weekend.
First Unpleasant Truth: There are no rules
Second Unpleasant Truth: You ignore them at your peril.
Third Unpleasant Truth: No one can teach you how to break the rules.What works for me likely won’t work for you, at least not in the same way.
Think of the steps below as an equation with variables, as opposed to a formula. The latter always produces the same results. That’s fine if a person wants to be a hack, but that’s certainly not you. And it’s only a little more work to fill in the variables in the equation. Even slight differences result in different answers, or, for the metaphorically challenged, different characters.
From all the books I’ve read on how to write it would seem that the first step a writer is supposed to take when creating a character is to write a complete bio of him or her. I wish I had a nickle for every hour I spent on THAT particular waste of time.
Maybe it works for some people, but I’ve come to see a character as an interesting person I’ve just met. Andlike real people, you can’t write anything about them until you know something about them. And to do that. I hereby pass along the single best piece of writing advice (and actually, life)I have ever been given:
No matter how much you may try to write a character in imitation of some personality you already know, he or she will still be filtered through the perceptions you’ve absorbed over the course of your life. You can base a character on, say, Al Pacino, but what will come through is only going to be your perception of Pacino plus what you think about those perceptions. You will respond differently than anyone else in the world.
So maybe we should amend that advice to : Listen — to yourself.
Listening is, admittedly passive, and the opposite of thinking, at least when the latter is defined as an intentional and (sometimes) rational process. There will be plenty of thinking to do later on, when you start fine-tuning the characters and story together, but for now, the character is already there inside you. Listen and they will tell you who they are, both by what they say and what actions they take. Ideally, those two things will not match up exactly.
Even though I truly believe that what a person does –and a a character is a person, even if imaginary– is a more reliable indicator of who they are than what they say, I generally start out by transcribing a monologue.I say transcribe, because I really do let the character dictate it. I don’t decide their grammar, their accent, their affectations, I let them tell me, just as I would when meeting a new person. Sad, passionate, whiney, pissed off, good person, bad person – I let them vent about whatever they want to vent about. I don’t censor, and I don’t worry about my spelling or typos. This document is FMEO – for my eyes only.
Of course I have my basic idea, right? But here is the point at which the idea starts to morph into what will become your story. As I said before, don’t let the idea be a millstone. You are free to reject any new ideas that come up in this process, but you don’t want to chuck something out if it is actually better, even if it kind of messes up the idea. Ideas are not sacred. They are variables in the equation.
The first paragraph or so might be kind of shaky, but I am usually rolling by the second. By the bottom of the page I will know if this is a character that is going to fit in my story, probably even where they are going to fit. But even characters that seem uninteresting at first can turn out to be fascinating once you peel back the onion.
I once got cornered by a prune farmer at a funeral. All he knew, all he cared to talk about, was prunes. At first I though, ohmigosh, is there any way I can trade places with the person in the coffin. By the end of the hours long conversation, I was thoroughly fascinated, not only with the intricacies of prune farming and marketing but with the man’s truly passionate love for what he did. This was 10 years ago, and he told me of the campaign the large prune farmers were undertaking to change the name of the product from prunes to dried plums. Silly? Check out the dried fruit section of your grocery store.
I absorbed notions about passion, obsession, marketing, farming, without ever once wanting to be a prune farmer. All of these, including the last part, are fodder for future characters. They won’t be prune farmers – they may be murderers, society women, politicians, whatever, but that two hours conversation will burble up through my many other thoughts and emotions, and spill out onto the page. You’ll know when you’ve struck gold, because, like I mentioned in the Idea post, questions will start popping int your mind at an alarming rate. If you want to know more about the character, it’s more likely that other people will too.
If ultimately the character doesn’t work for this story, file it and save it for future use; then open a new file or grab another piece of paper and get thee to it again and again until something usable comes forth.
It’s not that you can’t have some general notions about your character before you really start. But let’s not confuse thinking your character is honest as being any great breakthrough in characterization. What does that really mean beyond being a hero/heroine out of a melodrama? DEvious? How does that progress beyond Snidely Whiplash, Dishonest John or Crabby Appleton?
Honest but also devious? That’s a little more intriguing, though I’d want just a skosh more definition. Does it mean he lies but does the right thing? Is she trustworthy to a point, after which all bets are off? Does the person manipulate things behind your back, then announce them after the damage is done? The conflict gives you more to work with, but it’s still just a gimmick unless you can flesh it out by action.
In creating your character, listen to what they say, but watch carefully what they do. Sometimes it’s the same, but often it’s different if not out-right at odds with their version of the story. This is eminently human, and goes a long way towards making your characters breathe and live. Our perceptions of ourselves are always skewed relative to someone else’s perception of us, not because we lie to ourselves –though we sometimes do – but because we know the whole story of our lives, and no one else does.
Let’s go back to the vampires vs. zombies story we were working on last time. Remember that the zombie apocalypse has diminished the human population to the point that vampires are living on animals as they fight back
Here’s a bit of dialogue I “overheard” from a vampire in the story (s0mewhat censored since this is just not that kind of blog:-D):
Forget it. Lamb again? No freakin’ way. I am lambed out. I hated it as a kid, I hate it now. My mom pushed that crap at me like she thought it was ice cream. Some kind of freakin’ ‘healthier than chicken or beef ‘notion, and to prove her wrong, she was the first person I bit when I went over. Not enough to make her one of us, just to pay her back for all those freakin’ stinkin’ gristly lamb chops, lamb racks, lamb patties, with our without freakin’ mint jelly. Then you get the big idea about Australia — wide open ranges, sparsely populated, easy to hide. What was I thinking? Sheep stations! That’s all that’s out here, freakin’ sheep stations. Well, nobody ever said eternal life made you freakin’ smarter. There’s five million freakin’ acres out there. There has to be an armadillo out there somewhere. I’ll be back before dawn.
Ok, admittedly no classic, but I learned a lot about this character from the exercise—and I’m asking questions. Most striking to me is that I don’t think about vampires having been normal kids with parents very often. How do they remember those times? Something worth exploring. Does blood from different species taste different? Don’t know, never tried it. Maybe it’s a vampire thing. Again, something to consider, as in ‘Do vampires need variety in their diet, or vegetables, or fiber?’ and ‘Are there gourmet vampires?’. Are certain blood types considered fast food? Does vintage make a difference?
Since I am primarily a visual person, meaning I tend to think in pictures, and a cluster thinker, meaning I don’t think linearly, but in bursts of thoughts that I connect afterward, I also simultaneously develop my characters with pictures. For those of you who don’t draw, you still need to think in pictures, because comics are after all a visual medium. It’s a skill you can develop over time, so don’t sweat if this interests you but you have trouble with it at first. (For more examples of this, see the Lovecraft is Missing Sketchbook.)
My first sketch was this:
I immediately don’t like it. Too much of a been there, done that look. Along with impossibly muscled-superheroes, fandom long ago adopted the notion that zombies and vampires had to be bigger, badder, with wider jaws and longer teeth and more drool spilling out of their mouths than last month’s version.
So I went the opposite way:
Ok, too silly. Reminds me of Moe Howard.
But that’s a spark for:
Not really meant to be Curly and Larry, but vampires as more normal folk. (Admit it though, stumbling upon Curly and Larry sharing the throat of a regular citizen is a pretty chilling thought. Nyuk nyuk nyuk.)
But the questions: Does your personality have to change when you become a vampire? Do you automatically get all dark and broody? Are there any vampires that like to tell snappy stories, or that still love animals? After all, I love animals, but I eat meat. It’s a conflict.
At this point I see two broad ways to proceed: I can turn this whole thing into a comedy, or I can keep it serious but make my vampires more like their human counterparts. I like the second one. The first one could work just as well, and be bloody as all get out, but I like the idea of vampires as ‘jes’ plain folk’ with beastly urges.
My ultimate point, though, is that none of these drawn characters would express the feelings and thoughts in the monologue above in the same way. Another variable.
I also think names are important. I collect them, have a whole file of odd names, first and last, that I find in phone books or in a magazine. I never use a real person’s name, though I don’t think that there’s any law that says I can’t, as long as I don’t malign that real person. But I like to mix and match.
I keep names that are funny, evocative, unusual, really anything that strikes me, but nothing that is just weird for weirdness sake. One of my all time favorites is an animator from the 30s up to the 60s named Jam Handy. There’s a Stunkard Park in town, named after alocal family. I have no idea where I came up with Munsford Jackey for the priest in LIM, or whether it is even a real name. It just popped into my head one day, and, because I listen, I knew it was the priest’s name, and it helped me define his character. You are just going to have different experiences if your name is Munsford than if your name is Larry or Mike.
Disagree? I offer these as arguments: John Wayne/Marion Michael Morrison, Elvis Costello/Declan McManus, Sherlock Holmes/Sherrinford Holmes. Same people either way, but don’t you find your repsonse is different when confronted with their original names, and not just because you’re used to it?
Names are symbolic, iconic. They make a statement. The impact is not so great in real life, though I can imagine that people with names like Ricky Pigg and Starshine Madilla spend a lot more hours explaining or defending their names than I do. Would life be different for them if they were Ricky Pitt and Sharon Madilla? i think so. Not necessarily better, just different.
Artists, politicians and movie stars develop their names like Campbell’s Soup or Johnson & Johnson. Blackwater’s name ws so tarnished they changed it to Xe. Names are important, and if you listen, your character will tell you their real name. And it will be perfect.
Last bit of advice, which you are not going to follow: never fall in love with your characters. As your story evolves, you may have to kill them; you may find they really don’t belong in the story; you may find out that they aren’t who you thought they were. And they may take your story in a completely different direction, and you will fight it and resent it and feel betrayed, while forgetting that it is their story, not yours.
Have a good weekend.
So you want to do your own webcomic. What are you, nuts?
It will consume most of your waking hours, fill you with frustration over deadlines and technical issues, and, should people like it, shackle you with living up to whatever standards you’ve set. Seriously. No, really, seriously.
And didn’t I say this last week?
Yes, I did. It’s a point I don’t often see addressed when writing about webcomics, but believe, me, you need to know this stuff. Otherwise, you are in for a world of hurt.
There are, as far as I can figure, the following reasons for doing a webcomic: Self-Expression, Attention and Hoping to score big with a movie deal or at least selling merchandise. Let’s look at them one at a time:
1. Self-Expression. No doubt, the web makes this easier than it has ever been in history (ok, except maybe in the advanced technological world of Atlantis). It’s a definite motivator. Is it enough?
I’d have to say no. First, you have to have something you to express, and too many people don’t spend enough time working that out. (See last week’s post). The notion that artists just “let it flow” and whatever comes out on the page or canvas is thereby worthy of attention is nonsense pure and simple. Even the most abstract artists, be they Gertrude Stein, Jackson Pollock or Robert Wilson, put a lot of time and effort into their seemingly random efforts. Bruce Springsteen rehearses a lot in order to seem spontaneous.
There’s also the issue of whether you have enough to express to sustain a continuing strip. It may seem glamorous, but filling that blank page week after week can quickly become a bronze-cast albatross around your creative neck if you don’t have some long term idea of where you are going. Even at that, you are going to run into roadblocks along the way. The best way to get around them is to be prepared.
There’s a famous and possibly apocryphal story about James Joyce. Someone once asked him how much he had written that particular day. “Seven words,” said Joyce. The questioner was startled. “It took you all day to write just seven words?!!! Joyce reportedly replied, “Oh, I knew the seven words this morning. I just didn’t know what order they went in.”
That, if you will, is self-expression.
Or as Mark Twain said more directly, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.”
Secondly….well, that leads us to:
2. Attention – You don’t care if anyone reads your stuff, you do it just for yourself?
Sure you do.
To the degree that’s true, save yourself a lot of pain and sorrow and just daydream your stories.
For the rest of us, there’s no point to self-expression unless there is at least one person to which we can express ourselves. Whether it’s a coolness factor, or the need to be admired or the need to push the envelope or even disrupt society, you’re going to 1.)want and need readers and 2.) keep readers.
This will be your major cause of headaches.
But again, is this reason enough to do the comic?
Again, no. If all you want is attention, go to the mall and do Three Stooges routines by yourself, very loudly, in the middle of the food court.
3. The Big Score – Ah, now we get to it, don’t we? Greedy little dickens. You stand revealed as your true self, like Don Quixote facing the Knight of Mirrors.
Well, think of it this way. There are may be 7.000 webcomics out there right now. How many of them have been turned into movies?
In other words, it’s a big bet at long odds.
So my thought is that the reason to do a webcomic is a combination of self-expression and the need for attention, along with any one of a number of psychiatric disorders that compel you to do a lot of work for no money.
These gifts are a curse that doesn’t come cheap.
-You need to get a domain name. There are dozens of registration sites, all will charge a fee (and an annual renewal). I paid about $60 for LIM; the annual renewal is cheaper. And don’t whine because the domain you want is taken. It happens, so be prepared and have some alternatives ready. I use Hostek and am happy with them. This service will be your host site, where everything will be stored. If you have a lot of memory hogs in your posts, you may have to pay extra for more server space.
-You need to find a place to present your comic. You can pay someone to design a site from the ground up, or you can ruin a friendship by getting a friend to do it for you, or you can wade through that mire yourself.
I use WordPress, with the ComicPress plug-in. I am happy with this arrangement also, BUT it can be as confusing as all get out to set-up and make changes if you don’t already know HTML and CSS. WordPress claims it has a five minute install. Like hell they do. If it weren’t for my pal Eric, I would never have gotten the site set up. The instructions assume a certain level of knowledge about web page programming that I still don’t have, so the terms are meaningless. The forums are useless. I believe WP now offers a service where they will install remotely if you are comfortable with someone else being able to access your box. (Let me just add as an aside that the book WordPress for Dummies is of little help. Try one of the others.)
WordPress is also confusing because there are two flavors: WordPress.com charges and will host your site, while WordPress.org is free, but you have to have a host (this is the option I use.) It also has more plug-ins and features, but less, if any, support from WordPress.
Alternatively, there are some sites like Keenspot, Drunk Duck and Palace in the Sky that present a whole “line” of comics. I never looked into how they work, as I didn’t want Lovecraft is Missing appearing with a bunch of other comics that might detract, either competitively or inappropriately. But that’s your call.
-You’ll need to promote your site. Constantly. Press releases to relevant sites like Digital Strips, promotion to other sites relevant to your topic or genre, contests and promotoions on your site, freebies like wallpaper and possibly paid advertising through Google Ads (expensive) or Project Wonderful (far cheaper, but less reach) or the like.
You can also list your comic on a number of dedicated comic sites, the best of which is Top Web Comics.
Obviously, all this material –ads, posters, press releases– has to be created and distributed. It can take a monstrous amount of time to do this, taking you away from the actual work of making your comic. And the more narrow your subject matter, the more time you’ll spend researching who to distribute to and how.
It’s not a one time deal, either; you ignore continual promotion at your peril. Add it to your schedule.
-Additionally, you will need to educate yourself in the mysteries of SEO – Search Engine Optimization. I’ve read a whole book on the subject and still don’t have a good grasp of it, but it involves the keywords that Google and others use to rate and rank your site.
-And just know that the way you name your pages and posts one WordPress or whatever other site you use will also affect how the site is indexed and ranked. It can make you or break you. Again, there are whole books on these topics, so I can’t even begin to explain it here. But the material is out there, some of it free, some of it costing a good chunk of change.
We all share the frustration of going to a site of interest and finding it hasn’t been update since dirt was young.
Do you ever go back to those sites?
Ok, so do you think YOUR comic is going to be any different? If you do, get over it. It doesn’t matter how many excuses, even REASONS, that you can offer up, readers are not going to stick with a site that doesn’t update regularly.
The good news is that YOU get to decide what regularly is: daily, weekly, monthly, twice a month, every two months. Doesn’t matter. It’s only important that once you announce it, you stick to it. If you have to make a permanent change, be up front about it, preferably in advance, and no one will hold it against you.
This means that you need to really evaluate what kind of material and how much ofit you are going to post AND – I can’t stress this enough – how much time per week it will actually take yo to do this. Get that number, then double it, and you should be in the right ballpark. (And don’t forget to include the time for promotion mentioned above.)
I have changed my schedule for each issue of LIM, due as much to experimentation as schedule. I’ve only missed a few posts, and always knew it in advance, so I let people know. For book 3, which just recently wrapped up, I was psoting two blogs and a comic page per week. For the previous issue, I posted two comic pages per week and only one blog post.
That may sound like I lazed off on issue three, but blog posts like this one can take 4-6 hours to write well. If you have to do a lot of research, there’s another hour or two per blog; if you scan a lot of pictures, it obviously takes a lot longer.
For the comic, I spend a week or two total on the script; each page takes 6-8 hours to draw, and 12-15 hours to color. A lot of strips aren’t as complicated. There’s nothing that says you can’t do three panels in black and white.
Some webcomics are MORE complicated. The limits and goals are all set by you.
And that, my friends, is the scary part of any independent creative project: there’s no one to tell you what to do. I think it was SF writer David Gerrolds who said “Commitment is the act of doing what you said you’d do whether you feel like it or not.”
Commitment is mandatory if you want to do this seriouosly and not as a lark.
The comic is not going to make itself. There will be plenty of times you’re too tired, too bored, too busy or you just plain don’t feel like doing it…but you still have to produce the comic. Think long and hard about that fact. If you want to have any success at all, you are going to have to absorb that attitude into your DNA.
The only advice I can really offer in this area is work ahead. Don’t be in such a hurry to post your comic that you don’t have a good backlog stored up. Newspaper comic strip artists generally work six months ahead so as to not miss that daily deadline. If you have ten weeks worth of strips and posts ready before you put the first one up, and keep that advantage more or less constant, then there will be times you take the harness off for awhile. If not, when a crises comes, you miss a date. It’s happened to me a time or two, and I’ve learned my lesson.
One last time, I’m going to emphasize that I am not kidding about any of the above. If anything, I’ve understated the case. Re-read this post once or twice more, and if you’re still ready to cowboy up, then be here next week and we’ll talk about characters.
Have a good weekend.
I’m down to finishing the page for the week the night before it goes up. Bummer. That probably means that I’ll miss a few weeks in the near future. It takes so long to do a page that I really need to be a few weeks ahead.
Don’t miss the series on How I Make a Webcomic which will be running every Wednesday for the next month or so. If you want to make your own, or if you’re just curious about the process necessary to produce one, I think you’ll be entertained and enlightened.
Have a good week.
So you want to do your own webcomic. What are you, nuts? It will consume most of your waking hours, fill you with frustration over deadlines and technical issues, and, should people like it, shackle you with living up to whatever standards you’ve set. Seriously. No, really, seriously.
But then, I’m nuts, and Lovecraft is Missing is also the most liberating creative experience I’ve ever had. The limits are pretty much only those I set for myself. It’s likely that if you are reading this, those two factors will outweigh the previously mentioned obstacles.
‘Tutorials’ is a way too technical and organized term for what I’m going to do in this series of blogs, but I will be detailing the steps I go through, the tips I’ve learned from experience, and the way I do things in general. I’ll cover the whole process, from developing the idea to marketing. A lot of it is just my opinion, but it is opinion based on experience. It’s certainly not the only way, it won’t work for everybody, and I know I still have a lot to learn. But even if you disagree, what I have to say might help you figure out your own path. That said, let’s get on with it.)
When it comes to the storytelling arts (novels, movies, comics, etc.) just about everybody thinks they have ideas. They seem to think that because they have a.) seen a lot of movies and/or read a lot of books and b.) at one time consigned a coherent sentence to paper, they necessarily have the chops to produce a workable story idea off the top of their heads at a moment’s notice.
Most of them are wrong.
I’m not judging the quality of the idea here, just noting that most people have a fuzzy notion of what actually constitutes an idea, at least insofar as it relates to story. After all, writing is easy, not real work. Kinda like singing or painting.
In their actual life, people would never think that “grocery store” was an idea; call it a thought, a concept, a notion, whatever, it lacks any potential for action or conflict, and fails to solve any problem. “I’ll go to the grocery store” is is at least action-driven, but without knowing why, or what obstacles might lie in the way, it’s just an item on a checklist of daily tasks. Just going to walk around? Low on Egg-os? Cute new check-out person? These might be germs for a story, but if you think any of these are dramatic –full of action and conflict– we need to get you out more.
However, the same folks have no trouble telling you they have an idea for a novel-m0vie-comic and when you ask what it is, they’ll say, with a straight face, “zombies.” If you press them further, they get flustered, hem and haw, act offended.
Sorry, not an idea. No offense to zombies.
But you have to start somewhere, so the subject should definitely be something that is of great interest to you. It’s not about what’s hot, what’s cool, what’s trendy. By the time you get your book out to the public, all that will have changed anyway. I don’t care how dull or mundane the subject may seem to be to others, it has to be of great interest to you. It’s your job as a writer to make it interesting to the rest of the world.
Let’s stick with webcomics as our medium and zombies as our subject , and we’ll go a step further: “Zombies take over the country.” Let’s pretend that this hasn’t been done to death, and we can still see that it isn’t really an idea. It’s too vague, too broad, the conflict is only impersonal and implied.
An idea is what will be carrying your webcomic for as long as you care to make it, whether it is a gag-a-day style strip or an adventure comic or something inbetween. It has to have muscle, endurance, tenacity, fortitude. (And let me be clear, I am not talking here about the Hollywood notion of being able to sum up a story in a single sentence. I think that’s shallow crap, and as evidence I offer the low quality of most high-concept movies like 2012. Everybody got so jazzed about the one sentence they forgot to fill out the other two hours of the movie.)
So, what would make “Zombies take over the country” into a workable idea? Well, “Zombies take over the country and it’s a GOOD thing” takes us a step closer. It’s a bit of a twist, it makes me curious as to how something like that would work. How would zombies be good for the country? Haven’t a clue at the moment, and that’s ok, but the notion inspires conflict on the level of C-SPAN programming. Need to up the ante.
So, howzabout “Zombies take over the country and it’s a GOOD thing, BUT there are still roving rebel bands of humans that will fight against them.” Ok, a bit of a twist in making the humans the bad guys, some conflict, though kind of mundane.
What makes it mundane? To me, it’s the humans. Guerilla forces always arise when there’s a coup, even if the coup is for the best. Also, too easy to fall into political statements and comparisons with real wars. Yawn.
In a situation like this, I like to turn on the spigot, make the longest list of alternatives I can in the shortest amount of time – say, ten minutes. No editing, you never have to show it to anybody, and the crazier you get, the more alternatives you can think of, the freer your mind will be to stumble upon something really creative. It’s like uncorking a bottle of champagne – a little bit of work and then oh my, look out.
For example, at random here, I could replace the humans with yams, cows, dogs weighing less than 25 pounds, random electrical discharges, soda, frogs, Bigfoot, Donald Duck, John Malkovich’s puppet from Being John Malkovich, E. Coli, suddenly sentient mushrooms, and so on. None of these may be in the least workable, but it’s important to get your mind freed up, to turn off that editorial voice and just brainstorm. You can toss the whole list in the trash when done.
I kind of like Bigfoot, but I don’t see any inherent conflict. Unless you want to radically rewrite their whole mythology, Bigfeet generally keep to themselves. But as long as we’re talking mythical creatures, what about vampires?
Ok, there’s some possibility here. With humans on the wane, nourishment for the vampires is getting low, and it pisses them off, especially since zombies are very similar -they bite you, make more zombies. Competition. Vampires don’t get anything out of biting zombies, because zombies have no blood. But what happens if a zombie bites a vampire? Do the vampires exist on sheep and pigs until they waste the zombie army? Since vampires are largely indestructible and have no need for weapons, would most of them be unfamiliar with firearms? Knives? Explosives? Would the internet still be up if the zombies work through some kind of a group mind?
Now again, I’m not saying this is a good idea, but the first clue you’ll have that you are in real idea country will be when questions start popping up spontaneously, suggesting relationships, inspiring characters, posing situations, inviting conflict.
Right now we have a conflict with some potential for unusual action, but it’s still kind of ordinary. What will make it different is how we handle the charcters, a subject we will deal with more in a few weeks. But even at this point, there are some things to consider. Are thses vampires the Ancient Royalty kind, like Twilight? Or the beasts on two feet of 30 Days of Night? Or can we find some new angle on them? Or maybe we step back and make THEM the good guys, whom the remaining humans turn to to stop the zombies (who maybe are no longer a GOOD thing – you have to be flexible.) Whatever approach you choose is going to affect the whole tone of your strip, so your idea has to have some feel for what that tone is going to be.: funny? romantic? gut-wrenching buckets of gore? personal statement?
Same with the zombies. If they are still going to be a force for good, how is that going to work in a general sense. Is there a grooup mind? Does someone have control over them? Aliens have finally executed Plan 9 from Outer Space? Are they Romero zombies, or 28 Days Later zombies, or zombies from Stephen King’s Cell.
That, my friend, is up to you. It’s your idea we’re talking about.
At this point we come to an absolutely crucial step in the development of an idea:
write it down.
Don’t worry about grammar, spelling, character names, just get the facts down. It doesn’t have to be in any readable format, it can bounce around chronologically, shift from character to plot to whatever; it only has to be intelligible to you when you read back over it.
Once it’s written, you can stretch it, morph it,sculpt it, invert it, do whatever you like, but on that inevitable bad day, when you lack enthusiasm and energy to write, or have gotten so involved with the intricacies of what you’re doing that you’ve lost your way, having the written copy will help you refocus and recharge. Write it down with that passion you feel when you are just setting out, and it will serve as a battery later on.
An idea does not have to be epic in length. It can be a page of handwritten notes. My original pitch for Lovecraft is Missing was 8 pages, plus 6 illustrations, but it was for an animated TV series. It set up the major characters, Win and Nan, and gave an outline of the world and overall story arc. It took a couple of weeks to write and polish.
Ten years later, I started the webcomic and was I glad to have that pitch, even though I tossed the majority of it. But the foundation was there and I didn’t have to recreate it from scratch, trying to recall what I liked about the idea in the first place.*
In ten years, times changed, I changed, and the medium changed, all of which necessitated changes in the pitch. A television show, animated or otherwise, has to tread water some of the time so as not to run out of story in case there’s a second season. A comic book, on the other hand, or at least one I am doing for free when I should be working, at least needs finite story arcs. I used my pitch as a springboard rather than a millstone.
I actually found this liberating. As i developed my webcomic story, I threw out a lot of the pitch; a minor character was promoted to a significantly larger part while others were dropped; plot points changed, were abandoned, were moved, were added. You’d recognize the basics from the pitch, just as you’d recognize the relationship between a chimp and a lemur while knowing they are different animals.
There is no “finishing” point to an idea; there is only the moment when you decide you have enough to move on to developing the characters and story. Determining that point is difficult, but mostly I see people making the mistake of moving on too early rather than too late. We’ll talk more about this when we get to the posts on characters and plotting.
For now, let’s summarize thusly:
1. The subject has to be of great interest to you. It’s your job as a writer to make it interesting to the rest of the world.
2. Turn on the spigot. Entertain the wildest, most obviously ridiculous, outlnadish concepts, as it will be easier to rein them in than to make them fly.
3. You are in real idea country will be when questions start popping up spontaneously, suggesting relationships, inspiring characters, posing situations, inviting conflict.
4. Know what your basic tone is going to be. It can change, but you have to start somewhere.
5. Write it Down.
NEXT WEEK: The Decision
*(Which brings up another point about ideas: you don’t always get to execute them when they first occur. Another good reason for writing them down.)
Did HPL ever send Valentine’s Day cards? Those few years he was actually in school, did he drop them in the brown paper bags of the cute girls? Did he ever give one to his mom, or his aunts?
And that’s the sum tota; of my thoughts for this week.
Next week I’ll start a rerun of my “How I Make a Webcomic” series for those new folks who missed it last time around. And in a few weeks I’ll have another Occult Detective review up, featuring Andrew Latter.Who?
Have a good weekend. (And though I don’t beat this drum much anymore, feel free to vote for LIM at Top Web Comics and Like us on Facebook.