the last few years teaching my making comics class at syn studio I’ve noticed that many students find it difficult to start writing stories. Not everyone has this problem, some students come into the class already with a graphic novel in mind, they want to start working on. But that isn’t really practical because graphic novels take a long time and are considerably longer to do than our course. I want them to write short stories and that’s a particular kind of constraint and challenge. It was hard for me too at the start. I discovered a lot of that is the inertia of starting, and then how to structure it for a shorter length.
So I came up with a few ways to help come up with new ideas for stories suited to the assignments in class. I started recommending Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s Oblique Strategies, and demonstrating using story cubes, dice that have pictograms on them people can use to inspire narratives, bounce-off of, and reduce friction to the writing process. Both can be found as apps for your phone by the way.
And I started to present the concept of looking to public domain stories to adapt, reinterpret, springboard off of.
You can lift whole story arcs, even just illustrate your version of the classic. And you can take scenes from them and turn one into a small stand alone short. Generally using the connective tissue of the plot, as a scaffold to hang your own ideas on. For students it’s also a great way to introduce them to the practice of editing in a fun way–editing being the true work of writing! In many ways if you can learn to enjoy that you’ll ace the rest of writing.
Here’s an example below. The first act of The Tinder Box, compared to The same part of The Box, a Dark Crystal like otherworldly fantasy story i’m working on based from it. I’ve modified it in a number of ways that started with reading the story. This part of the text covers the first two spreads of my comic adaptation…
The Tinder Box
A SOLDIER came marching along the high road: “Left, right—left, right.” He had his knapsack on his back, and a sword at his side; he had been to the wars, and was now returning home.
As he walked on, he met a very frightful-looking old witch in the road. Her under-lip hung quite down on her breast, and she stopped and said, “Good evening, soldier; you have a very fine sword, and a large knapsack, and you are a real soldier; so you shall have as much money as ever you like.”
“Thank you, old witch,” said the soldier.
“Do you see that large tree,” said the witch, pointing to a tree which stood beside them. “Well, it is quite hollow inside, and you must climb to the top, when you will see a hole, through which you can let yourself down into the tree to a great depth. I will tie a rope round your body, so that I can pull you up again when you call out to me.”
“But what am I to do, down there in the tree?” asked the soldier.
“Get money,” she replied; “for you must know that when you reach the ground under the tree, you will find yourself in a large hall, lighted up by three hundred lamps; you will then see three doors, which can be easily opened, for the keys are in all the locks. On entering the first of the chambers, to which these doors lead, you will see a large chest, standing in the middle of the floor, and upon it a dog seated, with a pair of eyes as large as teacups. But you need not be at all afraid of him; I will give you my blue checked apron, which you must spread upon the floor, and then boldly seize hold of the dog, and place him upon it. You can then open the chest, and take from it as many pence as you please, they are only copper pence; but if you would rather have silver money, you must go into the second chamber. Here you will find another dog, with eyes as big as mill-wheels; but do not let that trouble you. Place him upon my apron, and then take what money you please. If, however, you like gold best, enter the third chamber, where there is another chest full of it. The dog who sits on this chest is very dreadful; his eyes are as big as a tower, but do not mind him. If he also is placed upon my apron, he cannot hurt you, and you may take from the chest what gold you will.”
“This is not a bad story,” said the soldier; “but what am I to give you, you old witch? for, of course, you do not mean to tell me all this for nothing.”
“No,” said the witch; “but I do not ask for a single penny. Only promise to bring me an old tinder-box, which my grandmother left behind the last time she went down there.”
“Very well; I promise. Now tie the rope round my body.”
“Here it is,” replied the witch; “and here is my blue checked apron.”
As soon as the rope was tied, the soldier climbed up the tree, and let himself down through the hollow to the ground beneath; and here he found, as the witch had told him, a large hall, in which many hundred lamps were all burning. Then he opened the first door. “Ah!” there sat the dog, with the eyes as large as teacups, staring at him.
“You’re a pretty fellow,” said the soldier, seizing him, and placing him on the witch’s apron, while he filled his pockets from the chest with as many pieces as they would hold. Then he closed the lid, seated the dog upon it again, and walked into another chamber, And, sure enough, there sat the dog with eyes as big as mill-wheels.
First pass of the story, stipped down to create a blanker canvace and to simplify the action so that it can be done in a shorter format. The first act is 7 pages of comics in all. I reduced the number of ‘dogs’ and simplified some of the dialogue.
A soldier is coming home from a war.
Approaching their destination they meet a frightful-looking wise old one standing in the road. “Hail well met soldier! That’s a fine sword and large knapsack, you are a real warrior!”
“Thank you!” said the surprised but pleased soldier.
“Do you see that large tree,” said the old sage, pointing to one stood beside them.
“It’s hollow, I need to get something from within, but I can’t reach it!
“If you could, able as you are, climb to the top to find a hole, through which you can let yourself down to it’s depths, I can pull you up again when you find what is mine and call out to me.”
“But, why?” asked the soldier.
“Money!” The old sage replied; “When you reach the ground under the tree, you will find yourself in a chamber, a box and large chest on the floor. Guarded by a great Automaton! But it will remain in repose if this enchanted cloth covers its eyes,”
“You can then open the chest, and as many coins as you please”
“This is an attractive proposition,” said the soldier; “but what am I to give you, you old old sage? for, of course, you do not mean to tell me all this for nothing.”
“No,” said the old sage; “but I do not ask for a single penny. Only promise to bring me the smaller box, my ancestors left it behind the last time they went down there.”
“Really?” challenges the Soldier.
“Very well; I promise! Lets have that rope!”
“Here it is,” replied the old sage; “and here is my enchanted cloth.”
The soldier climbs the tree, and lets himself down through a large hollow, deep into the ground beneath to the chamber with the box, chest, and the automaton standing vigil motionlessly.
“You’re a pretty fellow,” said the soldier, placing the old sage’s cloth across it’s head vailing the large bramble like eyes. And then filled their pockets from the chest with as many pieces as could fit.
Then I wrote a draft as full script: comics scripts are modeled on screenplays, hence the formating you’ll see here. And then drew thumbnails for the pages, then returning to the script to modify and rewrite that as I went and resolved on the things that come up as you design and refine a page. Currently the script looks like this!
Originally by Hans Christian Andersen
Edited version by Salgood Sam
Pnl #:=Panel, or frame;
SFX=sounds not made by characters:
At the top of each page there is a suggested page layout based on standard grids, expressed as a sequence of numbers. Each number = the number of panels in a row or tier, separated by an “x” for each row of panels. So a six panel page could look like, 2x2x2, or 3×3, or 3x2x1. Most of these pages are 10 to 16 panels long!
PG1: Pnl 0-1: 1/1×2
A soldier is coming home from a war. They are androgynous, as most characters in this will be. Lean, and worn, and wary.
Approaching town they meet a frightful-looking elder, gnarled as the tree they stand next to, in the road.
“Hail well met soldier! That’s a fine sword and sack, you are a true warrior!”
“Thank you!” says the suspicious but pleased soldier.
Pnl 2: “Do you see this tree,” pointing beside them. “It’s hollow, I need to get something from within. But this old body, I can’t reach it!
Pnl 3:“Able as you are, climb to the top to find the hole, through which you can let yourself down to it’s depths? I will tie this rope round you so that I can pull you up again when you find what is mine.”
Pnl 1: “Hah, just like that you ask a stranger? Why? What is in it for me?” asks the soldier.
“Money!” The old one replies;
Pnl 2: “When you reach the great hall under the tree, you will see a large chest.”
“Upon it, an automaton is seated. It guards the Chest. It will ignore you unless you try to remove it and open the chest.”
Pnl 3: The elder produces a red silk scarf with intricate gold patterns on it.
“It will remain in repose if first the eyes are covered with this enchanted cloth”
Pnl 4: “Then you can move it and open the chests, and take from it as many coins as you please as they are able to generate new currency as you empty it! You will only be limited by what fits in that sack of yours!”
“Really!” The soldier replies enticed.
Pnl 5: Suspicions, the soldier looks for the catch
“An attractive proposition, but what am I to retrieve for you, old one? The coins? Certainly you don’t imagine I believe you’d tell me all this for nothing!”
Pnl 6: “No,” said the old one; “but I do not want for coin. Only promise to bring me the ebony box my ancestors left the last time they were in the hall.”
Pnl 7: “Really?” challenges the Soldier. “Yes, it’s worth more to me than wealth.” swears the The old one.
Pnl 1 “Very well then, let’s have that rope!”
“Don’t forget the scarf!”
Pnl 2: The soldier lets himself down through a large hollow…
Pnl 3: …to the ground beneath;
“Make sure you cover the automatons eyes before you do anything brave soldier or I’ll never see you again!”
“Not to worry old one…”
Pnl 4: Here they find the large hall, a black box that could fit in a hand, is sitting there by where he comes down. The big chest and automaton is in the back in an alter like area..
“… I’m no fool.”
I did some design work to think about how I wanted things to look, these are some of that process.
Here are the thumbnails for the pages.
Here’s the art.
And here the lettered spreads!