Of all the skills it takes to make comics, writing is one of the last I tried to tackle as a student and practitioner myself.
Now that I’ve been working on it for about 25 years, trying to teach it is both fascinating and daunting. Quite simply it a HUGE topic to cover and I’m still figuring out how to unpack it for students. Let me say upfront, you don’t have to know everything to start. You just have to have somewhere to start. So a LOT of this post, is just that. Places to start. Constraints, exercises, plot structure. You name it.
I encourage spending a lot of time listening to and talking with writers and students of the form, to learn about it and get feedback. There is always lot of craft and insight to be learned from peers and mentors. You will get the most by having a beginner’s mind and being open to all of it.
Look for local groups in your community, and online of course is an embarrassment of free or affordable material on the subject, podcasts, youtube, and blogs galore. Read it all a bit critically, and maybe laterally too.
Watch out for any one size fit all solutions to hurdles or process, for example I’m Aphantasic so using visualization I’m sure seems like a no brainer to the majority that aren’t, but suggestions regarding pre vassalizing stories are largely useless to me.
It does not slow me down mind you, I start with short notes, sketches, point form plots and thumbnail layouts for visual stories/comics. There is no one right way, this page has a lot of possible tools and constraints you can explore and find one or more than works for you.
Ok, lets dive in…
I’m a fan of cinema and theatre, and see a lot of correlation between those mediums & comics. To that end I’ve created a playlist of cinema analysis for you to watch and learn some of the art of film storytelling! It’s entertaining, and super informative.
There are key differences between the mediums, I talk about some here in my post titled ‘Like moving pictures, but not‘.
It’s a different kind of picking of moments to show, but still a lot alike too. For those inclined to agree already, and those not too even more: I recommend watching ALL of Tony Zhou’s ‘every frame a painting‘ series on cinematic visual storytelling, and I was personally struck by this clip, of Krzysztof Kieślowski talking about his thoughts on time in Blue.
Mind expanding stuff if you like thinking about story and time. Both of those appear to some extent in the previously mentioned Playlist.
My First and most important personal lesson, is Edit, Edit, Edit. and Edit again. And then one more time for good measure. Writing is Editing. Even the continuous draft ‘On the road’, wasn’t the final draft. I rewrote Dream Life several times before I even hit on the plot structure I used in the final version.
Next big one for me,
was to think of comics as an art of
Simplifying a story down to its most basic elements. It’s fair to say that compression was key to being able to tell a good story in a one page tabloid comic like Little Nemo or Krazy Kat. But it’s a factor in long form stories too.
That said I love playing with decompression in some instances. But we don’t want to slow things down to much. That would be dull. So it’s always ‘relatively speaking’ still a form of compressed storytelling in comics. Otherwise it would be a film strip!
Manga, American comics, and European BD have all openly explored various forms of compressed storytelling, post Maus, Spiegelman has become a big advocate of it too. And of course, decompression has become a popular thing to explore as well. A Thousand Flowers: Compression, Decompression is an excellent read on this [pdf].
Both paths are valid, but for this course to accommodate the short story format, a lot of your stories will need to utilize compression quite a bit. It’s ultimately a device of pacing, a lot of the rhythm of your story will come from how you vary that or don’t in your comics. Thinking about that becomes an aspect of the Clarity seeking process, as found in Scott McCloud’s Making Comics.
Narrative Arcs! To some degree every scene should have some sort of conflict? Your character wants something, and can’t get it without some difficulty, even if it’s minor. They need to get to Mordor, or go to the bathroom, or get that hansom new neighbors attention.
Consider that each of these moments, builds up to the overall story arc. Flat scenes with no conflict or information about the story of any kind are just padding. If it’s not telling us something it’s dead weight. EDIT! My rule of thumb is if i’m board, so is the reader. Time to check out what’s going on back at the ranch.
So what Kind of Arc to use? Mostly that’s likely to be a Three Act Arc. Even if it’s short! It’s possible to have a three act story arc, in just three panels! However, while the Three Act story structure is one of the most common, there are many others. Narratives can follow other patterns, like say a palindrome, a reverie or a round. But most stories fit into more traditional Act based structures. For example Shakespeare’s five act structure, Link & Link. A lot of TV now follows Seven Act story models built to work with instead of against commercial breaks and weekly cliffhangers.
There are also film and tv versions of 9-Act Screenplay Structures, and a wide range of other models following Nine acts. Those usually break down to models that follow variations on Freytag’s Pyramid. Ingrid Sundberg details the idea of an eleven beat, 3 act Archplot structure here, that integrates many of the classic ideas about plot structure. Some great nuances here and note that her version is built around a 120 min screenplay.
But time/space in a comic is compressible, so a friend posted this variant built around a 20 page story on Facebook, it’s The Archplot Structure and just exactly about the length of a US comic book. It’s In the end simply a more complex detailing of the classic Pyramid. The Pyramid has 5 acts or parts, but then others identify transition points between those as possible acts as well, adding 4 more identifiable parts. In all the are 1. EXPOSITION: 2. INCITING INCIDENT: 3. RISING ACTION: 4. COMPLICATION: 5. CLIMAX: 6. REVERSAL: 7. FALLING ACTION: 8. RESOLUTION: 9. DENOUEMENT:
And of course there’s things like the ‘Hero’s Journey‘ [link], which is a way of thinking about plot in terms of the characters development, and evolutions through the narrative arc. It’s also called the Monomyth by followers of the work of Joseph Campbell.
FYI he did an interesting documentary about his ideas around this, you find clips from it and other analysis of the ideas here in this huge playlist. It looks like; 1. THE ORDINARY WORLD: 2. THE CALL TO ADVENTURE: 3. REFUSAL OF THE CALL: 4. MEETING WITH THE MENTOR: 5. CROSSING THE THRESHOLD: 6. TESTS, ALLIES AND ENEMIES: 7. APPROACH: 8. THE ORDEAL: 9. THE REWARD: 10. THE ROAD BACK: 11. THE RESURRECTION: 12. RETURN WITH THE ELIXIR.
Christopher Booker wrote a Jungian-influenced analysis of stories and their psychological meaning called The Seven Basic Plots. Booker worked on the book for 34 years reputedly and it’s been lauded by many writers and academics. You can read a good summary of them here! And cited as an influence on Booker, Georges Polti categorized what he believed to be every dramatic situation that might occur in a story or performance in his book The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations. You’ll find those summarized here!
In gaming there’s the idea of a Quest, which borrows from those ideas but is evolving into it’s own thing a bit too. Another aspect of thinking about narrative structure comes up particularly in popular fiction, but really is relevant to all forms. There is no HARD and fast rule about how that works. But there are broad rules of thumbs, traditions, tropes and archetypes that make up what we call genre.
All early comics were fairly simple and deceptively elegant at their best. Little Nemo again comes to mind. In recent years the form has diversified a lot more, but genre still informs a lot of the work for simple reasons. It’s a very effective way to start building a story. Think of a character who fits interesting or strong archetypes, put them in a situation, and make things happen following the dramatic expectation of the given genre. It’s not the only way to go, if you don’t do anything innovative with it people will know what your last panel looks like before you do. But, it’s often a practical place to start talking and thinking about story.
Today, on one hand we have longer but finite narratives like those we see in most graphic novels, open-ended short installment serials that define the monthly direct comics market. Longer serialized anthologies elsewhere.
And webcomics, dominated by ongoing stories that are designed to have some kind of sub-climax gag or payoff on many if not all pages. A lot like the old news strips like Nemo Krazy Kat and Dream of the Rarebit Fiend once did.
Another really important way to think about the structuring of our stories, is the idea of Story Beats. The Blake Snyder Beat Sheet is a popular plot structure template that models things that way. How about interpreting the musical notion of a Fugue? Another idea already common to literature, are Reveries, this post includes several illustrated Comics Reverie poems. Does it seem like there’s a lot of ways to tell a story? It’s true. There is. So many choices…
Devices for defeating writers block!
We all deal with writers block, creative log jams, imposer syndrome and dread of a blank page!
I find my favorite tool, is keeping notes. Collecting ideas when I have them for latter use, rather than spending as much time just trying to think of new ideas while at my desk.
I do some of that kind of work as well. Intentional generating and ideation sessions. But it helps to have kindling in the form of the notes I keep in dedicate books for that.
There are lots of other strategies too though, tones of them! You can try automatic writing! I don’t mean literally in the sense of having spirits take you over, but just writing what comes to mind, even if it seems silly or dumb or boring. Stream of Consciousness Writing. Like automatic drawing, doodling, it’s a good way to side step over thinking it, and stumbling into more creative, innovative ideas.
You can also externalize the choosing mechanism as well. Cut-ups are a fun idea invented by the Dadaists, David Bowie and Burroughs wrote their work often with it. Fridge magnet poetry more or less is that turned into a artsy clever use of kitchen appliances. But could be used to write dialog for your next short comic too!
‘Oblique Strategies: Over One Hundred Worthwhile Dilemmas’ is a card-based method for promoting creativity jointly created by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt, you can use a site based version of them here. They are more like tips/improve prompts to suggest how to handle whatever juncture of the creative processes you’re at in the moment.
And having just mentioned it, Improve has been recommended to me by many creators over the years. Even if you don’t want to get on stage, the idea of things like, “Say Yes AND” from the 4 Rules, are great tools in jumping over inhibition.
Ok, next, Gamify it! I talk about this in the clip above. Have you heard of Story Dice? Have a big set of those, as well as a full set of RPG dice. Dice are great choosing devices, and aside from the intended party game it’s also a fun story prompt generation tool! While I’ve collected several sets, there are free digital options!
Dave Birss has a section of his site here you can use via a browser to use a free version of Story Dice in 5 and 9 dice versions of it. For Apple and Android: Rory’s Story Cubes, Android & Apple; Story Dice – Story telling, Android & Apple; Story Dice, Android; Story Dice – ideas for writers, Apple; Story Dice – Human Rights, Android & Apple; Roll A Story – Guide your imagination Android. Let me know if you find others!
Another interesting tool I’ve recently picked up is the Intuiti Creative Cards set, which are essentially Taro cards but striped of any of the overt spiritual content and made more abstract. They come with a handbook for reading them which is something i still need to dive into and read but so far it looks like a very fun gamified way of externalizing the ideation process. Which is what ALL of this boils down to. It’s always easer to react to something than start with a blank canvas.
Ok, last one, Writing the Unthinkable with Lynda Barry is a great looking exercise for getting going! I plan to try it out! And there are literally no end to the inventive writing prompts out there you can explore.
Here’s some comics to read. Examples of a few things I’ve brought up here in action. Some are my own work, some by others and available to read online.
One that struck me from that last link is. ‘The River’. It is exceptionally beautiful.
I did a bit of a character sketch, a short story called ‘Pin City‘. It was something out of a larger project, pulled out to experiment with a drawing style. It’s a narrative one act story that I think fits the notion of Reverie. But specifically focused on character development.
‘Where The Wild Things Went‘ on the other hand, explores both my personal evolution, but also larger ideas about more universal aspects we all share.
I have several other short stories and my graphic novel Dream Life uploaded to Tapastic here, and my 2007 GN with Jim Monroe, ‘Therefore, Repent!’ is here! Handy if you have the app. Can you identify what kinds of narrative arcs i’ve been exploring and name some archetypes?
“Don’t Cry For Me I’m Already Dead” by Rebecca Sugar is a story about two brothers who have to communicate something profound through Simpson’s quotes. I’d say it follows a three act structure personally.
I talk more about this here, but another thing to consider is characterization. Like their physical design, it’s important whenever possible, to ensure your characters are identifiable by HOW they talk. In an example borrowed from Justin Jordan, “You shouldn’t need to see it’s Batman speaking to know it’s not Superman“. This is a tricky aspect of writing diolog, and it takes some time to master. But don’t wait to start thinking about it. Listen to people around you talking, as well as characters in your favourte media. Take note of what makes each person’s personality show through.
Ok, one last resource, a talk by Ty Templeton on some genre driven writing tips and strategies, and how to cobble together the skeleton of a story from a fairly simple list of choices. Ty is a popular artist and writer, and teacher of comics, and one of my mentors!
He’s got his own school here in Toronto. The talk I have here was given at a convention, it was called How To Write a Graphic Novel in Under an Hour! (47:32, 43.5mb). You’ll find I’ve embedded it below along with a visual slideshow helping to illustrate his ideas.
A good primer on basic storytelling in any medium, recorded by Jamie Coville, keeper of a grand archive of comics history wisdom and trivia on his site here.
Don’t be thrown by his first words of advice, “No one wants to read your Graphic Novel!“. In the sense that a key challenge in being a successful storyteller, you have to engage readers, give them a reason to spend time with your story.
I personally don’t think it’s good to pander to the readers too much and give them ONLY what they want. I like to challenge them too. That’s what I like in a story myself. But to get them to read along, you do have to engage them on their terms at least long enough to get them to care when you give them a Red Wedding.
Once you’ve listen to and read all this, for contrast check out the other posts on story too. Again this isn’t the end all be all of good writing. Just a good formula for where to start, especially if you’re doing Genre fiction. Ty moves around a lot so you’ll need to turn the volume up to hear everything in this recording.
The PowerPoint style presentation using Ty’s ideas.