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Author: Nick Mac

Robot Kids Outline

In my book on Story Discovery and Story Structure, “Storycraft for Comics,” I take a story from Concept, all the way through to Skeletal Outline, the first of the two-part outline method I teach.

Here is the completed second part or, Comprehensive Outline for that story.

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Developing Effective Mystery

The primary goal of any good story is to engage the reader.

You’ve probably heard me say countless times before, “Predictability is the death knell of good fiction.” If your reader knows what happens next, there’s a good chance they won’t continue reading, or if they do manage to press on, they’ll be distanced or otherwise disengaged.

A fundamental method to engage readers in any story, is to lure them with mystery and suspense.

[We’ll tackle suspense in another article]

The clinical definition of mystery is; something difficult or impossible to understand or explain… But this is only half the accurate definition when it comes to writing.

Because in fiction, mundane, irrelevant, superfluous or minor elements all lack mystery, no matter how difficult or impossible to understand you make them.

So while “how the bag of coffee beans got from the bottom shelf to the top shelf, with all the roommates denying moving them,” might be mysterious in real-life, in a story, it’s a distracting waste of time.

To establish mystery in fiction make sure the element is interesting by itself, important & relevant, and contains significant narrative drive.

Also, “impossible…” impossible is a bad word in most instances of establishing mystery. I’ll explain why later, but for now, take my word for it, which leaves us with the following more accurate definition for establishing mystery in comics;

An interesting, highly relevant, difficult to understand or explain element with high narrative drive.

Let’s break it down.

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Heroes, Antiheroes, Villains and More

We all know what each of these character types are and how they’re integral to genuine story, but what if I told you, all three of these are actually the same character type… only on different points of the same scale.

Mind blown?

Let’s get into it.

With the exception of some abstract Buddhist zen-like mental kung fu (the best action is no course of action kinda thing), heroes, antiheroes and villains are defined by their actions. Ok, really, all characters are defined by their actions, but broad generalizations do apply to this specific group.

In essence, when you say you’re going to create a hero, antihero, or villain, you’re really saying, you’re going to use an archetype template for the core nature of the character.

Character Archetype p61 Story craft for comics;

“Character archetypes are “genres” for characters. If I tell you I’ve got a horror comic, slasher script, your mind automatically opens a drawer of preconceived notions. You sit to read the script with expectations.
Character archetypes are exactly the same thing. Classifications of traits that define a role—universally accepted roles that transcend culture, creed and nationality.”

White Spectrum

At the top of the scale we have the HERO.

Someone concerned primarily with the welfare of others and who acts in a manner that puts their welfare ahead of his own. In fact, he’s likely to sacrifice himself or his personal desires, for the benefit of others. Heroes generally have a high sense of moral ground, distinguishing clearly between right and wrong, and following this morality without wavering.

If you want to be a good writer, dare I say a great writer, you should always look to Robocop to guide you.

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Effective Loose Scripting

When folks hire me to write a script, I don’t like to take shortcuts.

Genuine story is freakin’ complex. I get a solid page rate, and you can bet I’m going to leverage my experience and expertise at every single opportunity, and bring my client maximum value for the money they spend with me.

For this reason, I’m not partial to loose scripting.

Ok fine, simple can be hard. In fact, at the highest level, I’ll admit, you could have some genius level loose script that expresses story brilliantly. Leonardo da Vinci probably could have pulled it off, if he was into comics.

But let’s call a spade a spade, fact of the matter is, most writers go loose when the material covers content of lower narrative drive… another way of saying; material that’s less important (or less interesting to them), so it doesn’t matter how their artist conveys it.

This alone should be a red flag to the conscious writer.

Material that isn’t too important, should almost ALWAYS be cut, leaving more room for the material that is important.

No matter how you justify it, loose scripting passes a lot of the narrative work to the artist. Writing for the last 20+ years I reckon I’ve developed a pretty good eye for story. I personally, tend to run a tight ship and like to keep closer tabs on my narratives.

Don’t get me wrong, comics are absolutely a collaborative medium

but the writer’s initial take on a script, is the stage 1 rocket fuel. The more you put in, the greater the chance to break orbit when you launch.

All that said, you may find yourself wanting or needing to write loose on a particular script.

Ultimately, writing loose means you outline instead of script. Listing core beats, instead of unpacking them with detail.

The easy and quintessential example, is the fight scene.

Pages 14-20

Thing One and Thing Two fight. Thing Two wins.

That’s about as “Marvel Method” as it gets.

Since I’ve already discussed fight scenes extensively here on Story to Script, let’s breakdown a different example.

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Narrative through Panel Descriptions

[ Main site recommended reading: Visualizing Panels, Panel Descriptions, Visual Writing… there’s another one, but for the life of me I can’t remember which one it is, I’ll come back and update here when I remember.]

Panel 3:

Frank Castle shoots the Kingpin.

I see this kind of panel description all the time in comic scripts. I see folks, even established writer folks, defending it as legitimate loose scripting. I generally call it insufficient, lazy writing, but above all, I call it missed opportunity.

Remembering back to the Working Writer’s Guide to Comics; the four essential elements of every comic panel are:

  • Emotion
  • Comictography
  • Mise-en-Scene
  • Movement

All four of these are absent in the above panel description.

But even forgetting the four cornerstones of comic panels, we can simply ask “what is this panel telling us in the story, other than the action at hand (which we could only hope, has significant implications)?

Answer: literally, nothing.

Every panel in a comic is a chance to control and express the narrative of the story. While it is possible to do this with broad, loose strokes, the devil truly is in the details.

Hey, whaddya know, dialogue/narration can make a huge difference in expressing narrative throughout a comic… but for this article, let’s ditch dialogue and focus just on the panel descriptions.

Also keep in mind, much of the time you will express deep narrative movements through a sequences of panels. Sort of reverse engineering things backwards from the kind of panel descriptions above is a bit tricky… eh, screw it, let’s revisit this panel description anyway and see if we can’t improve it, actually expressing the narrative through added details;

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Defining Genre

Unless you were born and raised on a deserted island, you’ve been exposed to fiction your entire life and have an innate understanding of genre; the classification of fiction based on shared form, style and subject matter.

I’ve been working on a breakdown of genre conventions in the primary genres I work in. This article is going to expand on the essence of recognizing and defining genre for your work and serve as a prelude to that material.

Genre

If we traveled back in time to the creation of the first “story,” it would be void of genre. Even if it dealt with goblins, trolls, knights, dragons, wizards, and fantastic realms, it would not be classified as “fantasy.” It would simply be the story, as there would be no other pieces of fiction to compare it to.

Genre emerges only through the collective view of numerous works.

Through this collective view and categorization of fiction, genre gives rise to conventions and obligatory scenes; traditional, typical, and expected expressions. For this reason it’s important to recognize your genre(s); in order to satisfy readers by both delivering and subverting what is expected.

You can recognize genre before you write, using it as a guide in your discovery process, or, you can assess genre after you’ve written, using it as a guide in your editing process… either approach can be successful (though perhaps the most effective technique is to employ both).

 

The Four Base Genres

Regardless of genre, all good fiction delivers a complete experience and expresses a wide range of human emotion. However, the base genres (as I refer to them) have a more intimate relationship with one specific emotion. I define the four base genres as follows;

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Stealing the Life of Your Story

Today I’m going to discuss a couple of prime culprits responsible for holding back writers from doing their best work. Most applicable to novice writers, but let’s walk through it and remind ourselves the wrong way of doing it.

The most effective story you ever write is the one you don’t write at all… the one you allow the story to write for you.

Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch touched on it when he said “Murder your darlings,” famously paraphrased years later by Stephen King, “Kill your darlings.” If refers to of course, having the objectivity to edit away the pieces of fiction you’re in love with, but really aren’t necessary for the narrative.

Ultimately, Quiller-Couch and King are talking about inflexibility; an unwillingness to change or compromise. And today I speak of it more generally than merely editing back parts of the narrative that don’t work… but rather, having the flexibility to write the pieces that do work, in the first place.

Approaching writing rigidly, with a distinct unwavering image in your mind, creates an environment where you’re trying to find (and often force) pieces to fit the puzzle.

Where as writing from a flexible mindset, allows the story to unfold, as you may here often, naturally or organically. Creating the puzzle as you go along, the story takes on a life of it’s own.

I always tell folks think of your job as a writer like a conductor of a symphony. It’s not your job to play every instrument, but to select the arrangement (choose what the story will express) and direct all the instruments toward that expression.

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Getting Drama on Point

Strong dramatic moments are key building blocks in story.

Even in an action oriented spectacle, moments of high drama engage the reader and develop the empathetic bond to the characters. In a drama genre story, the drama itself drives the narrative. No matter how you crack it, it’s dang important to understand how to effectively convey drama in the scene.

While establishing and expressing drama relies on bringing together many (if not all) of the writing fundamentals, here are two not-so-obvious considerations that will inject your dramatic moments with “high-octane, crazy blood.” <For you non-Mad Max fans, that’s a good thing!>

First and primarily, time.

Second, consequences of actions/decisions.

Technically, drama is a loaded word in the creative writing world.

It can mean different things, at different moments, to different people. After all, “dramatic” is an adjective, meaning sudden, striking, exciting, impressive, etc. And such descriptors apply to so much of writing an engaging script.

Before we go on to define drama, let’s take a look at a close, important cousin, that sometimes masquerades as drama, I speak of course, of tension.

In the writer’s guide I define tension as “heightened emotional state derived from an immediate danger or threat.” The reason why tension often gets labeled drama is revealed in the first part of the sentence–heightened emotional state.

Heightened emotional state is the core of good drama.

Think about it when was the last time you read or saw a really good dramatic scene where the characters involved were indifferent? I’m gonna guess, no time recently. 

So for this article and for your future writing, consider the following definition of drama;

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The Ultimate Fight Scene

In Fight Scenes that Resonate I break down a half-dozen basic considerations for scripting effective fight scenes.

Welcome to the Pro class where we go “a bit” further and break down, the ultimate fight (or battle) scene. In truth, it would be more accurate to call it the complete fight scene or narrative fight mechanics–I took a little creative liberty with the title.

Every fight scene can be measured on a scale, with one end delivering a complete, engaging narrative and the other delivering and incomplete or non-existant narrative.

Below are the narrative fight mechanics for a complete fight scene. I recommend building out as much as you can into the main fight of your issue. Though in a perfect world, you will also apply as much as you can to each and every fight in the story (discussed more shortly).

First, let’s define what a fight (or battle) is.

Fight: A violent struggle involving the exchange of physical blows or the use of weapons.

Easy peasy.

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Complete Character Arcs

I’m really big on two things, Master Theme and Character Arcs.

If you run with the Character Arc fundamentals in Storycraft for Comics, your story’s in good shape… but let’s take a moment to flesh them out even further.

I’m gonna assume you already know what a Character Arc is and instead of giving the primer, jump right into it.

Act 1:

Focus on the Character’s flawed side of the arc.

While it may seem counterintuitive, the more you push the crappy version of your character at the beginning, the more potent and effective the arc will be when it completes.

Act 1 is the beginning of the arc.

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