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Author: Nick Mac

Violet Sun Outline

Below is the Comprehensive Outline for an original sci-fi horror story I wrote. You may notice in this 8000 word, 38 page outline, there is a distinct current of the protagonist running from one point to another, with a specific series of highly defined goals.

Violet Sun was originally conceived as a story to a video game (never published), with a focus on level-by-level game play progression. Even the main alien antagonists were built with a game-play progression in mind.

I’ve always loved this story; from the religious vs science undertones, the zealot Minister villain, the crumbling Earth solar system, and insane escalation toward the ending…

I’ve pitched this story as a mini-series to a publisher that expressed interest (but never followed up) and discussed it with a couple of different comic book artists. Nothing’s come of it yet, but…

It’s high on my priority list to bring to life in comic format some day.

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Focused Writing

In a recent podcast I was talking about how a writer doesn’t get a chance to explain their work.

When a reader or audience engages with your writing, your work stands or falls on its own legs. Period.

Often, when I give editorial comments to newer writers on why something doesn’t work, they’ll try and defend their writing.

“Well the hero does that in this scene, because this, this and this.”

The minute you have to explain it, you’ve failed. Clear, effective writing requires no explanation.

So even if your argument is valid, you’ve still failed because you did not express your elements effectively enough that they need no explanation.

This concept circles back to one of writing’s most fundamental covenants, something you hear me say all the time;

“At any given moment, you must know the narrative significance of what you’re trying to express. Whether it’s at the act, sequence, scene, page, panel, dialogue bubble level, single line, or even word.”

With this level of constant awareness, you can then keep three considerations in mind at all times;

  • Intention to Express. Or simply, Intent.
  • Execution of Intention. Or simply, Execution.
  • Effectiveness of Execution. Or simply Effectiveness.

Keeping IEE in mind, allows focused writing. There are no complicated tricks here. The hardest part is merely taking the time and effort. Let’s break it down;

As an example, I’m gonna reverse engineer a panel from my new series Peerless.

Panel 1

EXT. SHIP AT SEA – DAY

KIARA leans against the deck railing of a large ship on a choppy sea. She holds a well-worn letter in her hands, a letter she’s read many times and contemplates reading again while she stares off across the water, with a distant, brooding look on her face. Her hair rustles in the sea wind.

CAP           36 hours earlier.

Think you can guess what the intent is?

Well, this one is too tricky for you to guess, you can guess the obvious one, but there are actually 2 equally important narrative expressions in this panel; the second is only understood within the context of an upcoming panel, so don’t be too hard on yourself. Let me explain;

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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.

Someone has been found murdered, stabbed in the heart, outside the local comic shop. The only clue is a footprint in the mud outside the back door of the shop. It’s a size 10 sneaker.

There are actually two areas of potential mystery here. The first is the murder itself. The second is the murderer.

I was originally going to unpack them both, but for the sake of room in the article, let’s focus on just the murder itself.

Since the murder was committed by a stabbing through the heart, there is really nothing difficult to understand here (if the murder remains what it is at face value-meaning no new additional reveals pop up that suddenly alter the understanding of the killing).

Next, we look to interesting. A stabbing through the heart is not totally boring or commonplace, but as far as crimes go, there’s really not much to it, so I’d say; it’s not very interesting.

The last two are hard to judge without context, so let’s give it a shot making it up as we go along.

Highly relevant. It turns out in our story, four teens have disappeared from the comic shop in recent days. All from wealthy families tied to politics. Our murder victim in the alley, is a middle-aged homeless guy with a bad drug habit who was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, which makes him irrelevant.

Lastly, narrative drive. This is closely associated and often confused with relevancy. Truth is, if the element is not relevant at all, it can’t have narrative drive. BUT, here’s the twist, if the element IS relevant, it could still be fumbled and NOT have narrative drive.

Remember Narrative Drive means progressing the story.

Let’s rewind a bit and instead say;

The murder victim is the sister to one of the missing teens. That’s no mere unconnected coincidence, that’s a potential bombshell. But narrative drive isn’t about potential, it’s about action and momentum. If the sister’s murder doesn’t springboard the story in new direction, if doors leading to new discovery don’t fly open, it’s a highly relevant element void of narrative drive.

Ok, let’s take a crack at rewriting our story, hitting proper mystery points;

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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.

Robocop’s prime directives were;

  1. Serve the public trust.
  2. Protect the innocent.
  3. Uphold the law.
  4. Any attempt to arrest a senior officer of OCP results in shutdown.

Clearly, everyone knows not to arrest a senior OCP officer, so let’s forget about that one.

Serving the public trust, means adhering to fundamental principles of ethical behavior. Ones that place the character’s loyalty to the law of land, and principles above private gain.

Heroes work within and uphold the law. They recognize the symbolic and inspirational weight of their actions. While they often have the power to act outside of the law, they don’t, because working within the accepted system is–the right thing to do.

I’ve saved the protect the innocent for last on purpose, as this is a real benchmark of the character template. We can even be more specific than simply saying “protect” and say heroes do not harm the innocent.

A hero can not intentionally harm an innocent… and if he somehow did, he would suffers serious psychological consequences from the action conflicting with his core nature.

If you’re reading this article, you’re already aware of the importance and necessity of a well-developed character arc. Hero character flaws (the beginning part of the arc) are not dark in nature. While they need to be potent, the flaws heroes wrestle with do not stop them, or skew their perspective so far to the side, that they can’t function as heroes.

  • Noble to a fault.
  • Arrogant.
  • Always taking on everyone else’s problems.

These are the kind of character flaws and problems heroes deal with.

 

Grey Spectrum

In the middle of the scale we find the ANTIHERO. Someone who concerns himself primarily with the welfare of… well, himself.

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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.

Let’s write a 10,000 BC caveman/dinosaur comic. We’ll focus in on the bit where Rocko and his small tribe have to cross a vast expanse to get to the mysterious obelisk that can heal the members of his group ailing from an unknown, deadly disease.

At some point you might want to condense a description to cover an entire page or specific scene, which in this case, spans 3 panels. (This panel(s) description is actually modeled after a bit I recently edited on a client’s work.)

Panel 1, Panel 2, Panel 3

Rocko and his family travel miles in search of food and water. Beneath prehistoric birds soaring against azure skies, passing through desert savannas speckled with trees, boulders and scrawny shrubbery. The cavemen grow more tired in each panel. In the last of the sequence one of the tribe spot a tiny river in the distance.

As I pointed out the wrong way of writing loose at the beginning of the article, we can look at the inverse of that, to find the right way to script loose, or in other words;

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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 Parent Genre: Drama

To some extent all stories are a drama. That is to say, all (well-crafted) stories are more than a mere sequence of events, but a dramatization of those events, with specific narrative purpose.

Drama is the all encompassing genre, with the flexibility to contain and explore all human emotion.

Drama as a genre by itself is more serious in tone, focusing on character arc development and theme. Drama as a genre digs deep into the humanity behind the story.

Similarly, any genre of fiction can push more toward the dramatic, focusing more on character arc development and theme than the other elements that define its underlying genre.

While all fiction will have dramatic moments, don’t label your story the drama genre if the humanity and character interaction are overshadowed by other genre elements.

Because drama as a genre will so often be paired with other genres, clients often hear me refer to the stand alone drama work of fiction as the “straight drama.”

By moving from the general Drama to focus on a more specific emotion, the first base levels of genre begin to take shape. Notice that the emotion is the specific and guiding force here.

 

The Six 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 six 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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