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Category: Technique

Stories without Character Arcs

Genuine story delivers a thesis about how we writers see the world. Our underlying message is our Master Theme. At its most fundamental level, genuine story is new understanding revealed through change.

The most effective vehicle of this new understanding is the character arc.

A flawed character’s struggle to reach his true potential, framed in the context of a Master Theme—our thesis of the world—reveals that thesis to be true or false.

Change being the key basis by which we judge the results of the struggle.

In most cases, if the character changes for the better–reaches his true potential–the Master Theme rings true. If not, if the character is set in his ways, unable to change, the character has failed. <Though the validity of the argument of the Master Theme can be expressed either way, depending on the author’s approach.>

The character arc is the most effective means to engage a reader because people relate to people more than we relate to anything else.

The empathetic bond to a well written character, allows us to tap into the entire human experience, comprehending and relating to fiction on multiple levels. Every piece of the experience supports and emphasizes the underlying Master Theme–the sum of the parts equal more than the whole.

Whenever you start discussing genuine story and the necessity of complete, well-executed character arcs, there is always a voice to the contrary side; “character arcs are not required” they claim, quickly reciting famous/successful character that don’t appear to arc: James Bond, Captain Kirk, Indiana Jones, John McClane, well pretty much most action heroes… and as it turns out, most serial superheroes (more on this in a second).

When folks are working on a stand alone graphic novel, or even a mini-series, 99% of the time my advice is make the characters arc—this is how you really engage and make a meaningful story.

From a business perspective, I’m of the mindset that it’s better to deliver a hit story, prove the market, then have to work backwards to figure out how to proceed.

This is a much better situation to be in, rather than delivering a story without character arcs; something that misses the mark, doesn’t engage, leaving you with something more easily continued, but less likely to do so.

As I mention in Storycraft for Comics, serial comics are really a special medium. Not many other places in fiction where a story runs for 20-30 years or more. TV sometimes and it’s no wonder TV writing and serial comic writing share some things in common.

There’s a good argument to be made, the best way to approach a serial comic is to leave the hero stuck in the middle of his arc. Always making progress… always struggling… but never finding resolution.

There’s also something to be said for the characters that have already completed their arcs.

When you look at characters like Bond, Kirk, Jones and McClane, these characters are rarely “rookie” characters—they usually come to the table with extensive histories and experience, even if it’s not directly revealed in the narrative at hand.

What youre seeing is a character whos completed his arc and already existing from their full potential.  

Actually, come to think of it, remember when Picard was shot and the weapon screwed with his artificial heart, giving way for Q to send him back in time to his cadet days. Turns out Picard used to be a womanizing, hot-head—flawed, SOB. Through his backstory, mostly not revealed in typical Next-gen episodes, he overcame his flaws and became the iconic Starfleet captain he would forever be known as.

So most of the characters who appear to have no arc, really, already completed their arc earlier in their story.

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Scripting an Outside Outline

At the end of the Working Writer’s Guide to Comics and Graphic Novels I go through the main method I use to write a script directly from a comprehensive outline…

It’s fairly straight forward and the most efficient method I know–at least when it comes to working on your own projects. That is to say when you’ve developed the outline yourself, have a good grasp of where the story is at any given moment and have some degree of flexibility with the page count (or at least, ample time for editorial passes to make the content fit).

As a freelance comic writer, there may come a time when you are required to work directly from a client’s outline.

In these instances you’re likely to find yourself under more stringent restrictions with specific direction such as; “Take exactly what I’ve written in my outline and turn it into a XX page graphic novel…”

Tackling a project like this with the process I outline in the guide will certainly still work, but it may not be the most efficient method. I present the following method as a strong alternative method.

I’m going to showcase material from a Manga outline I wrote for a client a while back, working title “Wolf.” Like the process explained in the Writer’s guide, I’m only going to focus in on a small section of the outline… It’s not important that you don’t have context for the story–just pay attention to the process.

Let’s begin:

1: Separate Scenes

Like the process in the Writer’s Guide, the first step is to go through the outline and separate out the individual scenes. Scene separation is a completely underutilized underappreciated tool for the comic script writer.

We’ll focus on scene 12 from the outline;

—– Start Scene 12 —–

The FBI arrives at Jiro’s house, while Hayate, the wolf and Jiro’s daughter, Kiko play in the backyard. Kiko tells Hayate, “You’re the smartest dog I’ve ever seen.”

The agents flash their credentials and order Jiro to hand over the dog. Because the FBI is an official organization, the detective Jiro, agrees without hesitation… then remembering his friend, Matsui, is now dead, screams for his daughter and Hayate to run.

The agents open fire. Finally realizing the implant is working again, Hayate screams out a warning in Japanese “They’ll kill you to get to me… you’ve got to run.” Jiro and Kiko are shocked that the wolf can speak! Hayate protects Kiko while Jiro goes for an old academy katana on a sword stand. The FBI agents shoot the stand away, leaving only a smaller Wakizashi blade within Jiro’s reach. Jiro uses the sword to fight the gunmen. Jiro’s good with a blade, but not exceptionally good, he hasn’t studied since his academy days.

After a bloody fight with leaves Jiro superficially shot in three places, all the FBI agents are dispatched. Jiro, Kiko and Hayate stumble from the house and rush toward public transit to leave the city.

—– End Scene 12 —–

Now we move on to the primary difference in this approach. Instead of simply separating out each beat, we create a two column list, specifically separating out Actions and Dialogues.

2: Separate Actions and Dialogues

—– Scene 12: Actions —–

  • The FBI arrives at Jiro’s house,
  • while Hayate the wolf and Jiro’s daughter, Kiko play in the backyard.
  • The agents flash their credentials.
  • The detective Jiro, agrees without hesitation…
  • The agents open fire.
  • Jiro and Kiko are shocked that the wolf can speak!
  • Hayate protects Kiko
  • while Jiro goes for an old academy katana on a sword stand.
  • The FBI agents shoot the stand away,
  • leaving only a smaller Wakizashi blade within Jiro’s reach.
  • Jiro uses the sword to fight the gunmen.
  • After a bloody fight, all the FBI agents are dispatched.
  • Jiro, Kiko and Hayate stumble from the house and rush toward public transit to leave the city.

—– Scene 12: Dialogues —–

  • Kiko tells Hayate, “You’re the smartest dog I’ve ever seen.”
  • The agents order Jiro to hand over the dog.
  • The detective Jiro, agrees without hesitation…
  • then screams for his daughter and Hayate to run.
  • Hayate screams out a warning in Japanese “They’ll kill you to get to me… you’ve got to run.”

Notice, I deleted extra writing that was neither action, nor dialogue.

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Symbolism

Symbolism is an advanced level of subtext that can be applied to virtually any aspect of story telling. Adding it to a script pushes your brawler of a script to the next higher weight class.

The technical definition of symbolism is as follows:

Symbolism (sym•bol•ism) noun: Putting ten pounds of meaning in a one pound bag.

In Storycraft I mention the core types of symbolism;

  • visual symbolism
  • symbolic names
  • symbolic actions
  • symbolic situations.

When you sit down to add symbolism to your story, the first thing you need to clarify is; what do you want to symbolize? Sounds like a question from Captain Obvious, but really, if you don’t know what you want to express, how can you find a symbol for it?

And more to the point, when writing a story, there will be a multitude of elements you “could” symbolize… In order to see the forest for the trees, you need to stop and recognize the key elements worthy of deeper subtext/emphasis and…

How are these expressions working to serve the narrative?

Beyond the basic three tier approach I outline in Storycraft, I find it useful to look at the symbolic subtext of my scripts as a separate story in unto itself.

For instance, if I’m doing a fantasy story about “sin and redemption”, perhaps the story I’ll express symbolically is “an angel’s fall from grace.”
(Of course, it’s very possible the story you want to express symbolically is a direct reflection or reinforcement of the story’s core concept—nothing wrong with that.)

The idea here is that getting a poor man’s logline or “overall idea” to a subtextual story, gives you distinct direction in focusing or gathering, your symbols.

The more time you take to figure out the concept and ideas you want to express, the better off you’ll be. Once I know the overall story I want to express, I need only figure out what symbols capture this story and where to inject them.

By its very nature developing symbolism from a story approach, even a simple story, requires multiple symbols. After all, a story expressed in one “beat”, even repeated over an entire story, is not the most effective use of narrative.

If I kept showing a creepy doll, sure, the symbolic message would be conveyed and reinforced by the end of the story, but the meaning would be… simplistic… Like whispering the same phrase into the reader’s ear over and over.

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12 Tips for Spectacle Scripts

Computer says Spectacle is “a visually striking performance or display”.

In comic writing (story) terms, it is a narrative that while may contain all the elements of genuine story, does not fully develop them, relying on superficial/surface elements (action, visual eye-candy, gratuitous genre convention, obligatory scenes and tropes) to engage the audience.

Often spectacle fiction is particularly weak in thematic expression (Master Theme), character development and plot. And often serves as the vehicle to showcase unchanging (non-arcing) protagonists, like James Bond, Indiana Jones, Mad Max and the like…

I’m not really a fan of pure spectacle fiction, as I feel theres always room to add substance to a story.

That said, I am a big fan of genre fiction, Sci-fi/Fantasy/Horror being three of the primary genres I work in. Because many elements and practices of writing good spectacle overlap into genuine story, understanding some of the mechanics of spectacle will serve to improve your writing whether or not you embark on a spectacle heavy script.

Ok, grab your mocha and let’s get into it…

The spectacle hurdle.

Without the real substance of genuine story, all the superficial elements are pushed front and center. Instead of taking the time to assemble a fine wardrobe, offer an intellectual greeting and discuss what makes you tick, you’re stripping off your story’s clothes in the middle of gym class and screaming as loud as you can “Yo, check me out!” (gratutious 80’s movie reference)

Only above average content survives this level of scrutiny.

Plainly put, if your material isn’t above average, you’re sunk.

So if you’re about to set sail into spectacle comic writing waters, you better put down the rum, and look to the horizon with every ounce of objectivity and honesty.

The waters of genuine story telling are forgiving, the seas of spectacle take no prisoners.

 

Art and Concept

First and foremost above average content must convey in the art. You can’t put forth spectacle, if the art isn’t—as the definition says—visually striking. The art has to dazzle and I mean, literally dazzle. It needs to be at the level where it impresses and engages the reader on its own. Pulling off a spectacle comic with subpar art is like watching a bad B movie with a $5 special effects budget—few brave souls can stand such entertainment, fewer yet actively seek it out.

Similarly, your concept must also be above average. Spectacle comics are about showing the reader only a portion of a complete story, but wowing them so much, they don’t care that they’re only getting half their money’s worth.

Some concepts (and characters) are just so damn engaging, interesting and entertaining, the reader accepts the shallow story for what it is—sheer spectacle. James Bond, Indiana Jones, Star Trek (remakes), Star Wars, to name a few.

If your concepts are average, or run-of-the-mill, you’re going to have a particularly hard time trying to impress the audience when showcasing them in spectacle.

I have other articles on the site and talk about discovering your best concepts in Storycraft for Comics. Suffice to say, if you’re setting out to write a spectacle heavy comic, only work with something that feels above average, or elicits an above average response when you pitch it to others. If you’re too close to the material and have lost your objectivity, hire a story consultant or developmental editor to let you know if you’re holding lead or gold.

Personal goals (and personal finances) play a tremendous role in writing. While there’s nothing wrong in pursuing a project for personal reasons, this website (and my books) assume your goal as a writer is to have some measure of commercial success. (All advice is presented from this mindset.)

Recommend:

  • Only proceed with a spectacle script if the concept and artist attached will be above average.

 

For the Love of It

This one is a bit abstract and people may be turned off that I’m taking the time to list it here. But the reality is, I can’t stress how important this is… When it comes to executing spectacle successfully, passion and love for the material shows in a big way.

Clearly, if you’re hired to produce a spectacle script for say a heist comic and cops’n’robbers isn’t your thing, I’m not suggesting you turn down a paying gig, BUT if you’re working on your own material, and trying to choose between a handful of IPs… I absolutely recommend stepping away from the spectacle project IF you’re not fully passionate and enamored by the material.

Do not misinterpret me here and think that love and passion will compensate for: bad art, a bad concept or just overall bad execution… it won’t. But love and passion for the source material have big impact in spectacle scripts.

Recommend:

  • Only proceed with a spectacle script if the source material truly resonates with you.
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6 Things Done Best In Comics

Comics are an incredible medium, art from the in-between space. Visual like movies, yet driven by words. Pictures powered by prose.

Having read comics for over 35 years, I’ve seen the trends come and go. Lots of folks say the medium has grown up. That today’s audiences are more sophisticated, their tastes more eclectic.

I’d agree that there’s definitely more people creating comics today, than the days when Stan Lee and Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson first started.

But I often wonder if many modern creators jump into the medium with a full appreciation of what it represents and where it came from. Or if they just look to comics as a quick fix—a production of their IP quicker than a novel and far cheaper than motion pictures.

Whatever the current cultural status of the medium and whatever the future holds, you’ve landed on this article of mine today… and today we’re gonna stop and take some time to discuss what makes a comic unique. We’re gonna reflect and analyze the medium itself, and see if we can’t grasp the concepts that thrust a comic toward its true and full potential.

Originally, I wanted to title this article something like “What you can do in comics, but not in the movies”. But in the last bunch of years, computer graphics have really come along. I’d argue that there is little (if anything) you can’t do in movies these days.

Subsequently, I gravitated toward the title, “What you can do in comics a hell of a lot cheaper than you can in the movies”. This works for a lot of what we’re gonna talk about, but to simplify it, I threw away any kind of stringent comparative format, we’re just gonna focus on the core strengths of the comic medium, bouncing around with comparisons to its sister mediums (movies and novel fiction) as it fits the discussion.

As a comic is a collaborative effort between 6 distinct roles: Writer, Editor, Penciler, Inker, Colorist and Letterer, the lines of a comic’s core strength do tend to blur among them. For the purposes of this article (as always on this site and in my books) we will be focusing from the writer’s perspective.

Lastly, before we get into it, this is gonna be one of those long articles, appx. 4000 words, (I actually think I’m gonna start referring to them as “epic” in my newsletter so people know they need to grab a full cup of coffee before reading). Today, I’m gonna get down the main ones that jump out in my brain.

All the ones I forget… I’ll come back and add them in at a later time (I’ve already got a follow up list).

#1) A Medium Without Limitations.

Anything you can imagine you can capture in a comic. Thats powerful stuff.

Given the opportunity of complete creative freedom, it almost seems a crime to do something ordinary… something, familiar.

Kinda like the one time you go to the world’s biggest ice-cream factory, with every conceivable flavor and order plain vanilla or chocolate.

Comics are the birthplace of the unfamiliar. A place where imagination rules supreme.

Of course, you can do anything you want in a novel or movie too, but unlike a movie, the costs of production don’t change at all based on what you’re capturing. A NYC dive bar scene, a exterior space station scene and a jungle location shoot all have different costs associated with them in film.

In comics, imagination comes at a flat page rate.

And while novels don’t share the financial commitments of film, they do require a significantly greater time commitment from the reader.

Whether you’re delving into fantastical worlds with a timeless message of good vs. evil, or setting out to challenge the political status quo, never forget comics were born as a medium to entertain. The moment you put an agenda (any agenda) ahead of entertainment, you’re pushing against nearly a hundred years (U.S. Comics) of tradition.

Practical way to exploit this aspect in your work:

It’s easy dummy, get creative.

Don’t go for low hanging fruit—familiar concepts. Give your readers an escape into a new, original exciting world.

If you’re developing a story of limited imagination, say the next Law and Order or a realistic portrayal of Amish high-school. Look in the mirror and say this out loud—seriously. “Ok, this comic isn’t relying on one of the core strengths of comics. I’ve got to work twice as hard and twice as smart to keep my readers engaged.”

In this latter scenario you’ve got to funnel your imaginative energy into all the other aspects of crafting the story. If you don’t, if you don’t recognize compensation is in order, your story will never live up to its full comic potential.

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Conversation Vs. Dialogue

In Writing Natural Dialogue, I discuss a number of focal points to do just that. In this article we’re gonna discuss an important common problem and dive into a more advanced approach of structuring dialogue.

Understanding the difference between conversation and dialogue is key to good writing (especially in comics).

I see a lot of scripts these days where writers try to be uber-stylish and inject their scripts with natural sounding conversation. I call this the Tarantino effect. And it doesn’t work in comics.

I read a mainstream comic, from a well known writer a while back and for a few panels he had the main character repeating “Fuck.” Yeah, if my dog runs off into the woods, I’ll chase after him saying fuck, fuck, fuck. But who wants to read that story? That dialogue is empty, it’s literally, wasted space (as we’ll discuss in a minute).

Storytelling is not reality, its hyper-reality, dramatized-reality. Reality with a point youre trying to express.

The Tarantino effect doesn’t work in comics because, a) actor performances compensate in the movies (see Works in the Movies, Not in Comics), and b) Tarantino has his “A” game on when it comes to subtext and loading up his conversation dialogue with other elements of story. (Off the top of my head, I’d say he primarily showcases character development/personality, but I’ve never really analyzed his work). Whatever his formula, it’s his skillset… a very special talent and the reality is most folks can’t get there without a lot of time and effort honing their craft.

To avoid the Tarantino effect, I strongly suggest you establish yourself as a writer able to deliver solid dialogue before considering developing a conversational style.

So what’s the difference between Conversation and Dialogue and how can we capture the latter and avoid the former? First let’s define them.

Conversation is casual, spur-of-the-moment. The pace may meander. Subtext may be minimal or non-existant. It may have low or no significance.

Dialogue on the other hand is premeditated. It may sound natural, but its not natural. Every facet of it WORKS towards an end.

As a writer you always have to know at any given moment what that end is. If you don’t, if you have two or more characters talking and no clear intent in mind, you’ve got conversation—a waste of real-estate and a build toward potentially losing the reader.

Think of your dialogue as soldier about to drop out of Boeing C-17 over enemy territory. The more you know the intent of what you want to convey, the clearer the soldiers mission.

Each element of story you bring work into the dialogue makes the soldier more combat effective.

You reflect the story theme in your dialogue, you’ve just given your soldier an extra magazine. You pay attention to the pacing, slap on another. Foreshadowing plot, that’s a grenade. Subtext—give that solider a razor-sharp Ka-bar!

Beyond all the elements of story (everything discussed within this site and the books) we can bring to bear in dialogue, beyond the 9 points discussed the Natural Dialogue article, there are a few key more advanced considerations to keep your dialogue out of the realm of conversation:

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