Can you learn to write stories?
So you want to make a comic- can you write stories?
I remember as a kid listening to a radio interview with John Kricfaluci, the eccentric mind behind the Ren & Stimpy and Ripping Friends cartoons. He was talking comics and the interviewer brought up Alan Moore. The interviewer said: “He’s generally considered the greatest writer in comics”. John replied: “that’s like saying ‘he’s the greatest writer in bubblegum cards’. The writing doesn’t matter- comics in a visual medium”.
…or something like that. Anyway, his point was clear- you don’t have to be able to write comics well, because they’re all about the pictures. When comics start taking themselves too seriously and you end up with boring comics.
I don’t know how I feel about this idea. Mike Mignola told us that he originally drew a sequence of cool pictures for Hellboy and thought of the story later.
I never really thought of myself as much of a writer. I figured my specialty was drawing, so I mainly left that to other people- they write the words, then I draw the pictures.
When I was at school the English teacher used to make us do ‘creative writing’- but we never got any formal teaching about HOW to write stories. Mine always involved sharks or time travel and would end with my standard Deus Ex Machina: “I woke up and it was all a dream”.
A couple of years ago I was going through a kind of creative renaissance, following a personal break-down and some health issues. This upward turn partly came about by listening to various podcasts for inspiration, eg. Stephen Silver, Chris Oatley. They emphasised the importance of doing your own work- not waiting to be hired- do something that you own, that you created.
I decided to try creating my own characters and write a story.
I bought and digested a couple of great books on the craft of storytelling: Invisible Ink by Brian McDonald, and Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. These books were recommended on Chris Oatley’s Paper Wings podcast, and they set me on the path to story construction.
Brian Mcdonald advocates this 7-step structure:
Once upon a time…
And every day…
Until one day…
And because of this…
And because of this…
And ever since that day…
…and there’s your story!
Mcdonald recommends this exercise: try filling these in and making your own story synopsis. Make 10 of them!
This exercise achieves a couple of things.
- It helps you to be not so precious with your ideas. You start to realise that the big concept isn’t so important, it’s crafting the story in all its details.
- It also gives you the story structure up front. You get to realise early on whether you have a story or not.
- You have an easily-accessible ‘pitch’ for your story. You can memorise it easily, and tell others what you have in mind. This helps you get feedback on the fly.
Blake Snyder is another great writer on story who pushes for clear story structure. He identifies a number of story moments you can include to make your story work, each with a convenient and creative title. For example, ‘Save the Cat’ (the title of the book) is a story device that can make us sympathetic to the main character. Show them doing something good. Now we feel a connection with the character, we care what happens to them.
One of the best pieces of advice I got from Snyder is to have a mid-point: a false victory/defeat before the real climax. He also recommends that the adventure (he calls it ‘the upside-down world’ of act 2) be preceded by the character making a real decision (the Debate) whether or not to dive into that adventure.
So that’s just the beginning of what you’ll learn from Save the Cat and Invisible Ink. You’ll read them, won’t you? If you’re remotely interested in story (and I figure you are, if you’ve read this far), you should read them.
The beauty of these 2 books is they are riddled with examples to show what they mean. They’re not too long, and they’ve helped a lot of people write their stories.
But someone might object to the premise of these books. That we can boil story making into rules that we can learn and apply.
It may seem a bit formulaic and clinical.
The way I see it: I’m a total newbie to story writing, so I’ll take all the advice I can, and work from that.
There’s a lot of talk today about being true to yourself and trusting your feelings when it comes to creating art and story. I take the approach that I need to learn the rules before I break them.
So my approach to writing Sneaky Goblins boiled down to this:
I started with a basic idea for a story and a rough structure. I knew the main character had to get to the elf city and get the relic. I didn’t know what would happen after that. I knew there had to be some kind of vindication for Dank and some comeuppance for the mafia boss.
So first I roughly plotted out the story to the conclusion. I had some ideas about what my comic would be like: I didn’t want it to be an interminable, meandering story that went for 100s of issues (not that I could ever manage that). I had the feeling it should be around 100-200 pages. I didn’t want a whole lot of aimless episodes and pointless side-stories (as tempting as these are!). I might go back later and create a couple of short episodic stand-alone stories based on these. For example I recently made a short story of Dank and Sophie in assassin training together. This was recently published in a local comic book anthology.
A couple of panels from my short story: Goblins at College
I set myself 30 mins a day to write my script and I just followed the characters according to what I thought they’d do and say. I kept my broad structure in mind. I kept this up till the conclusion. I scripted the wrote the whole 150-page comic before I drew a single page.
I think this was the most important aspect of the whole undertaking- having that consistent habit of writing every day. Not worrying if the writing is good enough or if I’m in the mood for writing today. This brings up the idea of having a regular time to write– I find that first thing in the morning works for me. (But that’s another blog post for another time.)
So I hope you got something from my ramblings. If this post inspires you to write, let me know! Are there any other good books or podcasts out there about writing and story? Leave me a comment!
Till next time!