Writer Ryan Garcia continues to share his secrets for creating a great digital comic, this week three essential ways to make your story stand out from the crowd.
Four seconds after you decide to write your own comic book you will face your first crisis: how do I flesh out my basic idea into a full story? You have a basic idea. Time-traveling zombies fight psychic dragons for a magical cup that will save the universe, for example. Awesome idea, by the way–kudos. Taking that idea and turning it into a full story that can fill dozens of pages and even more panels is a daunting task.
There are 4,892 unique known methods to take a simple idea and turn it into a full story. Coincidentally, this is the same number of DC Earths pre-Crisis (not including Earth-C-Minus because that was just silly). Any one of these methods may be right for you but finding the right approach can be incredibly frustrating. Let me recommend two approaches–one is a well-known, widely-used method of building a story and another is my rough amalgamation of several different techniques. These approaches can at least get you started into building a great story.
First, the well-known method. If you’ve never studied story structure before or if it’s been a while since you thought about building stories then I highly recommend you go read Story by Robert McKee. The book focuses on screenplays but the way it breaks down movies into acts, scenes, and beats is something most people can relate to. It covers several films but spends most of its time on Chinatown; give the movie a quick (re)watch before reading. You’ll get a fantastic introduction to story structure that loosely connects to comic books. Beats are like panels, scenes are a few pages, and acts can be an issue or more depending on your story. It isn’t an exact correlation but it should give you enough basic points for you to make your story more than one-dimensional.
The second approach is a combination of several methods to building an exciting story. It doesn’t help much in structure–you can always read Story for that–but it will help make for a more interesting story. This approach is to focus on three core concepts for your story:
Core Concept #1: Idea. This is what makes your comic book unique. It can be a high-level concept such as Red Sun’s “What if Superman’s rocket crashed in the Soviet Union instead of the USA?” or Watchmen’s “How would a world filled with fake superheroes deal with a true superhero/god?” or The Dark Knight Returns’ “Would Batman change if he faced his own mortality?” You need something clever to stand-out, especially in today’s age where there are hundreds of books backed by large publishers and just as many compelling indie titles and small publisher-driven books. You’ll need to stand out.
Core Concept #2: Character. You need interesting characters. Nobody likes flat, boring characters. Readers will tolerate a bit of boredom if the character is well-known but they won’t tolerate it for your new characters. Make your characters compelling. This means make them flawed–perfection is boring. It also means to make them likeable even if they’re the bad guy. Make us relate to them, sympathize with their defeats, celebrate their victories. Make them interesting or we won’t be interested.
Core Concept #3: Plot. Comic books aren’t the place to have a character sit in a pitch-black room and deliver a soliloquy. Granted, the artist page rate will be really low for that kind of book but you won’t find an audience. Your book doesn’t necessarily need over-the-top action or even any action (especially if you’re writing more slice-of-life than superhero) but you do need visuals. You also need things to happen. That’s the plot and just like characters it needs to be interesting.
If you use these three core concepts and make sure that every act, every page, every panel somehow relates to these three things then you will have a compelling story. If you find yourself writing a scene that helps the character but doesn’t advance the central idea then cut it. Or rewrite it to make the scene matter to the central idea.
Say you’re writing a scene and the central idea is present and the character is doing great work but nothing is happening plot-wise. It’s your duty to make something happen. Surprise us in an authentic way. No cheap surprises–like when a realistic story suddenly has aliens appear for no good reason. I mean surprise us in the way that life surprises us. When you’re talking to your friends no good story starts “It was totally predictable…” The best stories are “You’ll never believe what happened…”
Keep those three concepts in mind and you’ll pass through your own crisis (without killing Supergirl!) and end up with a fantastic story that then needs to be translated into a comic book script. We’ll cover that process and some tools to use for your script writing next week.
Ryan Garcia (@SoMeDellLawyer) is a social media lawyer and professor. If he had to be stranded on any Multiverse world he would choose Earth-9602 and lead the Dark Claw fan club.