By Derek Adnams
I am a self-confessed structure junkie. That’s not a secret, and now that I have my story all worked out and I’ve made sure it fits into both The Three Act Structure and The Hero’s Journey (see the previous installment of “Writer in Progress”), I can further satisfy my craving by constructing the actual comic book I’m writing by Breaking It All Down For A Four-Color World.
The first step is to look at the story and decide which format best suits what I’m looking to accomplish. Is this a 22 page one shot? A graphic novel?A 6-pager for the good people at Charlton Neo? Or have I written my Sandman-esque Magnum Opus? If you’re a beginner like me, you’re probably looking at nothing longer than a four issue mini-series.
For our purposes here, let’s assume I have a 22 page one-shot on my hands. Once I know for sure how long the project will be, I break the story into “beats” or “scenes,” a.k.a. the major actions that take place in the story. It’s always a good idea to either open with action or a unique visual image, and to start the narrative as late into the story as possible without ruining the integrity of the tale. No one wants to read about the hero going to the grocery store...unless, of course, that’s the story you’re writing.
Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of South Park, have a great technique they use when working out story beats. In a speech they delivered at NYU (I think), they said that they make sure that between each beat they can say either “therefore” or “but.” For example: this happens therefore this happens but this happens therefore this happens but.... You see where this is going. I find this very useful in making sure the story has the necessary twists and turns to keep a reader’s attention and isn’t a boring linear list of events.
Once the major beats have been worked out, the next step is deciding how many pages each beat will need to properly convey the story. Remember, people buy comic books for the visual aspect, so no matter how catchy your dialogue is, the audience for a 22 page talking head book is not very abundant. I try to keep consecutive talking head pages to no more than two at a time, breaking them up with some sort of prolonged visual action or effect.
Probably the most useful piece of advice I received when I was beginning to seriously write came from Alan Moore’s Writing for Comics. In it he stated that he would write the numbers 1 through 22 down the side of a piece of paper, then detail what takes place on each page, being sure to remember that odd-numbered pages are page turns and even numbered pages are reveals.
I’ll repeat: odd-numbered pages are page turns and even numbered pages are reveals.
What this means is that you want your cliff-hanger story points to occur on odd-numbered pages, and then have the resolutions to those cliff-hangers or the introduction of a new character happen on an even-numbered page.
Now that I know what will happen on each page of the comic book, and the story beats are worked out, the action scenes, as well as the page-turns and reveals, you get to the fun part!
Next Week – The Script
Further Reading (or, Books That Make Me Seem Kinda’ Smart)
Alan Moore’s Writing for Comics by Alan Moore
Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud
© Derek Adnams