Okay, so you’ve got an idea for a comic story. What you need now is a plot! Having a plot will ensure that you end up with something resembling a story when you’re done.
A story is an almost magical thing. We can’t resist a story; when we see even a fragment of one, it draws us in and makes us want to see how it ends. Stories appeal to us on many levels, and affect us deeply. That’s why I love using my drawing skills to draw comics. Pictures combined with a strong story can create a powerful experience for the reader.
But a good story is more than a succession of events, and that’s why we need to plot it out in advance. The plot has to contain certain elements in a certain order, and if you get it right, your comic will draw the reader in, involve them on an emotional level, and at the end leave them with a feeling of great satisfaction. That’s the goal we’re shooting for.
Now, this is only a brief overview, and it’s only one guy’s opinion. Much better writers than I have written big, fat books on what makes a good story. But these are rules that I’ve found to be the most important, and I think it’s a good place to start.
It needs to capture the reader’s interest immediately. If your story begins with not much happening, many readers will never get to the part where it starts to get exciting. Keep the introductions very brief at the beginning, and plunge right into the action, drama, romance, or whatever your comic is about. Save the character development and details about the world until later; those first few pages are a race to hook the reader’s interest before their attention span runs out.
Getting into trouble:
Unless your comic is a comedic romp or a light-hearted romance, you’re going to need some conflict. Conflict is the meat of the story, so get your protagonist into trouble as soon as possible. Create some mystery, and pit him (or her, or them) against someone or something that means him harm.
At the same time, allow your protagonist to start to reveal who he is. You can show his personality, his motivations and his innate goodness or badness as you go along, largely by how he reacts to the situation he’s in.
Build tension. Things will need to get worse for your hero. The more trouble he gets into, the more the reader has to worry about his welfare, the more involved they will be in his story. There should be bright moments and little victories along the way, and as much happening as possible. Add twists, romance, big reveals, anything you like, but don’t let up on the danger. Let the doom clouds gather, and make it look like there’s no way your hero can win.
You can have many climaxes during the story, but save the big one for the end. In the big climax, your protagonist must face whatever is threatening him, be it a supervillain, an evil spirit, a traitorous rumormonger, a secret organization or a schoolyard bully. They’ve got to have it out somehow, and one way or another, the hero wins, at least to some significant degree.
This element can be a lot of different things. The protagonist could return, triumphant, to his home, showing those who doubted him that he’s not a loser after all. Or he can make up with his girlfriend. Or go back to his ship and sail away. Or regain his memories. Or wake up from his dream. Or whatever else is appropriate and relevant to your story. The “return” means that some aspect of the protagonist’s life returns to a state that was referenced near the beginning of the story. This gives the story a sort of circular feel, and gives the reader a sense of completion and resolution. Once you’ve done this, the story can end. Or, you know, set up the sequel, or whatever.
That’s the general shape of a good comic story. It works in pretty much any kind of genre, be it adventure, sci-fi, fantasy, romance or drama. You can take any liberties with it that you like, of course, rules are made to be broken.
So, think about what you want to happen in your comic, and try to shape it into a plot. Write out the plot you come up with in whatever form you like, to the degree of detail you are happy with. Depending on how you like to work, you can break it down to a page-by-page framework, in which the plot tells you what has to happen on each page you draw; or you can map it out a little more loosely.
For myself, I find that I prefer a loose framework. I know what has to happen for the story to progress, but I deal with getting there on a page-by-page basis. I do this because, more often than not, I think of a better way to get there along the way. I like having that flexibility.
Story Length and Format
A typical manga book has just over 200 pages. If you want to see your comic printed that way some day, then you’ll want to fit your story into that many pages. American comics usually have fewer pages than that, but the size varies. If you just want to do an online comic and forget about ever printing it, you can keep it freeform and pace it however you please.
The Hero’s Journey
A very brilliant guy named Joseph Campbell spent his life studying the mythologies and legends of all the different cultures of the world. When he compared them, he found some striking similarities between them. He concluded that it was no coincidence. Myths and legends are essentially stories, and stories satisfy a deep emotional need in all humans in every culture. The stories in their mythologies had evolved over hundreds or even thousands of years, passed to each generation by the spoken word, and Dr. Campbell believed that the similarities in them were, in fact, the ultimate distillation of what a story needed to be to fulfill our deepest emotional needs. George Lucas agreed with him, and used this research when he wrote Star Wars, and we know how that turned out. Here is a list of these points of similarity, described as steps in the hero’s journey:
1. Birth: Fabulous circumstances surround the conception, birth, and childhood of the hero.
2. Call to Adventure: The hero is called to adventure by some external event or messenger.
3. Helpers/Amulet: During the early stages of the journey, the hero will often receive aid from a protective figure, such as a wizard, an old man, a dwarf, a crone, or a fairy godmother. The helper commonly gives the hero a protective amulet or weapon.
4. Crossing the Threshold: Upon reaching the threshold of adventure, the hero must undergo some ordeal in order to pass from the everyday world into the world of adventure. This trial may be as painless as entering a dark cave or as violent as being swallowed up by a whale. The important feature is the contrast between the familiar world of light and the dark, unknown world of adventure.
5. Tests: The hero travels through the dream-like world of adventure, where he must undergo a series of tests. These trials are often violent encounters with monsters, sorcerers, warriors, or forces of nature. Each successful test further proves the hero’s ability and advances the journey toward its climax.
6. Helpers: The hero is often accompanied on the journey by a helper who assists in the series of tests and generally serves as a loyal companion. Alternately, the hero may encounter a supernatural helper in the world of adventure who fulfills this function.
7. Climax/The Final Battle: This is the critical moment in the hero’s journey in which there is often a final battle with a monster, wizard, or warrior which facilitates the particular resolution of the adventure.
8. Flight: After accomplishing the mission, the hero must return to the threshold of adventure and prepare for a return to the everyday world. If the hero has angered the opposing forces by stealing the elixir or killing a powerful monster, the return may take the form of a hasty flight. If the hero has been given the elixir freely, the flight may be a benign stage of the journey.
9. Return: The hero again crosses the threshold of adventure and returns to the everyday world of daylight. The return usually takes the form of an awakening, rebirth, resurrection, or a simple emergence from a cave or forest. Sometimes the hero is pulled out of the adventure world by a force from the daylight world.
10. Elixer: The object, knowledge, or blessing that the hero acquired during the adventure is now put to use in the everyday world. Often it has a restorative or healing function, but it also serves to define the hero’s role in the society.
11. Home: The hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
This information comes from the book “Hero with a Thousand Faces” by Joseph Campbell, published in 1949.
Plotting for the Pulps
Here’s a somewhat less high-minded reference that I’ve found useful: The Lester Dent Master Plot. It’s a guide to writing fiction, written by Lester Dent, a guy who wrote pulp stories back in the 1930′s. Most of the same principals apply to comics, though the pacing will be different.
There, that ought to get you off the ground. But don’t let this part intimidate you. You don’t have to have the plot completely in place before you begin drawing. You can work it out as you go, to some degree.
Again, if you’re serious about writing comics, I encourage you to do more research. Find books on the subject and read them. There are plenty of them out there.
Not all artists are good writers, and vice versa. I’m lumping the two together for the sake of this tutorial series, and there will be some who, like me, will find that they can do both. But if you are a writer who can’t draw, or an artist who can’t write, the solution is easy: Network! Go to a comics networking site and chat with other creators, and find someone to partner with. Get to know them before you pop the question. Look at some of their work and see if that’s what you want. You’ll need someone you can get along with, who has the same goals you do, and the same work ethic and integrity you do.
When you find the right partner, ideally the two of you will encourage each other, feed on each other’s enthusiasm, and push each other to work harder and to achieve excellence.