Writing Webcomics: Where to begin
This article is primarily for the artist who wants to write, but for aspiring comic writers it might be valuable as well.
It has often been argued in webcomic circles, which is more important; writing or art? If a webcomic was a house, the art is really the curb appeal and exterior of the house. Its the decorative touches and facade. It gives the house beauty and character. But the foundation, the heart and soul of a comic is in its story, and thus in the writing. A comic with good writing can gain a following with so-so art, but a beautiful comic with a crappy, incoherent story won’t really limp anywhere for long. Both ultimately are important, but the writing, in long or short format, is what ultimately keeps readers coming back week after week.
Being primarily an artist, writing has always been a challenge. I’ve got lots of great ideas, great pictures in my head, but when it comes to getting them down in a coherent fashion, it was always a huge stumbling block for me. I tend to write long form comics, the sort one might find as a multi volume graphic novel series. But even for short form comics, writing is a big determining factor of who rises and who falls in the webcomics world.
But its certainly not an easy task. Writing well, like doing anything well, takes knowledge and practice. In order to become a good writer not only do you have to be knowledgeable about the actual mechanics of writing, but you have to educate yourself on some of the finer points like plot, structure, characterization, and dialogue. And if that wasn’t hard enough you also have to be a brutal editor, and then figure out how you are going to actually visually realize your story, since comics are visual medium not a wordy one. In fact, for comics, less words in a page is good. You have to become very aware of how to use the fewest words to the most impact and use the images to fill in the other missing 1000 words. Writing a comic isn’t like writing a novel, but you do have to have a good grasp of the basic concepts of writing.
In the short form of comics, you are doing mostly gag writing or something witty in sequence. Most of the short form comics focus on the delivery of humor. There is a set number of panels in which a joke is delivered. Comics may or may not have storylines in this genre with re-occurring characters or gags, many do, but the focus tends to be more on the funny than the development of the characters.
With long form comics (graphic novels and the like), the development of the character is a very real focus, with the incidences of the plot carrying the main character(s) forward to the ultimate revelation (climax) and then wrapping up the story. These stories tend to have a definite beginning, middle, and end. The rest of the article is going to focus specifically on the basics of writing for long form comics.
Beginning with a story statement is a good way to stay focused, and so it is also a good place to start. When you write comics, being such a very compressed medium, its easy to stray into the ‘too much to say, too little space to say it in’ territory. its also easy to lose focus when a person gets into all the cool fun of thinking up characters and world information, so having one of these handy to keep you on track is very useful. Its also a good place to begin because it makes you think clearly about what you are writing about.
A story statement is a short, 1 sentence description of your story. Its also good to state your story ‘theme’ if you have one, which is taking your story statement and distilling it even further. A story statement should not contain any names of characters, or specific places. It should be described in as generic terms as possible.
This is a story statement for my comic Brymstone:
Story Statement: The story of a immortal evil wizard trapped in a young monk boy undergoing spiritual rehabilitation.
Story theme: Redemption
This is a story statement for my comic Shifters:
Story Statement: In the not so distant future a young girl discovers she is a monster; one with the power to destroy a world or save it.
Story Theme: Choice vs Fate
These statements are difficult at first, distilling your ideas down to its bare bones isn’t easy, but very important in order to focus on what’s important about your story and not wandering around all over the place. It also helps you begin to focus on the next leg of building the skeleton of your story.
Basic story construct for long form comics
There is a basic format for stories which you might find familiar. They do still teach this in english class, but it might not have been very important to you until now, so I’ll refresh your memory and give you a handy dandy little work structure. Following are the ‘parts’ of a story:
Introduction -> This is the ‘beginning’. Here you introduce your main character and supporting characters. The ‘heroes’. You also establish the world and their situation before the story starts so the audience knows who the heroes are, where the story is taking place, when the events are happening, what the situation before things start is, and why the characters are where they are. In a comic this is is done with an opening shot or two, plus a few pages to show a bit of the main character’s daily life, introduce and establish a few people that are relevant to that main character, and give some sense as to what they are doing before the ‘inciting incident’ hits. As a rule, try not to introduce more than three protagonist (good guy) characters at the beginning. One ‘main’ character, and two ‘supporting characters. If there are more characters you absolutely HAVE to introduce, try to keep it brief, making them more ‘background’ or ‘one-liner’ characters. Often it is better to wait until after the inciting incident to get into more characters.
Inciting Incident -> The ‘inciting incident’ is the event that starts the story, or the ‘life changing’ event that begins the character’s quest to… whatever they are going to do. Its the first domino that’s going to topple all the others. It may or may not seem directly related to the central plot, but it is pivotal that it is related somehow. This should happen just at the end of the intoduction to get the ball rolling in the story.
Crisis -> A ‘crisis’, sometimes called a ‘twist’, or ‘complication’ is essentially a problem that occurs within the story that tests a character’s resolve. There can be varying degrees of crisis depending on the point of the story. The crisis, as a rule, should get more and more serious as the story moves towards the climax, this is called ‘building tension’. The protagonist may or may not succeed in a crisis, but it is important that the protagonist be profoundly affected by them for good or bad. Remember, ultimately the protagonist has to grow and change to be able to make their ‘ultimate choice/change’ at the climax.
Climax -> The very last and ultimate crisis, the ultimate end point for if the protagonist of the story succeeds or fails. Everything should build towards this one moment. Often the outcome of the Climax determines if a story is ‘happy’, ‘sad’, or ‘bittersweet’, or just ‘eh’. This is often a decision you want to make at the very beginning of attempting to write the story. If you want to write a sad story, this is where the peek of that sadness is going to be, and of course everything is going to lead up to it. It might seem counter intuitive, but knowing the ending before beginning writing the story is highly recommended.
Denouement -> This is the actual ‘ending’ where all the loose ends are sort of summed up and a sort of ‘epilogue’ is created for the story, neatly folding everything up and giving people a sort of wrap on the story to feel complete and satisfied. Like a song fading at the end, it is the fading of the story’s end.
The above format is very popularly used in the ‘3 act story‘ model, which is a good model for people just starting out writing to use. The structure is clear and easy to follow. You want to begin without being very specific about your characters. Don’t use names just use descriptors, so you don’t get caught in the details. This helps get you a sort of skeleton of your story.
Story statement: A modern witch girl discovers her true love, just as she’s drawn into a centuries old conflict between witch clans, of which her lover is on the other side.
Story Theme: True love wins
Introduction: Introduce main character going to her school, and her best friend, show romantic relationship with true love. Introduce her Auntie and familar, show normal life.
Inciting incident: While on a date with her true love, they are attacked by a deadly magic spell.
Crisis one: True love’s family thinks that girl’s family attacked their son, while girl’s family think’s true love’s family attacked them. Families begin feuding with lovers pulled away to each side.
Crisis two: True love and girl try to see each other, but true love is attacked by someone who looks just like girl! He is convinced she has turned her back on him.
Crisis three: After the families find out, thanks to the lovers, that neither side is responsible, it is discovered there is a traitor in one of the families trying to destroy them both.
Climax:Traitor is revealed and the battle to defeat him begins.He is defeated, although Auntie is killed.
Denouement: Lovers are married later after high school, and they have a child.
Casting the characters of a story
Once you have the basics of the plot figured out you can begin to ‘cast’ the roles. The reason that you want to wait until after you’ve got a plot to cast them is because if you have a bunch of characters first off you will want to try to put them all in. This is neither advisable, nor always possible. The reason being that too many characters can unfocus the story. People only really can focus on a handful of characters at one time. Too many characters too fast tends to leave people grasping at who’s doing what, when, and how. It also often arises that there are too many characters to explore all of them properly, or to do so takes an obscenely long time.
The characters you need to cast are as follows:
Protagonist: This is the ‘hero’ or more likely ‘main character’ of the story. Not all protagonists are heroes, but all of them are main characters. This is the focal character of the story, the one that the story is about. This is the most important character in the story. In the above example, this is the girl witch.
Antagonist: This is the person who opposes the protagonist. Often known as the ‘bad guy’ or villain. Although many antagonists are not always bad, they simply oppose the main character’s goals. There might be many antagonists over the course of a story, but there should always be one primary one that is the ‘uberbaddie’ that the main character has to oppose till the very end. The antangonist in the above story is the Traitor.
Supporting characters: There are usually two ‘main’ supporting characters. These are often right hand men/women, best friends, companions and other people who are the most helpful and close to the main character. Having more than two ‘main’ supporting characters tends to get cluttered. The model most often followed is a boy and a girl. List the two primary supporting characters. In the above example, the two main supporting characters are the best friend and the love interest.
Mascot: This is a term sort of from manga style stories but there is often an animal companion, familiar, or sort of cute fuzzy thing that might be a pet or annoyance, often for comic relief. Not all stories might have one, but a lot do. The above story idea has a familiar for the witch protagonist. The mascot might be cynical or stupid, but they are often around.
Supporting cast: These are characters that come and go, and provide ‘background’ but are not necessarily that important. They may have a line here and there, or be particularly important in a single storyline. Often these are characters that become lesser antagonists or supporting characters to the protagonist as they work against the antagonist or as the antagonist works against the protagonist. For the above story example, the two families, such as the Auntie, or a mother and father, or a brother or sister, or classmates may be ‘supporting cast’. Normally these people are not particularly focused on and we don’t know much about them unless they become somehow important to the story at some point. Cast characters should never usurp the main character’s focus, if they do, you can bet you’ve probably gone off on a tangent and you might have to reign yourself in.
Once you’ve actually ‘cast’ the roles, created characters to fit the vague descriptors as above, you can set about to fleshing them out as you wish. But casting using the needs of the story as a guideline, you can be sure you only make what you need and can spend the most time putting your efforts where they are the most useful. If you are writing with a group of characters in mind, you may find you have to ditch some of the characters or put some in very low priority to fit the needs of the story. The story needs come first, characters that don’t fit have to be put out. Save them for a later story.
Fleshing out the story
Now you’ve got a basic framework of the story, and now comes the time to start fleshing things out in terms of details. This is a lot of answering the ‘who, what, where, when and , why” questions of writing over and over. Fleshing out the details between key events is a good place to start. Begin by stating events in simple terms like you did in the basic story outline into ‘sub crisis’, these are lesser problems or events that lead up to the big one. Done right, its like inflating a bubble until it pops, with the biggest pop at the climax. The protagonist shouldn’t always succeed, and there should be plenty of misunderstandings, back stepping, hurt feelings, regret, and failure in these sub plots in addition to whatever successes and winning might happen. Their outcomes aren’t as critical, but they must lead up to the main crisis point where the protagonist has a major success or failure. Good stories are often told through the author torturing a character mercilessly. Don’t be afraid to show your character’s flaws. Character design is an art unto itself, but I’ll cover that in another blog. As a rule of thumb, work in threes. At least three sub crisis to every major crisis. You can add more if you feel you need them, just remember, you have to constantly build up to the major crisis. The more plots you put in, the bigger the build up should be.
Once you’ve done most of your fleshing out, you can start the process of scripting. Most comics are written so they kind of look like a movie or TV script, but instead of dictating just scenes, they dictate how the page should flow, as well as what each panel should contain and a description of what to draw, what sort of ‘shot’, as well as dialogue or sound effects. Not all scripts are written like this. Some are written more prose like. Either one can be effective. This page has a very good set of examples from professional writers.
Having a good story plan is definitely an important first step, and is a good place to get you started and keep you focused through your entire project. If you are a scatterbrained artist like me, its essential to keep on track through a long project, and if you are a wordy writer, its essential to keep focused on what is needed without getting all purple and flowery. Its very important however to keep learning and teaching yourself about good writing practices, plot, flow, pacing, and dialogue. This is only one example of how to start, I highly encourage you to seek out writing resources and soak in as much as you can to improve.