PLOTTING 101 - By John Ostrander.
Reprinted with permission from the author
The most constantly asked question of writers is: "Where do you get your ideas from?" I used to reply that there was a little shop in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., to which one could subscribe and that, once a month, they sent out a listing of story ideas and you simply checked off the ones you wanted to use. Unfortunately, in one teleconferencing situation, one hopeful typed back, "Could you give me the address of that subscription service? I could really use it." Thinking my inquisitor was being facetious, I typed back that you usually got the address when you got your artistic license. "Where do you get that?" came back the inquiry; "I live in a small town and am not quite sure." My inquisitor was taking me seriously and I should have been gentle but I couldn't resist so I typed back that I didn't know how it was in HIS or HER town but I got my artistic license where I picked up my dog license.
My inquisitor started to smell a rat and, sure enough, the rat was me. The problem is -- I don't think most writers KNOW where their ideas come from and they don't really want to ask. There seems to be a magic involved and too much questioning of the Muse might scare the Muse away. I have found many different sources ignites my imagination -- an item in the news, a piece of music, something I see out of the corner of my eye, a joke I hear. I once read that the sword-and-sorcery genre of fantasy was actually a combination of two OTHER genres -- the swashbuckling adventure story and the horror story. That intrigued me; I liked the idea of creating a "narrative alloy", by seeing what other genres could be mixed. I combined sword-and-sorcery with another form I loved, the hard-boiled detective, and came up with the concept of a hard-boiled barbarian. This, eventually, became GRIMJACK. (There are obvious dangers to this practice as well -- combine the bad musical with the Grade-B Western and you got the Singing Cowboy. Update the Singing Cowboy with POSSE and you'd get -- the Rap Cowboy?! Eeeuuuhhh!)
What happens is that you EXPERIENCE something that resonates within your imagination and you start to EXTRAPOLATE from it. It's the game of "WHAT IF. .." on which not only Marvel Comics but a great deal of speculative fiction is based. It may not even be a verbal idea -- you come up with an image, or a piece of music creates a feeling within you and that feeling in turn engenders an image. I call that starting point, that primal experience that resonates in the imagination, the EVENT. I then take pen and paper (I write with my computer but I like pen and paper -- my journal -- when I'm just developing an idea; there's something more direct about ink and paper that helps me think) and I take that event and INCARNATE it into words. Until you've written the idea down, it is just a vague, shapeless mass. Better to see it in black and white in front of you. Think with a pen in your hand. WRITE IT DOWN. The result of these musings are the PREMISE from which you then construct your character and your entire story.
If your reader (and that includes editors) is not willing to concede the premise to you, they will not accept the story. And there are different criterions demanded for premises in different genres. PREMISE: being bitten by a radioactive spider can give a human the proportionate abilities of a spider. They might concede that in comics or horror but not in SF or as the basis of a high-tech thriller.
Even within a genre, what might make an acceptable premise can change over the years. Being given a transfusion of mongoose blood that results in giving a character super-speed MIGHT have been a (barely) acceptable premise 50 years ago but don't try to sell it today. Likewise, some premises have been so over-used (my loved one(s) -- parents, parental surrogates, wife, family, lover -- was/were killed an so I will don a mask and exact revenge and/or fight for justice) that you might find it a very hard sell.
I always try to take my premise and then create as real a world as possible around it, and that involves thinking the concept through. The CONTEXT in which you place your premise must seem real to the reader; if it is totally alien, then they have nothing to identify with. If they can't identify with the premise or its setting, if they can't suspend their disbelief, then people won't bother reading your stories. Fantasy needs a basis or reality if we want the reader to believe in it. The realer the fantasy the better the story. Given the premise and given a realistic world around it, I then proceed to INFER and EXTRAPOLATE from the premise. If the premise is the given FACT of my creation, then it's existence INFERS other facts. If X exists, then Y must also exist. Likewise, you can infer that certain other things must follow from the very existence of the premise. (If A exists, then B MUST happen.) Essentially, you're being Sherlock Holmes with your own creation. This fact infers that fact which in turn infers other facts. If this event takes place, then other events must follow from it.
Every act has implications and repercussions. One being hits another - what events LEAD UP to that blow and then what are the REPERCUSSIONS of that blow? Explore it not only in the physical sense but in the psychological and moral aspects as well. If, in your story, you want Captain X to do such-and-such, then it is necessary for you, as a writer, to figure out what paths bring Captain X to that moment and then what are the repercussions of that moment. And it must seem PLAUSIBLE to the reader that this all would happen in the manner you've described. They have to be able to believe your story at least while you're telling it.
When you get right down to it, comics is really all about STORYTELLING. The reader must be made to ask, 'Yes. . .yes. . .And THEN what happened?" Pretty pictures are not enough; a comic book artist must have a narrative sense. They must be able to tell a story using a sequential series of panels and one panel must lead to another and it must seem effortless. Storytelling starts with the writer, with the same process I described above. You have an idea, an image that you want to develop. That image may occur at the beginning, middle, or end of the story. The writer's job is examine that image, infer and extrapolate from it, and construct a story. The stories tell us something about the characters and the characters, in turn, tell us something about ourselves.
Whatever else a story may be or do, it HAS to at least be ENTERTAINING. If you want to preach, get a pulpit. You can talk about very serious matters within a comic book, but first you must tell a story, you must entertain the reader. That is the PACT you create when the reader picks up and, hopefully, buys your work. In general, readers are a generous lot -- they will listen to you, follow you almost anywhere PROVIDED you tell them a story -- a REAL story. Unfortunately, these days being entertaining means virtually the same as being mindless. Konstatin Stansislavsky, the great Russian acting teacher and founder of the acting system that, on these shores became The Method, talked in a speech about how the Theater had to be entertaining above all else. His point was that a tragedy (such as, say, HAMLET) is entertaining in a different way than a light comedy piece, but both had to entertain. They had to involve and immerse the viewer in the action -- the STORY -- that was being presented. One of the reasons I love Shakespeare so much is the mastery of his craft.
In MEASURE FOR MEASURE, a young man has been condemned to death under an ancient and recently invoked law against unmarried sex. His sister, a nun, has been trying to bargain for his release. The night before he is to die, the young man is visited by a seeming friar (actually, the true ruler of the place in disguise for reasons that aren't pertinent here) who urges him to be "Absolute for death; either death of life shall seemed the sweeter thereby". The "friar" goes on to argue for death, so convincingly that the young man seems at peace and resigned. Then his sister, the nun, comes in and says the guy holding you will let you go -- if I sleep with him. The kid is all for it. She is appalled; he begs, "Aye, but to lie in cold obstruction and to rot. . .!" and makes an eloquent plea for life. In this one scene, Shakespeare argues the concept of life and death brilliantly BOTH ways. Its absolutely appropriate for these characters to being talking about these matters in this manner -- THEME is directly tied to PLOT. He makes strong points while advancing the story. It's brilliant work - AND highly entertaining. Go ye and do likewise.
All the elements of a good comic -- art, writing, coloring, lettering, even editorial -- should combine to make a good story. As far as the writer is concerned, the fundamental element of storytelling is PLOT -- what happens in what sequence. All plot is derived from CONFLICT but, by conflict I do not necessarily mean COMBAT. Character A wants to accomplish some task or achieve some goal; the obstacles he or she face in achieving that goal or accomplishing that task creates the conflict.
You face it every day in the most mundane tasks: your front doorbell rings at the same time your phone does. Which do answer first? Conflict. How do you RESOLVE that conflict and what is the outcome, the ramifications, of that choice? Plot. You are trying to get somewhere in a hurry and your way is blocked by another person. Conflict. Do you try to get around them, ease through them, or bull your way through and knock them over? Plot. You have a power that makes you better than the common man and you have a really fabulous idea to make some money off it. Some flaming liberal with powers of his or her own tries to prevent it. Conflict. Do you outfight them, outsmart them, or go think up another plan? Plot. I divide plot into two categories -- CHARACTER DRIVEN and EVENT DRIVEN. In the former, the conflict stems primarily from the needs, wants, and desires - both internal and external -- of a set of characters. In the latter, an event occurs and the characters must deal with it. HAMLET is a good example of character driven plot while most soap operas, melodramas, and Tennessee Williams plays are event driven. Perhaps most succinctly put -- in one case, the characters drive the events while in the other the events drive the characters. One is not INHERENTLY superior to the other, although I have my own preference.
A story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It may sound strange in this day and age of the never-ending continued story or the crossover series that wanders through more issues than anyone would ever care to read, but comics should ALSO always have a story element -- a plot -- that completes in that issue.
Some technical terms, just so we're all on the same page. EXPOSITION is where the information necessary to the reader in order to understand the plot is given. It includes WHO we're dealing with, WHERE we are, WHEN (what time) it is, and WHY everyone is gathered together. You have to be very clear in your mind on all these points; how much and when you tell the reader is something we'll discuss later. You have a PROTAGONIST and an ANTAGONIST; these are not necessarily the same as the HERO and the VILLAIN. The PROTAGONIST is the person whose actions initiates the story; the ANTAGONIST is the force in opposition to the protagonist. The plot deals with the struggle between these two powers; at the CLIMAX of the story, one side or the other reaches their goal. The DENOUEMENT shows the aftermath of the story, dealing to some degree with the REPERCUSSIONS of the struggle between the protagonist and the antagonist. It's like the punctuation mark at the end of the sentence.
Take an example: GROUP A attacks GROUP B. Group A is, therefore, the protagonist and Group B is the antagonist. The exposition gives us needed information to tell a specific story -- in this case, let's say Group A is a bomber group (with fighter escort) during WW2. Group B are planes flying in defense of the target. Exposition would further give details about which side is attacking which, when it is, how difficult a mission, the odds on both sides, and so on. Group A attacks, Group B defends. Aerial dogfight represents the action of the story; the climax is when the bombers hit their target or are driven off. The denouement are the planes from both sides landing on their respective fields while the losses are counted and the success and/or failure of the mission is evaluated.
How MUCH exposition is needed? Well, that's the essential question. You will invariably know more about the characters and plot than the readers will - at least at start. But you don't need to TELL all that. You give them only so much as is needed and then get on with the story. Stan Lee used to start a story in the middle of some action and then tell the readers, "Hang loose, True Believer -- all will be made clear as we go!" And it was. I like that. It gets a story up and moving. Basically, you want to grab the reader by the eyeballs and not let him/her go. Del Close, one-time Second City guru and my sometime writing partner, once said in a improvisation workshop that he wanted stories that started in the middle and went on past the end.
When you plot for comics, you must think visually. You must give the artist something to draw. The characters should always be DOING something, even if it is an exposition of character scene (what is sometimes referred to as "talking heads" scenes, because they usually bog down into two characters talking at each other in medium to close shots). They are walking/running/flying/climbing somewhere. What do people do every day as they talk? They drink coffee, smoke cigs, lean forward. There's a great old adage used in theater that can work in comics as well: "When in doubt, seduce." THINK how we use words every day. We DON'T use them as "exposition". Comics is a visual medium; people DO things in comics. As a writer, learn to THINK that way. There all kinds of action. Define, understand, and USE them. Don't make your artist do it for you; a good writer does their job so the artist can do THEIR job. Incidentally, if you make things easier on the artist by doing your job, you get better work FROM your artist.
Stop sniggering; the word HAS acquired a sexual connotation and for very good reason. Forces build up to the point where release is necessary; the act of release occurs on many different levels -- spiritual, emotional, psychological, as well as physical. It is cathartic when done properly. And for stories, you don't need a condom (although some writers DO seem to write that way, don't they? They put something between themselves and direct feeling so you get a rush but no real satisfaction.).
It is a point of change and all stories are about change. Something MUST change, even if it is only the bad guys plans being foiled. The better stories are about the change in character and, if properly written, it produces a change in the reader because they have been emotionally involved with the character. They experience some emotion as a result, at least indirectly. It may be simply adrenaline, or a sense of wonder, or a challenge to the mind and heart but the reader should experience something. Otherwise, the story is sterile, stillborn, however mechanically or structurally sound it may be. And that, folks, is bad writing. It wastes the reader's time and often their money. The way I see it, there is no deadlier sin that a writer can commit.
John Ostrander is the respected author of The Spectre, Martian Manhunter, and cult-favorite Grimjack.
Attitude | ProFile
Interviews | Reviews
| Pi Comics
Talkback | Archives