#12: Structurally Sound- The Beginning
Seems like I just started writing these columns yesterday, but here we are on number twelve of Creating Comics! The Art and the Craft. So far, I've walked through a number of key components to telling great comic book stories. I've discussed developing The Great Idea through solid Research. I covered writing the High Concept and the Synopsis. And I did a two-parter on writing great Characters. For the next three weeks, I'm going to talk story structure. So, let's dig in and talk a bit about structure, and begin with "The Beginning."
V. Structurally Sound
A while back, I had a conversation with a friend who wants to write a novel. In fact, she's been wanting to write a novel for a long time. When I asked how far along she is, she admitted that she made it as far as labeling a Word document "Novel.doc" and saving it to her desktop. She seemed to think all she needs to do now is set aside some time to sit down and write. Ha.
I told her that sitting down in front of that imposing, blank screen or sheet of paper (aka "The White Bull") is the last thing she needs to do if she truly wants to write that novel. Hell, I can hardly write a birthday card without scratching out an outline of what I want to say and doing a first draft. To write a novel cold, without doing the other steps in the process that I've been writing about (developing your core idea, doing your research, working your pitch, fleshing out your characters) would surely lead to failure. Before you can start writing, you also need to structure your story. But what is structure? Let's go to someone smarter than me.
Robert McKee, whose book Story is a must read for any visual story teller, says "STRUCTURE is a selection of events from the characters' life stories that is composed into a strategic sequence to arouse specific emotions and to express a specific view of life." The key thing to take from McKee's definition is that you, as writer, need to be purposeful and deliberate about the events you choose to show in your story.
The basic model for story structure hasn't changed since the beginning of time. Aristotle wrote in his Poetics that all drama has a beginning, a middle, and an end. That's all there is to the basic three act structure. Sounds simple right? But it's amazing how many writers dive into a story without having a clear idea of what happens in each part. I strongly advise against this. Put the work in at the outset to have a clear plan for each part of your story BEFORE you start writing. Don't jump out of a plane without a parachute and don't start writing without structuring your work. Let's talk about the first part of the story structure.
Beginnings are probably the easiest part of the whole story to write. This is because usually the interesting hook or idea for the story is usually takes place in the beginning. What if a boy meets an alien? What if terrorists take over a skyscraper and only one cop knows about it? What if a great white shark terrorizes a beach? If you can't come up with an exciting opening scene or catchy premise to a story, you're probably going to have problems with the rest. I mean, think of how many absolutely awful movies actually had decent opening scenes. (Want an example...Friday The 13th Part 9: Jason Goes to Hell. Netflix it for the first 5 minutes. Then throw it away. Great open, awful, awful movie.)
So, beginnings aren't that tough, but don't be deceived. If you fail to nail a solid beginning, anything else you write will be a waste of time, because you're readers will put you down and turn on The Real Housewives of Who-The-Hell-Cares. One of the challenges you'll face with writing your beginning is feeling like you have to set things up BEFORE you can start telling your story. Unfortunately, you don't have time to waste with exposition. If you're an aspiring creator, you haven't built up enough good will with readers for them to give you the benefit of a doubt that your story is worth telling. You need to smack your readers directly in the face within the first five pages of your story (figuratively, of course) or your goose is cooked. Your book is going to be put back on the shelves (or more than likely, will never see print, get published, or even make it to the shelves.) If you can grab the reader on Page One, all the better.
Let's look a few examples, shall we?
- Y: The Last Man, Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra's incredible series from Vertigo wastes absolute no time capturing the reader's attention. BAM! First image, a woman covered in blood. Next, a cop who looks like she's seen the face of the devil herself, and the page closes with the cop putting a gun to her head and summing up the high concept of the entire series in her last shocking words, "All the men are dead." Wow. Does not get any better than this right here. Think about it. Learn from it.
- In The Walking Dead, Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore also waste absolutely no time pulling readers into their ongoing zombie horror tale. The main character gets shot on page one! And the zombies are introduced by page six. That's economy of storytelling right there. Now, any reader of The Walking Dead will tell you that it's largely a character driven. However, Kirkman knows that he's got to hook you before you're going to start caring about his story people. Learn from Robert, as well.
Aristotle said beginnings should be about 25% of your story (and who am I to argue with him? He's Ari-freaking-stotle!) In that first 25%, you want to make sure you accomplish the following:
- Establish the genre- It should be clear to the reader soon into your story just what kind of story this is. If it's a comedy, something funny better happen soon. If it's a horror, scare me early. Want a perfect example? SCREAM. The opening scene with Drew Barrymore is both funny and scary. Genre established and Wes Craven is once again "The Man."
- Establish the situation- I need to know what this story is about, and I need to know it early. Make sure you cover your question words...show us who, what, when and where this story is all about. And do so in an interesting way. Otherwise, the reader will be scratching his head, wondering why he should care.
- Really establish the main protagonist- You need to tell us who this story is about from the get go, and in almost all cases, there should only be one main protagonist. We already talked about creating strong characters. In the beginning, you need to let us know who he is, what her status quo is, what he wants (and yes she needs to want something) and what's standing in his way (yes, there needs to be an obstacle to her goal.) And apologies if switching the pronouns in that last sentence made you dizzy.
- Capture the reader's attention- Oh, yeah, while you're setting all this stuff up, you also need to do it in an entertaining fashion that makes the reader want to keep turning the page. The best way to do this is to OPEN BIG. There's a reason that for years, every Marvel comic opened with a splash page. If the story was Spiderman vs. The Rhino, they'd be mid-fight on page one. Then they'd jump back in time to show you how they came to blows. But as soon as you open that comic book, it opens on action. Want another example...check out this opening scene of the movie Blade, starring Wesley Snipes. This entire scene happens in the first 5 pages of the screenplay. It sets the tone for the entire movie. (No surprise, it was the first Marvel movie to be a huge surprise box office hit.)
- End the Beginning With a Turning Point- The beginning, middle and end really have nothing to do with page counts. Your beginning could be an issue, a few pages, or in some gag strips, a single panel. What's important is that there is a clearly definable moment in your story where it's no longer the beginning. Something happens to your character that shakes his or her status quo. Eliot finds E.T. Marty travels back in time. Dorothy travels to Oz. The beginning is over when a turning point takes place that throws your protagonists life out of whack. And yes, your story needs one of these.
Alright, that's all I got on starting your stories. Comments and other suggestions are more than welcome. I'll be back in a week to talk more about structure, and specifically, "The Middle."
NEXT: Structurally Sound- The Middle
Tyler James is a comics creator residing in Newburyport, Massachusetts. He writes and draws Over, a romantic comedy online graphic novel updating every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. He also writes Tears of the Dragon, an epic fantasy webcomic that updates on Tuesdays. His work has been featured at Zuda Comics, and includes Interrogation Control Element, a political action thriller, and Super Seed, the story of the world's first super powered fertility clinic. When not making comics, Tyler works as a game designer and content producer for a software company.
Contact Tyler directly at firstname.lastname@example.org, keep up with him at his blog, or follow him on Twitter.
1: Big Goals
3: The Great Idea
4: Research Part I
5: Research Part II
6: The Killer Pitch Part I - The High Concept
7: The Killer Pitch Part II - The Synopsis
8: Pay Your Artists
9: Zuda Comics- A Tale of Five Submissions
10: Creating Great Characters Part I (Or Why Wolverine is Everywhere)
11: Creating Great Characters Part II (Or Why Wolverine is Everywhere)
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