#17: Beat It
It's Creating Comics! time once again. I recently did three article son story structure, offering tips on writing beginnings, middles and endings for your stories. Once I've put in the work to get a basic idea of what is going to happen in those three parts of my story, the next part of my writing process is to plot out how I'm going to stitch them together. It's time to plot the major beats of my story.
What is a beat? Glad you asked. A beat is actually the smallest unit of a story. It's simply an action/reaction interaction of significance. Stories can have hundreds or thousands of beats. No, this article isn't about how to generate all of them. That comes in the writing. But what I find necessary to do prior to sitting down and writing is to figure out the major beats of my story. Once I've plotted the major beats, it becomes very easy to connect the dots and write that story. The following are the major beats I focus on discovering prior to writing my comic stories:
Fun and Games
this article, I'm going to talk about each of these major beats I like to
outline, and use Frank Miller's Sin City to illustrate.
Opening Image: If you're writing for a visual medium like comics or film, it's important to make a good first impression. As such, I've been trying to pay extra attention to the opening image of any comic story, and make it significant.
Here's a good example of a killer opening image. This silent splash page is how Frank Miller's award winning Sin City series kicked off. The story is about the death of a mysterious, beautiful girl named Goldie, and she's pictured here right off the bat. This image also establishes the noir feel of the comic.
Set-up: Figure out how to introduce most or all of the major players in your main storyline. It should be an interesting open, and one that reveals the character's status quo. In the set-up, you need to plant an idea of what is missing in the hero's life, what he wants and what she needs.
In the Sin City example, the set-up is that Marv, a hard-nosed brute, goes home with a beauty and doesn't question why she's interested in a loser like him.
Catalyst: This is the first major event that shakes up the status quo for your character. Stories usually start in balance, and the catalyst is that first moment that throws the story out of whack. This should happen early in your story, but generally, not before you've had a chance to briefly establish what life was like before this first turning point.
In Sin City, the catalyst is
that Marv wakes up next to a dead Goldie. He knows he didn't kill her, and
that's about all he knows.
Big Event: Hot on the heels of the catalyst, the big event is one that changes your main character's life in a major way. This big event is almost always a direct result of the catalyst, but raises the stakes, taking things to the next level.
Before Goldie's body is even cold, cops come for Marv, clueing him in to the fact that he's been set up. Marv fights with the cops and becomes a wanted man in Sin City. That's the big event.
B Storyline: Now, I'll admit, depending on the length and type of story, I don't always include B-storylines, probably to the detriment of my story-telling. However, it's a good idea to do so. In B storylines, you get the opportunity to introduce and develop new characters, and reveal more of the theme of the story. Pacing wise, B-storylines give your audience a break from the main storyline.
Sin City doesn't have a big
B-Storyline, but it does have one. After Marv's first run in with the cops, he
goes to see his parole officer. Here a new character (one who will also show up
later) is introduced, and we learn more about Marv (he's always in trouble and
not taking his medication.)
Fun and Games: This is where you deliver on the promise of your story. Envision an imaginary movie trailer for your story. What would it feature? Super hero's kicking ass? Slapstick comedy? Gruesome murders? This is the point in the story where you throw a lot of that stuff in.
In Sin City Marv wants answers and he doesn't care who he has to beat down to get them. For Marv, this truly is fun and games.
Pinch: About half-way into the story, comes the pinch. This is another major turning point in the story. The pinch should be a twist, and often provides a point of no return for the character, where they become completely committed to their course of action, or their motivation is strengthened.
In Sin City, the pinch is when Marv kills a priest in the confessional booth. (Yup, no turning back after that!) He's worked a trail of thugs back to a priest, and finds out the conspiracy is deeper than he could have ever imagined.
Crisis: Yet another turning point.
Usually the low point in the script. The unthinkable happens, and all hope looks
In Sin City, this is when Marv realizes exactly what he's up against. He's found Goldie's killer and the little SOB kicked HIS ass. One of his only friends is killed. And the person behind it all is a one of the most powerful men in Sin City.
Showdown: Generally, the climax of the story...this is what you've been building toward. When your protagonist and antagonist square off, the stakes the highest they're ever going to be. Many times, the showdown also involves the merging of the A and B storylines.
In Sin City, this is Marv's
battle with Goldie's killer. It does not end well for the killer.
Resolution: How does the thing end? Did the protagonist achieve his or her goals? How did he or she change or grow from the beginning? How are the loose ends tied up?
resolution in Sin City is that Marv tracks down Cardinal Rourke,
the powerful man ultimately behind Goldie's death, and kills him, before being
shot by cops, tried and condemned to death.
Final Image: Again, comic books are a visual medium. When possible, leave the audience with a stirring final image to remember. Bonus points for tying that final image to the opening image in some way.
I'll let Sin City's final image
speak for itself.
Are there more beats? Of course. More major beats? Certainly. And certain genres have their own specific beats not included above. For example, most romantic comedies feature "the cute meet." That's a major beat in that kind of story. But I've had a lot of success working with the major beats I've talked about here, and if the story calls for it, I can always add or subtract major beats in the plotting process. Next time you're working on an outline for a story, give it a try.
NEXT: Memorable Scenes
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 writesTears of the Dragon, an epic fantasy webcomic that updates on Thurdays. His work has been featured on 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
email@example.com, 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)
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