Tastes Like How Purple Smells
This is not a “how to” column. There are thousands upon thousands of books, essays, blogs… all kindsa stuff out there already that exist for that purpose. So I’m just gonna talk about how I write stories.
If nothing else, you may find it amusing.
In case anyone is wondering — or if anyone is under a false impression — the bulk of what I do as a professional comics writer doesn’t involve writing. At least, not the kind of writing you’re thinking of. Frankly, most of it involves staring at a wall, or at a ceiling or… at nothing, really. Because I’m not focusing on what’s there, I’m focusing on what isn’t there.
Heh. And if that doesn’t dispel your romantic notions…
Okay, let me try this again: Typing out a script and writing a story aren’t the same thing. We’ll start there.
A script is a formatted document, a packet of information read by, in most cases, only a few people: editors, artists, letterers and (if they’re any good) colorists. A script doesn’t tell a story; it tells your collaborators — or, rather, suggests to your collaborators — how to tell a story.
I’m gonna pause right here and apologize to anyone who already knew that. To those who didn’t: Don’t feel bad. I didn’t know that until… hmm… maybe six years ago? Back to it.
Obviously, the only way I, as the writer, can successfully communicate to my collaborators the information that they need to tell a story is if I know what the story is… and the only way I can know that is to write the story. Before I type the script.
Right? Right. Moving on.
A few months ago — thanks to some really great friends in the business plus the fact that my name is fairly recognizable due to my association with Marvel plus, hopefully, a bit of talent on my part — I was approached by a prominent (prose) book publisher and invited to pitch ideas for a novel. Things went well and, now that I’ve been working on it for a while, I can tell you that the process described above is really quite similar to that which is used when writing prose except that the “collaborator” is actually the reader. Anyway.
Let’s talk about story writing. Er… my “approach” to story writing.
Believe it or not, I usually start with a title. I realize how that sounds — it sounds like that scene in the Ed Wood movie where the guy’s like, “Well, we got a poster…” But it’s not like that. It’s not as though I say to myself, “I wanna write something called this.” Rather, it’s that a group of previously unrelated story ideas that have been swirling around in my head for sometimes years, their shapes still fairly indistinct, are suddenly attracted to/brought into focus by/thematically aligned via this title, this grouping of words.
To me, a title’s a fuckin’ decoder ring, man. A cipher. It’s also a touchstone that I can go back to if I get lost, that I can refer to when I’m not sure whether or not something belongs. Though it doesn’t tell me what the story is, it does tell me what the story is about. It’s a heading, not a map.
The script, in case you’re wondering, is the map. But that’s still a ways off. Dunno about you, but I can’t draw a map to a place I’ve never gone. Not a good map, at least.
Okay, now that I have my title it’s time to come up with a story to validate it, to propel the theme or themes that it represents forward, in a compelling manner, to a conclusion that, ideally, will leave the reader feeling not only a sense of completion but also a sense of illumination — I want them to “get it” on their own terms, not lead them by the nose. Which, by the way, is what the reader also wants. I think.
Remember when I mentioned spending a lot of time focusing on things that weren’t there? Here’s where that starts.
For me, it’s almost always a process of reverse engineering. First thing I figure out is how the story ends. Not the last scene, usually, but the second to last — or penultimate — scene. That’s the one that leaves the impression, the one that I want to stick in the reader’s head. That’s where I want the theme to come to the fore and then kinda echo; backward, through the story, and then forward into the reader’s mind. Kinda like a sonar wave.
Aaaand that’s how I figure out where the story begins. Unfortunately, that’s really all I can tell you about this part of the process, and it’s not for lack of effort or time spent — I’ve now thought about it for over six hours (making this column very late) and I just can’t come up with anything else.
When I’m coming up with the end (and beginning) of a story, I constantly jot down notes about characters. They start out kinda generic — “Lead returns to house, sees that it has burned to the ground”. Eventually, informed by the purpose they’re to serve, I start to kinda see these characters. At the core, they’re very purpose-built but not everything about them has to be that way. Nor should it be, as that would result in some extremely one-dimensional characters. In other words, the characters start to develop traits. I’m always very careful about making a note of these things as they occur to me, and to which character they should be attributed. Often, I’ll write a bullet point-type character description on a note card and tack it to the wall. It really does help.
Concluded next week…