Sorry about last week; gobs of work to finish, complicated by a graphic novel I spent much more time rethinking than I should have. But what’re you going to do? The instant I’m done with that, it’s putting together a new mini-series and associated short story then wrapping up a different graphic novel, and then Thanksgiving is breathing down our necks, so odds are pretty good I won’t be around next week either. Regular schedule resumes with the 12-03 column.
Got an email yesterday:
“Putting together a comic script for a new series for an interested publisher and I find myself troubled with my approach.
Specifically, I don’t know whether to start deep into the story, with the status quo of the series at large, and catch up the reader as I go, or start at the beginning.
Some writers believe it is important to start “in media res” whenever possible. Some hate flashbacks and favor a linear approach.
I could see myself going either way on this and making it work. What approach do you usually take? Do you favor one over the other?
Thanks for any insight.”
Where to start a story is one of the toughest things about writing, and I’m not sure any writer ever masters it, except maybe – maybe – those who’ve reduced craft to shtick and formulized the process so that every story opens with a gunshot ringing out and the hero ducking for cover, or something equally boring. (Even the most mundane scenario can be made interesting if it’s unexpected or written in an interesting way; even the most exciting scenario becomes tedious when repeated predictably, even if your audience hungers for the predictable.)
Without knowing story specifics it’s impossible to suggest where to begin a story, but there are a few rules of thumb.
If it wasn’t first said by Harlan Ellison, he at least popularized the theory that you should always start stories at the last possible place they can start. Many take this to mean “in the middle of the story,” the way Marvel used to do it all the time so they could open every issue with a big action scene, but that isn’t exactly what Harlan meant.
Take Harlan’s short story “Dogfight On 101,” later retitled “Along The Scenic Route.” (I only pick this one because I read it in its original appearance in the amazing Ted White-edited run of AMAZING magazine, and it always stuck with me.) It takes place in a near-future where highway travel has become legalized gladiatorial combat with ranked players, lethally-equipped vehicles and fatal encounters, and a middle-class couple ends up in road combat to the death with the top gun of Southern California.
There are any number of ways Harlan could have begun that story.
As a general rule – and the problem with rules in writing is that none of them apply in all situations, so take this and all writing “instruction” with a few whopping scoops of salt – where you begin a story depends on the story you’re telling. That should only be confusing if you’re used to thinking of story as plot. Many in comics do. The British philosopher J.G. Bennett once said, “Books are like maps, but one must also travel.” Think of plot as your roadmap of your story. But only the travel is the story. Stories are the whole unit, the complete experience, the sum total of plot, character and all the other elements that make up the story, and stories are always greater than the sum of their parts, because they also contain the unconscious elements the writer doesn’t commonly control, and frequently doesn’t even recognize. Though working at recognizing them can be useful, since, as Carl Jung noted, the closer we come to the unconscious the further it recedes from us. The most interesting aspects of our work are often those we ourselves don’t recognize; recognizing them can push work to more intriguing levels of non-recognition.
But at some point you need to make a conscious decision on what your story is about – and I don’t mean what the plot is, I mean the point the story is intended to get across – even if it may become something entirely different by the time you reach the end.
Let’s say we’re writing our own version of “Dogfight On 101.” It could be any number of things. (This is why a plot isn’t a story; stories are specific, plots contain multitudes.)
A) Is it a story about fighting deathcars?
B) Is it a story of how our society can easily become that society, and the social and moral consequences of that shift?
C) Is it the story of a married couple and how their personal troubles are brought to a boil by an extreme situation?
These aren’t the only possible approaches, but for the sake of illustration:
If story A’s what you have in mind, introduce the cars first. They’re what’s important to you, they’re what you want to make important to your audience. Not that you can’t play with expectations – you probably should, at least a little – but in general whatever you present to your readers first is what you’re telling them is most vital to your story.
(Which doesn’t necessarily mean a big scene, or a scene vital to your plot. You might want to cleanly introduce a character first, in some scene that has no obvious bearing on the plot but that illustrates something vital about the character. You might want only to set a mood that permeates your story. But, ideally, any opening should serve more than one master, and if your opening isn’t in some way vital to appreciation of the coming story, that’s usually a good sign that you need a better opening.)
If story B’s what you have in mind, start with the society.
If you’re going for story C, start with the married couple.
You’ll find that doesn’t narrow anything down much, but every step you take redefines your story in perceptible ways. Take any of those variations and you’ll then need to decide where on their timeline is the best point to start.
If C, how important is it to know the nature of the couple’s relationship and troubles? How important are the details of their courting, or wedding, or years of marriage to your story? Does knowing whether the wife works long hours to pay onerous bills the husband racks up or that he’s had a string of affairs add anything? Is the story about her reasserting her dominance or him or him asserting his independence of her? Is it more his story than hers, with the wife basically window dressing to illuminate the difference between the dreams of his boyhood and the reality of his adult domestic(ated) life? (If the latter, illuminating his boyhood dreams is probably necessary, though whether it’s necessary in the first moments of the story is another decision you’ll have to make.)
If B, is it more important that the reader know what the society is at the time your story’s taking place, or that they appreciate how we get from here to there? Is the point that society has lost its way and needs to discover a way back, or to point up modern behavior that, left unchecked, aims us at that society? (Or other variations.) You don’t necessarily want to begin at the point of your story – just write an essay if that’s what you want – but you most likely want to being at a point on your timeline where the future you envision becomes inevitable (i.e., rather than beginning with the invention of the internal combustion engine and the introduction of the automobile into the American experience toward the end of the 19th century, begin with Washington passing a wrongheaded bill to wean Americans off the decaying Interstate system and raise revenues for its upkeep by authorizing its use as an arena for death sports).
If A, what’s more important, the car itself (hey, Robert Kanigher constantly wrote war stories for DC personifying hosts of rifles, jeeps, boots, etc. with little emphasis on the characters using them) or the driver? Is the appearance of the car, or its hardware, the first thing you want to impress a reader with? Is the driver apparently normal in every way, and living in the normal modern world, until he straps on his weird clothes and weapons and climbs into a vicious looking rolling deathtrap with technology obviously beyond ours? Every choice makes it a very different story, and whatever you present at the beginning should lay the groundwork for that story.
Harlan’s story takes none of these approaches. He does not waste type with “world-building.” He does not provide us with characters’ personal backstory. He begins at the point of “first impact,” with husband and wife already on the road. Harlan taps into a phenomenon most of us are familiar with and one Detroit has depended on for decades: male identification with his own car, and driving as an expression of dominance and aggression. Their domestic life is barely touched on, but for brief suggestions that, like many of us, the husband feels repressed in his life – driving allows him to let out his inner caveman – and his wife patiently rides out his ego outbursts.
It’s a story about ego and the fleeting thrill of victory, and how selfish actions have dark unintended consequences. Harlan starts it exactly where he should: the husband and wife are on the road, subjected to what the husband considers an insult. A tiny slight by another driver is the affront to the husband’s ego that triggers the story, where the law of his time allows him a remedy: a duel. He could have begun it earlier, with the couple leaving their house after giving instructions to the babysitter and the husband carefully checking all the combat equipment on his car, or earlier, with the wife staring out the front window at their personal assault vehicle and dreading the trip to come while her husband finishes getting dressed, or with the driver of the car they’ll end up dueling leaving his own home wondering who he’ll get to kill on the road today. But how do any of those serve his story?
Harlan starts in media res, the action already under way and about to tip into the major action. In effect he throws out what film producers would call “the first act” that would introduce us to the characters and action and slowly build up “audience identification”; all this is compressed in “Dogfight On 101” to very brisk sketches. We learn about the couple and the rules of the road at the same time, without much in the way of common exposition. The opponent driver shows little in the way of character – I don’t recall if we even get a physical sense of him separate from his car – but he doesn’t need to. In story terms, he only needs to be the obstacle they must overcome.
The couple’s first encounter with the obstacle is the opening.
Where you start also determines how much work you’ll have to make the rest of your story do. For many in comics, “in media res” means in the midst of a fight scene, the hero and obstacle already having encountered each other and punches already being thrown. (Or shots fired or missile launched or jaws clamping shut on limbs or whatever.) As a result, comics writers have come to over-rely on flashbacks, in the simple formula: open with fight scene, focus on some character pondering how the situation could have come to this, flashback to the setup (often in minute and tedious attention to detail) and end the flashback with whatever action precipitated the opening fight scene, then return to the story’s “now” to wrap up the fight, if only temporarily.
Flashbacks are a drag, man.
While there are good uses for flashbacks, their general effect is to bring a story to a halt. To use a flashback in the above example, it’s necessary to “step out of the action” and shift to expositional mode. Flashbacks may seem like an easy shortcut to bringing readers up to speed but more often than not they’re just lazy interruptions, dead weight on a story.
I used to co-write with a writer who was in love with the flashback, which gave him the opportunity to expound on minutiae that had little to do with the story at hand but lots to do with the shared world in which the story took place. Because that was his special passion. When I’d suggest that the gist of the flashbacks could be covered in a couple well-chosen sentences, he’d haul out the old “show, don’t tell” nugget they teach in writing classes.
Like most other things taught in writing classes it’s half-crap.
In comics, the “show, don’t tell” thing has hidden negative dimensions. “On The Scenic Route” is a model of “show, don’t tell”; Harlan wastes no exposition on the hows or whys of the society and situation, he only refers to the “is.” The rules and technology of highway dogfighting are shown via the husband’s decision to duel and his required preparations for it, and it matters not at all how society reached that juncture, only that it had, and what’s happening as a result. Characters have simple motivations and recognizable behavior.
The comics translation of “show, don’t tell” is widely taken to mean “use pictures, not words, at all times.” So information expressible in a one sentence word balloon – “Dr. Doom flew over from Latveria by magnetizing his armor to the belly of a 767!” – gets a five or six panel depiction when neither his preferred mode of travel nor the magnetic qualities of his armor ever come into play in the story again. (The flashback does often provide space for expository captions, even if many are now commonly disguised as dia(mono)logue.)
Rules of thumb: don’t show anything in long flashbacks that can be covered in quick sentences. Comics aren’t strictly visual and it’s time we stopped trying to think of them that way. They’re words and pictures. Don’t use words for what’s more effective in pictures and don’t use pictures for what’s more effective in words. Don’t write “Jack hits Moloch on the jaw, pitching him backwards to his death in the chocolate volcano” when Jack hitting Moloch and knocking him back will be a more immediate experience for the reader, and don’t cut to a three panel flashback of Clark Kent superspeeding to the cloak room, hiding his street clothes there, then flashing out of the Daily Planet garbed as Superman when Jimmy Olson can just say, “I bet Clark changed to Superman in the cloakroom then zipped over here” – especially since odds are pretty good that flashback will need some sort of narration anyway to make any sense. (Especially since it’s likely to be as abrupt an interruption visually. Visual interruptions in comics need more explanation than verbal ones.)
And if you start a story in such a way that a flashback is almost immediately necessary to explain what’s going on, odds are pretty good you’ve chosen a clumsy way to start a story.
But it all goes back to The Hook.
Simply put, The Hook is tension. It’s an unanswered question that your reader should feel compelled to turn the page to answer. So the opening should be, if not immediate tension, the beginning of the tension. In my crime story TWO GUNS, the set up is that two undercover cops conspire to rob a bank together while each thinks he’s partnered with a criminal. Neither of them knows the other one is a cop.
What’s more important for the reader to know at the beginning of that story? That they’re both cops? They don’t yet know anything about the characters to start with, so that they’re cops posing as crooks would mean little. But because that revelation is there, having them start with some mutual act of violence – say, the robbery itself – is counterproductive, though getting across their criminal personae as quickly as possible, that’s important. It says who they are. (Or, as it turns out, who they’re leading each other to think they are.) The bank robbery is too on the nose – there’s not enough tension in starting with it – but starting with the story of one or both cops and revealing how they entered their undercover lives, etc., is way too much unnecessary information and blows reveals that can be more effective later.
So I started with them doing their legwork for the bank robbery, quickly establishing their personalities, their apparent histories and their apparent goal. That gives me something to work with, that I can soon undermine, at least in part – and in undermining what the readers think they’ve learned provides the next hook, and so on.
That point in your story where you can start to ratchet up the tension without giving the farm away, that’s where your opening should be. Figuring out where that is, and how to exploit it best while giving shape to your overall story, that’s one of the hardest things to figure out in writing, often more difficult to come by than how to end a story.
Our modern library:
Time constraints have prevented much reading lately, but here’s what I’ve had the chance to look at.
From Pantheon Books:
BAT-MANGA: THE SECRET HISTORY OF BATMAN IN JAPAN by Chip Kidd, Geoff Spear & Saul Ferris ($29.95)
Why was this published? As an historical footnote, it’s interesting that during the Batman craze of ’66-’67, a Japanese publisher decided to run a homegrown Batman series, and that apparently semi-legendary manga creator Jiro Kuwata was hired to produce them, but who needs to actually read them? Kidd’s quirky book designing is the major draw, the unrelated pages filled with gaudy Japanese Bat-paraphernalia of the day hold passing fascination, but the material is nondescript manga transliterated from nondescript Joe Giella-drawn “Bob Kane” Batman stories of the same period. Dialogue is universally dull (or maybe it’s the translation; hard to tell from this end) and it’s filled not with characters but character types. Despite Kuwata’s protestation in an included interview that he had to make the material more sophisticated for a Japanese audience, the work doesn’t seem any more sophisticated than the average 1966 issue of DETECTIVE COMICS. Historical interest aside, all the after the fact graphic design in the world can’t masquerade that this is pretty boring stuff, and if Kuwata’s such a legend why doesn’t Pantheon list him in the credits? And Chip Kidd’s baffled that no Japanese publisher is interested in this book?
From Desperado Publishing:
NO FORMULA: STORIES FROM THE CHEMISTRY SET Vol. 1, ed. The Chemistry Set ($16.99)
I’ve never heard of the Chemistry Set, but they’re apparently a clique of talents like Chris Arrant and Dean Haspiel who live in that weird modern no-man’s land between action-adventure and alternative comics and are trying to stake out a little territory of their own. This anthology gives no indication of any philosophy binding them or interaction or shared goals, or cohesive purpose. Art and writing tend toward pretty good across the board, but very little stands out. Tom Goins and Tom Williams start off the book with the most effective story, a brisk satire of society run for maximum consumer appeal, and it’s nice that Steven Goldman’s found a new home for his “Styx Taxi” series, about otherworldly cab drivers ferrying the recently dead out of this life, but other pieces range from the overly familiar, like Arrant and Jessica Hickman’s “Snowblind,” to the cutesy (Neil Kleid & James Smith3’s “Night’s Plutonian Shore,” Vito Delsante & Michael Fiffe’s “I’m Madly In Love”) to vignettes that try hard with nowhere to go (Jim Dougan’s “Come The Dawn,” with Hyeondo Park, and “Rest Stop,” with art by Michael Fiffe so spectacularly different from “I’m Madly In Love” I have to assume he did them years apart). Since Andrew Drilon’s excellent satire “The! Legend! Of! Caraboy!” was produced in 2005, before The Chemistry Set manifested, time does seem to be a factor, and I’d give any collective producing an anthology the same advice I’d give anyone showing art samples: assuming you’re getting better as you go along, stick to your newest work. NO FORMULA is okay, but it’s been a long time since okay in this market was good enough.
From Del Rey Books:
THE DRESDEN FILES: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE by Jim Butcher & Adrian Syaf ($19.95)
HELLBLAZER lite, basically, from the popular book series of the same name. For those who came in late, Harry Dresden is a semi-boiled private detective/wizard whose beat is the mean mystic streets of Chicago. Not that this turf isn’t well-worn – the melding of the two genres was first done in some pulp in the ’40s though I forget which author, talents from Paul Schrader to Steve Niles have mined it in recent years, and John Constantine’s roots lie in Philip Marlowe as much as in Aleister Crowley or Johnny Rotten – but Butcher does a nice enough job with his story of occult slayings at the Chicago zoo. If nothing especially stands out about Syaf’s cookie cutter midrange artwork, it’s at least clear and he carries the story well, but the art, including Syaf’s, in the backend filler pages is unfortunately much more striking. Decent light entertainment.
From TwoMorrows Publishing:
THE COLLECTED JACK KIRBY COLLECTOR Vol 6, ed. John Morrow ($29.95)
Man, there are world religions that aren’t exegesized to the extent Jack Kirby’s work is. This tops out at almost 300 pages and it’s only four issues of THE JACK KIRBY COLLECTOR. But it’s loaded with great material from every Kirby era, great articles on topics like Simon & Kirby’s little remembered self-owned Mainline Comics of the 1950s to religious themes throughout Jack’s output, with lots of rare art and unpublished stories. Many of the articles are fascinating (and I’m not all that interested in Kirby’s work) and anyone who thinks they know Kirby’s work will likely be stunned by all the pencils reproduced here. (I was especially taken with the way he penciled the famous first Silver Surfer/Galactus story in FANTASTIC FOUR in shades; it looks unlike anything else I ever saw out of him.) This series continues to get a great, constantly surprising and even breathtaking, tribute to arguably the most pivotal figure in American comics history. Get it, especially if you are or want to be a comics artist.
Since things have gotten a little slack here lately, here’s another old comics story, one of Joe Kubert’s brief run of “Son of Sinbad” stories published by St. John Comics in the early ’50s. It’s wacky:
Notes from under the floorboards:
Here’s the short version of the state of the industry: standard comics sales down, readership down, graphic novel/trade paperback sales strong but threatening by tightening of bookstore market, no earthshattering content erupting from any source though there’s plenty of room for hope. I’ve had my head buried in scripts since election day so I’m a little shaky on current events, though there are some major science stories around and I hear Republicans (you know, the ones who declared the Wall St./banking/mortgage mess happened because that market wasn’t deregulated enough) are deciding they lost the election because they weren’t right wing enough, but we’ll have to get to all that in December. And have a great Thanksgiving, whether you’re American or not. (To Canadians: have a great Thanksgiving last month.)
In the meantime, you can read ODYSSEUS THE REBEL free at Big Head Press, as well as other series like the much lauded LA MUSE.
And if you want to get a jump on the Major Motion Picture version, catch the online edition of TWO GUNS at the Boom! Studios site. The movie of the comic jumped a major hurdle and moved just a little bit closer to the big screen this week. But more on that later, with updates as the film progresses.
Congratulations to Mark Coale, editor of Odessa Steps magazine (“a footsoldier in the popular culture revolution), the first to spot last column’s Comics Cover Challenge theme was “sun.” Mark wishes to point your attention to Chikara Fans, lovesite for arguably the best pro wrestling promotion in America today. Check it out.
For those who came in late, almost every week I run a Comics Cover Challenge: the covers of seven seemingly unrelated comics (thanks to The Grand Comic Book Database for the covers) from throughout comics history are spread, usually not in any particular order, down the column. But a secret theme – it could be a word, a design element, an artist… anything, really – binds them together, and the first one to e-mail me with the correct solution can promote the website of their choice, subject to my approval. IMPORTANT NEW RULE: PLEASE INCLUDE WITH YOUR GUESS THE WEBSITE YOU’D LIKE TO PROMOTE IF YOU WIN. As in most weeks, I’ve cleverly hidden a clue somewhere in the column. Literally. Good luck.
TOTALLY OBVIOUS. Collecting all my “Master Of The Obvious” columns from 1998-2000, with still relevant commentary on comics, culture, creativity and the freelance life, revealing many previously unvoiced secrets behind all those things.
IMPOLITIC: A JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEARS VOL 1. Collecting my political commentary of the early terror years, from Sept. 2001 through April 2005, revealing the terror behind the War On Terror.
HEAD CASES. A collection of comics scripts from work done c. 1992-1995 for various companies, including an unused script. Annotated.
Those wishing to comment should leave messages on the Permanent Damage Message Board. You can also e-mail me but the chances of a reply are next to nil these days, given my workload, though I do read all my e-mail as long as it’s not trying to sell me something. IMPORTANT: Because a lot of people apparently list it in their e-address books, this account has gotten a slew of virus-laden messages lately. They’re no real threat but dealing with them eats up time I don’t really have, to the extent I can no longer accept unsolicited e-mail with attachments. If you want to send something via attachment (say, art samples) ask me first. If I say okay, then send. Unsolicited e-mail with attachments will be wiped from the server without being read.
IMPORTANT PUBLIC NOTICE OF COLUMN POLICY: any email received in response to a piece run in this column is considered a letter of comment available for printing in the column unless the author specifically indicates it is not intended for public consumption. Unless I check with you or the contents of your e-mail make your identity unavoidably obvious, all letters are run anonymously.
Please don’t ask me how to break into the business, or who to submit work to. The answers to those questions are too mercurial for even me to keep up with.
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I’m reviewing comics sent to me – I may not like them but certainly I’ll mention them – at Steven Grant c/o Permanent Damage, 2657 Windmill Pkwy #194, Henderson NV 89074, so send ’em if you want ’em mentioned, since I can’t review them unless I see them. Some people have been sending press releases and cover proofs and things like that, which I enjoy getting, but I really can’t do anything with them, sorry. Full comics only, though they can be photocopies rather than the published version. Make sure you include contact information for readers who want to order your book.
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