Comic Sense #2:

The Art of Structure, Part I: Composition

Welcome back to the article dedicated to enriching the world of comic books and graphic novels for new readers. This article will deal with an exploration of story structure. As the topic itself is vast and should be investigated from various perspectives, this article will be published in four consecutive parts.

Structure, simply put, is a tool. Writers utilize basic story structure in order to spin their tales. Comic book artists use it to create the look and feel of a page, a panel, a single moment in time. Structure is not exclusive to comic books. Story structure, in many ways, is a reflection of the way that human beings communicate on a day to day basis. We tell stories, all of us, in our conversations. We relate and identify to each other through the recognition of similar story events in each other’s lives. Comic book writers, novelists, and filmmakers are just a few examples of craftsmen who have mastered the ideas behind structure in order to tell our own stories back to us on a grander scale. A small but significant difference exists between structure of a movie or a novel as opposed to structure of a comic book. The movie is a self-contained story, possessing a beginning, middle, and end to the story.

With most modern comic books, this is not the case. Unless you’re reading a one-shot, you’re probably not going to get the entirety of the story in one issue. Story arcs can require anywhere from two to twelve issues to tell the tale. Additionally, seeds are sometimes planted within earlier issues that won’t bear fruit until later issues.

Despite this, a decently produced comic book should be put together in such a way that you should be able to enjoy it as both a stand-alone as well as a chapter in the context of the larger story.

As the mechanic understands that the ultimate function of the car is transportation, we must understand that ultimate function of a comic book is to tell a story. In the same way that the mechanic must understand how the engine moves the car, we must learn how structure drives the story. Like an engine, story structure is comprised of much smaller parts that, when put together and tuned to perfection, create nothing short of an amazing experience. However, if just one of those parts is out of place, the engine suffers as a whole.

Let us say then that our engine, the story, is made up of three master elements: composition, writing and artwork.

This first part of the article will explore composition as it relates to the larger topic, structure.

Every good story has a beginning, middle, and ending. These rather simple terms correspond to the compositional tool of the three-act structure. For a story to work, certain things must take place in each act.

The beginning of the story, or the first act, functions in a number of different ways, the foremost being that it sets the rest of the story up. It introduces us to the main characters, defines the relationships between those characters, and gives us a certain amount of exposition in terms of the current status quo. That being said, the beginning of the story should also give us a very clear sense of the conflict that each character will face. This is done simply by taking the given status quo and then turning it upside down and inside out. The protagonist of the story fights to return the world to the given status quo. The antagonist fights for an alternate status quo. In a well-conceived story, we should understand, from each character’s perspective, why the status quo they fight for is justified. Moreover, some type of conflict must occur.

Let’s look at a very simple story scenario to illustrate these points*.

Superman considers himself the chief protector of his city, Metropolis. He is married to Lois Lane and could be said to be a symbolic representation of the rest of Metropolis. Superman hides his identity behind the persona of a mild-mannered reporter, Clark Kent. In terms of the status quo, these particular story points can be established almost immediately. This is, more or less, the way everyday life plays out for Superman. However, due to a complication, the status quo is interrupted. Lex Luthor carries out a plan that traps the whole of Metropolis inside a huge, impermeable force field. Slowly, the population of Metropolis will run out of air and die. Once this has happened, Lex plans to repopulate the city utilizing cloning technology. These clones will be modified in such a way that they will worship Lex and hate Superman.

The first act of this particular story serves to inform us, the reader, of both characters’ motivations. As those motivations are opposite each other in nature, the conflict is revealed. Superman wants to protect the people he loves. Lex wants to create people to love him. Character motivations also reveal what is at stake for the characters. Now, how does the first act of the story segue way into the second? Once the conflict is revealed, effectively ending the first act, that conflict must be raised. This begins the second act.

Conflict is escalated by placing obstacles in the path of each character. As the conflict is escalated, the stakes for each character must be raised. A volley between the two conflicting points of view must take place, each subsequent barrage raising the action, raising the conflict, until a breaking point is reached. That breaking point, the place in the story where the rising action reaches its peak, is the dénouement, the pinnacle of the action, where the fates of both characters are determined. Let’s look at the second act of the story once again using our Superman scenario.

Superman gets wise to Lex’s plan. He uses his super-hearing to detect a high pitched signal, presumably emitting from the machine that generates the force field. Superman hones in on the machine at the center point of the city and speeds to its location. Lex watches in feigned horror as Superman attempts to thwart said plan by destroying the machine that generates the force field.

However, Lex is one step ahead of Superman. In fact, it was Lex who allowed his adversary to learn of his plan, knowing that Superman’s love for the people of Metropolis makes him somewhat predictable. Lex has placed a failsafe device within a dummy machine. Once Superman destroys the machine, the failsafe device activates. The force field becomes photo-retardant, blocking out all the natural rays of the sun. Superman, who derives his earthly powers from the sun, is rendered impotent. While Superman lays writhing on the floor, his powers quickly draining, Lex approaches, ego in full effect, assured that he has finally beaten Superman. Superman watches in horror as Lex reveals his endgame: a Kryptonite rock to end his life. However, the unexpected happens. The Kryptonite revives Superman’s powers. In the absence of direct sunlight, the effect of the Kryptonite is reversed. Superman wins the day, prevailing triumphantly over Lex.

Here then, we have a basic example of rising action and building conflict. The stakes are raised for Superman when not only Metropolis, but he too, becomes vulnerable to death. The stakes are raised for Lex as soon as Superman interferes in his plan. Through the back and forth action of the second act, the breaking point is reached; both Superman and Lex reach a climax, the pinnacle of their struggle, and Superman defeats Lex. Thus, the second act ends and the final act begins.

The third act, in many cases, is the shortest of the acts. It begins directly after the climax and sustains the story through to its conclusion. It must illustrate the fact that a new status quo has been achieved. As I mentioned earlier, the first act is where the status quo is disrupted. The last act must show us how the conflict in the second act has forever changed the status quo of the first act. In a decent story, the original status quo is re-achieved, and our characters fly happily off into the sunset. In an amazing story, the irreversible consequences of the climax create the new status quo. The characters are different coming out of the story than they were going in. Through whatever actions they pursued, they have taken on new dimensions and the characters are forever changed. An amazing story renders it impossible for the characters to go back to the old status quo.

After the events of our scenario, we can assume that Lex disappeared, going as far underground as possible as to avoid prosecution for his actions. This renders him effectively harmless to Superman. However, he also learned something about the nature of Superman’s power. This knowledge could render him even more dangerous to Superman in the future. And as for Superman, yes, he saved the day, however the very core of his nature, the need to be accepted by the people that he wants to save, almost caused his demise. In essence, Superman leaves the story wondering if his affection for mankind isn’t somehow a danger in itself, not necessarily to himself, but to the people that he strives to protect. Both of the characters emerge with new dimensions, new information, and new perspectives, effectively creating a new status quo.

As a new comic book reader, one of the best ways to observe and understand the composition of a comic book arc is to pick up a trade paperback. In most cases, a trade paperback contains the whole of a particular story arc. All the issues needed to tell the story are collected in one place and bound in order, beginning, middle and end. If the story is well written and well executed, you should be able to determine the particular points at which each act began and ended.

Once you’ve read the story in its entirety, go back and look at each issue as a separate chapter. Imagine that, rather than reading the story as one collected, finished product, you were following the story over a period of months. What then, in each issue, were the particular story points? What was established in each chapter? How does a latter chapter build upon what was revealed in an earlier chapter?

Some writers will use three issues to effectively complete their first act, while others will use only one. Every writer will subtly tweak the rules and boundaries of composition to get the most relevant information across in service of telling the best possible story. For instance, the first issue of a story arc might begin at the end of the story, the main character in ultimate peril. The subsequent issues recount the events that led the character into that peril, while the last issue then provides the answers as to how the character miraculously escaped. This is just one of many effective strategies that a tweak in composition can allow.

As I mentioned above, composition is merely one of three main elements that make up the totality of comic book structure. A good sense of composition, as well as masterful writing and brilliantly conceived artwork, should all work together to create the best possible story. By breaking each of these elements down into constituent parts and examining them individually, one can gain a greater appreciation and identification of the sheer craftsmanship that constitutes the well-told story. The new comic book reader can then make the transition from curious dabbler to erudite connoisseur.

Stay tuned for Part II of this piece, where we’ll continue our discussion with an exploration of the art of writing.
* I created this little story outline to better illustrate my points. I make no claim that my story is justified in terms of current or past continuity.

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Ted lives in Portland, Oregon.

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