Comic Sense #3:

The Art of Structure, Part II: Writing

Welcome back to Comic Sense. The first piece in this series discussed composition and its place in the larger context of story structure. This second piece will build on that discussion by exploring how writing works as a natural extension of composition to further develop story structure.

It is important at the outset to establish the fact that writing, like composition, is simply one more tool that serves the higher function of story telling. The art of writing a comic book is simply the art of utilizing particular structural elements in order to construct the best story possible. There is a balance that must be achieved in order for the story to be realized in the most economic fashion. The writer works to strike that balance, to make every page, every panel, and every last word, function in the service of the story.

What, then, is the difference between good comic book writing and amazing comic book writing? Why do some stories render a reader utterly indifferent while others leave us speechless, breathlessly counting down the days until the next issue? The answer can is a simple one, yet we’ll find it at the heart of every great story told throughout human history: character.

If a story doesn’t somehow reveal character, then there is no reason to tell the story. When we say that writing or composition must function in service to the story, the stories we are talking about are those of the characters. The job of the writer, then, is to develop character.

It is important to note that we are discussing the word ‘character’ as referring to the measure of an individual’s actions, as opposed to ‘a character,’ referring to actual characters such as Wolverine, Spider Jerusalem, etcetera.

As readers, we respond to the stories that develop our characters: stories that put them through amazing physical and emotional traumas, stories that test their moral and ethical values, stories that try the very limits of their faiths. We respond to these stories because we see a bit of ourselves in the characters that we love.

How then, do great comic book writers develop character within the confines of a story? What scale do we use to measure the character growth of our heroes?

The way in which our heroes deal with conflict is the ultimate measure of character. Without conflict, there is no way to demonstrate what motivates an individual. If we don’t know what motivates our hero, then we can’t truly measure their character. We’ll never know the limits to which our hero may go to pursue whatever it is that motivates him or her. The writer’s most basic job is to create a truly compelling conflict simply for the purposes of revealing character growth. The best writers will find opportunities to create conflict in as many corners of our hero’s world as possible.

If the composition of a story is the construction of a plan that will conflict our hero while revealing character, then writing the story is the execution of that plan. That being said, there are a number of narrative devices that the writer can use in order to execute the story.

We can’t start to understand character until we see an individual interact with another individual. As soon as characters start talking to each other, aspects of character are revealed. Thus, dialogue is an incredibly important element in comic book writing. The best writers know that dialogue must be functional. Dialogue must advance the plot of any given story. In the best stories, the characters that are speaking dialogue are not simply talking, rather, they are attempting to accomplish a goal. Dialogue can point out a hero’s motivations to the reader.

When a writer sits down to build a scene, he or she must have a sense of what is to be accomplished in that particular scene. In Part I of our exploration of structure, we talked about the status quo of the characters changing from the beginning of the story to the end. This same shift must happen, albeit on a smaller scale, in each and every scene contained within a story in order for the scene to be functional.

Most of the writing in the contemporary comic book concentrates on dialogue. The best writers use their dialogue to advance the plot. Every word in every character balloon indicates to the reader not only the personality and disposition of the particular individual speaking, but, good dialogue will also give us a clue as to what the individual’s motivations are. If we read every individual’s dialogue as being active, as being an attempt to accomplish a goal, then at the end of the scene, we’re able to measure the how the status quo has changed.

For example, we’ll say that Superman goes into a scene with the motivation of finding Lex Luthor. Once again, Lex is close to destroying Metropolis, and Superman wants to stop him. Superman confronts one of Lex’s henchmen. The henchman tells Superman he’d like to help him, but Lex’s plan is even more dastardly than Superman previously thought. He tells Superman that Lex is too smart for Superman, that he’ll never truly bring him to justice. The henchman sides with Lex because he believes it will be worth his while financially. Superman attempts to convince the henchman that while siding with Lex in the short-term may seem like a good idea, by allying himself with such a criminal, the henchman will eventually receive nothing but jail time.

All of a sudden, Superman drops to the ground. With the last of his strength, he looks up at Lex Luthor holding a large chunk of Kryptonite and realizes that he’s been played like a violin. The scene ends.

At the end of this imaginary scenario, is Superman closer to saving Metropolis or is he farther away? If we assign a positive or negative value to Superman’s status quo, we can say that he went into the scene with a positive status quo but left the scene with a negative status quo.

At the end of the scene, we realize the character’s motivations have been revealed through the dialogue. The henchman simply wanted to distract Superman so Lex could sneak up behind him. At the beginning of the scene, the henchman had a negative status quo. He leaves the scene with a positive status quo. The status quo has changed, the stakes have been raised for Superman, and as readers, we’re left wondering what will happen next.

The dialogue, the action of the scene, did all of the work for us, the reader, in revealing both motivation and character in the space of a single scene.

Dialogue also functions to characterize an individual’s voice within a story. Character voice, in terms of the comic book, is much less about how an individual ‘sounds’ and much more about what that individual represents. Voice is usually indicative of the moral center of any character. Thus, a writer will reveal aspects of Superman’s character to us in the way that his dialogue is written. Naturally, he will ‘sound’ very different than Lex Luthor.

For any character to grow and change, their moral center must evolve over time. This will, accordingly, change the character’s voice. The great comic book writer uses character voice to indicate character development, but never as a means to develop the character.

Let’s say that DC Comics decides to explore Superman’s darker side over the course of a twelve-issue story arc. Upon opening up the first issue, we find that Superman sounds just like Wolverine. Superman’s voice was altered simply to place him in a different light. If this were the case, most readers would throw the issue down in disgust. Without giving us a clear motivation for such a shift, it fails as character development and comes off as a cheap stunt.

However, if in the first issue of the run we see Superman attempting to save Lois Lane in the traditional nick of time and he fails, then we’re prepared as readers for a subtle shift in Superman’s voice. Wracked with terrible guilt and utterly distracted, Superman begins making mistakes that lead to the people of Metropolis ultimately losing their faith in him. Slowly, over the course of three issues, we see the disintegration of Superman’s once steadfast character. By the time we get to issue four, Superman’s voice is at a completely different place than it was in issue one, but because the change in voice was motivated by character development, we read on in rapt attention.

A writer may also choose to reveal character idiosyncrasies using a first-person narrative thought balloon (or the more recently popular thought box). The thought balloon goes one step further in revealing character as it gives us keen insight into exactly what the character is thinking at a given moment within the story. The thought balloon, when used creatively, can advance a plot by leaps and bounds by creating stark contrast between what an individual thinks and what a character says. That contrast can be further examined by noting how that same individual acts in relation to what he or she thinks or says.

Each of our heroes has a voice that illuminates a particular perspective or moral center, and the same should be true for each story the writer constructs. Theme is the term that is usually equated with a story’s voice or overall thrust. Each scene or event that occurs within a story should be somehow tied to the theme. Just as our heroes voices give us clues as to their motivations, the theme of a story will give us insight as to why the story must be told.

On one level, yes, the intention of any comic book is to entertain. However, as I mentioned above, one of the reasons we read comic books, no matter how subconsciously, is to see ourselves between the pages. We recognize that the flaws of our favorite characters are the flaws in our own lives.

The writer, too, in order to tell the best story possible, must somehow place him or herself within the pages of the story. The best comic book writers work with characters that they identify with. The relationship between the writer and the character creates a type of honesty that we as readers respond to. When a writer exposes his or her own flaws, when a writer is honest on the page, no matter how far flung the circumstances of the story, we recognize that honesty. In this way, an unspoken relationship between writer and reader is created.

We’ll say then that once a dialogue has been created between reader and writer, the story is the medium of that dialogue. The writer can pose a question within a story that we as readers are left to answer for ourselves. The great comic book writers do just that. Dialogue is crisp and clean, it is never excessive or clever for the sake of being clever. The great writers refuse to do all the work for the reader, opting instead to pose complex questions that can’t be easily answered.

The comic book writer makes choices from the earliest concept of a story idea through to the final proofing of the pages. These choices all inform the story. The story reveals character.

However, when we’re discussing comic books, it must be noted that the writer can only take a story so far with words. Comic books are, after all, a visual medium. In order for the writer’s true vision of a story to be completely realized, the writer must effectively communicate that vision to the artistic team. A positive synergy between writer and artist allows a good story to lift itself off the page and enter into the minds and hearts of the reader as an unforgettable story.

Stay tuned for the next piece in this series, where we’ll explore the role of the artist in terms of story structure, visualization, and relationship to the writer. The final piece of this series will explore how composition, writing, and artwork function both independently and collaboratively to create the medium that we are coming to know and love: the comic book.

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Ted lives in Portland, Oregon.

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