Gail Simone asked a bunch of her friends who write comics to send her bite-sized writing advice she could use as part of a lecture series she did at a convention. Below is the advice I sent her, expanded with more detail on the core concept.
If you want to create stories professionally you need to stop being a passive viewer of entertainment.
You have to understand how stories/characters work in order to improve your story building skills. That’s one of the big differences between an amateur and a professional. Professional writers make a conscious decision to deconstruct and understand storytelling. It never stops. Storytelling is a joy but it also becomes an obsession.
When I watch a TV show or movie, I move into analysis mode. It’s second nature to me now. I can still be entertained, but a whole other series of gears in my brain are turning at the same time, trying to understand what I like/dislike about it and doing all I can to learn from it, good or bad. I can’t be passive about stories any more. It’s almost impossible for me to ‘turn my brain off’ when it comes to fiction.
The same goes for comics. I read comics for enjoyment but I also analyse them as part of my job. Plot, dialogue, pacing, character development, continuity – I don’t take any of that stuff for granted. This is a career I’m slowly building and it’s one very few people get the chance to do professionally. Telling stories is fun and I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t enjoy it, but it’s also a skill. There are tools and methods that can be built upon, but only if you’re critical of the work you take in and equally critical of the work you create.
(An important note: Being “critical” is different from being a “critic”. I focus the vast majority of my public discourse on the positive. I don’t post critical reviews on my blog. I praise stories I’m enjoying and support my friends who put out creative work. This critical exercise is internal (or kept to discussion with close friends). It’s a way for me to improve my own skills, not an ego-building exercise in taking apart other people’s work publicly to prove I’m “better”.)
Taste is obviously part of this whole process. I don’t think I’m always “right” about the stories I enjoy or the ones that didn’t click for me. Part of that analysis is trying to understand my personal preferences and also understanding where biases are narrowing my focus. It gives me perspective on my own work and gives me ample reason to force myself outside of the confines of my own expectations from time to time. It helps me understand how stories might appeal to an audience quite different from myself. Just because a story isn’t “for me” doesn’t mean it’s not worthy.
Think carefully about stories you love and quantify why they affect you the way they do –
• At what point did you feel committed to the characters?
• What elements of the story created a bond with you?
• What emotions did the story bring out in you?
• What themes or ‘truths’ were left with you after the story was complete?
Do the same thing with stories that don’t work for you –
• At what point did the story lose your attention?
• What elements didn’t ring true?
• What aspects of the story seemed unclear or too cliché?
• What aspects of the story felt like they were lacking?
And here’s the one that keeps me thinking long after I’m finished a story I didn’t enjoy:
• What’s the minimal number of changes you could have made to improve the story?
That last one is like a chess game where I want to ‘win’ with the lowest number of ‘moves’. If someone handed you that story and you had to keep as much of it as possible, how could you clarify/redeem it in the smallest way? What cancerous parts could be cut away or scenes added to make it work? That kind of story problem solving teaches me more than almost anything else.
In the end, you’re trying to enter a field filled with intensely skilled people who tell stories for a living. In order to meet and exceed that skill level you need to up your game. That happens by writing a hell of a lot, reading a hell of a lot more, understanding how stories are built, and scrutinizing how those stories affect you.
Don’t be passive. Study the stories you’re experiencing (books, comics, film, video games, all of it). Even if they’re vastly different from your own ideas, analysing why you like/dislike them with a critical eye will improve your work. Every time I read, watch, or hear a story I’m gathering information.
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