Rambling About How I Write Comics – Part Two

In part one I talked a lot about story flow and initial brainstorming. This time I’m going to go more in-depth with the planning process.

As I mentioned before, I’m a story structure nut. I rarely write my comic scripts without previously breaking down the story into point form notes that act as a guide for the main ‘beats’.

This is how I do it.

After brainstorming a jumble of ideas – possible set pieces, action scenes, motivations, characters, themes, jokes, sometimes even snippets of dialogue I think might be important, I start putting them in a rough sequence.

• In order for this ‘thing’ to work/happen, what needs to come before it?
• What information does the reader need in order for this next part to make sense?
• How do we get from this part to the next one?
• Most important – Is this entertaining?

Assembled in rough order, what seemed like a lot of ‘stuff’ when I began opens up into chunks of content with gaps in between that need to be filled – Gaps of logic, gaps of motivation, gaps of time, you name it. Before I tighten all that up, I start separating the story into issues or chapters.

I’ll use Skullkickers as my major example here. In Skullkickers, I have 5 issues for each story arc, and each one of those arcs builds towards the master story (which, at this point, looks like it’s going to encompass 6 arcs). Based on the type of story Skullkickers is (unapologetically over-the-top action-comedy sword & sorcery), it feeds on action, and lots of it. Each issue needs to open in an entertaining way and end with some kind of cliffhanger or surprise. That kind of storytelling fits Skulkickers very well, so when I start separating my brainstormed bits into 5 ‘parts’ I start to see if certain issues are overloaded or skimpy in terms of content:

• Have we given the characters proper motivation to do what they’re going to do?
• Is there enough action?
• Do we open strong and end strong?
• Are the stakes being raised in each issue of the arc with bigger/badder threats leading to the climax?
• Am I avoiding repetition in the types of conflict being shown and how our characters deal with them?
• Most important – Is this fun? Does it ‘feel’ like a Skullkickers story?

The above questions are specific to the pacing of Skullkickers. A lot of them carry over to other stories but that list isn’t perfect. Each project I work on has different story flow parameters and different questions core to how I think they should work. Quite a few people have told me that Makeshift Miracle reads like a completely different person wrote it, and I’m proud of that. It was built to read very differently.

Scenes get trimmed or expanded to fit. Threats are added, moved or taken away. I double check my master story plan (the 6 arc plan) to make sure the overplot that needs to be addressed in this arc is included. At every stage I need to be able to ask myself “Why are the characters doing this?” and have a valid answer that fits the plot and their personalities. It has an internal logic. It can take quite a bit of time, but the exercise of doing the story breakdown helps generate a lot of new ideas for me. If any parts I came up with aren’t used, I put them away for possible future use.

The original idea for the first story arc of Skullkickers was “by the end of the story these two idiots have to literally kick the skull of a gigantic creature”. That was the climax. I had to figure out how to get them there. I worked out the ending and then put a bunch of lesser, but increasing, threats in the way. Knowing where it was headed helped me brainstorm the assassinated noble, the zombie attack in the morgue, the necromancer, the possessed leg – all the rest. I varied the types of action, the location and the motivations along the way so it kept the reader wondering where it would all lead. You can read the whole story arc online for FREE starting right here, if you want.

My story breakdown reminds me of all the important plot points I need to cover so I don’t waste space. It keeps me from writing material that might get cut. Over 17 issues of Skullkickers (300+ pages), I’ve only cut/majorly rewritten 5-6 pages. I think that’s a good ratio. I don’t expect that the exact same methodical story building technique will work for everyone, but it works for me.

In my next post I’ll talk about page-by-page notes I use before I start scripting. From there, I’ll probably do a post about dialogue and timing. I hope you find my ramblings useful. If so, feel free to let me know here (or on Twitter) and share the posts with your friends.

Click here to Read Part 3

  1. Hi, Jim. I learned a lot from the fantastic book club you did on Comics Experience and the in-depth review you did of my script for Drones #1. These posts provide another great resource for aspiring writers, and I thank you for that!

  2. I find your ramblings useful. Look forward to reading more of them. Thanks for the post.

  3. Hi Jim, first off I love the Skullkickers world you have created, and have recently found these blog entries very insightful. My question, however, is about the six parts of your story arc as you mentioned above, and how much effort/detail you put into each of those arcs before running with the story into production. I suppose I have always thought a full story script should be written, like the novel version, before jumping into comic production, rather than an organic idea of exploring the story in the comic form.

    • Everyone’s methods are different, so I can explain how detailed my version was but it isn’t any kind of hard and fast rule.

      The original Skullkickers story was pitched as a self-contained adventure that would take 5 issues. Once the series started selling well I was asked if I wanted to keep it going by Image and at that point I sat down and started building up ideas for the other five story arcs. The 2nd and 3rd arc were pretty detailed while the 4th to 6th were more vague and would evolve as I went along, incorporating the broad concepts and main ideas. I’d like to think that I’m a better writer now than I was four years ago, so I want to allow new elements to find their way into the story as I go along.

  4. I’ve been trying for so long to get myself started on writing and your blog posts are the reason I’ve finally started!! I love the super, duper planning method and am very excited to give it a shot

  5. Do you have to immedately start off with a new story arc after the one before that ended?

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