For my stories, I’ve always had a tendency to think epic. It’s best practice to know what your weaknesses are as any type of artist, and that’s definitely one of mine
Back in college, when I was in my script writing class, my professor (the amazing Mark Kneece– hi Mark!) told me frequently that my short stories were too big for short stories. Like I would develop and cram too much into my short stories because I had so much to say. Short stories have never been my forte, and I would be the first to admit that. I think about too much of the universe in the story to keep it short. It’s actually why I started to focus on writing oneshots in my fanfiction writing, because I wanted to try to learn how to tell an effective short story. It sort of worked? But it’s easier to do that within an established fandom, because everyone who is reading it already comfortable with the characters.
But what do you do when everything is original and no one knows any character from Adam?
The question of the ages! Each writer approaches this differently, but here’s my take on it…
In order to address my epic tendencies, my approach is to write, essentially, two different works. The first one is disjointed and would make absolutely no sense to anyone who read it. It contains back-stories, character wants & desires, even reasons for choices in clothing and hair. And if the story takes place in a different world, like mine tend to, the list of things to address grows exponentially. What is the history of the world? What types of technology do they use? What currency do they have? What are normal things to eat? I think of this as building the foundation of the story, and most of it won’t even be used within the actual story– but it’s something as the creator of the world that I should know. It help brings depth to the world and the story itself. I essentially write a guide to the world.
I don’t want to give the impression that I spend years working on this and everything is all typed out and pretty. Most of it is in short hand in my current handy notebook that I mentioned in the last post or in the margins of sketches (which I try to copy over into a notebook if I think about it… which is about 50% of the time ^^;;;). At this point, however, I’m trying not to think too much about the plot. This is the process that helps me get to know my characters and become comfortable with their voices and the environment in which they live. This process can take a lot of time and I think the important thing is to not rush it– but make sure to not use it as an excuse to procrastinate going further into the story. I’m not saying to write the freaking Silmarillion. I know I don’t have the patience to do all of that. But saying that, you need to think about these things and not just say “Okay, these characters live in medieval times with witches and wizards!” I can already feel myself yawning just reading that. Make it your own, just like Tolkien did!
Why take this approach? In doing this, you will get all of the wordy exposition out of your system. Get it alllllllll out. Exposition should be used just like salt– rarely and only to add when it’s needed to make a scene (or cake :D) work. And even then, the more you can subdue the exposition, the better.
If you have it all written out before moving on to writing the script, its much easier to incorporate it into scenes instead of sitting down and having scene after scene of exposition (i.e. the Star Wars prequels). If you haven’t seen them before, I would highly recommend watching all three of the Plinkett Star Wars reviews on RedLetterMedia. Not only are they really funny, but from a storytelling perspective, they are really eye opening. Warning: There is some foul language and really morbid humor in the videos– but they are very enjoyable nonetheless. In the episode III review, how to use the language of cinema is discussed, which is 100% applicable to comics. Framing, blocking, and using visual elements to feed information to your audience is crucial for good comic book storytelling. It’s the old adage of showing, not telling.
In prose it’s a bit easier to point things out to a writer and say “You’re showing, not telling.” Comics it can be a bit more difficult, because the writer can be doing it with the dialogue and not even realize it. This is why I encourage writing all of this exposition vomit out before even thinking about a script. When it’s time to move to the script, you can use what you have written out to think about different ways to present this information using other storytelling techniques, instead of it only being delivered by dialogue.
For example, in the first Scott Pilgrim book we are introduced to Scott, his life, etc. All pretty normal right? And as we are getting comfortable with the Scott character, he suddenly is challenged to a fight via email and just deletes it after reading only half of it. But we as the audience are given what we need– fight to the death and Matthew Patel. Then when Matthew Patel shows up at the concert, and they proceed to fight, the comic doesn’t just pull the breaks and explain the evil exes hierarchy, that Scott is a master fighter, or even why they are fighting. Scott fights Patel and we move on the with the story. Some bits of information are fed to us about the evil exes, but not all. It encourages us to want to read more. The first time I read SP, I remember being like “WHAT THE HELL JUST HAPPENED?” for like three seconds when the fight started. But then you roll with it. The fights fit right in with Scott’s established world and don’t break any of the other logic presented to the reader. The story, in the end, is not about Scott’s fighting abilities anyway. Each “fight” in the series can be seen as an allegory for getting over problems encountered during a relationship. The chapters leading up to the fights illustrate the problem, the problem is then presented in the form of an ex, Scott defeats the problem and learns from it.
When working with a medium like comics, every line of dialogue is very important and should move the story along. I was taught in the school of thought that adding dialogue is much easier than subtracting. Keep lines to a bare minimum, but keep the plot moving. It’s definitely a juggle, but making it work it entirely worth it.