Friday, December 29, 2006

Some other things for your bag of tricks...!

Consider this more of a catch-all entry for some interesting tricks you may want to try sometime. After this, I’ll get serious about characters…

Irony: Regardless of the dictionary definition, “irony” iswhen something happens that comes as a surprise, but you’ve managed to earn it. Unlike a bad movie, where the plot twist is put in there just to have a plot twist (such as the murderer being someone completely out of left field, or a psycho killer that couldn’t have done it in the first place due to logistics reasons), irony can be something real fun for the reader and writer. The best example is probably MD Geist, where a person that acts like a villain, but you expect to come around, well, doesn’t.

The point here is that you need to “earn” your irony. Throw in some subtle (or not-so-subtle) clues at the beginning, and then just leave them alone. Towards the end, spring it. If it’s been done right, it will come across as great. Never have a plot twist just for the sake of having a plot twist, or your readers will cry foul, and you’ll not be very liked in the community afterwards (especially if it involves doing something nasty to a well-loved character!).

Dramatic Irony: People love knowing things that others don’t, and this is the ultimate expression of that. Dramatic irony is when the audience knows something that the characters don’t. In essence, there are two kinds here: The first is when characters reveal information that other characters don’t know. For example, the villain’s plans or a piece of vital information. In this version, the other characters act without knowledge of that information, usually to their sorrow (such as being in the middle of an ambush or if the information was vital). The readers know the information, and squirm because they know what’s going to happen, and can’t warn anyone that can do something about it.

The second version is when none of the characters know something that the player’s do. The usual variation of this is when clues are laid out on how to solve a problem, but the characters don’t put it together because they lack the reader’s perspective. Eventually (and hopefully) the characters will start putting it together, but the readers will be so smug until then.

Prophecy: In this case, I’m actually not referring to the usual twenty-seven verses of clues to the future that the characters need to unravel. I’m actually referring to showing the end results of something that happens in the story before the story actually gets going. For example, showing gravestones and characters that are scarred, and then going back to the past, where the story is just starting. Besides throwing a somber mood over everything, you’ll find that some readers will get fanatic, especially if one of the doomed characters becomes really popular. I’d hate to be the author that did that, but it can make for some interesting reading…

Parallel Narration: Although it’s usually used in flashbacks, it can add some interesting suspense or humor to something going on. The basic idea is that, as something is going on, you provide a narrative from other characters. Note: Not the usual caption-style, where the writer tries to explain something, but where you show something going, and a character describes what is happening. The character supplies added information, as well as describing what’s going on. It may sound redundant, but it works; it comes across as a mix of campfire story-telling and confessional. It works really well as part of a flashback, especially when a character is revealing a major secret.

For suspense purposes, it works well when the character is describing what should be happening, but the plan goes slightly awry. For example, the character says, “They should be reaching the door right about now. Good thing there weren’t any guards.” Of course, the group being described is heading into an obvious ambush (readers can see the bad guys in the shadows). In essence, the situation that the character is describing is about to go south, the character can’t do anything about, and there will soon be major issues to deal with.

If you want to try it for comedy, the narration has to be 75% accurate. That is, although the basics are there in the narration, it’s describing a mission that’s completely different. The classic example is when the narrator is describing a super-serious spy mission, but the actual action is more like a trip to the mall: “There was a frenzied melee, from which I barely survived!” sounds all nice and scary, but not when it’s describing a sale in a clothing store.

Acting Appropriately Stupid: For those few that really need an example: You ever see a person head off alone to check something out in a movie, and then die horribly? No matter how prideful a person is, walking into almost-certain death without back-up would probably not be a strong possibility. However, you need those occasional moments; they’re fun to do, incredibly dramatic, and can create some great visuals. Yeah, it may sound really, really bad, but it is one of those reasons that some people get into comics in the first place…

Normal Human Reactions: It may sound silly, but remember that you need your characters to react normally in some situations. If something happens, remember that it can be fun for the characters to react as they normally would, not as your plot demands that they do. I’m considering those moments when everyone glares at another character, or something embarrassing happens and they laugh at a character, or when the camera is supposed to off moments happen (walking with the girl in a park, for example).

If these are done right, they come off as unscripted and really cool; if done poorly, they come off as contrived and just annoying. So practice a few times before you try to pull one off, or your fan base will desert you…

But what about the baby plots?

Okay, creating a big plot is easy. You define a conflict big enough to get everyone involved, and then just figure out how everyone fits into it. Subplots, however, are harder.

A subplot doesn’t usually involve more than two or three characters; just because a number of characters may know of it, doesn’t mean that they are involved. However, let’s cover ourselves by pointing that there are numerous kinds of subplots, and one is the plot’s subplot (yeah, the plot can have its own subplots); however, I’m going to leave that one alone for a little bit, okay? The major kinds of subplots are side-trip subplots, conflict resolution, romantic subplots, and running gags.

Side-trip subplots are usually only seen in long-running comics. The basic idea is that occasionally you need a break from the plot, and so one or more of the characters are sent on a personal quest, even if that personal quest is just to get a great tan. This gives everyone a chance to blow off some steam, and just try something new. In regular comics, they would be considered one-shots and limited series; in webcomics, they are considered “intermissions”. Nip and Tuck has some great examples, as do most of the better comic books. If you want to see a great quest subplot, track down X-Men (old series) #247, where the X-guys go and try to get drunk in Australia, but end up saving the world from an invasion (they were making fun of DC’s Invasion maxi-series, which needed to be made fun of). Other examples of quest subplots are from TV shows; you know, the episodes which have little to do with the regular plot, but nonetheless showcase one character and is usually done either more dramatically than the rest of the series, or, more likely, more humorously? Yeah, that one. They’re great to do when it’s getting too serious or too silly, and you need a break. Just mentioning it, as it’s done so rarely, but making sure that you don’t trip over it when it does show up.

Conflict resolution is when the character is allowed to resolve his personal conflict, but in such a way that it doesn’t affect the plot directly. These can be highly useful when you want to highlight just why someone is part of the plot, or what they offer to the team, but can’t figure out how to make them part of the plot proper. As long as they involve the theme of the plot, they should be okay. If, on the other hand, you just want to have fun with the character, wait until you hit a point where the comic needs to take a break from the main action, and involve the character in a side-trip.

You should always have at least one romantic subplot. Obviously, a romantic subplot involves at least two of the characters, and may involve more of them (such as the dreaded romantic triangles). The basic concept is that they tend to draw in readers by promising sex, even if does just tease it, and, well, is arguably realistic, as it’s just a matter of time before someone would fall in love. In shojo manga, they are pretty much mandatory (girls love romance, and it’s part of the wish fulfillment represented by such characters); in shonen manga, however, the romantic subplot may either be severely downplayed, or be replaced by a relationship that’s based on hero-worship, or may even feature a same-sex relationship. Just have fun with it; even if it degenerates into a love cube, they tend to add to conflicts, as well as make for some interesting denouements.

Running gags are a very weird kind of subplot. Some actually involve plotting, others are just interesting scenes strung together. Some are even just quirky observations. Nonetheless, they do need to be noted. The best kind of running gags are when you use them to break up the pace a bit, and put them towards the front, so that they add to character development. Others can add that special “UMPH!” to the finale, as a character that has, for example, been trying to do something all during the plot, keeps getting frustrated because he just about but not quite nails it, and then manages to do it at the end. These are usually sex-based (such as in “Porky’s”, where Peewee is doing his level best to lose his virginity, but fails horribly several times, until he loses it in the movie’s final scenes), but can be tied to the plot as well (the major invention that the mad scientist keeps getting wrong gives the good guys a major advantage when he finally gets it right), or can be a source of frustration for the readers (for example, having a character’s major secret not reveal itself, but nonetheless constantly being brought up; of course, revealing at the end makes the reveal so much sweeter!). Just remember to have fun with it, and remember to not let it get in the way of the real plot.

Hopefully, that gives you some other stuff to use when you plot your comic. If not, why not? Yeesh…

Ready to fight?

[I’m going to eschew the classical conflicts. They may be useful in English class or in literary discussions, but we need to look at them from a writer’s perspective.]

In simplistic terms, a conflict is what the main issue of a given character; it’s what he’s trying to solve or deal with. As far as the story is concerned, all conflicts should tie into the theme.

You are going to have various conflicts going on. Obviously, you will have some sort of exterior conflict that overarches all other conflicts; individual conflicts need to be defined in terms of the big exterior conflict. War, or other competition, is popular for this purpose because, well, they are easy to get everyone into. Consider war for a moment: It involves all the characters, and aligns them into two or more teams. It becomes really easy to determine who is allied with who, and it helps simplify work for the writer.

Same with competitions, however, competitions allow you to break down the big sides into individual teams, and complicate things a bit. After all, you can go crazy defining allies and competitors, even aligning them into meta-teams, and it can get really weird really quick. For example, you can have a lot of teams that come from various countries/cities/villages, and the teams from those villages are aligned together. You can have a team from one country ally with a team from another country in order to help nail a third team from either a completely different country, or from one of the two countries already mentioned. Even with just four teams from a country, and three countries, you can have endless possible conflicts.

Another possibility is to have something that forces everyone to work together, like a natural disaster, a bigger enemy, or even just something (like getting caught on a ship in a storm) that forces them together. You can still have one (or more) sides working to use the emergency to off one of the sides, or even weaken another side for an easy kill afterwards, but they need to work together for the duration of the emergency.

However, each character needs to have at least one defining conflict, preferably an interior one. For example, are they having a crisis of personal faith? Problems with (annoying/missing/dead) parents? Trying to learn how to use new abilities? Not sure if they can handle the stress of the situation? Have an ability that can kill them if used, and thus afraid to use it? Heck, afraid of losing their humanity? How about trying to fall in love? Or even not sure if they belong to the group in question?

You’ll find that most inner conflicts are faith or confidence related. Most people are not sure of themselves on some level, and writers are definitely in that group, and so it’s easy to relate to. You need to realize that a conflict is created by wanting something that they lack; figure out what the missing element is, and that’s your conflict.

And bear in mind that even your antagonists need conflicts as well. Sure, Dread Overlord Deathmate wants to take over the multiverse, but why? If he wants to destroy it, don’t just leave it at that; why does he want to destroy it? Maybe he fell in love with someone long ago, and wants to commit suicide so he can forget her, but can’t bring himself to commit suicide, but if he tries to destroy the multiverse, someone may succeed at killing him (thus committing suicide by proxy). Obviously, overcoming that grief or getting killed is his conflict. Lesser villains obviously have smaller conflicts.

Conflicts tend to make your character more three-dimensional; after all, they may have really cool powers and skills, and even a function, but they need the conflict to make them even more human. They also help you write them, as you now have a way to link them to the plot (a conflict makes their involvement necessary, so that they can resolve their conflict), as well as something to do with that character (if you ever get writer’s block, you can just look at any unresolved conflicts, and look at ways to at least partially resolve them).

In short, conflicts not only make your life easier, but they make sure that you keep readers...

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Hey! It's time for characters!

Okay, remember how I said you needed to wait on developing the plot before worrying about characters? The reason is simple: It’s easier to make characters when you know where they will fit.

Think about that for a moment. When you create the characters first, you are stuck with the characters that you have created. You’ll almost feel guilty about throwing a character out. If you find that you don’t need a character, you’ll try to write that character in, no matter what damage you will do to the plot. On the other hand, if you wait until the plot has been developed, you’ll know exactly what characters you need, which makes designing them a bit easier.

Another consideration is that by looking at the plot, you’ll see some characters jump out at you as needed that you hadn’t considered. Even better, you’ll be able to see where you need minor characters that you didn’t think about when designing the characters in the first place.

Keep in mind that you can always change the plot; it’s hardly immutable. However, the plot gives you an excellent skeleton on which to place your story. If you decide that a minor character would be fun to have a romance with, or otherwise need to give him more lines, so to speak, go ahead; plug into the plot and see what happens. If nothing else, the romance can either end up helping later on, thus bridging a potential plot gap, or add a more organic feel to the comic.

By setting up the plot, you’ve also decided how dark or light the story will be, and your characters can be designed accordingly. And, since your plot only dictates the basics of the characters, you can design full backstories for them. Had you designed the characters first, then you would have been meshing in all sorts of strange backgrounds without much care how they really connected.

Oh, and don’t be stuck by some silly arbitrary number when you create characters. It’s easy to say that you need X characters per Y pages; that’s hogwash. Just realize that there is a balance that needs to be struck: The fewer characters you have, the more you can explore their backgrounds, but they also need to be far more capable (after all, they’ll be needing to do more). On the other hand, if you have a larger cast, you may not be able to explore their backgrounds as much, but you can also have more fun, you don’t need to worry about consistency as much, and you don’t need massively able characters (which means that the combats won’t last as long).

In short, by doing the plot first you save yourself some grief later on. And that can be a great thing when you have some world-spanning epic you are debating…

So...What does it look like all strung together?

Okay, so what does this all look like together?

Let me show you with a quicky script for Sex Percussion:

Okay, I need a quick script; this is your basic “fill in the intermission” piece. So, figure 10-15 pages. I also need something that isn’t epic; something light or different from the norm will do nicely. I decided to something that’s a straight contest of wills.

It should be no surprise that Simon is my favorite. So…something with him. I figure something that involves Donal is probably also a wise idea, and it would be nice to explore Simon’s backstory a bit. Okay, I’m playing with the shonen-ai (man-on-man love, but with relationships) angle a bit with those two, so I need something that expands on that. At the same time, I’ve established that Simon comes from a tribe of shape-shifters (were-lynx, specifically), and that he’s basically a breeder. So, if he wants to explore a gay relationship, he needs to probably get some time off.

Now, since he is based of a World Of Darkness character I run, I have an interesting solution: There is a rite called “Nala’s Boon to Kin”, whereby a Kinfolk character can ask his kin for a favor, but he needs to needs to do a favor for three of them. Thus, I have my conflict (Man vs. Culture) and Theme (What would you do for love?). I need it simple, so I figure two of them will have him nail poachers, and the third will make him do it in a loincloth. Each one of them gives him a tattoo that will fade when he completes the assignment.

Now, I need a twist. What if the poachers are together, guiding another person through the woods. That other person is the actual challenge, and Simon will need to defeat him in order to get back to civilization. Heck, let’s make that other person a werewolf; Simon is a purely mental city boy character, so a purely physical woodlands character will be a nice challenge, especially as the action happens in the woods. I also decide that there will be three poachers, and the werewolf.

Oh yeah, I need two act breaks: I figure I want to end an up-note, so the first act and third act need to be rising up, and that makes the second act need to be falling down. So, the first act break will be when the werewolf reveals itself, and the second act break will be when Simon realizes that he can fight back.

So, summing up:

Plot: Simon needs to complete three mini-quests so that he can spend a year with Donal. Theme: What would you do for love? Act Break I: Werewolf shows up Act Break II: Simon figures that he can fight back.

I then set up the following plot:

Flashback: Night w/three werekitties painting tatoos on Simon. They giggle as they him their quests Current: Simon stalks the group, waiting his chance One hunter sets up camp as the others continue The camp and the hunter are swallowed by the earth Two hunters stop to enjoy a spring as the other decides to fish The fisherman is surrounded by fish The fish attack, pushing him into the river where he is eaten The other two start to dress One falls, a spear in his back The other hunter glares at Simon as one of his tatoos fades

**The hunter shifts to Crinos** (Act Break I) Simon is not happy The werewolf charges Simon dodges, but is scratched nonetheless The werewolf throws a punch Simon tosses it, landing the werewolf in a snowbank Simon runs The werewolf smiles and runs after him

**Simon casts two spells as he runs, but doesn't complete them** (Act Break II) The werewolf traps Simon in a canyon Simon completes the spells as the werewolf leaps Simon teleports to the top of the canyon as an avalanche fills the canyon Simon smiles, until he sees the werewolf crawling out Simon frowns The werewolf shakes it off, sees Simon, and smiles Simon pulls a gun from his medicine bag, loads a clip, and shoots The werewolf falls as another tatoo fades Later: Simon delivers four hairs to the werekitties and another tatoo fades Even later: Simon is in a hot tub w/Donal

Okay…The plot is now set up. But what about the characters?

Friday, September 01, 2006

Pacing and Why It Sucks

The nastiest thing you need to deal with is pacing. It’s arguably the single scariest thing you can do, and it requires a certain degree of natural rhythm. It’s why scripts are long-form poetry.

Okay, we’ve covered acts and scenes, as well as rising and falling actions. Now, we’re going to put them all together. By now you’re tired of me saying rising and falling action, and the only place you want to see them is in a Shannon Tweed movie. Unfortunately, now we need to take a closer look at them, as they define the pacing of the script.

Each scene needs to push the script forward, and fit into the act structure. At the same time, they need to keep it interesting. In order to do this, you need to do something weird with the scenes: You need to decide if the individual scene as a whole is a rising or falling action.

Consider a roller coaster for a moment; if it went straight up, straight down, and then straight up again, it would be boring. You need the loops and banks to keep it interesting, as well as sections that allow the rider to catch his breath. After all, a ride that doesn’t allow the rider to occasionally to catch his breath will be just as boring as one that just goes up and down.

The same applies to your script. Although you need to have all the scenes in a particular act going the same way, you need to do something to keep it interesting. This is where pacing comes in. Each scene needs to be more intense than those behind it, and less intense than those following it; this is called momentum.

Then you need to look at each scene, and how it works with the script as a whole. You need to decide if the scene not just moves the plot forward, but also how it reacts to the scenes in front of and behind it. It should be one of two types, either be more intense than the scenes surrounding it, or it should be slightly less intense than the scenes following it. Also, these scenes should alternate, so that you have one scene that’s really intense, one that allows the reader to catch his breath, and then another that’s more intense. Consider an action movie: Ever notice how each action scene has a less stressful right after, and then the next scene is more intense? That’s what you need.

The challenge is to keep the balance between momentum and intensity. If you can pull it off, then you’ll be able to give your script the proper pacing. It’s just a matter of finding a pace that you can maintain. So, now we’ve covered acts, scenes, threads and pacing; ready for some plotting?

Threads of Pearls

Your script depends on your ability to pull scenes together into threads, each of which helps the script. It helps to organize your scenes into threads, each of which has its own act breaks.

You’re most likely going to have a lot of little threads organized into bigger threads. Your biggest threads should be as follows:

Main Thread: This is the biggest thread of all, and is the actual plot. All of the action should happen here, as well as all of the big scenes. In essence, you should be able to cut out all of the other threads, and still have something. If this is the plot, all other threads are obviously subplots. At least half of your scenes should be part of this thread, and subplots should have about 10-15 scenes each (so a full sixty-scene script would have thirty scenes in the main thread, and two or three subplots).

Romantic Subplot: You need at least one romance, however contrived. Of course, it’s best if the romance can build naturally, with its own ups and down. This can act to add some interesting clashes that can be brought out in the main plot, as well as mess with other sub-plots. Try not to have more than one romance per script; anymore, and it’s more soap than story.

Character Subplot: This sub-plot is strictly to develop a character, fleshing out his personality and history, and should make the conflicts more interesting. Any character can be victimized by this sub-plot, even the villain’s henchmen; just have fun with it!

Running Gag: This is a joke that you have decided needs some building, from a small scene to resounding crescendo. Go lightly here; it’s tempting to have a number of them running around. You shouldn’t have more than two or three; anymore, and they become annoying rather than humorous. Also, you only need about five to ten scenes for a running joke; running gags are best used sparingly.

When it comes to threads, you can have scenes that are part of multiple threads. The ideal is to have each scene be part of its own thread, but sometimes it is more interesting to have a scene affect several threads; most commonly, the main thread and romantic threads will cross, as the romance hinges on the main plot. Nonetheless, do what feels right for you script; not all scripts are the same.

Keep in mind also that threads are what drives your script; each one strings through your script like strings of pearls, each pearl a scene that makes the next pearl possible. Thus, you can have weak scenes (and it’s good to have a couple, as they allow your audience breathing space). This is where you actually start building your script; these threads will coalesce into the script, with each one flavoring what happens. Just like recipes, combine the ingredients carefully, or you’ll make something rather unappetizing!

Making Scenes, Lots of Them

I’m used to plotting movies. As such, I know that a good movie is made up of 40 to 60 scenes. A sitcom is based of off far fewer, with only about eight. As that’s what I’m used to, I think in terms of movie scenes.

Each scene needs to have its own little act breaks; that is, it needs to have rising actions and falling actions. Consider a four-panel gag comic for a second, if you think this is hard; the first panel provides the introduction and set-up, the second is the rising or falling action, the third opposes that, and the fourth is the punchline. Or something like:

Panel 1: Dweeb enters with a pie. [Intro]

Panel 2: Layla sees the pie, looking bored. [Falling action] Layla: Oh, it’s a pie joke.

Panel 3: Dweeb puts the pie on the table. [Rising action] Dweeb: Nah, it just looks like a pie joke.

Panel 4: Dweeb lifts the table and the pie hits Layla. [Falling action] Dweeb: Okay, so it’s a pie joke.

Yeah, lame, but it illustrates the point. The page is one scene by itself; in a serial comic, this could have been just the first page of the scene. Just remember that the scene needs to be a three-act play in and of itself, and you’ll do fine.

There are few other things to keep in mind when you build a scene. In a serial script, the scene needs to do something for the script, or it’s wasted space, and that’s bad. You can have special pages (especially for holiday scenes), but that’s an exception. Try to avoid pages done for the sake of art; they sound like a good idea, but not if you’re trying to tell a story. It’s sort of like a bad commercial; it wastes time, doesn’t sell anything, and just annoys the reader (this is why filler pages need to be avoided at all costs).

When you write a scene, keep in mind that it needs to do something for the story, even if it’s just to build a character. And building character is always good, as long as you don’t go too crazy with it; by filling in the blanks, you make the characters more interesting, and therefore it’s more likely people will keep reading the comic.

Keep in mind that scenes tend to work in tandem with other scenes, so any one scene doesn’t need to be incredibly strong, it just needs to do its job and get out so the next one can come along. Because of this, don’t worry too much about each scene being the world’s best; if you do, you may put too much stress on yourself and not be able to write more. Just have fun with each scene and see where it goes; let them write themselves and see what happens…

Getting Your Acts Together

There are four things to consider when you start plotting your script: acts, scenes, pacing, and threads. Once I cover those, I’ll show you how to plot. Honest! Let’s deal with acts first.

An act is a section of the script that has the same basic direction, either up or down. Most plays and movies are based off three acts. A happy ending has a positive first act, a lot of stuff hits the fan in the second act, and the third act brings it all together. A tragedy reverses those directions, with an introduction to the loser’s life in the first act, a lot of cool, fun stuff happening in the second act, and the loser dying horribly in the last act.

It’s important to base everything off the basic three-act structure. Admittedly, a lot has to do with it providing a base that your readership will be comfortable with, and that you can far easier write from. At the same time, scripts with fewer acts don’t tend to work as well, and more acts just confuses people and are harder to write, as you need to look at the rising and falling actions more intensely.

[A rising action is an action with a positive connotation, and a falling action is one with a negative connotation. Big ones define acts, small ones define scenes.]

By breaking it down into acts, you are better able to organize your plot. However, the biggest problem you have is that you need to decide what the act breaks are going to be. These are scenes that are major changes in the flow, positive if the act is negative, and negative if the act has been positive.

Consider your standard action movie: The first act break is usually when the hero is having a great day, and is then forced into a defensive action by the villain. The second act break is when the hero takes the offensive, eventually winning the day. In a tragedy, the hero is losing the battle, and then gets the villain on the run (first act break), and then the villain starts winning (second act break).

In a romance movie, you have a couple just starting to get into each other, and then the first act break forces the romance apart. The second act break is usually when the lovers start coming back together. Unless it’s a tragic romance, in which case they are falling apart, something forces them together, rekindling the romance (first act break), and then the romance starts falling apart again (second act break).

Your first act should be the first fourth of the script, the second act should be the next half of the script, and the third act should be the final fourth. This makes a lot of sense, as the second act is the meat and potatoes of the script (making the first act the appetizer and the third act the dessert; these are apt analogies).

Your act breaks define the difference between acts. Your acts form the basic frame from which you will hang your plot, and need to be a major part of your plotting. But these are just beginning of plotting; scenes are the next consideration.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Before you begin plotting…

Yeah, yeah; I’m going on a bit more than I probably should. Nonetheless, they are some things that you need to consider. Before we go on, it should be noted that I’m assuming that you’re trying to do more than just a gag strip, BTW; although a gag strip requires its own kind of continuity, it’s an entirely different kind of continuity. It’s more a continuity of character and not disregarding what has been said more than A->B->C of a serial strip.

Also, you shouldn’t get on some sort of stupid artistic high horse that gag strips have no artistic merit and therefore shouldn’t be tried. A gag strip is somewhat harder in ways because humans look for patterns and try to do things in patterns; it’s thus easier for us to think in patterns and thus in terms of story arcs. A true gag strip, one that is nothing more than unassociated gags, is thus actually harder to do than a serial strip. Now, throw in that a decent gag strip will also have continuity and character development, but absolutely no plot development, and it’s actually harder to do. Keep that in mind next time that you read Penny Arcade and think that it’s easy…

At any rate, there are three things to keep in mind before you start plotting. These are:

1) The outline should adapt to the script, not the script be forced to adapt to the outline.

The first is to bear in mind that the script will quickly get away from your outline when you start writing; this is not only to be expected, but is a good thing. It shows that the script is a living breathing thing, and you need to let it flow rather than restrict it. Use your outline merely as a guide, and adapt it to the script rather than forcing the script to follow the outline.

Be aware that you will encounter issues when you are writing the script that was not foreseen by your outline. Something that looked really cool when you were outlining the script may not be as cool when you start writing it. Also, you may come up with a better solution to a problem, and hesitate to move away from your outline. Remember that the outline is just a guide, not a rule; it was made to be changed!

2) Kill your darlings without mercy.

When you write a script, you will of course write some really cool scene and then realize that it doesn’t fit the script. In fact, it may be the best scene that you’ve ever written. You may even be tempted to rewrite the script so that it fits the scene. Don’t. Delete it immediately or paste into a file for later review; no matter what, get that scene out of your script, and do so without regret or mercy.

The issue is that one scene should not define your script, and it may hard to live up to that one scene. Rather, a script needs to be a collection of scenes that go together, one leading to the next, which leads to the next, and so on. One scene, no matter how powerful and cool, will not make your script; you need a number of them. Therefore, don’t be afraid to cut the scene, and possibly go back and do something with it. At the same time, don’t feel that you have let someone down if you never use that scene or forget about it. Being a great writer sometimes means leaving something behind; dude, you’re a writer, not a marine (even if you are a marine; you’re a writer first, and a scene is not a wounded soldier).

3) Even [insert favorite writer] had an off day.

You’re allowed an off day, and you will have one. The words don’t flow, or that scene just isn’t working out right or whatever; you just can’t write. That’s cool; you can occasionally step away from the keyboard. After all, there are just some times when you need to party and forget the world you were living in.

However, don’t use it as an excuse to take long periods of time off. If you do, think long and hard if you’re a writer. Of course, if you do, you’re not really are you? After all, a real writer would fantasize about a long holiday from writing, think about someplace really, really fun, and then just smirk as he returned to keyboard. Being a writer is the unusual mentality of ignoring common sense and realizing that it’s the best thing you could do…

Hmm....guess it's time to look at plotting...

Don’t be an ice cream truck!

Okay, so I’m called in to this post the other day (so I’m a rent-a-cop; leave me alone!), and I don’t have time to fix dinner. This means that I’m stuck in the suburbs, with no fast food places to grab something quick at.

So, I hear this ice cream truck come by. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t come close to my post, but seems to come really close. That got aggravating really quick. About an hour later, another truck comes by, but just doesn’t stop. Suffice to say, I just don’t like ice cream trucks right now.

So, what do these have to do with marketing? An ice cream truck is a simple business; the basic idea is that you drive a truck around hoping to find customers that buy your product, and stop when you find someone that wants it. Although it can be hard to miss you, you need to be going slow enough so that your customers can catch you, and you need to make sure that you’re in the right place to make some sales. Not to mention that timing is everything; see many ice cream trucks during winter?

A webcomic doesn’t need to be seasonal, but can benefit from it (holiday strips can be very cool!). However, the lesson here is to avoid advertising like an ice cream truck: You just can’t grab attention and then disappear. Also, you need to be available for anyone that wants to read your strip.

You need to have some sort of advertising that works even when you don’t, and this marketing needs to be around a lot of places. In a way, this is why I suggest advertising in your signature in every forum you post in; that gives you a dependable marketing area. Also, link exchanges; by exchanging links, you get your ad on someone else’s site. And if you can advertise through such sites as BuzzComix, do it! And definitely look for other ways to advertise; Comics Day, for example.

More importantly, you need to update regularly. People need to be able to plan on seeing your comic; otherwise, they may look at it a lot, but will stop coming if you don’t put it up according to some sort of schedule. You can argue that your true fans will stick with you, and that not being constrained by regular limits is a good thing, but it’s not as cool as you would think.

In short, buy ice cream from a truck, but don’t be use it as an example of how to market your business…

How big is your comic?

Before you get too serious about plotting out your comic, you need to decide which audience you are shooting for. Your audience will determine a lot about your comic.

Consider that, when it comes to law enforcement, there are several different types of agencies: bureaus, sheriffs, highway patrol, police departments, and security guards. Each one has its limitations and jurisdictions; those define the law enforcement agency, and what it does.

A bureau is the most geographically unlimited agency. At the international level, national, and state levels, they can pursue lawbreakers within their jurisdictions, and can call on a lot of resources that the other agencies just can’t touch. However, it faces two major limitations: First, their investigations must be within their bailiwick (so that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, for example, can only deal with crimes that deal with alcohol, tobacco, and firearms; if the crime involves drugs, they can only notify that agency). Second, they need to worry about things that will affect a lot of people, not just a very local area; if the investigation shows that the crime is localized, they will usually turn it over to the local authorities.

Highway patrols are the second most ranging, but they are limited to traffic crimes; they do have some investigative patrolman, but they are limited to crimes involving vehicles and roads. They have a lot of power in those areas (especially given their isolation), but have limited jurisdiction.

Sheriffs have a lot of power locally, but must bow to the other agencies first. This isn’t to say that they are weak; just very focused on a specific locality. Although there is some competition with bureaus (as some investigations may be under different jurisdictions, due to the laws being broken and scope of the crime), the sheriff usually takes care of crimes that affect the county.

The police department takes care of the rest of the crimes. As such, they tend to deal the most with jurisdiction issues (being the low man on the totem pole, after all), and tend to deal with the most heinous crimes.

Oh, and let’s not forget security personnel; although limited to citizen arrest powers, they do help in some investigations, as well as catching some crooks. They have very limited powers, and extremely limited areas. And they automatically fold when it comes to jurisdiction issues, as they have none.

So, where does you comic fit into this? Most comics are like security guards; they are generally limited to jokes specific to a specific game or genre, and are most funny to your friends and family, but, well, just aren’t ready for general release. These are more in-jokes and other weirdness than anything else. Just post them, and let it go.

Good gaming comics and “artsy” strips (those trying to do something experimental or just more interested in the art) are like police departments in that they tend to be well-known is specific circles, and get a lot of word of mouth, but don’t really get fans. They may get the occasional reader, but have problems sustaining those numbers over a period of time. Some graduate to sheriff status, and actually get some fame, and tend to make a lot of “READ THIS!” lists, but are usually limited to a specific forum or group. Think Jhonen Vasquez strips; although interesting, they have a limited range of fans. A lot of comics at Drunk Duck and Comic Genesis fit these criteria. Most of the income associated with these strips (ad it’s not much!) comes from the donation button.

Highway patrol is where a lot of genre-strips and slice-of-life comics end up. Although they tend to have a specific focus, they tend to cover a lot of ground (this is where Sex Percussions fits in; it focuses on a specific group of people, but tends to make fun a lot genre conventions). Generally, fantasy comics make up the bulk, but there are a lot college strips and other fun stuff in this category. These strips are fun to read, and tend to attract a certain notoriety; tend to think Keenspot or Spider Forest type of comic strips. At this stage, you can add merchandise, and some of it may actually sell!

The majors are the bureaus. These are the strips that just don’t bother with the Top Ten lists (such as Buzzcomix); they have enough readers as is, and even show up in news stories about webcomics. They sell merchandise, get a lot of donations, and tend to have fans that follow the artists around. At worst, they have some notoriety (such as MegaTokyo) or stir up some controversy on their own (such as Penny Arcade or PvP).

At any rate, figure out where you belong, and plan your marketing accordingly…

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Jhonen Vasquez Fans Suck

A lot of art is well-loved because it appears ground-breaking, rebellious, and counter-culture. And that pretty much sums up its artistic value; past that, there’s not really all that much to it.

On the other hand, anything that’s popular is despised in artistic circles. Critics see it as selling out, tripe, and basically vanilla. In essence, if something is popular it has to have absolutely no artistic value.

If you want to see my point, track down your local liberal or art paper or magazine, and read the reviews, and chart the star ratings (or whatever they use) against how much it took to make the film. The trend is that the more money it took to make the movie, the fewer whatevers it gets; conversely, the less money it took to make it, the more whatevers it gets. Foreign and independent movies tend to get the most whatevers, but potential blockbusters rarely get more a number of them. An Adam Sandler movie will never get four stars, regardless of how much fun the movie is.

Jhonen Vasquez is a great artist not because of his edgy artistic style (whatever that means), but because he has fun doing what we all want to do: He takes those things that we deal with everyday and want to see die in the most painful way possible. That’s what makes his art Johnny the Homicidal Maniac comics so much fun to read. He despises his fans, and it’s not hard to see why. They see that he is making fun of popular culture and the corporate mentality, and that there is a lot of blood, but they just don’t get the actual joke. By concentrating on the “gothiness” they just don’t get the point.

Consider Warhol’s Campbell soup can. He wasn’t trying to make an ironic point, in that an artist can make art out of anything, but rather that there is a lot more art out there than we are aware of. Consider the can in and of itself: It’s an attractive can, and when you see it you have a definite feeling of comfort, mainly because the product is associated with fond memories (in my case, grilled cheese sandwiches and Campbell’s tomato soup). This isn’t to endorse Campbell’s, but rather point out that there is some artistic merit to the product (this is an art AND marketing blog, after all).

The thing to consider here is that a true artist doesn’t care about whether or not your art sells. The point is whether or not you get you point across. A Campbell’s soup can definitely gets its point across: We have a product that we think is good for you. On the other hand, a lot of independent films don’t; they’re too busy celebrating that they are making a movie and tend to forget things like characters and plot. Oops, but look at us!

Sorry, but I’d rather have my art represent something than just do it. Tomato soup is actually filling. Not all art films have much more than pretty pictures; nothing to fulfill you there. Art doesn’t have to be dark, boring or cheap; it can be light, exciting and expensive. Artists rebel against authority when they are young; why do they do nothing but listen to them when they get older. Why do critics hold so much sway when it comes to defining art?

Can you be a fan of both Toby Keith and the Dixie Chicks?

[I am disrupting your normal blog for personal opinion. All I’m going to say is that it’s my blog and I’ll whine if I want to.]

I like country music. You can dance to it, and that there is usually an actual story makes the writer in me really happy. Also, I like that the chorus can change meaning each time in some songs.

However, a lot was made of the extreme positions of Toby Keith and the Dixie Chicks. Basically, one of the Dixie Chicks said that she was embarrassed that President Bush was from Texas, the same state she was from. The Dixie Chicks came under a lot of fire because, well, it was just after 9/11 and that was a bad time to say anything bad about America. Conversely, Keith came out with a song that was, well, extremely patriotic and was best known for suggesting the placement of a certain piece of footwear. Keith’s popularity soared (he had a number of great songs, but a lot of people shared his feelings at the time).

The catch is that I agreed with both. Keith’s song is a great patriotic song; it’s a great bar song, and you occasionally need a song that kicks butt. It was a song that was a product of its time, and a song that expressed the feelings of the people at the time; isn’t an artist supposed to go with their emotions at the time, no matter where it leads them (except for illegal or immoral areas)? At the same time, isn’t part of being American the ability to say anything you want to (provided it doesn’t kill anyone), especially something bad about the president? After all, no one should be above criticism. Period.

[Yeah, yeah; I was for the war; I was getting a bit tired of Saddam doing the “No, I don’t have WMD’s! Wait, I do! Just kidding, I don’t! Wait, I do!“ thing…If you, as a leader, feel the need to tick off people just to buoy your approval rating among your clique while your actions cause those under your leadership to die, then someone needs to come in and kick your butt. I have changed sides, but that’s more because of my dislike for how it’s being handled than for anything else. I’m weird that way…]

Now, it’s a few years later and the Dixie Chicks have released a new album. Because it has a song on it that describes how they feel (“Not Ready to Make Nice”), so of course the whole is coming back. Now, I appreciate how they feel (they have no reason to apologize and shouldn’t feel obligated to do so), but I’m disliking the tone I’m seeing in some of the reviews; too many critics are keeping in mind the original problem, but are putting a current spin on it (basically, that they were correct to take the stance they did).

The issue is that it’s fine to discuss why a particular event is important to a song; I do see that as important, especially when the event is extremely relevant to the song in question. But…to put your own personal spin on it is just ridiculous. When I read a review, I don’t want to know what the critic’s politics are; I want to know if the item being reviewed is worth buying. If you spend most of your review telling me how brave they were or why they shouldn’t have cancelled tours or why you think their reasons are suspect, then you aren’t really reviewing

If you want to insert your personal opinions, fine; just put the review in the opinion section but not in the review section. Don’t waste my time wile you slam or praise something that is only peripherally pertinent to the actual review; discuss the meaning behind things, sure, but not your personal opinions of whether or not you think the item’s artistic merit should be based on your interpretation of actions that didn’t happen in or on the item. You may think it was a worthy stance, but that it was cowardice to cancel concerts, but I don’t care.

I just want to know if I should put down $20 on a piece of plastic or if I should buy more art supplies, not get some diatribe about the on how correct it was say something bad about the president or wrong it is to express your patriotism. But that’s just me…

Friday, August 04, 2006

“Those dogs are going to have to kill me to get me to stop!”

9:42. That’s the time it took a woman to cross a yard on “Who Wants To Be A Superhero?”.

Yeah, I’m a geek. And yes, I’m really starting to get into the “Who Wants To Be A Superhero?” show. Yeah, I know: Cheesy effects, obvious drama, some interesting plot twists, and I definitely like what they did to Iron Revenger (a super-villain was definitely an interesting twist). But Monkey Woman is definitely the star.

There was a task where the would-be heroes had to cross a yard. Only one woman made it, and it took her nine minutes and forty-two seconds. What could make a yard so difficult to cross? Two guard dogs.

The guys didn’t have much of a problem; one even let them attack his arms and he just carried them to the door, hanging on his sleeves. But the women either gave up quickly or let their fears get to them. Only one didn’t, and refused to surrender until she touched the door. And it took her over nine and a half minutes to cross what must have been twenty feet.

In a lot of ways, that’s what you need to do as a writer. No matter what, you need to keep pushing forward no matter what. It may seem impossible, but you can finish what you are working on. It’s just a matter of time. You need to persevere throughout, and realize that there will be end; it just seems like a long ways off.

Once all of the organizing is finished, the research is done, and you make the last save of your fifth rewrite, you story will be ready for abandonment (paraphrasing Wilde, no script is ever finished, just abandoned). But you will be finished. It’s just a matter of time!

So, take heart from Monkey Woman’s example: Just keep plugging away until you get it finished. There is an end to your task, and you will reach it, but don’t give up.

The yard will be crossed, no matter how many guard dogs are in it.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Would Darth Vader Drink Guinness?

It’s strange that none of my characters, even the NPC’s I run as a gamemaster, have ever been called been called Mary Sues. Part of it is because they’re usually guys, but it’s usually because the characters are fun. It’s really easy, and soon you shall know my secret.

Any time I create a character, I ask myself one simple question: Could I see that character at a bar? It doesn’t need to be an Irish pub, even though it helps; the basic question is if the person (note: “person”, not “character”) is capable of holding a conversation. Even the most obsessed psychotics are capable of holding a conversation; even an autistic can communicate their desires, albeit in limited fashion. In essence, is their something in the character that makes that character a person, with desires and wishes, balanced against their flaws and handicaps?

The problem with alien psychologies is that the writers too often ignore that even an alien psychology has to deal with motivation of some sort. It’s easy to forget that, but even an insect has a motivation, even if it is just finding the next meal and surviving. Most of the alien psychologies aren’t that alien when you analyze them from the stance of what their motivation is. There is no real alien psychology, at least, not in the since that it has no similarities to a human one.

A Mary Sue is the closest I’ve seen to an alien psychology. Think about that for a moment: There is no long-term motivation for the character, as any goal she sets is easily attained. And when she does set a long-term motivation, the obstacles that come up are easily dealt with, thus making even world peace just a few weeks away. Worse, even the flaws would only take a few sessions of therapy to deal with. Interestingly, the character may have been the victim of rape or molestation, and yet she still manages to dream about losing her virginity with a handsome man. Just once I’d like to see a Mary Sue fall for a the geeky boy that virtually stalks her…

A Mary Sue is an aberration from a writing perspective. I appreciate the fantasy nature of the aberration, yet, the character and most of her friends are usually not people that you could hold a conversation or debate anything of worth with. I bet you could at least debate Nietzsche with Darth Vader, and it would be interesting. A good writer will create the full personality of his characters; try to hold a basic conversation with one, and if you can, then the character is solid. Otherwise, try, try again. Please!

Character or Plot: Which is more important?

There are two schools of thought on what is more important, plot or character; you need to decide before plotting which school you like.

The character-first school believes that character is important because it’s the choices of the characters that define the story. The major advantage is that avoids “Acting Appropriately Stupid”, that requirement where the only to further the plot is if a character or three makes a stupid decision that is against their character (such as splitting up and taking showers while the psycho killer is a known factor or ignoring their intuition which has served them well). Also, it allows for plumbing character depth, but usually at the cost of a coherent story; the plumbing usually presents so many side trips that the story is ignored in order to better explore the character.

Admittedly, I’m for anything that avoids the AAS issue, but the character-first story has a problem with it: Little actually happens. The writer usually gets so wrapped up in the character, that he is afraid to affect the character long-term; the character is considered sacrosanct, and is thus not allowed to change. After all, if what the writer likes about the character changes, then it’s no longer the same character and will no longer be as fun to play with. However, a static character is only so fun to read in the long term; people want to see some change in the character over the long term.

Worse, it becomes harder to avoid the Mary Sue problem (a “Mary Sue” is a character, usually female (males are “Gary Stu”) that is perfect in every way, and has abilities that far outstrip any competition, and has a “destiny”, but has some dark history that or desire that is counter to her plans). Instead of a realistic character, the character ends up gaining more abilities and sending her further away from any kind of reality in order to make some sort of change in the character. This further alienates the reader, as he can no longer relate to the character (she may have a dark secret (she may have crush on the bad guy, and hopes to reform him, but she can defeat anyone, has a really cool magical pet, and has a lot of really nifty abilities, and she can’t do anything wrong except as required by plot). Could you relate to her?

By going with the plot-first approach, the character is forced to change, and in a realistic way. Also, the characters won’t drag the story down, as you won’t explore the side trips; you’ll focus on the plot, and that’s a good thing. Your characters will also change as they adapt to the plot, and react to it realistically. Also, it allows you kill characters and not feel guilty about it. By making the plot more important than the characters, you can also throw stuff at the characters and see how they react to it.

That is, you can explore the characters’ characters in ways that also move the plot along, and that way you can have fun with your characters. As long as you can avoid the AAS syndrome, you can actually do what you want (explore the characters), while doing what you story needs (the plot). By reaching that compromise, you can build a stronger plot, and have fun doing it!

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Personal Heroes

[Yeah, I know this is late, but I figured better late than never...]

Two of my personal heroes are Harriet Tubman and Wilma Rudolph. Wilma is the easier to explain: She was on the 1936 Munich Olympics American Track & Field Team. Hitler had, at the start of the Olympics, pointed out that the Aryan race would crush every other country. The Track & Field team did the most serious damage to the speech, as the blacks were one of the least significant races and should have fallen easily to the Aryans.

Instead of falling, the American Track & Field team won gold medal after medal. Wilma Rudolph was one of the standouts, doing almost as well Jesse Owens. Sometimes the most serious defeat doesn’t require a battle or war; by being who they were, and doing what they did, they were able to defeat Hitler. A valuable lesson for those that think that battles can only be won through violence.

Harriet Tubman is a bit more complex. She was an escaped slave that became the best conductor of the Underground Railroad, with over 160 successful trips and no failures (she would have been killed had she been caught). She became a major voice for the Black Civil Movement after the Civil War forced her into retirement.

The important thing about Harriet is that she did what she even though she had epilepsy. On a few missions, she suffered seizures that caused some panic, but she came back. She didn’t apologize for who she was or what she had, and did it anyway. She persevered and did she what did because she felt she had to, even though she had a potentially life-threatening disease (having to deal with seizures in the middle of being chased by guys with rifles can be very life-threatening). Her personal bravery is what matters, and her ability to improvise under stress, as well as taking steps to make sure that the mission succeeded.

Both women were major heroes, in two vastly separate ways. If I needed two better examples of people that succeeded, and thrived under pressure, and did what they needed to do, I can’t think of two better examples. That they were black women is merely an interesting coincidence, and not as necessary as that they were who they needed to be.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Tales of the Writer

First, read this: Hard Onions

The best writers are those that look at things as they are, not as they want them to be. In order to do so, they need to be able ignore popularity, as popularity creates a shroud for the item that is popular, a shroud both attracts fanaticism (so that anyone criticizing is wrong) and the wrong kind of criticism (if it's popular, and art must not be popular, then there are those that wish to prove their artistic integrity by bringing it down). Too many artists are affected by the shroud, and base their judgments on it.

Consider William Shakespeare and Jerry Bruckheimer. The two may not seem to have a lot in common, but when you start looking at what they have done, there are a number of striking similarities. Shakespeare's original intention was not to create art, but to fill the Globe Theatre, just as Bruckheimer fills theaters today. Bruckheimer's films are filled with deceits, people brought down by their own pride, star-crossed romances, and those in power abusing that power; sound familiar?

Seriously look at Top Gun for a moment. At the core of the movie is Maverick's pride and how it creates problems for him, even to the point of causing the death of his friend, losing a prized assignment and an accommodation, and creating a problem with his romance. I can easily take out the fighter planes, and still have a solid movie. However, it's an easy bet that any critic of Bruckheimer's will concentrate on the planes.

Now, look at Hamlet. By the end of the movie, there have been eights deaths from a variety of causes, including a sucide caused be neglect, two comic reliefs sent to their deaths, one basically random stabbing, and four deaths in a duel from stabbing, poison, and a stabbing/poisoning. Throw in one guy going nuts and the possible incest issue, and you have a plot that any schlock Movie-of-the-week director would love to get his hands on.

It's easy to dismiss, but seriously think about it for a moment. The purpose of any play or film is to entertain; if it can't do that at least, then it's a failure from the start. But...it needs to do more to be considered art. It needs to touch something within us, and find a resonance that we can understand. It's that resonance that's the difference between something that's mere entertainment, and something that's more. "Hamlet" and "Top Gun" both show what happens when something is obsessed over to the point that it becomes harmful: Hamlet wants revenge, and Maverick wants the Top Gun award. We all know what it's like to obsess, to ignore our common sense, and do something because we have to do it. The main difference between the two is that in "Top Gun", Maverick moves beyond that and learns that love is more important. There is a reason that it's considered a great date movie.

But, because "Top Gun" has fighter planes, has a great soundtrack, and appeals to regular people, there is no way any respectable critic would ever call it a great movie. The shroud is in effect.

Now, look at Robert Mapplethorpe. The guy's a great photographer, and definitely deserves most of the accolades he's been given. However: I'm personally annoyed by the guy. He threw a cross into urine and asked one question: If you create a work that offends someone, and that's the point, is it art? That is, if the sole point is to make critics happy and tick off a particular group, creating division between artists and others, is it really art?

Don't get me wrong: Art should ask questions. But, should it be used by artists to create a line between artists and everyone else? Should it just be artists that appreciate art, or should anyone be able to appreciate it? If I say something is art, does that automatically make it art? It doesn't take talent to create division, but it does talent to make people ask the right questions. By taking on the religious right, Mapplethorpe is covered in his own little shroud...

You would have thought that artists would have learned from high school that popularity isn't something you should strive for, but something that shold be ignored. A lot of artists have decided that being popular is more important than doing art, and that's dangerous.

And they've found that a great way to become popular is to take on popular things, and make fun of them. Rather than wasting time figuring out how to skewer the latest movie, why not instead try to figre out if there is something below the flash, if there is some steak to the sizzle. After all, a shroud is what they bury things in, right? Why be in such a rush to cover everything with one?