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Makeshift Musings and Comic Book Bliss: Tell Me A Story

In my last column I discussed the merits of good dialogue and the painful way that most comic dialogue sounds when read out loud. The response to the column was the best I've had so far, with quite a few e-mails and posts responding at length about it.

So, what is this column morphing into?

Good question... I started with a bit of a manifesto on comics in general: read more comics, promote comics to your friends and family, discover new comics. Now that's out of the way I can focus on something even meatier: create better comics. The dialogue piece was a little tester to see if a tutorial/rant would go over well and it did. So, let's get this thing started.

Before you write and/or draw your magnum opus and make the world weep along side your penultimate tale of beauty, you have to learn how to tell a story. Everyone thinks that they're a writer (especially guys with their own tiny comics columns on the web), but thinking you can do it and actually putting in the time to do it well are two very different things. Before you start drawing up cool character designs or imagining cool dialogue, even... step back and look at basic story structure.

Almost every story can be summed up in 3 simple parts: Introduction, Conflict and Resolution.

1) Introduction: Answer the main questions - Who, Where, When? Who are the characters we're interacting with? Where are we? When does it take place? A short story may give us the barest of information to get through these 3 parts (possibly all in the first panel), while a huge graphic novel could spend pages and pages just showing us atmosphere to set the scene.

2) Conflict: This doesn't have to be physical conflict, although it obviously can be. What are the characters trying to overcome? It could be as simple as finding sugar for coffee or as complex as a universe-saving prophecy of old. Multiple obstacles may get in their way and as each one is resolved, we see the characters grow and changes take effect. All the classic literary conflict types can come into play if you wish – man vs. man, man vs. nature, man vs. technology, apple vs. orange.

At the peak of Conflict is usually something called a climax. Ideally, this is the big pay-off the audience has been waiting for.

3) Resolution: What is the outcome? Good or bad, we want to see how it all comes together in the end, no matter how big or small.

With those 3 pieces, you can build any type of simple story. I could craft a short story about making breakfast or build a 400-page war chronicle. Almost every story has these pieces, even when they're obscured by artful style or strange delivery. Even stories with multiple weaving plotlines and an ensemble cast of characters has this, split into various pieces and restructured.

So what does all this stuff mean?

It sounds very basic and straightforward and yet a whole pile of people lose track of these basic bits when they sit down to craft their own stories. They're so focused on cool moments, character abilities or witty dialogue that they lose their way at the core of what makes the whole thing function. Make sure that your story has got roots with this simple 1-2-3 structure.

You can even use these 3 pieces when telling people an anecdote in casual conversation. You'd be surprised at how much more entertaining a funny little story can be when you set the scene, describe the conflict and then pay off with the resolution. It's a natural way of telling stories and gives your audience a clear path to enjoying what you've set in motion.

Try it out. Write a short story or do two-page comic that plays out a little tale. No matter what it may be, if you use Introduction, Conflict and Resolution, you'll have something that can be followed clearly from start to finish.

I'm rolling all the way back to the core of storytelling and building up from there in an effort to help you make great comics. It's going to be a slow climb, but I hope you find advice here that clicks with your creativity and spurs you on to create, for your own enjoyment and the enjoyment of others.

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There's a tiny coffee shop down by the waterfront. I like to sit at a table there drinking coffee while I watch the ships come into port. Sometimes, I'll run my hand back and forth over the ripples of plastic that have formed by people butting out their cigarettes on the table. My fingers sweep along the grooves and bumps and I imagine that it's the surface of the water, frozen in that instant. Occasionally I look down from gazing out the window and the sun reflects off of the tabletop, shining like water.

The last time I was there, the glass sugar container was hard as a rock. It had crystallized into a solid mass and shaking it around just made the strange cylinder of sugar slide around inside. Looking around, I realized I probably looked pretty silly shaking the thing so intensely. I figured that if I already looked weird, I might as well go all the way and at least make sure I got the sweet stuff for my coffee. Grabbing a straw, I plugged one end with my thumb and jammed it into the container the same way I used to slam straws into oranges when I was in elementary school. Jamming it into the sugar block, it cracked. After several more jabs, it split into little sugar nuggets like an asteroid bursting into little bits as it explodes.

Feeling flushed with my success, I looked around the shop at the patrons who were now watching me, quite amused. I grinned and shook some of the loose sugar into my coffee, then went back to watching the ocean. Taking a taste, it was probably a little bit too sweet, but I didn't mind.

Story and stuff

Telling a story is like learning how to draw or tell a joke. There are thousands of individual styles, but if you learn the basics, your personal style can improve immensely. When you draw, if you know the basics of proportion, even your abstract drawings become more unified. When you tell a joke, if you put the funniest bit at the end, the joke is stronger. So learn your storytelling basics, folks, because even your improvisational comics will improve.