Skip to main content

The End, the No End, and the End Someday

In his regular column "Permanent Damage" on Comic Book Resources, Steven Grant has a detailed and interesting analysis of the "storytelling arc," particularly in regards to how it impacts TV shows like "Lost" where the mystery is the story, and how there has to be a payoff or viewers (and readers, for a comic) lose interest and wander off.

This is a recurring problem in comics, as well -- you need "a hook" to get your comic off the ground, but if the hook is too finite, what happens when its story potential runs out? This is one reason that so many comics start to suffer from "character bloat" after they've been around a long time. The main character's story has been told, so new characters have to be brought in to add their own energy and plot-lines in to keep it going.

Gag-a-day comics don't have this problem, obviously; as long as you can think of something funny to say, you've got all you need for the day. But history shows that most comics with a recognizable cast eventually start do develop some kind of a story. I would hazard a guess that most of us got into doing comics because we are storytellers at heart.

There are three basic approaches to this problem -- the finite story arc, the renewable premise, or the franchise.

The finite story arc is just that -- your creation has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and once its done, its done. Mini-series or spinoffs are often set up like this, and it has many advantages. First and foremost, it allows for very tight and very bold storytelling -- since you're spending the whole time heading directly on course for "The End" you don't need to worry too much about ancillary characters' backstories or the long-term consequences of plot twists. You blew up half of Europe? No problem, the story's over anyway! It's also a great way to have a strong central premise -- Postapocalyptic Bug-Riders, We're Secretly a Space Colony and Don't Know It, Cthulhu Has Risen, that kind of thing. Exploring the premise is your story, and once that's done, the story is over.

The renewable premise is something where characters and situations can come and go and "reset" for next time. The original "Star Trek" is the classic renewable premise: the Enterprise encounters something strange in space, said strange thing puts them in danger, they resolve the danger and warp off into the sunset. Rinse, repeat as necessary. It sounds limited, but it's actually a brilliant canvas for telling any kind of story you want. "Star Trek" did stories about racism, the generation gap, comedy, revenge melodrama, mystery, horror ... as long as you hit the three basic notes in there somewhere, you were good to go!

This is a great setup for an adventure or SF strip particularly -- harder for something like romantic comedy (although "Love Hina" gave it a good go with its perennial "Keitaro and Naru start to get close, something {usually over-the-top strange or silly} interferes, they have to start over" plotline). It can start anywhere, it can stop anywhere. The nice thing about it is that it can theoretically keep going forever, which (if you have a success) means you're on the gravy train for life. How many times have Batman and the Joker had their ultimate showdown?

The weakness of this is, well, in the long run it never goes anywhere. And if you're working within a continuity and a set group of characters, it can start to strain believability that the same people can have so many adventures or escapades. How many times have Batman and the Joker had their ultimate showdown?

The third model, "the franchise," is something of a halfway point between these two, where there are multiple, overlapping finite arcs. Most story-based comics follow a model something like this. An example might be: main characters A & B are in a more-or-less renewable situation that brings them into contact with secondary characters C, D, and E; characters C & D are also in their own more-or-less renewable situation that thematically echoes or at least supports A & B's situation; likewise, characters D & E (or however it ends up). As the situation characters A & B are in resolves, changes, or just gets old, the emphasis changes to characters C & D ... and so on.

In a lot of ways, however, the franchise is an expanded finite arc -- there are main characters, and they do have an overall story, and no matter what detours you go on over time, people are going to want that overall story to come to some kind of a satisfying end, whether that's graduation from college, marriage, or the world exploding in fiery armageddon.

This creates a very organic feel and is much like "real life" -- but it also makes for convoluted and sometimes muddled storytelling. Particularly if you're doing it on the fly, as comics creators often are! Characters or plot elements will suggest themselves to you in half-baked form and if you're trying to make a dateline you might grab 'em and go only to discover a little later that it wasn't such a good idea after all.

The good news is, as long as you're entertaining, you can be convoluted and muddled and the fans usually won't mind. Many times, they'll make connections that you never thought of -- and think you're being brilliant and subtle. ;) Still, it's risky to go out there without a net (so to speak), so I recommend that if you engage in this kind of thing, that you take the time (even if it's just a few minutes over lunch or whatever) to make some notes when you toss in a new character or story element. Some key questions to address are:

  • Is this character or element a cliché? If so, what twist can I put on it to punch it up a bit and make it unique?
  • What does this character/element add that I can't use an already existing character or element for?
  • Does this character or element negate or weaken an already existing character or element?
  • Where am I going with this character or element? How will I know when I've gotten there?
  • Can I use this character or element for future stories, or does it have too limited an application?
  • If this character or element becomes very popular and people start demanding more of it, can I come up with more?
  • Does this character or element have a "The End" I can put on it? If so, what is it?

Lots of fans really get into franchises, trying to see all the little connections and catalog all the trivia of where people live, what they do, their backstories, and so on. So as long as your own interest in it remains strong, and you keep coming back to (and making progress with) your main characters' story arc from time to time, the franchise is a great way to have a long and healthy -- but finite -- run. Sooner or later, you will have to think about what happens when the main characters are no longer sustainable. Do you tie it all up and say "The End"? Do you reboot and start over? Do you do a spinoff? Obviously, the answers to these questions will depend on your own desires and the interest of your fans. But if you've been running your franchise long enough, by the time you reach that stage, you will probably be more than ready for a change yourself!

-The Gneech

There's the model Gaiman

There's the model Gaiman used in Sandman. He had a Finite Story Arc going with his major characters, but these major characters and their story mostly formed a "background" for the much shorter Finite Story Arcs featuring individual people and *their* brushes with the unreal or metaphysical which the major characters represented.

Most of the comics were about people who were unconnected, or only vaguely connected, with the "main" story. I mean - Shakespeare puts on a show for the Faerie Court. Bam, it's a beautiful, Finite Arc Story.

The "main character," the Sandman, sort of sets-up the show (by first seting up Shakespeare himself, then acting as Shakespeare's agent to the Fae), and we get a chance to see some insight into his character as of the 1600's. And that is *all* that this story really does as regards the "main" storyline; it's just a flashback (one of many) that exposes the sort of absolute, almost uncaring, not-concerned-with-mortal-trifles kind of guy that the Sandman was back before the events that precipitate the changes in character which ultimately led to his undoing.

So the structure of the main story is .. well, vague. The main characters are rarely on center stage, they're behind the scenes and peeking out of other people's stories, and taking their own sweet time to be revealed.


Read My Comic!

Another story model

I'd add another one: "the storyteller", a series of more-or-less separate tales which might have a common setting or theme, but generally stand alone and have separate casts (though some characters might pop up more than once). It's probably rarer than the other models in webcomics, but it comes up: one good webcomic example is Nightmare World.

Is that another discrete

The Gneech's picture

Is that another discrete model, or just an example of the renewable premise?

-- -- The life, loves, and career of aspiring supermodel and ferocious predator, Tiffany Tiger -- NeverNever, the story of the faeries at war with humanity, and of the humans who just don't notice

-- -- The life, loves, and career of aspiring supermodel and ferocious predator, Tiffany Tiger -- NeverNever, the story of the faeries at war with humanity, and of the humans who just don't notice</&

I think he means an

exatron's picture

I think he means an anthology series, which can be seen as a subset of the renewable premise model.