Lessons for Webcomics from Short Stories
One of the best things about webcomics is the lack of editorial control. Whether music, movies, television, stories or mainstream comics, most types of creative media require you to pass through a cabal of editors who are focused on giving the market what it wants - or, in the case of some, what it has wanted up until now. Or what they thought the market wanted up until now. It's a free market as long as you're happy with whatever the editors have already chosen for you to select from.
Webcomics, on the other hand, succeed or fail entirely on their own merits in a much purer free market where anything can compete. Unfortunately, it also means that there's no one in the publishing loop with any actual industry expertise. For all their bad points, the editors provide good feedback on fundamental technical problems.
Not on the art, mind you. That would be useful, of course, but every webcomic reader and reviewer has an entire section of their brain entirely dedicated to decoding and analyzing visual imagery. If your art has technical flaws - perspective, say, or proportions - then not only will you hear about it fairly quickly but it'll generally get better on it's own anyway. You have a visual cortex as well, after all. It can tell when things are wrong and it'll let you know when you've got them right too.
But with writing, the information must be absorbed in pieces and analyzed as a whole. There's no section of our brain dedicated to snap analysis of it. The technical flaws often go unnoticed, leaving the readers with a vague sense that the story's not working as it should, but nothing they can easily point to and say "ah-ha!"
If you wrote short stories instead of webcomics, however, you would run into an editor.
In the world of short stories, editors are among the good guys and act, first and foremost, as a basic level of quality control. They, much more than the writers, really understand the medium, and although you must abide by their whims because they control the market, you should abide by their whims because they actually know what they're talking about. You may have the art, but they have the technical know-how. Only with both will a story reach the heights that it should.
There are three main stumbling blocks, really things that will kill a short story, and these three mistakes are repeated constantly by storytellers everywhere -- webcomics included.
Story beginnings are not simply the start of the story. Beginnings have a lot of other work to do as well. Make a beginning nothing more than a curtain going up and readers will switch to one of the other twenty comics they just opened from someone's favorites list.
Because with both webcomics and short stories, the reader starts out with no particular reason to actually read them. If you bought a book, then the fact you've spent good money on it means you'll probably give it every chance, even if it takes a couple of hundred pages to get the plot rolling. Short stories and webcomics, however, need to act as quickly as possible to give the reader a reason to stay.
Watch the beginning of a James Bond movie. They have the right idea.
Beginnings have to grab you. This can be done in various ways - with humor, drama, teasers, cliff hangers or interesting characters - but they need to somehow convince you within one strip that the "next" button is worth clicking on. The next five or so strips have to convince you to read to the end of the chapter and the first chapter has to convince you to click "Add to bookmarks".
And unless your name alone is enough to draw readers in, you must sacrifice interesting scenes, detailed landscapes, poetic exposition and even plot to get that first comic that grabs the readers and that first chapter that drags them under. Everything else is secondary because without this, everything else may well be ignored.
I can't stress this enough. The worst sin with a short story is to start with a description of the scene. Logical as it feels to start with the setting, it simply doesn't grab. Even the best written, most poetic scene showcasing the very best writing you can do is still a less effective beginning than a single perfect line that gets the reader's attention.
A comics often make the same mistake, putting a large, detailed scene-setting picture as the first comic. It's actually not nearly as bad since not only does good artwork have something of a grab factor itself, but it takes less time to process an image. You can absorb the whole scene at a glance instead of reading a paragraph or two of prose.
Nevertheless, comics that use the first comic to set the scene lack that initial punch that will get people wanting to read further. Red Zone by A. L. Cassel and N. Jungemann is a comic that uses it's first strip to silently introduce the setting. In this case, it's a space station. Well drawn, but entirely static. Nothing is happening.
Lots of comics like to put a cover page up before the first comic. I don't actually see the point of this myself since once someone starts reading you don't need to advertise anymore. Still, a good cover page can grab people. In fact, that's the entire point a comic book cover -- to see this for yourself all you need do is visit your local comic shop and glance over the mainstream superhero comics. They always try for some grab factor on their cover pages with action, dramatic poses, cliffhangers or, less commonly, humor. Webcomics... not so much. Misfile by Chris Hazelton, for example, has a cover page showing the main character sitting on a car as the first comic. It looks kinda like a photograph someone's taken and doesn't grab at all. Conversely, The Chronicles of Garas has a first chapter cover which is far more dramatic, laden with action and peril.
Covers aside, your first comic can grab readers in various ways. Pure humor works well, such as this opening comic from Out There. Dropping the reader into the middle of already unfolding events, such as the Wandering Ones does, creates immediate tension and can be very successful. You can engage the readers' curiosity (Gunnerkrigg Court is a good example) perhaps by going for something a little bizarre (Pointless is a good example.) or by simply doing something incongruous (The Green Avenger is a good example. You can even simply start out with some characters that look like a lot of fun to follow the exploits of, such as Freefall does.
A big part of the grab-factor is how fast you can do it. Text is slow and that cuts down on how dramatic you can be. Images are much faster to absorb and process, and so have more dramatic punch because of it. The first comic of Storm Corps uses text, but squeaks through by keeping it short and the art very attractive. Nevertheless, it's the second comic, not the first, that really grabs you -- thanks to the dramatic and unusual explosion.
Coiling Spine by E.S. Cushion has the single fastest grab I could find, just from the sheer suddenness and power of the image.
It also brings me to my next point. Not only does a beginning need to grab the reader and drag him, willing or otherwise, through the first chapter, but it must also in some way represent the comic to him. Your first comic could encapsulate the theme, or the plot, or the main character's personality, or the feel, the genre, the setting or some combination thereof. It should somehow give the reader an accurate idea of what they're in for if they continue. Again, the first five strips and the first chapter should also do this to reinforce it.
Coiling Spine? You know from the first strip that it's post apocalyptic. We're going to get a lawless western feel, mutants, old rickety technology, scarcity of bullets... It tells us an incredible amount for a single frame with no text.
The beginning must also be when the plot starts. Okay, maybe that sounds a little silly, but how many epic fantasy trilogies have dithered around for a quarter of the first book in the irrelevant childhood of the main character? I can name five off the top of my head.
Red Zone not only uses the first strip to set the scene but actually most of the first chapter. It's not without drama but the plot isn't moving either. It's all backstory. Storm Corps has an entire prologue of backstory exposition and the plot doesn't start until page ten - twelve if you count the two covers in there as well.
But can't you at least spend a little time introducing the setting and characters? Certainly. Just make sure plot is happening as well. It by no means has to be big, dramatic and loud yet - or even the main plot - but things do need to be ticking along. The beginning few strips of Schlock Mercenary do a very good job of both introducing characters and plot simultaneously.
The flipside of this, which can be an even bigger problem, is when a writer starts off in the middle or even the end of the plot. Now, I did say that starting off in the middle of already unfolding events can be a big grab-factor. Coiling Spine used it with it's nuclear blast and my own comic does as well, starting things off at the cusp of a robbery. These two examples, however, both still start at the beginning of the plot and what happened before is not relevant to the story. Or if it is, then it's not relevant yet and the writer wanted to make sure you got grabbed first. Sure, the writer says, there was stuff that happened before this, but here's where it gets fun.
Fantasy Realms, however, starts at what appears to be the end of the actual plot, in a final climactic battle with a powerful sorcerer. It's big and dramatic and really should grab the reader... Except there's no context. It's just a fight. We have no idea what's going on or who's fighting and no clues are given. There's no characterization, no plot and no back story. It feels like we're coming in at the action packed end of a story rather of an action packed beginning, we don't care a whit about any of the combatants and the whole thing leaves us lost.
A climax is a release of tension. If none was built up, there's no release. Although you can drop readers into events already underway, you can't drop them into the actual climax. It simply doesn't work.
Efficient Use Of Story
With short stories, there's a rule that you should cut out anything and everything that does not progress the plot. Short stories, after all, should be short. They need to get their point across efficiently. One of the most common comments found on submitted short stories is something like "Cut the length by 30%". Sounds harsh, but if an editor says that, then there is dead wood in there.
And usually what you need to cut out is good writing, otherwise you probably would have chopped it yourself. But no matter how good, if it doesn't do anything useful - say, progress the plot or further define a character - then snipping it out is the right thing to do.
The same applies to comics, but for different reasons. Webcomics can be as long as they like but do need to move fairly quickly. With at most one comic a day - and usually less - if you don't move the plot along at a reasonable clip, your audience will get bored and you'll lose them.
So you must cut out everything that does not in some way contribute to the story. And because you do that, you also need to make efficient use of what's left. A comic that tells a joke isn't enough. A comic should tell a joke and progress the plot. Or progress the plot and further develop a character. Or further develop a character and add some conflict. Or even three at once.
Have you ever read a comic which stops the plot so the main characters can exchange jokes for three days? It's often done so that the next big event can happen in the full-color larger Sunday strip. What's the point of that? It's a waste of time and there's no reason why you can't just do a full color strip now. This is the web, not a newspaper.
Schlock Mercenary is one comic that frequently has strips that do only one task, often the gag, and frequently seems to me to use them to delay events until the Sunday update. Even in a comic that updates once a day, this slows things down noticeably. I felt it was dragging in places long before I worked out why.
The Order of the Stick and It's Walky are two comics that do larger strips when the story needs them rather just when Sunday happens to roll around and Gunnerkrigg Court is probably the most efficient comic I know of, packing subtleties and depth into every page without making them seem crowded. The plot is always moving, the mystery always deepening, the characters always developing - often through their expressions alone - and the comics keep their whimsical humor throughout.
Showing and telling are two ways of writing. They mean pretty much what they say. Telling the reader is when the narrator or a character in the story will actually state something in order to get it across to the reader. If you show the reader, you demonstrate something through the action.
Here's a simple example. Telling, first:
Greg was furious.
Now for showing:
Greg swept the contents of the desk to the floor in one violent movement.
In both cases, we know Greg is very angry indeed, but the second is far better. It's cinematic - it creates a powerful scene in the reader's head - and is more emotionally engaging. The first example let us know Greg was angry. The second let us feel it.
In writing, people tend to tell because it's easier to do, so there's a standing rule to show rather than tell whenever possible. However, comics usually have no problem with showing and telling because the pictures do the showing for you. We don't need to create a cinematic scene in the reader's head - it's already on the page!
So why are we even covering this?
Exposition is a form of telling and is when the plot is simply told to the reader directly in the same way you would if you were writing a diary. In webcomics, this is often done in little narration boxes, but it can be done more subtly through characters talking to each other. Arch-villains explaining their nefarious plot to the imprisoned hero is exposition.
And as writing styles go, simply narrating the story directly to the reader is a very crude and unsubtle form of telling. Don't get me wrong - exposition is a tool that has it's uses. In fact, in comics, exposition has an arguably greater part to play because comics are mainly visual and sometimes you just don't have the scope to explain things within the context of the story. Those little narration boxes do have their place. Still, that doesn't make them less crude and unsubtle.
Unfortunately, the place in webcomics where you will most commonly find exposition is at the beginning. The all important first few strips that have to grab the reader ares often filled with a whole bunch of text. Start a short story with exposition and it immediately gets dumped by the editor. Immediately. They probably won't even read to the end of the first paragraph.
We've already touched on this with Storm Corps and Red Zone, both of which start off with a whole chapter of the stuff. Even if it does manage to grab the reader then it would certainly do so more slowly. An image is absorbed at a glance, making for a fast, cinematic and almost instinctive experience. Writing, however, must be read and processed.
And you certainly don't want too much of it as a lot of text can turn people away. It just looks like too much effort. Being invited in should be as little hassle for the reader as possible, a maitre-de at the door with a gentle bow and a sweep of the hand, not a pile of forms
Finally, exposition is inefficient. A comic using exposition is usually doing only one task, which is giving backstory. Characters aren't being developed and the plot isn't even moving yet either.
Ultimately, though, you should avoid exposition because these are comics. If people wanted to read a lot of prose they'd get a novel. It should be kept to a minimum, avoided if possible and if you ever find yourself telling the story through narration boxes, it is definitely worth sitting back and seeing if there's another way of doing it.
And there usually is. Two, in fact.
The first is simply to have the information mentioned in passing by characters as and when it becomes relevant. This can lead to the dreaded "As you know..." opening to sentences (If they know, why are they being told?) but a little script work can bring up the same information in a more natural way.
For example, the eighth comic of The Wandering Ones by Clint Hollingsworth drops in a comment or two that lets us know something of the political situation, something that we didn't need to know until then and that was worked in quite smoothly.
The second way is closure. Humans have powerful minds capable of filling in gaps and extrapolating a complete picture from unrelated parts. All you need do it give them those unrelated parts and trust in them. In fact, they can usually manage even without you deliberately dropping clues. The Pern books by Anne McCaffrey are one of the best examples of this. There's no exposition in them at all. You're simply dropped into the world and have to figure out what Holds, Crafthalls, burrows, Weyrs, runnerbeasts and so on are from context. And you do.
This sort of closure is something that makes writers nervous because it's a hard thing to trust in. What if you don't give enough information? It feels safer just to explain. Well, you can always insert deliberate hints. In the first Star Wars movie, it was mentioned in passing that the Emperor had "dissolved the senate". Those three words plus the overly military Empire tells you a lot of backstory about the politics of the situation. This was, it implies, once a democratic galaxy taken over by an ambitious man via the military. We didn't need the first three movies to know that.
If you must use flat out exposition, it is best in a conversation between characters with reactions, commentary, some back and forthing and so on. A single picture of a character's head surrounded by speech bubbles is easy -- and looks it. Always make it a genuine conversation and even if only one person is speaking, spread it over multiple panels so we can see his expressions for different parts of his speech.
It's also useful - although not always possible - to have something else of interest happening as well. In the first Terminator movie, Kyle Reese explains the history of the future war to Sarah Conner as the Terminator was hunting them, keeping the tension and interest of the audience.
A Practical Example
There is a single example in the world of webcomics that illustrates everything in this article beautifully. It's the beginning of David Willis's science fiction comic It's Walky and it manages to illustrate everything because he's actually redone the early strips entirely from scratch, giving us two examples of a first strip to work with and directly compare.
Here's the original first strip of the comic, which David has very kindly sent to me to use...
It is one of the best beginnings to a webcomic I know of. It grabs you instantly. It's funny and the text is large, loud and short making the strip very fast to absorb. It also tells us a lot through implication and closure. We know the main character's name, a surprisingly large amount about his personality, quite a bit of his relationship with the Professor on the right and the background shows us something of the environment where he works. It's a very good opening strip and extremely efficient, packing an amazing amount of information in just the one panel.
As beginning's go, it is, unfortunately, not nearly as good. David Willis is relying on exposition which, although well written, is slow to absorb and doesn't have the same instant grab as the previous version. The exposition is also not only used to establish the scene, but three of the characters as well. We are directly told rather than shown that the Professor is "amoral", that Beef is an all American boy and "catches the footballs" and Walky is "unlikely" and "useless", although at this point we haven't seen any of this for ourselves. At two pages and a good one hundred and fifty words, the new starting comics are clearly less efficient.
Immediately after these two comics, though, David Willis proceeds to introduce a cadre of (slightly) lesser characters efficiently and expertly, laying out their distilled personalities with some simple character interaction over two strips. For example, in the third strip, the personalities of four key characters are shown to us both succinctly and thoroughly with just eight speech bubbles. The fourth strip goes on to refine the two most important characters from that initial four and brings in a third major player and sets his personality up just as quickly. All without a word of exposition. Well, except for their names.
Which shows, I think, that these three problems aren't anything to do with a lack of skill because David Willis demonstrates that he's very skilled at this. Rather, it's simply that people don't know about them.
Because unlike the world of short stories, there's no one to tell us.