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An Introduction to Writing Mystery Webcomics

While every genre offers its own inherent challenges, especially when reworked for web publication, mystery stories offer concerns unlike those of any other genre. All stories raise the tension about what’s going to happen next, but mysteries are unique in being primarily concerned with unraveling events that have already happened. (This is the primary factor that distinguishes mysteries from other types of crime fiction, where the killer is already known, and the goal is simply to catch him or her.) This unusual structure leads to a number of complications in dealing with serialization, improvisation, and other commonplace facets of web publication.

 

Celebration of Reason

The hero of a mystery doesn't need to be the strongest, or the best brawler, or the quickest draw; even if the hero carries a gun, the gun isn't going to solve the case. After all, the most exciting moment in a mystery isn't when the hero nabs the killer—it's when the all the evidence is laid out, and the killer is finally revealed. Thus the chief asset of the mystery hero is what allows them to reach that conclusion: his or her mind. While most genre fiction celebrates the triumph of good over evil, mysteries are a bit more specific; they celebrate the triumph of reason over villainy. However, just because mysteries emphasize brainwork, doesn't automatically mean that every mystery has to revolve around a game-like puzzle of intricate clues. As Joe Zabel, creator of The Trespassers Mysteries (Return of the Green Skull, The Ice Queen) points out, "it's not necessary to lay out an elaborate Rube-Goldberg murder plot in order to demonstrate your hero's smarts. It's more effective, really, to show their ingenuity in their moment-by-moment progress through the case."

It's important to remember that there's more than one way to think your way through an investigation. After all, a former cop turned private investigator is going to approach a mystery investigation very differently from how a journalist out to get a good story would go about it. And the overall flavor of a mystery can be influenced tremendously by the hero's particular intelligence. If the mystery revolves around a modern forensic investigation, then the hero is likely extensively trained in forensic techniques. A hero with a chess-player's knack for thinking three steps ahead and taking in every detail and scenario naturally tends more toward the complex puzzler type of mystery: the sort that often invites the reader to "play along" and try to solve the mystery before the hero does. But a mystery hero need be neither extensively trained, nor exceedingly brilliant—he or she may just be gifted with a knack for thinking quickly under pressure, the sort of curiosity-driven character whose intelligence gets him or her into trouble as often as out of it.

What’s more, since the protagonist’s thought process is so externalized in the movement of the story, the overall tone of the story should reflect this as well—not all mysteries are gritty tours of a major city’s seedy underbelly, after all. Contrast, for instance, Tim Broderick’s Odd Jobs mysteries with Jason Little’s Bee Comix mysteries. Broderick’s hero, David Diangelo, is a quiet and cautious observer of nuance and detail, who performs odd jobs that take him into danger because it’s the only way he can meet his obligations to the remnants of his family. Diangelo’s personality is reflected in the quiet tension of Broderick’s writing, as well as in the stark black and white illustrations and desolate locales.

Little’s title character, Bee, on the other hand is a clever young woman with an enthusiasm for life and the many experiences it offers. She often finds herself in strange and dangerous situations purely because that’s where her natural curiosity and adventure-seeking personality lead her. Her approach to solving a mystery involves plunging headlong into the unknown, making fast, on-the-spot decisions each step of the way. Her natural verve is reflected in Little’s energetic, full-color artwork, and the vibrant, quirky characters who surround her.

 

Research

It should go without saying that, in any genre, you should have some idea of what you’re writing about when you write about it. Doing the necessary homework, according to Tim Broderick, can make the difference between "meeting the sophisticated expectations of readers of that genre and wallowing in clichés." In a genre that so highly values the ability of its characters to draw accurate conclusions from scattered facts, it’s all the more important that you have your facts straight yourself. This includes, of course, relevant details about forensic science, proper police procedure, and even the laws broken in the commission of the crime.

But that’s not all—having a solid grasp on your lead character also means knowing what it would take for them to become the investigator they are. "For instance," continues Broderick, "I wonder if people understand what it takes to get a PI license in their state or country? In Illinois, some law enforcement experience is practically mandatory. Consider that for a moment. What kind of person, what kind of personality seeks out law enforcement as a career? Is that the kind of character you want to write about? If not, then you go down a different path—the amateur detective."

So, where do you get this information? Much of it is publicly available—if you want to know what it takes to apply for a PI license, you can go get an application yourself. If you want to know about police procedure, go down to your local police station, and see if you can find an officer willing to be interviewed. If you need medical information, there are medical websites that can be mined for data, but you can talk to doctors as well. F + W Publications published the Howdunnit Series of books designed to help mystery and crime writers with information on police procedurals, criminal psychology, medical trauma details, and so forth. (Now out of print, but still available used and in libraries.) These make great quick references for the little details, but the value of following up with up-to-date primary sources can’t be overstressed. Remember, many of these details vary regionally—proper police procedure won’t be exactly the same in New York as it is in California. And details change over time as well, as new laws and techniques are developed and brought into use.

 

The Standard Trappings

A Private dick in a hat and trench coat; a distraught but beautiful dame walks into the PI’s office; complex, almost game-like plot twists, full of red herrings, dead ends, and double-crosses; these are just a few of the standard trappings for a mystery story. And none of them is necessary to a good modern mystery. Many mysteries are nostalgia-steeped period pieces, recreating the settings and scenarios of the early mystery writers who laid the foundation for the genre.

But while it can certainly be fun to dabble in nostalgia, there is no reason why an entire genre needs to be steeped in the same tropes as the great works of the past. This can only undermine the modern writer’s chance at real innovation and original storytelling. The foundations laid by these writers aren’t the genre’s limit; they are something for contemporary writers to build upon.
Modern settings offer a whole host of new possibilities for approaching the mystery. In Joe Zabel’s Trespassers stories, Ray and Finn are a far cry from the embittered, seedy hired-heroes of classic mysteries. Ray is a professional writer who has been brought into contact with law enforcement and the criminal world through his own research. But their involvement in solving crimes isn’t itself professional—instead, they help people who are in trouble just because that’s the sort of good-natured people they are.

As discussed earlier, Jason Little's Bee is also sucked into mysteries by her own natural curiosity—but it’s the modern world that allows her to stumble into mysteries in the first place. In The Shutterbug Follies, she found her first mystery while working as a film developer, where she happened upon some strangely morbid photographs. In Little’s current story, The Motel Art Improvement Series, Bee happens into her mystery as a result of stopping at the right motel while biking cross-country—something a single young woman could never have thought of doing in decades past.

And even Broderick’s David Diangelo, who does owe a bit more to the heroes of yesterday, despite not being a PI, couldn’t function outside the modern age. He is too technologically savvy, making modern gadgets and internet-age information sources an integral part of his investigative method.

 

The Challenge of Serialization

Most comics on the web tend to be in the "endless ongoing series" vein, some out of love for the newspaper strip form, but often simply because it's the most effective way to build audience. These sorts of strips can go on for years, with no particular end in sight. And many readers like it this way—nobody likes to see their favorite strip end. Nor are most creators eager to risk losing their readership by ending the series that made them a success.

Mysteries, by contrast, seem to demand clear conclusions in order to be satisfying. The entire story is building toward a revelation: who did it, how, and why? Delay that revelation too long, and the whole thing begins to feel capricious; readers will lose patience with the story, and confidence that even the writer knows who the killer is. But once you make that final revelation, that's it: the story's over. "Maybe that's why mysteries are less in vogue than they used to be," suggests Zabel. "They don't promote the perpetuation of the commercial property."

Serialization can pose additional challenges for readers as well; if your story is the sort that lays out clues for the readers, allowing them to try to solve the case before the hero, lengthy serialization can make it hard to keep all of the important details in mind when reading new updates. What’s more, since mysteries do tend to appeal more to readers with an interest in self-contained stories, they can also be less patient about waiting for a story to play out over the course of its serialization. "I would say the length of time it takes for one of my stories to unfold is the biggest barrier to increasing my readership," says Broderick. "It takes something like two years for me to complete a story. That's a long time, but there's nothing I can do about that."

Of course, these are trade-offs that can be worthwhile, so long as you take advantage of the benefits that serialization allows as well. For instance, Broderick enjoys being able to focus on creating one page at a time: "That gives me the side benefit of focusing on that page and making sure it's interesting enough for the reader to want to turn that page, or at least come back for the next installment."

And Zabel suggests that, done well, serialization can even allow you to strengthen some elements of the mystery, "because you can develop more complex characters and play out the mystery for that much longer a time."

 

Improvisation vs. Pre-Planning

An additional question raised by webcomic serialization is: "How much of the story should be planned out from the start, and how much improvised?" Many other types of webcomics are improvised from day to day; for humor strips, it’s quite common for creators to decide the subject of a day’s strip the night before it’s due, and even epic adventures leave a lot of room for their creators to follow their whims in exploring the world of their story. Mysteries, however, can’t function as a series of unconnected gags or plot twists. Not when the clues revealed along the way must all lead toward a single, coherent revelation.
"I know writers who have said that when they start a book they don't know how the story will end," says Broderick. "I think that's fine if you're writing a prose mystery—you can go back and rewrite whole chapters to make things work. Can you imagine having to go back and redraw a bunch of pages? No thank you."

Broderick goes so far as to create a detailed outline of his whole story, mapping out all of the major plot points and revelations that need to be included along the way, so that he always knows where he’s going. He even makes a point of scripting dialogue several days in advance of drawing the pages. Dialogue and layouts may then be tweaked or modified at the drawing board, but only within the constraints of his established outline.

Zabel, on the other hand, admits to a looser planning process in writing webcomics than with his prior print work. "I always have an ending in mind, but over the course of time creating the story, my ideas about the ending change and (I hope) improve." Dialogue in particular tends to be more improvisational, especially in his most recent story, The Ice Queen. Improvisational though some of these elements may be, though, that he always knows where he’s ultimately going certainly helps define the range of his improvisation.

Of course, in comparing Broderick and Zabel’s working methods, it’s worth noting that they produce very different styles of mystery. While Zabel focuses on creating mood and tension in the moment-to-moment ingenuity of his characters, Broderick is more conscious of laying out precise clues that the reader can discover and piece together. Knowing which style of mystery you’re interested in producing is perhaps the most important factor in determining just how loose you can afford to be in your own planning process.

 

Mystery Writing Community

As important as it is for a webcomic creator to read webcomics, it’s also important for a mystery creator to take in other mysteries, in a wide range of forms, from other webcomics, to prose novels, to films and stage. Whether speaking of mysteries specifically, or storytelling in general, each form offers it’s own special concerns, quirks, and techniques, but often these form-specific characteristics can inform new methods and techniques worth trying in your own form of choice.

And in looking to these other forms, it’s also important to remember that you’re not just part of a single community. You’re not just creating a webcomic; you’re also writing a mystery. And that opens up a whole other world of creators to interact with and learn from. You can join mystery writers’ groups or book discussion groups. Like Tim Broderick, you can join the Mystery Writers of America. Taken together, these various community outlets offer a wealth of resources to the aspiring mystery writer, just as the webcomics community offers its own resources to the webcomics creator.