On Writing Webcomics
1. I'm not good at this.
The main reason I stopped working on Yuki hoshigawa was frustration at my inability to get the story moving. I didn't want to write a plotless slice-o-life comic where Yuki comments on society and feels depressed and nothing else happens. I wanted to write a science fiction story, emphasis on story. But what I wrote instead was thirty pages of meandering introduction, basically.
I made a classic mistake. Combine an initially passive protagonist with a distaste for arbitrary forcing events (aka a desire to have story emerge organically) and you have a recipe for inaction. It's exactly like a role-playing game where the players make characters with no intrinsic motivations and the GM refuses to railroad. Yuki had no reason to do anything besides mope around.
Plot doesn't come real naturally to me. The inspiration for Yuki Hoshigawa (starting almost ten years ago!) has all been about theme and character development and setting, not plot. That's how writing fiction goes, I think: sometimes the plot comes to you and you need to fill in the characters, soetimes the other way around. Ultimately you need all the pieces working together to build an interesting story. I've got this swirling nebula of related themes and character issues in my brain, but I have great difficulty expressing it as a linear series of events, or even describing it to close friends.
Years ago I figured out an ending for what was supposed to be chapter 1. I'd been refining it ever since. But sometime around last summer, I decided to get serious about writing a solid plot. I re-examined my planned chapter 1 and realized it sucked big time. It was an accumulation of scenes that I liked but that didn't have much to do with each other. (I would tear it up and throw it away, but to do that I'd have to print it out first.) I started over.In January I wrote an outline of a ~20 pages standalone story. But that one wasn't good enough either. It was too goofy, and the action too contrived. Fun, but it didn't feel "Yuki" enough. Writing it was good practice, but it's worth the time I would have to spend drawing it. I filed that one away too, to plunder some of its better ideas later.
Now I'm working on yet another draft, from scratch. My biggest problem is that when I try to think of a climax, most of the scenes that come to mind don't fit the buildup. I know the shape of the hole and now I'm searching for a peg that fits there.
But I'm pretty excited about where it's going. I'm looking forward to drawing again, when I can work from a plot outline that I love.
2. The advice out there for writing comics sucks.
I started reading a lot, looking for advice about story structure and how to craft a plot. There are people out there who make a living doing this and they know how to do it. But good advice is hard to find -- especially for comics.
If you just search for "writing" you hit a lot of articles that assume you're writing a novel, so they're all about paragraph breaks and how to write descriptive sentences and "he said", "she said". In other words, they're about the surface-level presentation of a text format. Completely useless for comics, which have an entirely different surface-level presentation. I want to know about the deeper structure, the stuff that comics and novels have in common -- pacing, character development, dialog, etc.
OK, so I search for "writing comics". Now the results are even worse! Now all the articles you get assume you're submitting a script to Marvel or DC. They're all superhero-centric, they assume a 32-page format, and even worse: they assume that you're writing a script for somebody else to draw. So there's a ton of stuff about the right way to format a script and very little about how to tell a story. A ton of stuff about describing panels and none about laying out panels.
Finally, if you search for "story structure" you get a lot of stuff aimed at people who are trying to break into Hollywood script writing and are looking for the right formula to use to sell their script to a studio. They'll tell you that you need to hit a certain plot point by a certain page in your script and a lot of other rigid, formulaic stuff like that. Frankly a lot of it sounds like superstition - follow these rituals exactly, or else you will anger the script gods!
I've found some helpful material in resources aimed at playwriting and screenwriting. Both of these media have a much more well-developed body of theory and analysis than comics do. (Going all the way back to Aristotle, in fact.) And they're more similar to comics than novels are. Stage plays are all about dialog; screenplays are all about telling a story with images; lessons about either of these things apply directly to comics.
One of the better books I've found on the subject is Story by Robert McKee, an infamous and curmudgeonly teacher of screenwriting. Boring, shallow, cliched, lazy writing offends him on a deep moral level, and he will not tolerate it. Nor will he tolerate people looking for shortcuts to fame and riches. Reading the book is kind of like hearing a grouchy old man rail against the degeneration of modern society. But I learned a lot. And apart from one chapter about script formatting and written description, all the rest of the book is applicable to comics as well as screenplays.
3. Why writing is hard
I had an epiphany today: the space of everything you could possibly write is the real numbers, the space of stuff that's interesting to read is the integers. They're both "infinite" but if you pick something at random, the chances it will fall in the latter category is infinitesimal. (And, um, the fact that I had to use a math metaphor to understand writing tells you a lot about why this doesn't come naturally to me.)
The hardest part of writing isn't having ideas or getting motivated or finding the deeper meaning or making characters believable or polishing dialogue or any of that stuff. The hardest part is deciding what things are going to happen in your story, in what order. Yes. That sounds kind of like "duhhhh" but it's surprisingly hard and nobody wants to talk about it. It's easy to have lots and lots of ideas but hard to know which ones fit together and which ones don't.
You've got infinite combinations to choose from, but your choices must satisfy a gauntlet of contradictory requirements: The chain of cause and effect must be clear, logical, and internally consistent; the pacing must be good, with rising action and tension and relief and no boring stretches; the reader must get enough exposition to understand the situation, but without infodumping; setup must come before payoff, payoff must be worth it; characters' motivations must make sense and character development must be beleivable; it must be the protagonists' choices that drive things and those choices must express the character development and the results of those choices must express the theme; and we should try to do all this without falling back on cliche or being too predictable. Oh, and since this is a comic, the events have to be drawable, visually interesting, and expressable via panel flow.
It's a tall order, all of that together. I used to think that you could just start drawing a comic at page 1 and keep drawing until you got to the last page and the story would emerge as a spontaneous outburst of creativity.
That's... not really how it works. (At least not for me. Maybe there's some insane genius out there who can do it that way.)
Drawing a story that's more than a bunch of random stuff that happens is craft. It doesn't happen by accident. It's a lot of work and planning and rewriting. It takes deep understanding and a willingness to kill your darlings. You don't work from the first page to the last page; you work from idea to outline to rough draft to script to thumbnails to pencil sketch to inking. You try to catch and correct problems as early as possible, because it's much "cheaper" to fix them early, e.g. fill a plot hole or cut out a boring dialog scene before you've spent time drawing anything. The reader never sees any of the work you did prior to the inking stage; what they read is the last stage of a long journey, but if you did it right, it has the illusion of spontaneity.