Comic Book Writing Fundamentals

Genuine story serves a function.

When you set out to create anything that serves a function, the effectiveness of that thing can be measured by how well it performs.

  • If you build a rocking chair and it doesn’t rock smooth, it’s not effective.
  • If you build a car and it gets 1 mile to the gallon, it’s not effective.
  • If you build a sword and it doesn’t kill (looking at you Doug Marcaida) it’s not effective.

When you create something that serves a function, you first identify the fundamental elements that deliver on that function. These elements are the fundamentals of story discussed throughout my sites and books.

You then follow a plan, or some sort of blueprint that brings all these fundamental elements together.

The better you’ve identified your fundamentals, the better your plan, the better your ability to execute and the more effective the final product will be.

In story, the fundamental elements combined function is the ability to control the readers emotions, delivering a specific emotional journey, with a specific message, in a manner that reflects your intent as the creator.

Now if you’ve been writing for a number of decades, like me, a lot of the plan already lies in your head.

It becomes second nature.

I have a bunch of different scenes and rough concepts in my head. I could sit down and start right to script if I wanted to, with the expectation of a fairly high level of effectiveness. But if you don’t have the years behind the keyboard and million plus words written under your belt that I have (and don’t get me wrong, lots of folks do, but if you don’t), just jumping into scripting is the least effective method of creating a comic.

Truth be told, I pretty much never jump straight into scripting.

I take great comfort in the careful planning and plotting of story…

To me, the strategy, struggle, and successes in the story discovery process are elements of writing that make writing worthwhile. (Actually writing the script is simply recording all the great stuff I discovered in the discovery process.)

Notice I didn’t say if you jump straight into script, your story will be dead on arrival and won’t work.

Writing is always a measure of effectiveness; a measure of how well your story functions.

Plainly put, going straight to script is rushing.

Refusing to lay down story fundamentals means you either have to figure them out and add them in later, OR you simply leave them out.

So, give yourself a bunch of extra work to do later on, or leave out essential elements to making your script effective.

The latter is the clear mark of a total amateur or hack… don’t be that guy.

And the former is dangerous because so many novice writers never take the time to work with an editor… and simply don’t have the experience to recognize where the fundamentals are missing. Both scenarios here lead to the same results of leaving the fundamental elements out.

Lastly keep in mind this ultimate writing rule;

Story fundamentals are far more important than script level plot details.

It’s dang hard to have a shitty plot with strong story fundamentals…

or a strong plot with shitty fundamentals…

but while the plot details might seem alluring on the surface, those plot details don’t reveal actual plot structure; your story could still be total shit. Comprehending this alone, will improve your writing ten fold.

Hopefully I’ve made a convincing argument as to why the fundamentals are necessary.

As I’ve discussed in other articles, there’s a bit of a catch 22 when working with an editor/story conusltant to develop a story. The timing when to bring them in, versus how much material you’ve developed, versus cost of their participation. It’s really a personal decision based on personal factors.

At the end of the day, the less experience you have, the earlier you should consider bringing them on.

 

The Macari method of essential writing elements;

#1) Master Theme

1 line.

You have to have a specific message you’re trying to express to the reader. If you don’t have a specific message, your story is irrelevant.

#2) Know Why You’re Writing the Story in the First Place

1-3 paragraphs.

Two of the most common reasons folks write a story is because they see some great wrong in the world they want to expose, OR they are highly attracted to something.

If you don’t know why you’re writing the story in the first place, you can’t possibly write it effectively.

The mechanics of this are what I refer to as the Core Concept in Storycraft for Comics.

// Most writers flub this in a big way, in that they rely on an instinctive, subconscious understanding of why they’re doing what they’re doing, but never really stop to figure it out. You’ll likely need some help with someone experienced to clarify this. And it’s absolutely worth the effort. //

#3) Character Arc Driven… or Not

decision.

I put tremendous weight on the effectiveness of character arcs in story… however, not all stories have them and the narrative mechanics of a good character arc are a little easier to incorporate after the fact…

For these reasons I stress the importance of simply recognizing early on if the story is going to be Character Arc driven or not. The fundamental mechanics of NOT using an arc are substantially different than when a Character Arc is used, gravitating toward spectacle script.

While the basic concept of the character arc is pretty simple, there is definitely  structural nuance to pulling them off in spades. It’s always great if a writer puts some early attention to developing the arc (if they’re planning to use one), but I never expect a really well developed arc from a less experienced writer.

The important thing early on is the writer acknowledging he wants an arc driving the story, or not.

#4) Logline

1 line.

The single sentence summary puts your story under a microscope. If it can hold up, you’re on the fast track to a fully functional Death Star–er, I mean–story.

But if you struggle with the logline, it’s an immediate red flag your story isn’t ready for scripting.

The Writer’s Logline on Story to Script breaks it down in detail. I consider this a must read if you’re not 100% on your loglines.

#5) Skeleton Outline (Core Structure)

1-3 pages.

The beat sheet level outline. It doesn’t matter what plot point structure you use, but if you’re not running some sort of underlying narratives bones… your story is likely going to be a floppy jello mess.

As a writer you should really understand why the mechanics of the plot points are where they are and what they do… how they actually work in the context of the entire narrative framework.

So many writers grab and implement Hero Journey plot points but don’t really understand them.

Novice writers often mix and match plot points from different narrative systems–this is usually disastrous–again because the underlying mechanics of why they appear and what they do is not fully understood.

The skeleton outline defines the structure of the plot. Where I noted earlier that details of plot are not necessarily a fundamental element of story, the structure of plot IS.

Read Are You Working on a Phantom Story to understand the difference between Story and Plot. It explains why plot structure is fundamental and how plot details rise from structure, not vice versa.

#6) Comprehensive Outline

20 pages.

The skeletal outline expanded to a nearly long form prose format. The comprehensive outline incorporates ALL the other fundamentals you’ve dug up, defining itself as the final road map to the script.

With #1-6 in hand, it’s a good time to consider bringing in an editor/story consultant.

There’s nothing wrong with moving on to the script once you’ve nailed down the elements above, but if you’ve fumbled anything along the way, you might be giving yourself (and your editor) significant extra work.

 

#7) Script

237 pages. (88 page graphic novel)

The execution of your story. This is where the rubber meets the road. If your fundamentals aren’t in place, the script will never reach its maximum potential.

A script that relies on script level plot details and NOT story fundamentals will be hollow, superficial, and ultimately not engage readers.

Listen closely;

90% of the scripts that come to me miss their full potential by a significant margin.

The writer simply isn’t aware of the key fundamental aspects that make the story truly shine. He’s distracted by some other elements in the story, his personal “darlings.” The crime is when the scripts come to me late, to the point where the writer has invested so much time they don’t really want to do any substantial revisions. 

These scripts will never be the hits they could have been.

And this is why we always say go to your editor, before you go to art! Once  the art is complete, it’s near impossible to save a story (without breaking the bank).

I say this to stress; story fundamentals make or break your story, not the details of your plot, the character designs, the backstory, or bible material.

#8) Scene list

1 page.

Designate your scenes in your script.

Designate your scenes in your script.

Designate your scenes in your script.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, look over at my template download

Once you have your script done, jump through and pull out the slugline scene designations. Compile them in a list on a single page.

In the script, you will only reference new scenes by number; scene 1, scene 2, etc. When you compile the list on a separate page, add location headings;

Scene 1  Pizza Parlor 5 pages

actual page numbers;

Scene 1 Pizza Parlor 5 pages  6-10

and if you’re so inclined, list the main narrative element of the scene. But keep it super short. You want this as a reference, just so you can recall what each scene is about.

Scene 1 Pizza Parlor – gang brawl – 5 pages 6-10

This list is invaluable both to you and your editor as it gives an instant, bird’s eye view of the entire script and overall movements of the story. You can identify a ton of problem areas in a script by literally, glancing over a scene list.

#9) Bible Material

pages vary.

Don’t put your bible material IN your script.

Don’t add your character descriptions to your script. Whether your hero is 5’6″ or 6’5″ doesn’t matter in the early edits. If she’s got a low cut tank top or wool sweater is irrelevant to the story.

Same with your backstory dumps… The hero’s dad beat him, or the sidekick once got locked in a room with bats… I don’t care when I’m reading your script.

That all belongs in a separate document.

If your script references something about the sidekick locked in a room with bats, and I can’t make the leap to understand it’s something in his background; you dropped the ball as a writer to make that element clear.

Newer writers cram bible material in their script TO JUSTIFY the action of their scripts.

The Death Lord does this, because his clan and this other clan have been fighting for 100 years.

Well if you have to explain it to me as a side note in the script, again, that means you didn’t explain it properly to the reader and it needs to be fixed.

You want the flaws in your script to stand out, spray painted in fluorescent paint. This way you can spot them and fix them! You don’t want them buried in bible material exposition.

 

Wells, I think that about covers it.

Look to to those fundamentals. Look to those core documents. And you’ll be on your way toward making a vacuum cleaner that actually sucks up all the dog hair in the house without getting clogged! ▪

About the Author —
Nick Macari is a full-time freelance story consultant, developmental editor and writer, working primarily in the independent gaming and comic markets. His first published comic appeared on shelves via Diamond in the late 90’s. Today you can find his comic work on comixology, amazon and in select stores around the U.S.  Visit NickMacari.com for social media contacts and news on his latest releases.

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