Engaging the Reader in 22 Pages

This was a multi-part post originally posted on the facebook page.

It’s long, but the 10 tips discussed below are ones worth knowing.

***

The best stories and comics engage the reader.

Engaging the reader means getting them emotionally INVESTED in the characters and the story, to the point where they experience the story (at least to some degree) vicariously through the characters themselves.

It’s hard enough to create this connection in a full length novel, so how the heck do you do it in the span of roughly 110 panels?

The answer of course, you bring all the critical elements of story telling together, Characters, Theme, Pacing, Tension, Suspense, Setting, Dialogue, etc… in a perfect writing storm.

Here’s a few of the major considerations to get your winds blowing:

 

1) Make sure the issue has a hook at the start.

The hook is some overwhelming question the reader not merely WANTS to see answered, but NEEDS to see answered. 
So many comics throw the reader into a situation without presenting a solid and interesting hook.
* I just grabbed an issue of Punisher War Journal off my floor, it opens with a criminal holding a wounded cop at gun point. Punisher is aiming his own gun at the criminal. While the opening is decent because the scene has opened late, and we’re in the action as a hook it’s not very strong.


First, since we haven’t been introduced to this villain and secondary character, we don’t really know them and our attachment/concern towards them is limited at best.


Second, the question or questions the scene is setting up are fairly general. What’s going on? Who is this cop, who is this bad guy? What’s going to happen and how does this tie in to the comic we’re about to read.

But most importantly Third, because this hook is about to get resolved (answered) in the next two pages. (Punisher shoots the guy, saves the cop then goes on to other business.) In this scenario, the writer has to establish a second hook and in the confines of 22 pages, never do something twice that you can do once.

Always try to put forth a hook that encompasses the entire issue.

For a quick example of a good hook.

What if you opened an Indiana Jones comic in the desert with Nazis and workers excavating a site under the hot sun. Sallah sneaks off and meets Indy. Indy is worried that the Nazis are going to uncover the box. That the world is going to be in great jeopardy if they get their hands on it. Sallah agrees, then smiles. Don’t worry they’re digging in the wrong spot and Indy will get to the right spot first. 
So here, the reader is intrigued about this box everyone is after. What is it? How can it threaten the world? Who will find it? 
This hook is something you can run with till the end of the issue (or potentially issues beyond).

2) Foreshadow the climax during the issue. 


This is the “promise” of the story. You’re telling the reader early on in the issue–directly or indirectly–what the crux of the issue is about.

Ok, you want to see the Punisher take on the mafia, how about he has to take on a hideout filled with mafia hit-men… and it’s going to be one hell of a battle.

Foreshadowing the climax doesn’t mean you have to give away all the story turns and reveals, it simply means the reader should know what kind of experience he is about to invest his time and energy in.

* Another example, take Rocky. Early on, you know the story is about a small-time boxer who’s going to get a chance to take on the reigning champion. Stallone (the writer) promises an epic fight… he builds it up over the entire story and delivers what he’s been promising at the end–in spades.

3) Get to the climax through an unpredictable path.

The reader already knows (or has an idea of) what’s coming. But they should never SEE it coming. 
Turns, reveals, surprises, suspense and tension pull readers into the character’s headspace.

ALWAYS keep the reader on their toes and off balance. 


Working in the limited page count of a comic, there’s a sort of spotlight or emphasis on everything you do as a writer. Make sure your scenes are not predictable.

If the reader gets ahead of you, if the reader has already figured out how the story is going to get where it’s going, there’s a good chance they’re going to disengage–they might just put down your book and go watch Star Trek or something.
Always stay ahead of the reader, warp factor 3 or faster.
 Make it so.

 

4) Make sure the villains aren’t pushovers.

Increase the conflict, increase the jeopardy and make the villains and confrontations extremely challenging for the MC.

When you showcase your MC going up against the villain there always has to be a distinct possibility the MC may lose.

In the context of a single issue you may only have one major action/fight scene. If the reader feels 100% confident going in the MC is going to win… and he does, you’ve just sucked half the helium out of your story balloon… 
Now your limp little bubble (aka the Reader’s engagement) is floating back to the ground where it’s likely to land on something sharp and pop .

* When superman goes up against a bank robber, we laugh and enjoy being shown (reminded) Superman’s incredible amount of power and ability. This eye candy is good to work in, in limited amounts, depending on the pacing of the book. BUT when Supe’s engaging the real villain of the story, we need to see real jeopardy in order to be engaged.

If Lex Luthor doesn’t pose a real threat. If Supe’s defeat isn’t a real tangible possibility, then why bother with the story. It’s boring and predictable and we just don’t care. We’d rather put down the book and go watch the Last Unicorn again.

This is one of the reasons you always want to develop your villains to attack the MC’s strengths. Lex is a evil genius–Superman’s physical strength can’t compensate for genius.

This is also the reason you want to develop weaknesses in your MC’s, especially the super powerful ones like Superman. Kryptonite levels the playing field and gives many villains the opportunity to pose a real threat to an otherwise almost invulnerable character.

OK, but this tip isn’t really about developing solid villains (I’ve talked on that before) it’s about being sure you 
paint them in a strong, capable light in the issue.
If you make the outcome of each confrontation unpredictable the reader will have a hard time putting your book down.

 

5) Make your characters face decisions. 

Writing 101 talks about having a proactive MC (at least later in the story), somebody that acts upon the story rather than gets acted upon. 
This is true and a good rule to learn and understand, but in the condensed format of comics you can get away with the MC being “a bit more” reactive to circumstances. The trick is to always give the MC clear decisions to make and continually use the decisions to establish the character’s overall arc.

Let’s say you have a couple of action scenes where Kull is kicking the crumb outta Thulsa Doom and his warriors. Then you have a sexy scene with Kull and a couple of lady birds, a pinch point scene where Doom is plotting revenge, a scene of Kull traveling the next leg of his journey and finally a scene of Kull getting drunk in a tavern.

None of these scenes seem to jump out as significant points where Kull is driving the story–where Kull is making the decisions that push the narrative forward.

If the story is simply unfolding around the MC, he/she becomes sort of hollow–like Kull isn’t really important to the story, but the writer needs a body to stand in and act.

When you include distinct, relevant decisions by Kull, now suddenly we have an active, driving force and hey!, that’s our hero–the guy we want the reader focused on. We’re developing this bad ass barbarian, advancing the plot and bringing the reader along for the ride.

Whenever important decisions are made pay close attention to the next tip, showcasing consequences of the MC’s actions.

 

6) Show consequences of the MC’s actions and decisions. 

Speaking of decisions… If things take place in a bubble, the reader quickly loses their connection to the story.

When you hit the reader with a handful of scenes make sure at least one showcases the consequences of the MC’s actions and decisions.

“Most of the time” these consequence scenes will involve support characters, as we show the reader how the MCs actions are affecting the people/events around him. And often (but not always), they’ll be pinch point scenes–scenes outside of the MC’s perception…
For example.

Let’s say your writing a climax battle between Batman and the Joker taking place in a burning warehouse. After the fight, both characters have beaten the crud out of each other, but Batman wins… Batman spares the Joker, leaving him to fend for himself in the collapsing warehouse.
Showing the consequences could be a short dialogue by the joker vowing revenge… or it could be the joker cracking a joke and moving to escape but the burning ceiling collapse in on him.

Not so directly (far separated scenes);

Sticking with the caped crusader, let’s say Bruce Wayne is in a corporate board meeting of Wayne Enterprises. And he has to make a choice between buying out a company and putting their workers out of work, or allowing the company to continue on costing him money or something negative…
Bruce reluctantly decides to buy out the company and shut it down.

You could then show the consequences of this decision by having a picket of disgruntled workers around their old office building–maybe fighting with police on the verge of a riot… Or maybe, Batman catches a masked bank robber later in the issue, and when unmasking him it’s revealed that the robber is an employee from the company he shut down–forced to steal out of some desperate need (like to pay for his wife’s cancer meds).

Keep in mind when your delivering consequence scenes AMP THEM UP–make them dramatic. The more powerful the consequences, the more weight it gives to the MC’s action/decision. (An extremely potent element in establishing character arcs.)

Consequence scenes are the “Effect” of the “Cause”-delivering them completes the arc and ties everything together. It creates depth and understanding and draws the reader in.

On a final note, while you could certainly take a lot of real estate to showcase consequences, you could also nail it in a single well written panel.
Consequence scenes don’t necessarily have to be long, but they are necessary to good comic story telling.

 

7) Number six is brought to you by Captain Obvious–PUT YOUR CHARACTERS INTO INTERESTING SITUATIONS.

No matter how intriguing a character is, seeing them in mundane situations gives the reader’s mind a chance to wander. I talk a bunch in the book about the Mundane and how to avoid it. A topic of discussion closely related to Talking Head syndrome something I STRONGLY urge writers to steer clear of.

Although this simple tip seems so obvious, it’s overlooked all the time.

So many writers throw their characters into common place or CLICHE situations, thinking the art, dialogue and plot will keep the reader engaged… it MIGHT… but it might not.

And when you’re sitting down to script a comic, why would you go with “might”?

Why wouldn’t you take the strongest most engaging approach you can think of?
While there is certainly something to be said for Genre Conventions–familiar settings and situations immediately begin to oil the clamps connecting the reader to your story–if you’re not careful, they might just unlatch and slip away.

The more times you see a situation, the less impact it has. Period.

And when a reader is in familiar situations, they begin to anticipate more… Their mind moves ahead searching for something… interesting and unfamiliar.
While a good writer could play into this, using it as a staging point for reveals and turns, if you don’t include those surprises to jolt your reader’s attention, you’re running into problems…

When you’re scripting your issue, look at your scenes, look at your situations. Forget about the dialogue and art for a minute. Talk to yourself aloud–pretend you’re telling your friend your scene list.

“I’ve got Peter Parker in the elevator, Peter Parker in a cab, Spiderman fighting a robber on 5th avenue, Spiderman trapped in an underground sewage tank, Peter Parker buying a bagel.”

*I’m gonna bet Spiderman trapped in an underground sewage tank stands out in that list… Everything in that list you’ve seen a million times, except the underground sewage tank… maybe you’ve only seen that 10 times.

If you’ve got too many familiar, not-so-interesting situations, start re-writing.

 

8) Showcase your character’s personality at EVERY opportunity.

Readers experience the story through the characters. They are the focal point of engaging the audience.

In turn, readers are attracted or repelled by a character’s personality. Their mannerisms, the way they talk, act and react to situations.

***If you don’t develop the character’s personality, the reader is always kept at a distance from the story.***

LET THEM IN.

Think back to the old Batman tv show. 
Every second those two were yappin away in their cheeky 60’s bat-lingo. Though it seems corny today, it fit the show and the characters perfectly, and drew the viewers into each episode. In fact, the audience became so engaged with the characters, viewers would watch the show WAITING with anticipation for the next line of ridiculous bat-lingo.

Of course it’s not just dialogue, we knew Robin’s personality. We knew he was always going to screw something up, use a gadget wrong and get the caped crusader in trouble. We also knew batman always had some ridiculous trick up his sleeve–this was just who he was.

So in every situation of the episodes the audience was engaged, waiting to see those personalities surface and the character act on the problems at hand.
If your writing hasn’t presented opportunities for the characters to really put their personality on center stage, let the characters make their own opportunities.

 

9) Characters are super important so let’s get another one out there, WORK IN SUBTLE COMPLEXITIES OF YOUR CHARACTERS.

I’ve talked previously about Passion, Flaws and Distinct Voices for characters today I’m going to mention to always make your characters complex.

This is especially important for long term series characters. Shallow/surface characters will fall apart quickly over a few issues.

When you develop complex characters, you can inject small bits of their complex personalities and history wherever the opportunity arises. This grabs the reader’s attention and creates a deeper connection to the character-which in turn keeps the reader locked into the story.

Real quick, let’s rattle some character points from Spiderman; Uncle Ben dies from Peter’s negligence-struggling with guilt, has a poor aunt-concerned about money and responsibilities, he’s a science nerd, photographer for the paper-trying to keep a job, dealing with a serious relationship-Mary Jane, gets picked on by bullies.

People are complex. Every character has a history (unless it’s a baby and even babies have personalities). We exist through a lifetime of experiences.
Develop this history and complexity before you start writing. While maybe not every character will take center stage, add richness and depth to everybody in the cast.

Don’t try and shove all your character’s complexity to the surface in your first issue, instead let the character’s qualities percolate into the story naturally over time.

 

10) Don’t explain everything.

The negative space is just as important if not more so, than the positive.
There is a real art in story telling, knowing how much to leave to the reader’s imagination.

But besides this, trying to explain everything takes up too much real estate in a comic. So learn to leave some blanks and let the reader use their own imagination to fill them in.

As long as you’re not stumbling around in the dark, as long as your overall story structure is solid, you’ll find the reader’s imagination is a huge asset to your writing.

And getting the reader involved in writing the story as they’re reading it, is a sure fire way to keep them engaged 😉    ▪

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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