I’ve been seeing the same question float around social media a lot lately… Folks working on a maxi-series or larger graphic novel, asking “where exactly do I start my story?” Often immediately followed up by the more specific version, “Can I lead off with an origin story?”
Keep in mind, I’m not talking about where you should start writing to develop your idea (that’s a whole different article). The answer to their question is one of “scene selection”—choosing how to actually open you story in its intended medium.
As I mentioned in the “things to avoid” section of the Working Writer’s Guide to Comics and Graphic Novels, I don’t recommend starting a series (or larger story) with the MC’s origin story. Certainly this is a generalization painting with broad strokes; your origin story could be a gripping masterpiece… But usually, the origin story is slower paced, and involves too much setup to engage and hook an audience at the start.
By its very nature, an origin story is the stuff that comes before the real story.
Think of it this way, let’s say you’re doing a series about Rock-man, as in a guy who can turn himself into an unbreakable rock. Rock-man is recruited by homeland security and goes on missions thwarting super villains or alien terrorists. The real story, the element that resonates with people from issue to issue (or over the course of a larger graphic novel), is Rock-man’s missions—his journey as the hero, conquering various obstacles through his use of his power and character.
If you don’t like the Captain America’esque version, we can flip it…
Rock-man is trying to escape from homeland security. He uses his super-human powers to evade drones and defeat soldiers at every turn. His thrilling, daring escapes and constantly staying ahead of the government is what people come to love and expect.
Regardless of how you choose to express Rock-man, when you focus on his set-up or origin, you’re not giving the audience the essence of the character—you’re working to establish the essence of the character. You’re defining all the normal parameters of the MC’s world, showcasing the catalyst/event that changes the MC and finally the effects of the change.
Setup and origin content defines the character as he will be viewed and understood later on. And though certainly related (and maybe difficult to separate), the expression of origin/setup character will most likely be quite different than his later form.
You may recognize, that the elements of the origin story sound quite similar to a typical first act—the set up. Gold star for you, that’s exactly right. The goal of the first act is introduction and setup.
That’s why, for folks who are unsure exactly how to open their series, I often recommend jumping right in on their second act. After all, as I noted in Storycraft for Comics, “where the first act is getting everyone in costume and in place, the second act is where they actually perform the dance.”
Opening your series with Rock-man escaping an elaborate military trap… this delivers a first issue that encompasses what the audience will come to associate as typical Rock-man. You can thread in the origin an setup material throughout the series in bits and pieces, or later on, drop an origin issue.
Once the character is established with the audience, a prequel (or flashback) origin issue will come across more intimate and engaging.
When in doubt, start with act 2!▪
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.