Sunday, 24 June 2012

Making Comics - Plotting is all in the mind

I've been thinking a lot about writing recently, mainly because I've been "doing" a lot of it. I've been thinking that the word "writer" is a kind of inadequate word sometimes, given that the actual act of writing is only a small part of creating a story.

I thought I'd offer up some of my thoughts regarding the art of plotting while I write the script for issue 3 of my forthcoming creator-owned work, Gonzo Cosmic. Once upon a time, the art of writing was really elusive to me. It was a world of esoteric meaning, full of pitfalls and traps, because I didn't understand the art form. I read 'how-to' books, and tried to shoehorn ideas into stories, mangling characterisation and over-using structure. That was, I think, because I didn't have a lot of confidence in my authenticity as a writer.

However, as I practised it, and made many mistakes along the way, I learned to trust myself more as a writer, and once I did, I realised I was actually physically writing a lot less.

See, the thing is, the main meat of writing comics is plotting, same as it is in film and drama. I think it's slightly less similar in novel-writing, but it's still an important part of the process. However, in comic booking, plotting is everything. Starting off with an idea - a good idea, hopefully, the one no one else is doing - you must daydream the story. If you've got a good story brewing, every spare second of your day where you can afford to daydream will be spent thinking about that next awkward action scene, or working out how to not break your own internal consistency.

If you try to struggle with this on paper, I believe, you'll find yourself regularly battering your head off a metaphorical wall. There's a sense of wanting to "get it right", and if you don't have the plot in your head first, that's going to mean a lot of scribbling, a lot of scrubbing out, a lot of crumpled sheets of paper. And all that gets you is demotivated...

If however you plot the story out in your head, it becomes much easier. I don't mean mapping out pages and panels here by the way: I mean working through the story from start to finish. Working out how one scene segues into another. Tackling the ideas you know you need to cover in the specific issue, dealing with the arcs your characters need to take. It's like watching a movie of your story, but it's also NOT a mental movie. The assets you're dealing with are elastic and pliable when you're working things out in your mind - nothing is fixed, and you can shift time and pace and place and people without redrafting or correcting anything.

It's your very own infinitely variable sandbox, and yet when we start out, we rarely use it the way we should. We think that to be a writer means we need to sit down and WRITE. That somehow putting pen to paper will make the ideas flow. Then we worry when they don't come - when we sit there with a blank page or worse, a page with a paragraph of gibberish on it, and we think we're not cut out for this.

But here's the thing, the important thing: more often than not, writing is about ideas, not technique. A poor writer can have incredible ideas, but fantastic writing with generic, banal concepts and nothing to say is hollow.

So here's my tip for anyone starting out writing comics: work on your ideas. Cook them up in your skull until they're sparkling like diamonds and hot like volcanoes, ready to burst out of you. You can work on your technique, you can get critique that helps you to organise your mind on the page. You can read scripts by your favourite writers, and crib some of their techniques, analysing how they do what they do, before you find the confidence to use your own voice and style.

But plot, plot, plot in your head. Work out that story so well that you know EXACTLY what's going to happen, even if the method of telling it changes slightly. I guarantee if you do this, when it comes to writing it down, it'll feel much easier.

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