Let’s Talk About Plot

Some people are naturally gifted plot-savants. Fully-plotted, fully-foreshadowed, fully-realised creations spring from their mind like Athena in the form of a comic book, a novel, a screenplay, etc. Those people do not need this article, and should instead turn their attention to achieving world peace or something more worthy of their talents. For the rest of us, it is necessary to plan our plots. This was recently brought to my attention by my excellent editor, Yannick Morin. (Actually, he also brought to my attention the necessity of having a plot in the first place.)

The Three Phases of Plot

  1. The Seed: At this phase, your story is just a seed. You have a scene, a concept, a character — something, in mind. It’s beautiful, exciting, and … not yet a story, nor even a plot. Once you have your idea, draw from it a thesis: this can be anything from “Superman is more powerful than his enemies” to, “Without god, all is permitted“. Determined your thesis? Great. It’s still not a plot, but you are ready to plant your seed.
  2. Cultivation:  In this phase you put earth around your seed. It becomes grounded in a fertile field of complementary events, characters, and metaphor-breaking. In more mundane terms, in this phase you do the work. You have to plan your plot. There are approximately seventeen-thousand different ways to do this, and a few of them are discussed below.
  3. Fruition: After hours of labour (and many days of waiting anxiously), your seed has put up its first tender green shoots. Excellent! The plot is complete, and you can move on to actual writing. The actual writing may otherwise be known as “exponentially more labour”, but since this post is restricted in scope to the plotting of your story, we can discontinue this metaphor at the beautiful, tender green shoots.

Know Your Type

Before you can begin planning your plot, there is one major decision you have to make: what type of story do you want to tell? There are two basic types of narrative: character-driven and event-driven.

In a character-driven narrative, the plot itself is largely the development of a character’s, or characters’, feelings and attitudes. The Brothers Karamazov, or better yet, Notes from Underground, are examples of character-driven plot, as indeed is most of what you’ll find the in the classics section of your library or bookshop.

My literary background is the classics, so for me “event-driven plot” is a strange and vaguely unpleasant concept that brings to mind large-scale explosions and overdone manic cackling. However, this need not be so. Ruth Rendell’s Inspector Wexford stories are excellent examples of event-driven narrative with believable, three-dimensional characters. It is also not to say that large-scale explosions and characters who cackle maniacally cannot be done cleverly, enjoyably, and well. It is, however, a very different style of plotting with its own advantages, disadvantages, and pitfalls.

Relative (and subjective) merits aside, the type of story you want to tell will determine the type of narrative you should use to tell it. A story about an adolescent flowering into adulthood and rebellion would likely be best-served by a character-driven narrative; a story about thwarting an assassination attempt on a geopolitically-influential ambassador is likely to make better use of an event-driven narrative. You can mix and match here (perhaps the geopolitically-influential ambassador’s marriage is ending and the assassination attempt is only a metaphor), but do so advisedly.

 

Planning Your Plot : What Happens?

The most important thing about your plot is, well, what actually happens in it. You have almost total freedom here. Almost total freedom. If your story ends with aliens swooping in and saving the day, make sure you established that they existed and why they might be inclined to save the day well before this happens.

Key words here are: tonegenre, and thesis. Make sure all three of these cohere and complement each other. A love-conquers-all ending is unlikely to serve a gritty noir tone, for example, and nor are wish-granting fairies likely to make sense in your realistic thriller. Most importantly, make sure that the events of your story match your thesis. Events in fiction are half metaphor, so if you are writing an anti-war epic, all conflict being resolved by argument, domination or actual violence, does not serve your thesis (presumably some variation of, “give peace a chance”).

Readers approach your story with expectations informed by tone, genre and thesis. Feel free to play with these expectations, but don’t disregard them.

 

Planning Your Plot : Level of Detail

Some people will create only a very general outline, perhaps even only a beginning, an ending, and one or two interim events; perhaps even only a beginning. Other people will plan practically every single event in their story, issue-by-issue (or chapter-by-chapter), and even page-by-page. Probably the majority of writers will fall somewhere in between the two.

If your story is to be published or released in only one discrete unit, then you probably can (note the use of can) get away with coasting along, working out the plot as you go, and coming back later to clean things up or to add foreshadowing. If your story will span even two units (two issues of a comic book, two books in a series, two episodes of a TV show), however, you really need to know what is going to happen down the line so you can lay the groundwork appropriately. Regardless of whether or not the final product is to be serialised, planning your plot with a reasonable degree of detail will save you work later, and give you focus.

On the other hand, you should not include so much detail in your plot outline that you feel bored by your story and as if you have practically written it already. Or, if you do include really huge amounts of detail, remember that it is a roadmap and not a binding legal contract. When you do actually start writing, you should enjoy it and remember that you are always in control of your story. That’s what makes it fun.

Note for Event-Driven Narratives: If you are writing an event-driven narrative, the events are front-and-centre. In a very real sense, they are your protagonist. The reader should interact with them as a protagonist. They should be surprising, interesting, and engaging just like a good protagonist.

 

Planning Your Plot : Methods

There are a few plotting methods, and you can use none, one, some, or all of them in combination.

The first method is cue-cards or flashcards. Either buy a stack of them from Officeworks or similar, or just cut up a piece of paper. Start writing plot points and character developments or reactions on them. Reshuffle and add/remove them as necessary. Ta-da!

The second method is corkboarding. You can use an actual corkboard or an online corkboard like Lino. Lino lets you share your corkboard with specific people, which is great if you’ re collaborating. You do have to sign up, though. Larry Ferlazzo has posted a more comprehensive list of online corkboarding applications and their pros and cons. In general terms, corkboards are great to generate ideas, and to organise and re-organise them to your heart’s content. If you’re a visual thinker, this method is ideal for you.

The third method is quite simple: just write a list of events out on a sheet of paper. This ranks very highly on the just-get-started scale, but it does suffer somewhat by being difficult to change. You want Item 7 now to be Item 2? And Item 3 should now be Item 10? Congratulations, your plan is a confusing criss-crossing of arrows and scribbles. Applying this basic method to spreadsheeting makes it much more manageable. Here are some basic spreadsheet templates that I created to help me plot:

For reference, this is what my character-driven template looks like:
Character-Driven Plot Template

In Summation

Remember, basically, to keep it relevant and believable. Don’t add extraneous plot points, either events or character developments. Remember to foreshadow important or difficult-to-accept plot points, and remember to keep your plot cohesive.

And try not to think about all the work ahead of you once you have finished planning your plot.

 

In organised exhaustion,
Yvette

Finding an Artist

Finding an artist for your comic book is, by turns, exhilarating and crushing. You see somebody you like … they’re unavailable. You are overwhelmed by incredible artists. On another day, in a different place, you might be underwhelmed by bad-fit or mediocre artists.

There are three phases to finding your artist: first, working out what you can or are comfortable paying your artist; second, knowing where to look for great artists; and finally, choosing just one. Finally, once you’ve found an artist, there’s the contract.

 

How Much Should You Pay Your Artist?

Everybody (hopefully!) agrees that comic book creators or writers should be paying their artists a fair page rate, but what is that rate?

How much comic book artists are paid is widely variable. It depends on their lifestyle, their experience, their skill, and about ten thousand other things. The closest I could find to a rate listing was this post on The Straight Dope. In it, astro lists acceptable page rates thusly:

Newcomers

  1. Penciler: $10-60
  2. Inker: $10-25
  3. Colourist: $5-20
  4. Cover Penciler: $40-75
  5. Cover inker: $25-50
  6. Cover colourist: $75-250

Seasoned Artists

  1. Penciler: $50-120
  2. Inker: $25-60
  3. Colourist: $25-60
  4. Cover Penciler: $100-200
  5. Cover inker: $75-100
  6. Cover colourist: $250-700

Pros

  1. Penciler: $100+
  2. Inker: $60+
  3. Colourist: $60+
  4. Cover Penciler: $200+
  5. Cover inker: $100+
  6. Cover colourist: $1,000+

Bear in mind that this post was from 2005, so rates may have changed since then (upwards due to inflation and cost of living increases, or even downwards due to the GFC/global downturn). Also, probably practically no artists have read that list, so they may very well feel more comfortable with higher or with lower rates.

The most important thing, I think, is to work out the absolute maximum you can afford to pay your artist, and then offer them that. Your artist is your partner in realising your vision for your comic book, and nobody wants a sub-standard partner.

 

Finding Artists

If you happen to have a lot of suitable artists in your acquaintance, congratulations. But for most people, they have to venture a bit further from home to find the right person.

The four most commonly recommended places to look for an artist are: local art schools/universities; the Digital Webbing forums; the Penciljack forums; and DeviantArt.

Local Art Schools/Universities

I did not hit up my local art schools/universities, but the idea behind this is that it’s here you are most likely to find an artist with the talent but not necessarily the price tag of an established artist. This is also an excellent option if you want a more unique style, especially something experimental.

PencilJack Forums

PencilJack is one of the two major comics creators’ forums. They have a fairly strong collection of talented artists, many of whom are looking for work. I received quite a lot of responses to my ad.

Digital Webbing

In my experience, Digital Webbing has the highest calibre of artists. I received about 50 responses to my ad, all of which were at least promising. This is where I found my artist. Another unique thing about the Digital Webbing forums it that they have a “Paid Help Wanted” section and a “Collaborators” section. So if you are looking for an artist-collaborator (to be paid all or mostly on the back-end), there is also a place for you at Digital Webbing.

Deviant Art

Are there any freelance online-based artists anymore who don’t have a DeviantArt profile? There are some incredible artists on there. The only problem with DeviantArt is that there are so many artists it can be difficult to even really know where to begin looking. I searched for “comic art” and “sequential art” and found a number of very talented artists. If you are going to use DeviantArt, and especially if you are looking for a collaborator, you should become involved in the community. Comment on Deviations and establish relationships with the artists, even those who you don’t feel necessarily fit your vision for your current story. This is good networking, for one thing, but more importantly: it’s just good manners to establish dialogue with people before you start asking them for favours or talking business.

Choosing an Artist

Once you have found, hopefully, an incredible smorgasbord of talented, responsive artists, comes the second step: choosing just one. There are four key issues in choosing an artist:

  1. No matter how talented, it is fundamentally important that your artist have sequential storytelling experience, or at least have examples in their portfolio. Although a talented artist is likely to be a talented sequential storyteller once they have learned the form, there is a learning curve. Also, an artist experienced in sequential storytelling will have a better idea of what’s possible and probably better turnaround time.
  2. Apart from their style being inspiringly clean, evocative or even curiously abstract, does this style fit your story? If not, the art, no matter how beautiful, will detract from your story. It is a zero-sum game.
  3. How reliable and professional is your artist? Can you rely on them to get pages to you by your deadlines? Can you rely on a consistently high quality of work from them? This is difficult to establish from their portfolio, but certainly something worth bearing in mind as you interact with them.
  4. Finally, and most importantly: how much are they worth, and how much can you afford?

How you balance those factors is up to you. I personally got lucky with my artist and only had to balance the last option by stretching my budget to its utmost so that I didn’t feel as if I was ripping him off.

Once You’ve Found an Artist

Once you’ve found an artist, it’s a good idea to negotiate a contract. My friend Stanley Chou linked me to this great template contract from DeviantArt.

 

And that is how you find, and choose, your artist. There are of course many other methods than I’ve outlined here. You might serendipitously bump into an artist on the street, knocking their portfolio from their hands, and spilling their stellar sequential art all over the street. Actually, that’s an interesting idea for a mini-meta-comic…

 

Edit: DigiWombat (via Reddit) adds, “And if there’s one thing I forgot this morning that I think is important for writers to take note is, keep in mind that while you should pay a fair price for the work the artists are putting in, you’re also paying for just about everything else. That won’t mean much to most artists, but some of them realize writers are human beings and will work more with you if they understand the whole story a bit better. Beyond that, it’s a good thing to keep in mind for your own personal budgeting as well.”

 

In creative diligence,
Yvette

A Journey of a Thousand Scripts

This is my first post, in my first blog. That is probably coming to the party a bit late for a 29 year-old, but I’ve never previously had anything to say. That has all changed recently.

Let us step into the night and pursue that flighty temptress, adventure.
— JK Rowling, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

This blog will be a chronicle of my latest project, and greatest adventure to-date: the writing of a comic.

Even at this early stage of my journey, I have learnt a lot, most importantly: how much more I still have to learn. So far I have planned my budget, found an artist, found an editor, found a community, and actually begun scripting. Those topics, and the many others that are sure to come up along the way, are what I will be writing about here.

Onwards and upwards,
Yvette