I recently got an email from a young man (I can say that now that I’m 40!) who dreams of breaking into comics. I don’t blame him, comics rock! Here’s his email and below I’ve put my response so that it might help others. The kid sounds a lot like me. And yes, I answer all emails!
Q: I’m a young writer looking to someday have my comic book out there for people to read. I’m 19 but I’ve been working on this story since the 8th grade. I’ve started over numerous times and scrapped a lot of work and ideas. One thing I’ve never changed is the main character’s name, personality, and what he fights for. Just this year I started writing the script for my story and I’m nowhere near finished. One thing that scares me and is always on my mind is, how am I going to get this published? How am I going to turn this into a book? What do I do after finishing this script? I read your article and I was hoping I could get some more information on how you got to where you are now. Maybe through you i can get one step closer to my dream.
A: First off, ideas are a dangerous thing, and they are rarely, if ever, finished. I’ll use the analogy of the original Star Wars because that is so well documented and so easy to relate to (and has a lot to do with the problem you are having). Lucas’ original script for the film was massive. It was way too long, and had enough story for 3 or more films. It was cumbersome, but he had all these ideas in his head and could not let them rattle around up there. He had to put them all down on paper, which is fine, but once Fox gave him the green light, he had to cut down the ideas into something that he could actually film (and the studio could actually make and distribute).
This is much the same way with comics. It starts with an idea. We have tons of ideas pouring into our heads at all times, that’s just what happens to creative people. And then we go to put them down on paper, and it goes nowhere (or it’s so huge you can’t pitch it!).
What Lucas had was a huge problem. He had a big pile of nothing. So he cut out the last 2/3rds of the script and filmed just the first part, assuming that it would bomb and the second and third parts would never be made. Sci-fi wasn’t popular back then. He had a frame to work in – he had to make a film about 2 hours long. Comic books are the same. No matter what, you have to limit your story to 20-24 pages (depending on the publisher), and each page or series of 2-3 pages needs to be a compelling story within itself. The problem is, how do you do that?
I don’t know what your comic is about, but comics are a visual medium, so there needs to be something happening on each page. I’m not a fan of comics that are just 2 people talking, although if the visuals are telling a story or the writing is compelling and compliments the art, it can work.
For your specific case, I’m going to recommend that you completely throw away the concept of ‘idea’. Why? Because comics are not ideas, they are concrete people, places, and situations. Each page takes place in a location, filled with characters, so let’s start there. And I’ll go ahead and use a Star Wars analogy, since we’re already here.
Think of Star Wars. The original 1977 film, the one I called Star Wars growing up, but is now called Episode IV, a New Hope. Anyway, let’s look at the film in terms of actions, not ideas. I’ll break down the whole film from memory (’cause it’s that easy to do).
- fight scene (very short, 1 second)
- chase scene (again, 1 second)
- capture scene
- break in
- fight scene
- capture (of Leia)
- escape (of droids)
- interpersonal conflict (droids argue)
- capture (of both droids)
- escape (droids sold to Luke)
- escape (R2 runs)
- chase (Luke chases droids)
- run (Luke going home)
- entry (to city)
- fight (in bar)
- fight (in hangar)
- escape (from planet)
- capture (by death star)
- escape (in Stormtrooper armor)
- escape (to trash compactor)
- escape (from trash compactor)
- escape (death star)
- fight (battle of Yavin)
That’s basically Episode IV. I left out a few conversations, which are very few, very tight, and serve to show character and also move the plot forward or explain things to the audience. As you can see, the action is constant. Things happen, not ideas. Although the ideas are there, and the action carries the story of a boy trying to be more than he is. But since your problem is you have a huge idea, I’m rolling everything back to square one and breaking it down to the basics.
Fight, run, escape, run, fight, break in, break out: this covers almost everything in Star Wars. Instead of rescue you can say break in, instead of escape you can say break out. There are a few common elements missing, namely the seduction scene (not sexual, but simply when one character tries to convince another character to do something they don’t want to do) and a few others.
As I said, I’m leaving out a lot here. The key to Star Wars are the 4 connections between Luke and Obi-Wan. First in Obi-Wan’s house, second the training scene on the Falcon, third is Obi-Wan’s [spoiler alert] death, and 4th is Obi-Wan’s voice during the trench run. Take those elements out and the film/story fails. Star Wars is about a boy with no father who meets a father figure that allows him to be the man he always knew he was. Those 4 moments seal it all. So don’t think that this is about action and more action. The story has to be solid. And it doesn’t take much, just a few moments between two people will drive your story. But if you’re stuck, start with the action. You can move to plot, character and story later. This is just one method. There are other ways to go. But the ‘scene by scene’ method is a good place to begin if you are stuck.
Here’s my suggestion. Take a piece of paper and make 22 bullet points, each square representing a page. Then map your story in terms of action. Characters break in, fight, get captured. They steal something, they run. This will force you to set the location and time. And it will force your characters to make decisions – remember that your characters make the decisions, not you. So you can build this comic organically. Put the characters in a tough situation, and then let it play you. What would your characters do if they were in a fight? How would they act? Let the situations unfold naturally.
Map out one issue. Start with the characters in a tight spot, and end in a cliff hanger. Remember, you want people to be dying to read the next issue. Start right in the middle of the action, which usually means writing a story and then cutting off the first few pages so that we land in the middle of something that is ongoing.
Work on your script and polish it. Get that done before looking for an artist and a publisher. I recommend self publishing at conventions or POD at first, but you’re a long way away from that. I have tons of tips for that – my second graphic novel is being produced right now. But it took me years to develop my first script, so I feel your pain.
Let me know if this is helpful. I wrote a whole book about the entire process and put it on Amazon for 99 cents
. I also recommend in your case that you go on Amazon and buy Screenwriting 101 by Film Critic Hulk. Do the character map described in that book, it will work wonders I promise.
And when you have a new 22 page script, send it to me. I’ll take a look. I hope this helps!