Writing your story the Jim Shooter way
How to plot your comic book
We all know a story needs a beginning, a middle, and an end. We’ve heard it from teachers, as a handy factoid from our parents, we’ve even heard it as well-meaning advice from friends, but, it’s very rare for anyone to explain what those three things are. The beginning and the end seem obvious enough, but that leaves the pesky middle, you know, where the stuff actually happens.
Instinctively, we might sense when one of these three is missing or lacking, but articulating what is wrong is harder. If we’re lucky, maybe someone has brought up the concept of a three-act-structure before falling back on “you know, the beginning, the middle, and the end.” So what are they?
According to comics giant, Jim Shooter, the answer lies in a children’s poem.
Jim Shooter’s nursery rhyme
Jim broke into comics aged just 13 after spending his summer trying to crack the code of what makes a good comic story. The answer he came up with is in Little Miss Muffet. According to the ex-Marvel Editor-in-Chief, the nursery rhyme is the template we should keep in mind when laying out a complete story, beginning, middle, and end. It might not be a complicated story, but it has all the elements we need. He breaks it down as this:
- Little Miss Muffet: Introduce your characters
- Sat on a tuffet: Establish the world
- Eating her curds and whey: Show the status quo
- Along came a spider: Introduce the threat to the hero and the status quo
- Who sat down beside her: The conflict and ask the big question the story is about
- And Frightened Miss Muffet away: Answer the question and set the new status quo.
1. Little Miss Muffet
Introduce your characters, who they are, and the core thing about them that is important for the story. Jim was infamous for demanding that his staff introduce Marvels famous characters in every single issue, often dropping exposition on how they got their powers, or what those powers were. It didn’t matter that Spider-Man or Daredevil had been running for decades. Each issue needed to let us know who the characters were as if we’d never met them before. As he puts it, “every comic is someone’s first comic”.
Now, you don’t have to be heavy handed, having your characters announce “I’m Matt Murdock, I was blinded with radioactive waste as a child that gave me superhuman abilities and now I fight crime as the vigilante known as Daredevil” but do think about ways you can show who your characters are in the limited amount of space we have available in a panel. Make that space work as hard as possible.
Matt walking down the street with a cane, lets us know he is blind. Him walking out of the court house with a cane and legal briefs lets us know he is lawyer too. Him stopping someone from stepping out into the street as car comes racing by lets us know he has powers. Him stopping someone from stepping out as a car is being chased by police, with a grim look of determination on his face might tell us more.
2. Sat on her tuffet
Introduce their world. Tell us where they are, how things work and the rules of how they work. Batman sits brooding on a gargoyle high above Gotham City. But, again make the panels work for us. A generic cityscape is no good at telling us how Gotham is different to New York or Chicago? Beautiful Art Deco towers bordered with shanty towns and police blimps circling above as sirens blare below. That tells us more.
The setting needs to add something to the story too. Sitting on a tuffet is very different to sitting on a gargoyle. It enhances what we’ve learnt about the character or emphasises part of themselves that we want to explore. Changing location should change the story itself. Think about how a Tarzan story changes it you take him out of the jungle and drop him into New York, or how tough a time Spider-Man would have getting around in rural Kansas.
3. Eating her curds and whey
Show us the status quo, what life is like under normal circumstances for this character, or what life has become if we are in the midst of a multi-story arc.
The status quo is Luke Skywalker grinding out a life of farming rocks for moisture on Tatooine, dreaming of one day becoming a pilot. Or, the status quo could be Superman stopping a robbery with no fear of bullets unaware that Lex Luthor is about to change everything with a lump of Kryptonite.
How can we make the status quo work harder for us? Use it to show what the character wants or needs. When Luke looks up at the sky or complains about wanting to join the academy, he is telling us that he wants adventure. Show their character through how they deal with the status quo. Luke Skywalker is loyal and self sacrificing, forgoing his own dreams to help his uncle earn a living. Those traits stay with him through the series when he later abandons his training to save his friends.
These three parts, Little Miss Muffet, sat on her tuffet, eating her curds and whey, are the beginning. They are the world as it was when the story starts. A world in balance. But, soon, the middle will come along to upset that balance.
4. Along came a spider
Introduce the danger, the obstacle that needs to be overcome. This is where you show the stakes, what is standing between the character and their goals. Or it’s when things get real and those stakes are raised.
In Watchmen, Rorschach has spent the beginning being Rorschach. A gruff, no-nonsense vigilante with a strict black and white morality. He has made his way through this alternate reality of superheroes, electric cars, and Richard Nixon run America, breaking bones and stealing beans on the hunt for a mask killer. That was his status quo until … some unseen mastermind sets him up to be arrested.
Now the story can’t continue as before. Rorschach can’t slink around in the shadows, closing the net on his mask killer anymore. He has been trapped and now he has to react to his new reality just as Miss Muffet can’t carry on eating her lunch as before.
This should be something that directly attacks what we know about the protagonist. For Rorschach, someone who refused to curb his freedom and remained a vigilante despite government pressure, who refuses to conform to society or expectations, who has come to identify his mask as his true face, is robbed of his freedom, his mask, and is forced into the ultimate symbol of government control, a prison cell.
5. Who sat down beside her
This is the conflict. The clash between the antagonist and the protagonist where our hero is tested and we find out what they are truly made of. The end of the middle and the beginning of the end. This is Aang squaring off against Fire Lord Ozai. Everything has been leading up to this confrontation.
To elevate your work, this should also be asking the big question that your story has been hinting at. The two sides of the fight should be two (or more) opposing philosophies or points of view. Aang believes that life is sacred and should be preserved, even when it is the life of your enemy. Ozai believes that might makes right and that you need to be willing to sacrifice others to get ahead. Throughout the story, the Fire Lord has been willing to throw away the lives of his soldiers, his father, and even his children to achieve his goals. This fight not only determines the fate of the world, but will answer the question of who’s philosophy is right. Aang’s or Ozai’s?
6. And frightened Miss Muffet away
Finally, the ending. This is the resolution and the answer to that question from before. If you’ve done your job leading up to now, it will tie together all that has gone before. After this, the status quo will have changed, the hero will have changed, and a new order will be established.
This is Neo, finally becoming the One at the end of the Matrix, mastering his powers and soundly defeating Agent Smith. After that, the world is changed. He is unleashed and now it is the machines who are in danger from him. Neo’s philosophy of truth and authenticity has battled Smith’s philosophy of conformity and Neo has won. The question has been answered. A hard truth is better than the easy lie.
There you have it, Jim Shooter’s easy guide to plotting your story. Armed with this, you should be able to build out the skeleton of your story. So, lets do that. Ready for the next lesson, work out the beginning, middle, and end of what should happen in your story so that you can explain it in a quick paragraph like Little Miss Muffet. For example:
- Indiana Jones, resourceful adventurer, archaeologist and professor, who is afraid of snakes.
- Ventures into dangerous remote areas, filled with local tribes, deadly animals, and booby traps.
- To retrieve lost artefacts for museums, competing with his rival, René Belloq, who often is one step ahead of our hero.
- The government enlist Indie to find the Ark of the Covenant, a biblical weapon, before Hitler’s team can uncover it in Egypt.
- Indie faces off against Nazi agents, Belloq, a pit full of snakes, assassination attempts, and the wrath of God himself.
- He recovers the Ark and delivers it, not to a museum, but into the hands of the US government.
What you may notice is that point 5 is looking a little cramped. A lot of the story happens in that middle section, so, if you’re still scratching your head on your plot, check out part two on how LICE can help you flesh out your writing.
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