Mary Robinette Kowal’s formula for building plots and sub-plots in your comic
If you’ve read part one on this series on plotting your comic, you should have a skeleton of plot for your book. This next article is designed to help you put some meat on the bones.
Last time we went through Little Miss Muffet with Jim Shooter to build out the six elements a good story needs. Character, Location, Status Quo, A Problem, Conflict, and Resolution. Now we are going to use those to expand our story, develop a more detailed plot, as well as some sub plots with the help of Mary Robinette Kowal.
How LICE or MICE make a better story
According to the writer, this is the method that helped her land multiple Hugo awards, Locus awards, and Nebula awards for her novels and short stories. Mary breaks down her stories into multiple story threads of which there are four types:
- M. Milieau or L. Location: The location, environment, setting, or atmosphere. This is a journey thread. It starts with a character in a place or location, they want to get to another place, and it ends when they succeed or fail. E.g. Sam and Frodo are in the Shire, they need to get to the Prancing Pony to meet Gandalf. This thread beings when Gandalf tells them to meet him there and it ends when they arrive.
- I. Inquiry or Investigation: A question or mystery that needs an answer. This starts when a question is asked and ends when it is answered. Who killed the Comedian? Where are the Infinity Stones?
- C. Character: The internal problems, personality, values and goals of our character. This can be an external goal like Lex Luthor wants to become president. It starts when he decides he will run and ends with him being elected. Or, it can be an internal change. Spider-Man thinks he should use his powers for fame and fortune, but learns that with great power comes great responsibility and instead decides to use his powers for a greater good.
- E. Event: External problems, catastrophes, or events that occur. These aren’t just limited to acts of god, they can also be more everyday such as the start and finish of a basketball game. While the event is happening, this thread is active. From tip-off to the final buzzer, or from the first rumble on the volcano to when the lava cools.
That gives us our MICE threads which we can weave together to produce our over arching story. Although, I like to change the M to an L, Milieau to Location, as I find that easier to remember. And so, MICE becomes LICE.
Think about what locations, questions, character changes, and events you want to happen in your story. But remember, the more of these you have, the more ink you will need to tell the story. Every character you add, every location they visit, and every subplot you add, need extra panels and pages to show and explore properly.
Each thread should behave just like your plot outline that you put together from the Little Miss Muffet article. It needs to establish the characters involved, their location, the status quo at the beginning, the challenge and what is at stake, the conflict and the resolution.
How long you make each thread is up to you. You may want a short thread that only lasts a panel or two, like the travel montages in Indiana Jones showing their plane’s progress across a map. Or, you may want to increase the tension and have threads stretch much further, like the long walk to Mordor.
Yes, but … No, and …
Ok, the length you can make a thread might not be entirely up to you. Although, stretching out the plotline can create tension, if you do it poorly, it can also create fatigue and boredom in your reader. So, how can you avoid this? The key is in creating a sense of progression.
Break the plot thread down into a series of milestones that you need to move through to achieve the goal and reach the end. Your character needs to steal a gem, but first, they have to:
- Climb the wall
- Get across the courtyard
- Open the locked door
- Avoid the laser alarm
- Grab the gem and escape
But, you don’t want moving through these to be a breeze. To get that excitement that you need, your character needs to suffer difficulties and set backs. This is where the conflict lies and makes up the story part of your story. To do that, use “yes, but”, “no, and”, or what Mary Robinette Kowal calls a Try-Fail Cycle. Do they achieve their next objective? Yes, but something bad happened. No, and now things are worse than before.
With our example from before. Our hero fires a grappling hook up the outer wall. They start to climb. Do they reach the top? Yes, but their bag gets caught on the barbed wire at the top, spilling their lockpicking gear over the ground and it’s too dark to see where they went.
A spotlight sweeps across the courtyard. They try to get over to the main entrance but a dog’s bark sounds in the night. Do they get across? No, and they can’t try again because the dog’s have their scent.
So, they are forced to go around, dodging the guard towers and patrolmen. Do they make it? Yes, but they’ve wasted too much time and now their window of opportunity is closing.
Without their lockpicking gear, breaking through the door is difficult. They go through a window instead. Do they get inside? Yes, but they cut themselves on the glass. Now for the lasers. Can they do it? No, as they are almost through, a drop of blood breaks the beam, and now the alarms are going off.
Closing a thread
They snatch the gem, we’ve reached the end of the plotline. There’s no more progression to be had and no more tension to be milked, so here we switch things up for the conclusion. Instead of “yes, but”, “no, and”, it becomes “yes, and”, “no, but”. Do they succeed in their goal? Yes, and they get even more than they hoped for. No, but there’s a glimmer of hope.
Does our hero escape with their gem? Yes, and the police suspect a rival burglar. Or, no, the police arrive and put our hero in handcuffs, but, they spot their lockpick on the ground next to them, allowing them to open the handcuffs.
Weaving your threads together
In a good story, these multiple threads will interconnect, adding meaning to one another, sharing beats, and feeding into the greater story being told. Our thief from before might also be an over-planner and this moment is when they learn the value of improvising and thinking on their feet (character thread).
They may need the gem in order to pay back a debt incurred in an earlier event thread. The scene of the heist is a location thread, it starts when they climb the wall and ends when they escape. It may also be part of a larger investigation thread, if we (or our hero) don’t know why this gem is so important to the person who hired them.
Think of elements that could pop-up across multiple threads and how the threads can interact and intertwine. This is a chance to play on themes and motifs. Threads might mirror one another, they might be a foil to showcase the differences in two characters. They can interact multiple times in multiple ways. There’s only one key rule to keep in mind, they have to nest.
Threads should be opened and closed in reverse order. The first thread opened, should be the last to close. The final thread opened should be the first to close. You can close multiple threads together, and doing so at the end can create a very satisfying conclusion, but they have to close in the correct order.
Think of it like computer code. When you open a thread, for example an Investigation thread <i>, we can only close it <i/> when the threads opened after it have been closed. For example, Watchmen begins and ends with Rorschach’s character thread.
From Watchmen (Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, John Higgins, Len Wein, Barbara Kesel, DC Comics)
In the opening page we are shown that Rorschach is matter of fact, values the truth, that this frightens the city. He documents everything, believes the world is ending and isn’t worth saving. In fact, he says that when the end comes and he is asked to save them he’ll “look down and whisper, no”.
A character thread has three possible conclusions. They can change for the better, they can change for the worse, or they can stay the same. Which does Rorschach’s follow? Watchmen closes on the image of Rorschach’s journal, where he has documented the whole series of events across the book in brutal, matter of fact prose. He has been asked to compromise himself, to lie in order to save the world. His answer was no. He wants the truth to be known, no matter the consequences. Rorschach’s character has been tested and has remained the same.
As well as adding a nice symmetry to the book, this elevates a specific plotline or element into becoming the main theme for the story. The next thread that opens is an investigation thread and the question of who killed the Comedian. Which closes when Rorshach and Nite Owl break into Ozymandias’s office and discover he is responsible. This opens another question of “why?” which is answered when they confront Ozymandias at his polar base. Nite Owl gets his own arc in the middle of these too, moving away from living in the past to create a new life with Silk Spectre.
If we write them out they would look something like this:
- c1 open: Rorschach’s character arc opens
- i1 open: Who has been killed?
- i1 close: The Comedian is the murdered person
- c2 open: Dan(Nite Owl) is living in the past, reminiscing with Hollis Mason
- i2 open: Rorschach thinks someone is killing superheroes. Who?
- i2 close: Ozymandias is the killer
- i3 open: Why is Ozymandias killing people?
- e1 open: Nite Owl and Rorschach fight Ozymandias to save the world
- e1 close: They lose the fight
- i3 close: Ozymandias explains his plan for world peace
- c2 close: Nite Owl and Silk Spectre create a new life together, looking toward the future
- c1 close: Rorschach’s journal is about to reveal the truth, no matter the consrquences.
Nestled in between are dozens of other plot points, like Dr Manhattan’s arc from disinterest in life to wanting to create his own, or Silk Spectre discovering the truth about her father. Each of these subplots is flanked by a larger plot with the most important questions closer to the edge.
Using Jim Shooter’s Nursery Rhyme guide to plotting and LICE, create an outline of what you want to happen in your story. Remember to break down each subplot into smaller milestones and whether your characters succeed or fail in reaching each one. Next time, we are going to steal some ideas from Hollywood on how to pace your comic book.
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