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How to pace a story

Blake Snyder’s famous book, Save the Cat, is touted as “the last book on screenwriting you’ll ever need”. Its words of wisdom have guided many in Hollywood to success in the 16 years since it was first released, but can they be applied to the world of comics? I think so.

Save the Bat: Using screenwriting tips to pace your comic

Blake Snyder’s famous book, Save the Cat, is touted as “the last book on screenwriting you’ll ever need”. Its words of wisdom have guided many in Hollywood to success in the years since it was first released, but can they be applied to the world of comics? I think so.

This is a quick breakdown of the main story beats from the book, what they mean, and when they need to come up in your story. The page suggestions below line up for a single 24 page issue. If you want to work out where they would line up for a longer issue, or multi-issue arc, you can use this handy tool on the save the cat homepage.

To bring the idea’s to life, we are going to be pulling examples from Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s classic Batman story, The Killing Joke. Needless to say, spoilers ahead.

Opening image – page 1

A strong image the brings readers into the story and establishes the tone you are going to tell. The Killing Joke opens on rain drops hitting a dark puddle. It’s night and raining hard. That image of dark liquid will recur throughout.

If we take the whole page as an opening image, we also get Batman’s arrival at Arkham Asylum for the criminally insane, and we see Jim Gordon and a regular uniformed officers differing reactions to the Dark Knight’s presence.

You could also take the cover as the opening image. The Joker taking our picture and telling us to “smile”.

Theme stated – page 1-2

What the story is about, “the moral”, or the question you are trying to answer. In the Killing Joke, a story where the Joker attempts to drive Commissioner Gordon insane, we open in Arkham Asylum. Page 2 is dedicated to the theme. Gordon is front and centre of the top six panels.

We see him walk past cells and we see him framed between the bars, as though he is the one imprisoned. A sign on the receptionist’s desk reads “you don’t have to be crazy to work here, but it helps”. This is raises the question of what separates those behind the bars and those with the keys.

Set-up – page 1-2

The world as it is before the story starts. Exploring the status quo for the main character. The opening pages of the Killing Joke set out Batman’s relationship with Gordon. How the two operate together and the level of freedom Batman has to interrogate criminals while Gordon keeps watch. We also see Batman’s detective skills in action as he deduces something is wrong with the Joker.

Catalyst – page 2

The inciting incident, the event that sets the story into motion. Here, it is that the Joker has escaped and someone else has taken his place.

Debate – page 2-5

Our hero is on the edge, they haven’t committed to the story yet and may be reluctant to leave behind the world they know. For Gordon, he has to decide how far to let Batman interrogate the false Joker, for Batman, it’s the same, how far is he willing to go to stop the Joker?

Break into two – page 5

The middle of the story, we’ve left the beginning and now things can get going. Batman now needs to hunt down the clown prince of crime.

B-story – page 6

Here’s where you add a subplot. In a good story this will echo the main plot, or explore the them from a different angle. For Killing Joke, we get Joker’s backstory as he presents it. Like the main thread, this is about a descent into madness. Joker’s one bad day, that turned him to lunacy.

Fun and games – page 5-11

The opening half of act two. Here things are going to plan (or not), the hero is on the front foot and the stakes are lower than they will become. Gordon cuts out newspaper clippings of the story for his collection. Batman crunches data in the Batcave.

Midpoint – page 12

A false ending. The hero is almost at their goal, or it looks like they’re destined to never achieve it. For Batman, he’s failed. He can’t predict what the Joker will do or where he will strike. An example where the goal is achieved would be in the film the Dark Knight when Joker is captured and his reign of terror seems to be over.

Bad guys close in – page 12-16

After the hero has almost achieved the goal (or failed), consequences follow. The forces working against them grow stronger and exert themselves. In the Dark Knight, it’s the revelation that Harvey Dent and Rachel have been kidnapped. In the Killing Joke, Joker breaks in and attacks Gordon and his daughter Barbara. Batman’s failure to predict where Joker would strike has had dire consequences.

All is lost – page 16

The villain strikes a devastating blow. Or the hero loses something that they hold dear. In the Killing Joke, this is Batman discovering that Barbara has been paralysed and will never walk again. Simultaneously, Gordon’s mind is being assaulted by Joker’s horrific rollercoaster.

Dark night of the soul – page 16-18

This is the lowest point of the story for the hero. It is similar to the debate in that the hero dwells on the seriousness of what has happened and decides whether to give up or continue on. In the Killing Joke, this is Batman comforting Barbara while she worries over what the Joker is inflicting on her father.

Break into three – page 18

This is the beginning of the end. The hero finds new resolve and develops a new plan of action. Batman brutalises his way through the underworld for information, eventually receiving Joker’s invitation to the carnival.

Finale – page 18-23

The final showdown. This is the end confrontation. Both the A and B threads are brought to a conclusion. Here we get the resolution to our theme. Batman tears through the carnival to rescue Gordon, his psyche intact, and defeat the Joker.

We also hear Joker’s telling of falling into the acid vat, the dark pools of liquid repeating in the visuals.

Final image – page 24

This is the companion to the opening image. They should relate to one another and book-end the story. Looking at the two together, you should be able to see what has changed. The Killing Joke closes as it opened, on raindrops hitting a dark pool of water.

But, if we take the page as a whole again, the brooding Batman from before has changed. He has smiled, and laughed, and maybe, his psyche hasn’t withstood the assault as well as Gordon’s. To cement this idea, the back cover has a playing card showing the Joker and Batman as mirrors of one another.

Book page image

What next?

Now you should have all the elements you need to create a layout for your comic. You know what is going to happen, in what order, and even on what page. The only thing left for you to do is to write the script. So, get to it.

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