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Comics Writing

4 ways to make a good Superman story

Saving the Man of Steel

Superman is hard to write. He’s faster than everyone, stronger than everyone, sees everything, hears everything, and he is practically invulnerable. If it weren’t for the seemingly endless supply of kryptonite on the black market, no-one would even stand a chance against him, and even then he always has an extra gear.

When you can’t be beaten, nothing is at stake. There’s no peril, no tension, no danger. Even world ending catastrophes are little more than an inconvenience and that is boring. Just ask Saitama from One Punch Man. In fact, the greatest danger that faces Superman isn’t Kryptonite, it isn’t Lex Luthor, or General Zod, or Brainiac, or even Doomsday. It is being boring.

Superman v Clark Kent in Superman III

You can count on one hand the number of great Superman stories out there but they do exist. In this article we will break down what makes them work and what it takes to make the Man of Steel interesting without taking away his powers.

Make him the villain

Two of the greatest versions of Superman currently in the zeitgeist are excellently executed villains. Omniman in Invincible and Homelander in The Boys. Both are the Man of Steel nudged slightly onto the path of darkness and result in a terrifying menace that oozes tension anytime they arrive in a scene.

Omniman in Robert Kirkman’s Invincible

These aren’t the only times this has worked either. The Plutonian, and Brightburn are two others, even Kal-El himself has gone rogue in some his best stories. Mark Millar and Dave Johnson’s Red Son is the story of a tyrannical Superman who landed in the Ukraine instead of Kansas. Injustice is another. Both are critical and commercial successes. Then there are the times he has gone up against Superman like in Hush or the Dark Knight Returns. Here, he is the embodiment of danger, the ultimate threat.

It works because all the negatives around him being unstoppable and invincible suddenly become strengths for the story. Everything is at stake, there is constant peril because the protagonists need to somehow do the impossible. It’s not even that they have to beat Superman, it’s that even surviving to the end of the story seems like a victory beyond their grasps.

Superman doesn’t need to be evil for this to work either. Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo’s Luthor is the greatest Superman story no-one seems to talk about. This is the film that Batman v Superman Dawn of Justice should have been.

Mild spoilers ahead. It follows Lex Luthor as he tries to conquer the business world, the crime world, and bring down the Man of Steel. He convinces Bruce Wayne that Superman is a threat leading to the Dark Knight trying to unsuccessfully take on Superman and narrowly escape. He manufactures a new hero to steal the spotlight and love from Superman, and he sets into motion a series of events that threaten to turn the public against Superman.

Superman is still objectively the good guy throughout. But he is also the antagonist and a fear inducing force of nature that Lex Luthor has to use every ounce of wit and scheming to keep at bay.

This could work over and over. A charismatic and empathetic villain trying to make it in the criminal underworld of Metropolis knowing that any moment Superman could swoop in and undo his work in a heartbeat. Imagine something like Michael Mann’s Heat but instead of Robert De Niro being chased by Al Pacino, he is trying to outwit a literal god.

Put him in the background

Giving more narrative weight and focus to the supporting cast is part of what makes One Punch Man a success. We know that when Saitama arrives the fight is over and the danger is finished, but there are perilous episodes where Mumen Rider or Genos are facing down against impossible odds and being torn apart while Saitama is delayed or distracted. It’s a tool used across anime as well. How many times has Goku been stuck away from the action? Superman might be invincible, but his friends aren’t.

Lex Luthor and Superman in Superman For All Seasons (Jeff Loeb, Tim Sale, DC Comics)

Jeff Loeb and Tim Sale’s Superman For All Season’s is a good example of this in action. It focuses on Jonathan Kent, Lois Lane, Lex Luthor, and Lana Lang. They are front and center and the story shows how Superman has impacted their lives. We are invested in their arcs and get the benefit of knowing that they are vulnerable adds much needed tension.

Give him something he can’t punch

If Superman can stop any threat with his strength, what happens when it isn’t a villain, or an asteroid, or crashing plane that needs rescuing? Frank Quitely and Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman pits the Man of Steel against a threat that none of his powers can help him against. The Sun.

All-Star Superman (Grant Morrison, Frank Quitley, Jamie Grant, DC Comics)

Lex Luthor has sabotaged the Sun, overwhelming the cells in Superman’s body and killing him. All that is left is for Superman to spend the last moments he has trying to make the world a better place while the clock ticks slowly towards his doom.

Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow is another example. In that, Alan Moore has Superman face off against his own morality in the climax. After going against his code, he has to reconcile this fact and decide whether to bring himself to justice. No amount of punching can undo what he has done.

Remember who he is

Cards on the table, I hate Superman but I didn’t always. Once upon a time he was the center of my comic book world. I watched the Christopher Reeve’s films religiously, I watched the Dean Cain TV series, I read the comics every month (and this was during the 90s when he was in his Red/Blue phase). I consumed all things Superman.

Young me when I liked Superman

The reason I loved him, was the same as most kids’. He was a power fantasy. In a world of adults who were stronger and faster than you, who set all the rules, and weren’t always just, here was a character you could pretend to be that could put right all the wrongs and move through the world with ease. The lack of tension was a positive as a young kid. It was safe and secure, the bad guy would get punished and the world would be made right.

But, there are other superheroes who embody that better. There’s He-Man, who can transform from a weak prince into the champion of Eternia. There’s Billy Batson who can utter the magic word SHAZAM and become a better, more fun version of Superman.

It’s pure villainy that Superman survived the golden age and Captain Marvel was almost forgotten. Captain Marvel was the superior product, more suited to that audience, a truer embodiment of the fantasy. Nearly a decade of legal battles destroyed the lead Captain Marvel had over his rival and let DC steal the character from its creator. Thanks to that, Superman was able to whether the superhero cull of the post-war period and the watering down of the Comics Code Authority. He muscled his way into the world of kid’s best fantasy and stayed there, but those weren’t his roots.

Children aren’t the only people who can feel powerless. The very first villain Superman took on, in his very first appearance, was the criminal justice system. Superman kicks in the door of the governor in the middle of the night in order to save the life of a wrongfully convicted woman about to be executed. He has already caught the real murderer before the story starts. The killer isn’t the enemy. It’s injustice.

During Siegel and Shuster’s initial run, he takes on a wife beater, would-be rapists, a crooked politician, a munitions manufacturer, more wrongful arrests and almost executions, evil slumlords. Superman’s villains don’t get fantastical until much later. Early on, he was a champion for the down trodden, the disaffected. The last of his villains that fits this mold is Lex Luthor.

What next

The next great Superman story remains to be written and right now the world needs it more than ever. Superman doesn’t need the flash and the gimmicks. He doesn’t need to be watered down, stripped of his powers, given a new haircut and suit. He doesn’t need an overpowered villain to take him down. He doesn’t even need a supervillain at all. There are enough real villains to be inspired by. What the story needs is to focus on the vulnerable and the weak, have Superman arrive, talk truth to power and deliver justice.

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How to compose a comic panel

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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.

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Writing

How to pace a story

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.

Our latest book

David Fincher’s Se7en crossed with X-Men’s Shadow King

140 pages of suspense as journalist, Lina Santos, hunts for a child abductor no-one believes exists.

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More to read

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.

Keep reading

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.

Keep reading
Gray Cells Comic

Gray Cells

A supernatural / neo-noir thriller Gray Cells is a dark tale that plays into the fears that we have in the modern world. A distrust of authority, competing versions of reality and losing the sense of what is true and what is a lie. Our antagonist twists the minds of his victims, making them see…

Keep reading
Categories
Writing

Use LICE to flesh out your writing

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

Multi-award-winning short story author, Mary Robinette Kowal, lays out her formula for writing better stories during Brandon Sanderson’s lectures at BYU

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.

What next?

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.

Our latest book:

David Fincher’s Se7en crossed with X-Men’s Shadow King

140 pages of suspense as journalist, Lina Santos, hunts for a child abductor no-one believes exists.

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Sign up for our newsletter and be the first to receive articles, tips, and news.

More to read

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.

Keep reading

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.

Keep reading
Gray Cells Comic

Gray Cells

A supernatural / neo-noir thriller Gray Cells is a dark tale that plays into the fears that we have in the modern world. A distrust of authority, competing versions of reality and losing the sense of what is true and what is a lie. Our antagonist twists the minds of his victims, making them see…

Keep reading
Categories
Writing

How to plot your comic book

Writing your story the Jim Shooter way

So, what are the main parts of a story? The beginning and the end seem obvious enough, but what about 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

Valiant Comics and Defiant Comics founder, and ex-Editor-in-Chief for Marvel, Jim Shooter explaining what makes a good comic at Buffalo Comicon

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:

  1. Little Miss Muffet: Introduce your characters
  2. Sat on a tuffet: Establish the world
  3. Eating her curds and whey: Show the status quo
  4. Along came a spider: Introduce the threat to the hero and the status quo
  5. Who sat down beside her: The conflict and ask the big question the story is about
  6. 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.

Climactic battle for Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko’s Avatar the Last Airbender on Nickelodeon

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.

What next?

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:

  1. Indiana Jones, resourceful adventurer, archaeologist and professor, who is afraid of snakes.
  2. Ventures into dangerous remote areas, filled with local tribes, deadly animals, and booby traps.
  3. To retrieve lost artefacts for museums, competing with his rival, René Belloq, who often is one step ahead of our hero.
  4. The government enlist Indie to find the Ark of the Covenant, a biblical weapon, before Hitler’s team can uncover it in Egypt.
  5. Indie faces off against Nazi agents, Belloq, a pit full of snakes, assassination attempts, and the wrath of God himself.
  6. 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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