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B&N Week 112: Working The Story

| February 12, 2013

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We’ve got another Tuesday to contend with! I don’t know about you, but I woke up, put on some Kool Moe D [Knowledge Is King album], cranked up the volume, and just hit it. Energized, I tells ya. Energized!

This week, I want to talk about working a story. It’s something we all have to do in some way, shape, or form, and how successfully you do it [and sometimes, how long you do it] will give you insight into how successful your story is going to be.

In order to work a story, you first have to find one. That, my friends, is the true first step, and it is greatly mysterious. No one knows how disparate parts come together to form an idea, but I’m going to tell you the two things you absolutely must do: you must feed the machine, and you must create output. Both of these have a very real impact on what you create, how you create, and how often you create.

Feeding the machine is simple: you read [everything from books about every subject—even the ones you don’t find interesting to magazines to cereal boxes], you observe [everything from people interacting to movies/television], and you listen [any and all music, to people telling stories and how they tell them, to the sounds around you, be they natural or man-made]. The machine is your brain, and it needs all of this stimulus in order to do the next step.

So, all of these facts, stories, sounds, images, and whatever else you like…all of this stimuli goes into the brain, and there it gets compressed, jumbled, mashed, swirled, and combined. Then all of a sudden…an idea blossoms. What do you do with that idea? You write it down, record it, put it someplace safe where you can come back to it later. Get it out of your brain, and put it down in a more permanent form. (No need, Steven. I’ll remember.) [No, you won’t. You’ll forget it in less than a day, unless you’ve toyed with the idea for a bit. And if you’re lucky, you’ll be able to remember it. Most of the time, it’s going to go the way of the dodo.]

Here comes the fun part, which is the second half of the first step: you create. You write the story, getting it down and out of your system. You struggle, you fight, you get it finished, so that it won’t trouble you anymore.

You feed the machine, and then you create. Feed, create, feed, create. Input, output. Why? Why do you do this?

Because you’re filled with bad ideas. Most of your early ideas are going to come in two flavors: they are either bad, or you don’t yet have the chops to tell the story. Most of the stories are going to be bad, though, and you won’t start getting to the good stories until you both get these bad stories out, and you grow in strength as a storyteller.

This cycle of feed/create also does something else for you: it strengthens the connections in your brain, making it easier for you to tell stories. The brain is a muscle of sorts, and it needs to be worked out in order to grow strong. The more connections for creativity you make, the easier it will become. No, I’m not saying you’re going to be a creative genius, but you will be able to affect how much and how effectively you create.

Notice, I have not told you how to find a story. There is no secret formula that will work every time. [Well, there is. I just gave it.] If you don’t do the two steps above, you’re not going to be able to effectively tell a good story. Feed the machine, create output.

Okay, fast forward a year or two. You’ve been feeding the machine a regular, steady diet, and have been creating stories that come out of your head. Your stories at first were about ferrets and Mongolian barbecue and how one found the other sexy; now your stories are about sneeze-powered dimension hoppers. Radical steps up, right? You’ve just had this one idea, and you think it’s viable as your next project. What you have to do now is work it.

The very first thing you want to make sure of is that it is not an ongoing story. You want to have a story with an end, and that end had better come within six issues or less. [You can also lower this issue count by doing a non-traditional page count with the story. Raise the number of pages per issue, which lowers the amount of issues to tell it.] Either that, or just go to a straight graphic novel. The choice is yours, but the story must have an ending. (Why?) You don’t have the resources to do an ongoing. (I don’t?) No, you don’t. An ongoing takes money. You don’t have enough of it. Tell your story, make it short, and be done.

After you’ve made sure your story has an ending, make sure it is achievable with a decent issue count. Again, no higher than six. Personally, I prefer three or four, but six is the high. Now it’s time to start working the story.

The next thing you want to do is to make sure you know exactly where your story ends. You don’t have this info, then it’s going to be a moving target. Knowing where your story ends puts that ending squarely in your sights. It gives you something to work towards.

Now, you have to start to populate the thing. At the very least, you need a hero and a villain, and whatever their conflict is. Here’s what I suggest you do: write out who the hero is, what they want, and any character quirks. Do the same for the villain. Make a clear statement of their differences, and why they are in opposition. This will be the main thrust of your story, so if you don’t know it or can’t articulate it, then your story isn’t ready to be written yet.

Your story won’t survive very long without supporting characters, so write those out, too. Who they are, who they support, what their role is, and how they affect the story.

Populating the story gives us the literal Who, but it should also take care of the Where and When. This is really the last place to take care of the Where and When, with the first place being when you come up with the story in the beginning. Knowing Where the story takes place and in what timeframe [When] is very important. Again, either know it when you first think of the story, or link it to character creation.

Knowing where your story ends and who your characters are provide you with the beginnings of a roadmap. Can things change on the map? Can you detour or make pit stops or take an alternate route? Sure you can, because you know where you’re going [the end of the story], so getting there shouldn’t be that much of a challenge.

Alright, so we know where the story ends, and we’ve populated it. Now, we start talking about the fluidity of everything else: the beginning, and the middle.

The endpoint shouldn’t move, but the starting point can, as can the middle. As a matter of fact, these should move at least once, so that you know you’re thinking about the story itself, and telling it to the best of your ability.

Some creators write their scenes on index cards, and then place those cards on a cork board. They can then visualize the story, and move the scenes around as necessary. This can also be done on a computer, depending on the program you use. They can then see what does and doesn’t work, and adjust accordingly. Is this something you should do? Totally your call.

Once you’ve worked out the beginning and the middle, you can now get to the hard part: sitting down and doing the work. This will always be the hard part, because we don’t want to do it. When the story was new and bright and shiny, we couldn’t wait to get to it. But now that we’ve worked it to death and we know everything about it, it’s no longer interesting. Sitting down and actually writing the script now becomes the hard part.

But I’ve got one more trick up my sleeve.

While you were working the story, writing down the scenes in order to get it just right…leave the written scenes loose. You don’t have to write every little thing down. Write down what happens in the scene, and about how many pages it should take to get through. This leaves you some room to surprise yourself. This wiggle room keeps it interesting for you, so you can sit on your duff and do the work you’ve put before you.

Is this the only way to work a story? [Also called breaking a story.] Not in the least. However, this way will get you some concrete results. It may be slower and more ponderous, but at the end, you should have a better story.

That’s all I have. See you in seven.

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Category: Bolts & Nuts, Columns

About the Author ()

Steven is an editor/writer with such credits as Fallen Justice, the award nominated The Standard, and Bullet Time under his belt, as well as work published by DC Comics. Between he and his wife, there are 10 kids (!), so there is a lot of creativity all around him. Steven is also the editor in chief and co-creator of ComixTribe, whose mission statement is Creators Helping Creators Make Better Comics. If you're looking for editing, contact him at stevedforbes@gmail.com for rate inquiries.

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