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Monday, March 2, 2009

Writing for Comic Books, Part 4: Writing the Complete Plot

by Henry Vogel

Part One | Part Two | Part Three

Welcome to part four of writing for comic books.

After spending a lot of time on philosophical and practical considerations, we finally got around to writing a plot outline at the end of the last column. This time around, we're going to expand that outline into a full plot for the "plot first" approach.

Expanding the outline is a very straightforward process and not all that difficult. The hard part -- the pacing of the story -- is already done. We're just adding more details. But, of course, there are a couple of things we need to consider while we're writing the plot.

First, the outline is just that, an outline. If you find the action you expected to fill a single page spills over into a second page, let it spill. There will almost certainly be a point in the story where you can compress another scene to make up for the difference.

Second, there is a rule of thumb for the "plot first" approach. One sentence in the plot translates to one panel in the comic book. In the plot, a page with six panels would be described in six sentences. This isn't a hard and fast rule. Sometimes you'll find yourself writing an incredibly unwieldy sentence if you try to shove everything happening in one panel into a single sentence. Also, your artist may come up with a more visually exciting way of conveying the action. As long as the story remains clear, don't sweat it.

What I'm going to do now is list each line from the outline followed by the expanded page description. My comments on the process, if any, will follow in italics.

Southern Knights 1 – City Search plot

1. The Knights are fighting two battlemechs at I-85 and I-295.

Splash Page
Open with the Knights battling two big mechs (ala Battletech – human operated robotic titans standing about 15 feet high with great strength and weapons ranging from lasers to missiles) at the I-85 and I-285 junction. It is rush hour and cars are lined up behind the fight and piled up around the fight. In the near distance, the maze of overpasses that join I-85 and I-285 are thick with cars. Electrode is flying, firing bolts at a mech. Connie is in close to the feet of the mech Electrode is firing at. Aramis stands apart, gathering magical energy. Dragon is shielding civilians from machine gun fire with his body. Kristin is piling empty cars up to form a protective shield for other civilians.

This is the splash page for the book. For those who aren't aware of comic book terminology, the splash page is full page panel. It sets the scene for the reader, giving them an immediate idea of what's going on. The "one sentence per panel" rule of thumb doesn't apply here. The splash page is generally where the creative credits and the story title appear.

2. Some Knights fight, some work to get bystanders to safety.

Page 2
Aramis fires a bolt of magical energy which bounces harmlessly off of a mech's armor. Finding a family trapped in a minivan, Kristin rips the roof off of it allowing them to flee the scene. Dragon breaths fire at the mech whose machine guns fire he was blocking. Add a small inset panel of the mech's control panel with a temperature gauge spiking as a result of the flame. With the family free of the minivan and the car ruined anyway, Kristin flings it at the same mech Dragon attacked, knocking the mech back and off balance.

The inset panel showing the temperature gauge is a simple foreshadowing device. The idea is to show that the mechs have trouble dealing with excess heat and serves to explain why someone designing them would arm them with heat-seeking missiles.

3. A missile is launched, Dragon and Kristin save the day.

Page 3
The mech that is not off balance fires heat-seeking missiles at the 285 overpass that’s packed with cars. Dragon breaths fire again, making the heat-seeking missiles lock on him. Kristin grabs and empty car and throws it up in front the missiles. The car is blasted to bits, leaving Dragon unharmed.

I really should rework page 2 after seeing how page three played out. I've got Dragon breathing fire on both pages and Kristin chucking a car on both pages. At this point in the writing process, I would go back to page 2 and make some changes. I'd come to the conclusion that having Dragon breath fire on both pages is okay. On page 2, it provides the foreshadowing I mentioned. On page 3, it's the only way to save hundreds or thousands of people on the overpass. Instead of having Kristin throw the entire car, I could have her skim the roof of the minivan at the mech or I could have one of the mechs sweep her area of machine gun fire, too, letting it knock Kristin around, rip up some of her clothing, but leave her unharmed. Presto, the reader learned Kristin is bulletproof. Of course, I've already had machine gun fire raking the heroes in panel one, so maybe that's not the best idea, either. At this point, I'd set aside this issue and come back to it later.

4. Flying circles around a mech, Electrode shorts out some controls.

Page 4
Electrode flies circles around a mech with laser guns, all the while attacking it with his electrical bolts. The mech keeps swiveling, trying to bring him in line. Electrode continues swooping all around the mech, making the mech tilt up and then down trying to draw a bead on Electrode. The contortions the mech goes through exposes some interior wiring, which Electrode immediately blasts, short circuiting the mech’s swiveling mechanism.

For those who wondered why I didn't do something with Electrode on page 2, this page is the reason. I'd already set him up as flying around firing electrical bolts at the mech. Using him instead of a car-chucking Kristin wouldn't have done anything to solve the problem.

5. Connie uses her sword to deal with the pilot of the damaged mech.

Page 5
Connie scales the outside of the damaged mech as Electrode keeps the mech pilot’s attention. She climbs into the head of the mech through an entry hatch. The driver, entangled in the control harness, attempt to fight, causing the mech to react wildly. Connie slices him through the middle with her psychic sword. Pilot and mech both go limp.

So, what the heck is a psychic sword? I wanted a sword-wielding character in the team, but I didn't want to end up like all the sword-wielding characters I'd seen in other books. Those characters always used the flat of their blade and whacked villains into submission. Why carry a sword at all if you're not going to slice and dice, right? So I chose to make Connie's sword different. She comes with a full array of psychic powers, all of which manifest through her psychic sword. If she cuts through a person's arm, her psychic powers force the person's brain to believe the arm has been cut off. If she deals a killing blow, the person simply passes out. The effects last perhaps an hour. It's sort of like having your cake and eating it, too. I get a hero who slices and dices with her sword without killing all the bad guys.

6. Aramis under Electrode's guidance, levitates then drops the other mech.

Page 6
Straining hard, Aramis has managed to levitate the other mech 15 to 20 feet off the ground. Electrode directs him to "lay" the mech on its back about 20 feet off the ground. Aramis the releases the mech. The fall crushes the exhaust ports for the mech's heat sinks.

Chances are the whole heat sink damage bit will be difficult to convey by art alone. Between Electrode's directions to Aramis, who is a teenager originally from the early eighteenth century, and captions, I will be able to convey this information to the reader without describing the art or using the dreaded "As you know..." opening.

7. The other mech is overheating so Kristin throws it far from the highway.

Page 7
The pilot, seeing the mech is going to overheat and blow, ejects from the mech. Dragon captures the pilot in mid air. Electrode directs Kristin to grab the mech by its feet and try to throw it up into the air. Kristin grabs the mech, swinging it around and around until she finally releases it, flinging it well up into the air and out away from the traffic pattern.

Kristin is throwing things again, but this one really can't be avoided without making serious changes to previous pages. As the primary goal of this fight is to demonstrate the powers of the group, having Kristin tossing cars and mechs like normal people toss Hot Wheels toys works pretty well to establish that she's really strong.

8. Electrode causes the mech to overheat and explode.

Page 8
Following the mech, Electrode waits until it is well clear of the highway. He blasts the mech’s power plant. The mech finishes overheating and the power plant blows up, destroying the mech. Electrode returns to find TV crews already landing their helicopters, police rushing in to help clear up the situation.

9. A bystander whose car was trashed in the fight blames Kristin for the loss.

Page 9
One irate citizen is confronting Kristin. The citizen is the guy who owned the car Kristin threw in front of the missiles, he’s pissed about that and taking it all out on her. Dragon turns into Mark just in time to restrain Kristin, who has just a bit of a temper, from smacking the guy. Electrode lands and begins trying to calm the guy down, mentioning the Knights’ superhero damages insurance policy, etc.

This page has the last bit of "powers introduction" as we see that Dragon can take on human form. In a caption, even though it would describe the artwork, I'd probably toss in a quick line saying "Dragon, drawing on his race's magical nature, assumes his human guise as Mark Dagon." The reason I would break the rules here is to make sure the readers understand that we have a dragon who turns into a man, not the other way around.

10. Kristin stalks away muttering about what Atlanta would do if the Knights left.

Page 10
A female reporter with a TV news crew sees Kristin stalking away and directs her cameraman to close in on her. Kristin is muttering something about ungrateful cities and how they don’t deserve to keep the Knights, etc. The reporter asks her cameraman if he got that (think the reporter from the original Die Hard movie, only in a skirt). The cameraman got it, all right. The reporter flashes a predatory grin, thrilled with what she’s got.

Now we meet the real villain of the story, the reporter. I'll show that the reporter will happily spin anything if it will give her a big story. The cool thing is that she can also become a regular minor character. Someone who, after this initial conflict with the Knights develops a grudge against them and tries to use her position to damage their reputation. Not a particularly original idea, but not all conflict requires super villains; even in a superhero comic book.

11. Kristin's comments turn up on the nightly news as "Knights leaving Atlanta?"

Page 11
Later, the team is watching the news coverage of the fight. The same reporter shows a carefully edited version of Kristin’s tirade, making it sound like the Knights are ready to leave Atlanta. Kristin protests that she didn’t say that, at least not exactly that! On screen, the reporter is interviewing the man who confronted Kristin. He's still angry about his car, which was new. Joining Kristin in irritation, David says the Knights insurance agency is replacing his Ford with a Lexus!

David is David Shenk, aka Electrode.

12. Reporter gives brief overview of the Knights time in Atlanta.

Page 12
The reporter gives a very brief history of the Knights, including short descriptions of each of the members. First we learn a bit about Electrode. Then we learn about Dragon. Next is Connie. Then Aramis. Finally, Kristin.

This is my chance to complete the re-introduction of the team. Most of it will be handled through the reporter's dialogue.

13. Overview continues, includes more detailed character introductions.

Page 13
The history of the team continues, showing them fighting Dread in downtown Atlanta. Switch to footage of the Knights fighting a swarm of power suited figures at the Savannah River Nuclear Station. Switch to footage of the Knights fighting the robot Ultimatron in downtown Atlanta.

Padding. Pure padding. All I'm doing is referring to some of the Knights' old enemies. It doesn't advance the story one bit but it does take up a page. I was planning on bringing Dread back in a future issue, but not as the primary opponent, so I'm not really even introducing him for future consideration.

14. Reporter editorializes about how Atlanta has welcomed the Knights.

Page 14
With a background shot of the Knights being presented with the key to the city, the reporter then editorializes about all that Atlanta has done for the Knights. Change the background shot to one of the Knights flying above to the cheers of the citizens below. Show a fight aftermath scene in the background now, where emergency crews are on site, fighting a fire, tending to injured bystanders and directing tow trucks to remove destroyed vehicles.

Note I don't go into what the reporter is saying. I've given the artist enough to work with that he can handle her facial expressions without any problem. This is one of those situations where I'll decide just how much to write for this page based on the amount of open space there is on the page.

15. Scenes of post-fight destruction are shown as reporter hopes Knights do leave.

Page 15
The reporter shifts direction as Jonathan Barl appears on screen behind her. Barl reports that the Knights are a menace to city and its society. Barl proclaims he would be quite happy if the Knights left and never returned. The reporter ends the story by stating that she, at the very least, hopes the Knights are leaving Atlanta and good riddance. The Knights are stunned.

Barl is a character introduced in the very first issue. The Knights rescued him from kidnappers and, in return, he assumed sponsorship of the team. Alas, what he really wanted were superheroes at his beck and call, so he and the Knights had very big, very public "falling out." He's been a minor irritant to them ever since. I'll have to cover this information via the reporter's dialogue and the Knights' reaction.

16. Story is front page news, Knights figure it will blow over.

Page 16
The morning newspaper arrives with Kristin’s face above the fold and a big headline reading “Knights Leaving City?” The still stunned Knights read speculation that other cities are planning to make lucrative offers to lure the Knights away from Atlanta. Taking the long view, Mark assures the others that this will blow. Everyone smiles sheepishly and goes about their day.

Mark, aka Dragon, is about 3000 years old. Taking the long view is easy for him. Once again, this is something I'd cover in dialogue, having Mark say something like "I've been observing mankind for 3000 years. This story might attract attention for a few days but then it will blow over."

17. Representative from Miami pitches his city as a great place to fight crime.

Page 17
Late that afternoon, the first visitor arrives. He represents the city of Miami and has come to present the city’s offer for the Knights to move to Miami. Astounded, the Knights listen as the man talks about fighting crime in Miami. The Knights will not have to patrol in cold weather, for instance. He hands out photos of a small, private island the city is prepared to offer to the team to use as its base, complete with a private beach so they can unwind in the sun and surf. Unsure what to say, Electrode tells the representative it was an interesting presentation.

18. Charlotte representative shows up and pitches for his city.

Page 18
As David is showing the rep from Miami out the door, a delegation of three people arrives from Charlotte to present their case. They've got a Power Point presentation presenting Charlotte as a fast growing city, close enough to Atlanta that the Knights are well known there. There are many banking firms who are highly interested in top of the line city security. The Panthers are a football team poised to win the Superbowl and the Knights will have their own box seats. Finally, a headquarters will be provided by the city right downtown.

19. Raleigh-Durham offers high tech facilities and great basketball.

Page 19
The Charlotte representatives are leaving as a group from Raleigh-Durham arrives. They are offering a high tech research environment complete with multinational corporations interested in protecting that research. The area has lots of great open spaces, which should cut down on damage to the area infrastructure as a result of battles. Plus, they've got NCAA basketball to die for! Finally, there is plenty of room in the Research Triangle to setup a super high tech headquarters.

20. Orlando arrives with Disney characters but Knights have had enough.

Page 20
This group is interrupted as two limos pull up. Everyone watches in amazement as Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy get out of one limo. Two men representing Orlando – “fight crime in the most fun place in the entire world!” – get out of the second limo. The men are about to start their spiel when the Knights have finally had enough.

I couldn't resist the whole idea of there being a "fun" place to fight crime.

21. Knights make everyone leave and Bryan (grounds keeper) puts up "Keep Out" signs.

Page 21
As more cars arrive in the driveway, the Knights tell everyone to leave. The delegations leave, but not before giving the Knights multiple business cards, brochures and presentations on DVD. As the various groups are leaving, Bryan Daniels is putting up a “Keep Out” barrier on the driveways. Even then, two more groups try to get Bryan to let them in to make their pitch.

22. Morning newspaper reports "Knights Favor Denver". Huh? Bryan got irritated and blurted out first city that came to mind to a reporter.

Page 22
The next morning, the newspaper headline says “Knights Entertain Proposals.” Opening the paper, Mark reads the subheading “Heroes Favor Denver”. The Knights are perplexed, since Denver didn’t even make a presentation. Bryan sheepishly admits that he was constantly asked which city was the front runner and, finally fed up with it, said the first city that came to mind.

This has more padding. The entire newspaper bit could have been handled in a single panel. Also, there really isn't enough stuff going on to fill an entire page. I'm going to have to deal with this in the script.

23. Denver mayor calls, delegation is being prepared. Knights realize something must be done.

Page 23
The phone rings. Mark answers it. Having learned that they are supposedly the front runners, Denver is calling to let the Knights know that the city is flattered and that a presentation package is being prepared right then. Mark tells the mayor that the Knights all think Denver is a lovely city, but that the newspaper report was incorrect. Realizing that something needs to be done, David calls the Atlanta city offices and arranges a meeting.

More padding I'll have to deal with in the script.

24. Knights meet Atlanta city officials who think Knights want "concessions" to stay.

Page 24
At the meeting, the officials for Atlanta start off angry that the Knights would consider moving their franchise – er, superhero team – without giving the city a chance to make an offer. David tries to explain that the team is there to clear up that misunderstanding. Oh, say the officials, didn’t get as much as you wanted from the other cities? Sighing with exasperation, David tells them the other offers were quite generous.

This page really isn't padded, though it may seem like it when compared to the previous two pages. I've got adversarial dialogue going on here, giving me lots to work with. I can easily provide more than enough good dialogue for this page, regardless of how much white space is on it.

25. Kristin literally shakes some sense into a particularly angry councilman.

Page 25
Trying to use the other offers to extort more out of our city, one official now guesses. Losing her temper, Kristin grabs the angry official by his lapels, lifts him into the air and tells him the Knights don’t want to leave Atlanta. They never did. Dropping him back into his chair, she says they aren’t looking for handouts, special deals or anything like that. They just want the madness caused by that stupid news report to end. Oh, says the official.

26. Big news conference to announce Knights are staying.

Page 26
Skip to a news conference where Atlanta officials and the Knights announce the team is not leaving Atlanta. Make this a big, full page panel to show all the Knights, city officials and all the media present – including the reporter who started this all. This is going out live to all local TV stations, so include a bunch of TV cameras. The mayor is at a podium on a small stage, announcing the Knights will be remaining in Atlanta.

Ah, the full page panel! Friend to the writer trying to stretch out his already stretched story by a couple of pages. The news conference is perfect for this, too, as we've got the Knights, the city council, the reporters and all of their equipment. It won't even look like padding when all of that stuff is crammed onto the page.

27. Reporter who started it all badgers Knights to find out what city is giving Knights to stay.

Page 27
Sure enough, the trouble-making reporter interrupts partway through the announcement to ask what the Knights have extorted from the city. Nothing, answers the official. Ah, smirks the reporter, then what has the city “given” the Knights to make them stay? Nothing, says the official. The reporter refuses to believe that some under the table deal hasn’t been made. Kristin whispers to Connie that the woman could benefit from having some sense pounded into her.

More adversarial dialogue, this time between the mayor and the reporter, will keep this page lively and mostly padding free.

28. Knights put reporter in her place. Everyone is happy except the reporter.

Page 28
Seeing the whispering, the reporter attempts to verbally pounce on Kristin. Rolling her eyes, Kristin banters with her, asking if the woman has never said things in anger that she didn’t mean. Not willing to let go, the reporter claims she would never say something so stupid in public. Kristin raises an eyebrow and points out the woman saying things even more stupid right now. The reporter tries to retort but the mayor talks over her, proclaiming the Knights are Atlanta's heroes and the city is lucky to have them.

We don't have a slam bang ending, but the major storyline wasn't slam bang story, either.

In case you're wondering why I wrote Page whatever before each paragraph, it's because I would include that in the actual plot. If you ever have to discuss part of the plot with an artist or editor, the page numbering allows you both to go straight to the right paragraph.

Now we've got the plot I would send to the artist. There are places in the plot where I have assumed the artist is already familiar with previous issues of The Southern Knights. As that would have been true for this story had it ever been drawn, I'm safe. If I had been sending it to a new artist, I'd have included references to previous issues of the comic book when referring to past events. I'd have also sent copies of those issues to artist along with the plot.

Unfortunately, since we don't have any actual artwork for this story, I won't be able to develop a script from the drawn pages. I hope seeing that done for a full script will provide sufficient examples of comic book scripting that it won't be too much of a loss.

Next time out, we'll create a full script for selected scenes. Meanwhile, have you got any questions?
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