Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Revisting Comic Book Arc Length -- Shane Berryhill

What determines the completeness of a comic book story arc of any length?

In the case of SHERWOOD, TEXAS, we knew from the beginning that we have a finite amount of issues to work with in regard to the first story arc. And that was perfectly fine. It meant the tale we were telling would be lean and mean and have no room for BS. But, traditionally, most stories occur in three acts. Ergo, there’s a beginning, middle, and end. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have a one act story or a twelve act story. A story’s complete when the tale is told. End of story (pun intended ;).

How do you work in the beginning, middle and end of individual issues against that of the central story's begging, middle and end?

In SHERWOOD, TEXAS, what I did was take a “fractal” approach to plotting the script. That is, I had a very general premise (ie, the central story: Robin Hood reimagined as a modern day biker epic in a Texas Border town) that comprises the full arc. Then, I broke that down into more concrete terms between issues. For example, I took that main premise and broke it down into five minor premises (the five issues comprising the first story arc). Then I repeated that for each page of each issue, then each panel of each page until the parts equaled the sum and vise-versa.

Let's look at writing for various length stories. From a plotting perspective, how is working on an anthology story (6-10 pages) different from working on a stand-alone issue story or a multi-part story filling several issues?

My first true published comics work was a three-page short that appeared in Grayhaven’s ‘Hey, Kids!’ comics anthology issue. Working with such a limited amount of pages forced me to be creative. So what I did was throw out what they’d actually brought me on board to write (haha) as I knew it wouldn’t work within the confines of the allotted page count. I realized that what I had to do was work in broad strokes that, not only told a complete story, but also offered readers an instant emotional connection to the character(s). So I wrote a Jack Kirby tribute that borrowed ‘devices’ from Thurber’s ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.’ In essence, the space I had to work in defined the content and tone of the story I told. I think I did a decent job as, once Grayhaven saw the finished pages, they never even brought up the fact that the story wasn’t what they’d asked me to script, haha.

But longer doesn't necessarily mean better. Writing is about cutting out whatever's unnecessary. Even when writing a multi-issue story arc, every panel of every page should be driving the reader forward to the story's completion. Anything that doesn't do that arguably needs to be left on the editing room floor. You're only doing your job as a writer if the reader keeps turning pages to see what happens next.