How can we:
- Write “page-turning” comics?
- Tell stories that keep the audience on the edge of their seat?
- Leave readers ultimately satisfied that they came along for the ride?
In The DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics, veteran 20-year editor of Batman comics for DC, Dennis O’Neil, shares his hard-earned wisdom for telling great comic book stories.
In this article, I share five key takeaways from the book while providing examples of the highlighted techniques as utilized in some of our culture’s favorite films and TV series.
Update: I’ve more recently supplemented the ideas below with a few tips from other storytelling resources.
1) From Status Quo to Transformation
Starting your story with your hero in their “normal” circumstances is often the ideal jumping off point. A compelling story involves change throughout and at its best, ultimately resolves in transformation at one or multiple levels.
Perhaps the most meaningful way to experience the change wrought by a story’s drama, conflict and resolution is against the clear contrast of the hero and his worlds initial or “normal” state. Hence the value of beginning your tale precisely there.
For satisfying endings, while transformation at a single level may be sufficient for some stories, arguably the most resonate stories conclude in transformation for not only the world the hero is saving but also the internal transformation of hero him or her self.
In The Matrix (1999), Neo’s own transformation ultimately results in his revealing himself to the world with the pre-credit phone call and his taking flight. It is mostly implied that the transformation of Neo in turn results in his transforming things for the whole world/system.
O’Neil also notes the importance of having the hero play the decisive role in the story’s plot and resolution. It is, primarily his or her journey after all! And if we want to make that journey as satisfying as possible for the audience, we’ll surely want to “pay off” the time they’ve spent invested in them meaningfully.
In his film making masterclass, James Cameron talks about starting with a great ending in mind to be sure things are going somewhere satisfying.
“Am I going to be moved by where it all winds up?”
– James Cameron, Masterclass (Slashfilm.com quote)
2) The Hook
According to O’Neil, you have 1-2 comic pages to engage the reader in something exciting happening to keep them reading.
Maybe that’s by:
- Opening with some visceral action (ie. “Opening on action”)
- Raising a question in the reader’s mind they read on to answer (or)
- Quickly putting the main character (or his friends) in danger
Whatever option above you use or if you use two or all three (even better!), there’s one question you always want front of the reader’s mind: “What’s going to happen next?!”
Despite many viewers disappointment for what ultimately was revealed, JJ Abram’s use of “The Mystery Box” technique has at least proven effective in keeping viewers engaged with mysterious and intriguing questions for many hours of the hit TV show LOST during its six year run.
George R.R. Martin has perhaps provided a more holistic example, where the “rest of the iceberg” hidden beneath the surface has perhaps more often proven thought out and meaningful in the end. An example of this might be the origins of Hodor’s name as revealed in the HBO series Game of Thrones (which I’m assuming probably came from Martin’s own mind.)
3) Inciting Incident
This is the event that takes our protagonist out of the “normal” circumstance into more interesting and uncharted terrain.
In the original Star Wars film, Luke Skywalker’s inciting incident is the message played by R2D2 of Princess Leia.
O’Neil says, if possible, you can include this in the opening hook. Note: Compressing things this much is particularly helpful when telling a complete story in a single comic book.
4) The Conflict
In establishing the story’s conflict, certain questions should be answered:
- Who and what is this story about?
- Why should the reader care what’s happening?
- Is something valuable at stake?
O’Neil emphasizes the importance of establishing all these things early in the story so the reader has their bearings on what meaningful is happening that’s worth sticking around to see resolved.
This is where the idea of the “McGuffin” can come into play… a special something the hero is searching if not fighting for. This can add direction to the story and focus to its conflict.
Indiana Jones stories are almost always driven in part by the “McGuffin” of a special artifact (Raiders: Ark of the Covenant, Temple of Doom: Sankara Stones, Last Crusade: Holy Grail and Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls: the Skulls, of course!)
5) Rising Action
Once the story begins you want to increasingly ratchet up the tension higher and higher for the reader all the way up until the ideally sudden relief of the story’s climax and resolution.
The reader should see the hero as the underdog with the chips stacked against them. If their survival cannot be in doubt, at least their success in saving the day for another should be.
Stacking up multiple sources of tension can help here. If possible, a time constraint running increasingly short up to the climax, whether it be a ticking time bomb or the imminent arrival or someone or something, can turn up the heat.
The hero’s own internal conflict can also be a source of rising tension requiring him to make a heroic decision over his own more selfish desire can also be brought to a critical boiling point for the ultimate climax and resolution.
In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, visceral action, a time constraint and the inner conflict of the hero’s ego all come together for the film’s finale climax when the grail housing fortress is falling apart and Indie must choose to let go of recovering the Grail and listen instead to his father’s still calm voice by climbing up from the ledge to escape just in time.
In his filmmaking Masterclass, James Cameron mentions cross-cutting as another technique for building tension. Cross-cutting is switching back and forth between different scenes, giving the sense they are happening simultaneously.
The use of this in the third Star Wars film, Return of the Jedi for the last Battle and film’s finale is a compelling example. By showing a relationship between the scenes being switched between, with them even directly effecting each other (ie. in ROTJ, the forest battle needs to take down death star shield to win the space battle) can utilize this technique for all scenes to build to a collective climax and resolution together.
Generally, the tension you build in the story will reach its peak at the climax of the story’s just before its ultimate resolution. And this climax, not unlike in the examples above, frequently comes to a moment where it appears “all is lost” and things are at their very worst for the hero and company. This can sometimes appear to – or in some cases, literally include – the hero dying (ie. The Matrix for a more literal example) – or at least, metaphorically see the hero in such dire circumstance. And its only after reaching this point of seeming despair, that the hero (sometimes with help) takes some decisive action, just in the nick of time, to reverse fate.
Bonus: Character Counts
O’Neil also calls out the timeless importance of characters being the core of plot and vice versa.
- Who is your hero and what does he want?
- What about the villain and secondary characters?
The more thorough in building the world beneath what the reader/viewer sees (the proverbial iceberg beneath the water), the more “lived in” and “authentic” the world is likely to feel.
I believe it was George R.R. Martin who has said, he doesn’t know everything that will happen for all his characters (in their lifetimes!), but if a character that’s been off stage for a while and is now returning, he’ll be sure to understand all that’s happened to him or her of consequence since we last saw them.
The drama and conflict of story is largely the conflict of desires between characters (as well as within them). If that’s true, we darn well better know what those desires are and better yet, why our characters have them!
In terms of the desires in conflict within a protagonist, Martin has quoted William Faulkner on the subject as saying, “The only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself.”
Certainly one popular source of interpersonal conflict within stories is good old misunderstanding! In fact, you may have already tired of how often your favorite TV melodramas rely upon this technique which is called “dramatic irony”. Nevertheless, used well, this element can be as effective as it is true to drama/conflict in the real world.
One particularly potent application is when a character’s actions are misunderstood by another or others, leading them in judge them negatively, but where the reader knows that the character’s actions are actually being done with not only good intent but (insert irony) for the benefit of those who are judging them.
In summary, if we can fine-tune our storytelling well enough, we can:
- Engage our readers/viewers in enthusiastically coming along for the ride from beginning to end.
- Leave them with a meaningful sense of satisfaction when all is said and done.
- Ideally help our audience gain something meaningful for their own hero journeys.
And if that’s not a fair exchange for their time, I don’t know what is.
If you found the above valuable, I recommend checking out the full DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics by Dennis O’Neil. It’s 100+ pages in length and full of insight from a 20+ year industry veteran.