Benefit of Writing Comics: Long-term Story Planning

March 20, 2015

Welcome back to the next installment in my ongoing series about the benefits granted to prose writing from writing a recurring web comic. I’ve covered the benefits of regular practice, overcoming the fear of release, and aspects of character growth and development. Today I’ll be going into my experiences with plotting story arcs and will be revealing a super-secret bonus benefit as well.

At the very beginning of writing my Cubes comic strip I hadn’t given much thought to long term development. Year 1 and Year 2 were primarily concerned with just telling gags. There wasn’t anything that could even charitably be called an ongoing storyline.

By the time I came to do Year 3 of the comic I was wanting to push myself more. Just writing gags, with no character growth or plot progression, gets a little boring after a while. I wanted to shake up the format so I decided to set the gags of Year 3 against the backdrop of an ongoing storyline.

Cubes, in general, is about a group of anthropomorphic characters working for a small computer software development company. In Year 3 they win a giant client contract but there’s the worry that they won’t be able to meet the needs of the client. They bring in new character Honey Klim to help guide and manage the project overall. Honey’s management techniques are not to the staff’s liking and the working relationship gets more and more discordant until the big finish, which takes place in the first Cubes comic “book,” The Mystery of Honey Klim.

Before writing any of the comic strips for Year 3, I did a rough outline of events. I do two comic strips per month, so twenty-four in an entire year. I thought I’d devote half of those comic strips to the Honey Klim story and keep the other half as random gags.

That plan was good in theory but fell apart in execution. About eight months into Year 3 I realized that I had more story left to tell than would fit in the four remaining comic strips allocated to the Honey Klim plotline. Even worse, I realized there was more story than would fit in all eight remaining comic strips! That’s what led to the creation of the year end comic book.

That darned year end comic book. I freely admit that it’s an awkward one. It’s basically the final act of the Honey Klim story but, on the chance that it was the first comic that a reader would read, I had to put in a lot of references back to what had happened throughout the course of Year 3. The result is a nine page comic that is almost entirely exposition (cringe).

When strictly writing gags for Cubes, as I did in Year 1 and Year 2, it’s usually enough to have one or two point form notes to get through a comic strip. There’s only four panels to deal with so there really isn’t room to do more than one or two things. Based on that same approach, that same experience, when I plotted out Year 3 I only jotted down one or two notes per Honey Klim comic strip.

What I neglected to factor in was that in addition to having to tell the Honey Klim story, the comic strips had to at least try to be funny as well. Now, I’ve written some stinkers of comic strips in the ten years I’ve been doing it to this point; however, I consider Year 3 in general, and the last third of that year in particular, to be the least funniest comics I’ve done. That’s because when I plotted out the Honey Klim storyline, I didn’t factor in anything for gags. As such, the closer to the end of Year 3 you get, the more you’ll see the Honey Klim story taking over and squeezing out the humour.

As well, to accurately describe what was going on in the story and its progression over the year just required more space in the comics. That’s another reason why the story took over more and more. I’d developed a story that just couldn’t fit in the comic strips themselves. Had I spent more time planning and preparing, hopefully I would have recognized that earlier and made adjustments to the overall plotline.

At the time I finished Year 3 of Cubes I was really, really dissatisfied with it. I really felt that I’d failed to meet the goals that I’d set for it. This bugged me for a long time until I gradually realized that Year 3 was actually the single best thing I had done, not only for Cubes but for all my other creative projects, including my prose writing.

Coming out of Year 3, I felt that including a story of sorts in the comic strip should, fundamentally, work. Going into Year 4 I started to try different ways of including a story. I did small three and four comic strip story arcs. I also started telling a larger story by including small bits and pieces here and there but NOT making them the focus of the comic strip as a whole. Most importantly, I properly took the time to plan out those stories AND to figure out how they worked with the humour of the typical Cubes gags.

I’m much prouder of the work I did in Year 4 and later of the web comic. That comes directly from the failure of Year 3. Every year now, I remember what went wrong with Year 3 and make sure that I take the time to properly sit down and plan out the stories I want to tell.

That brings me, in a rather roundabout way, to the topic of today: long-term story planning. The benefit of writing a comic strip, year-by-year, is the enforced structure it gives. Year 3 showed me how storytelling in an episodic format strung out over a year works. It gave me a sense of the pace, of how much story could fit into each comic strip without crowding out the humour. It showed me how to make the other elements, including the humour and character growth, work with the story in that format.

Plotting out a story for each year has taught me how to interweave the beat-by-beat needs of a given comic strip with the broader arc of a larger narrative. That same lesson is something that I’ve come to apply to my prose writing. Even though a prose story is a very different format from a recurring comic strip it still has that same need. That ability to write scenes that work in and of themselves but that also contribute to the larger whole.

I wish I could more articulately and concretely express exactly how writing for comics has allowed me to better structure all my stories. It’s a very difficult thing to describe because it’s something you really do have to experience for yourself. It does go back to the benefit of regular, recurring practice I’ve blogged about previously.

At the outset of this post, I mentioned there’d be a super-secret bonus benefit and I don’t aim to disappoint. As I said, Year 3 was, in my estimation, a failure and yet I also said it was the best thing I had ever done creatively. As a result of year 3:

  • I gained the need to do better in the future.
  • I gained valuable experience on how NOT to structure a story.
  • I stumbled into writing annual comic books capping off each year of the Cubes, which has been immensely rewarding and provides a larger format to tell a story in than just the four panel comic strips.
  • I inadvertently created the character of Pureluck Homes who now features in his own computer adventure game (demo).
  • I had the story go to a darker and more critical place (well, as dark and critical as something the nature of Cubes can be) than I had intended. This has allowed me to tackle more interesting subject matter from time to time in the subsequent years, including work burnout, the ups and downs of relationships, body issues, and the impersonal nature of real world evil (as opposed to the mustache twirling variety).
  • I added in, almost by accident, more character attributes and tidbits that even now, seven years later, are still surfacing in new comics.

The bonus benefit, you see, comes from the nature of this recurring comic format. Since the comic strips are individually as small as they are, it doesn’t take a lot of time to create them. And that means there’s a lot more opportunity to experiment with them than in, say, a novel.

Even though Year 3 was, as the name implies, a yearlong project, that amounts to only twenty-four comic strips, which is not an overwhelming amount of work by any means. Especially in the early years of Cubes, I experimented a lot with the format of the comics and what I was trying to do with them. Year 3 failed to live up to expectations, but so many wonderful benefits came out of it that I’m no longer as worried about failure as I once was.

Success through failure. It sounds like a bizarre concept but it really is the truth. All you have to do is find a way to see the success either inherent in a failure or that can be derived from that failure.

And with that heady thought, I’ll step off my soap box for this month. Check back for the next installment in this series in a month’s time when I’ll go into the benefit of “writing tight,” something that writing instructors and professionals are always saying to do. Or read the rest of the series while you wait.