Friday, December 19, 2014

Revisiting the Scene Puzzle

When it comes to how we approach our work, some cartoonists are analytical, some of intuitive (which is a less clunky way of saying UNCONSCIOUSLY analytical; there’s still a lot of learning and decision-making going on, it’s just internalized).   Most have one foot in the other camp to some degree, but I think that the majority either do things because they feel right and practice and experience and taste let us know whether or not we’re making the right decision, or we make our decisions based on considered principles that we’ve either learned or created for ourselves.  I expect that much of an artist’s self-improvement over the years is based on his or her ability and willingness to lean ever further away from that natural inclination, steadily absorbing the principles of the other side.  

I’m analytical, which I found to be a real boon to my teaching experience.  And I was really excited about teaching a graduate course called “Exploring the Narrative.”

I took this same course when I was in grad school, and it was a train wreck.  We learned… 


Seriously, nothing (life lessons aside).  That’s not an exaggeration.  At a certain point in the class, well past the halfway five-week mark, another student (more outspoken than myself, which isn’t something I general encounter) asked directly “are we going to learn how narratives work?”  When pressed as to what he meant, he, and the rest of us, got more specific:  are we going to learn any principles, any philosophy or technical approach that will allow us to approach narrative with any sort of foundation that we can use to build our stories?  The teacher, irritated, said “Well, I guess not.  No.”  Most (maybe all, but I doubt it, and can’t remember) of the class walked out.  Most of us were absolutely bristling with rage at the refusal of our teacher to familiarize himself with the concepts that he was charged with imparting to us.

I had never read McKee, or Field, or Campbell, or anyone else like that; I didn’t know that they existed.  But I had a belief that storytelling, like anything else, must have foundational principles upon which to build, hard rules from which one could, of course, deviate… but I hadn’t the slightest idea what those rules were, and the class in which I expected to learn them did not deliver.

I was making my first “real” book, Crogan’s Vengeance (soon to be released in a new color version retitled Catfoot’s Vengeance),  at this time, in grad school.  I was doing my best to be analytical about its structure, but I lacked the tools with which to approach it the way I wanted.  So I considered my favorite comic, Jeff Smith’s Bone.  A Bone trade collection was made up of six issues.  So I decided to have five cliffhanger moments and a climax, each at roughly twenty-four page intervals.  That was the extent of my structure.

And so I approached the book more intuitively than I otherwise might’ve.  Luckily, intuitively doesn’t mean thoughtlessly.  I, like most of us, had internalized a lot of storytelling principles through the narratives that I had consumed.  And so the book, while as flawed as anything I’ve done, holds up much better than I would have thought it might given how I was flying blind the whole time.

Anyway, when I was pegged to teach the class a few years later, I decided that it was to be the complete opposite of the class that I had taken.  If there was going to be a narrative course, then by God we would understand the foundational principles of narrative. 

Each year I built up the class (and my own knowledge) a little more, started compiling the best bits from different writers and theorists, delving into as much literary theory as I could and trying to give the students something of a humanities primer (a subject not required by the college, which infuriated, and still infuriates, me… half a dozen required esoteric art history courses but they’re never expected to learn the standard stuff that folks assume you’ve gotten with your higher education), touching on Aristotle’s poetics and Horace and Longinus and Pope and Shakespeare, anything applicable.  We mushed up Story and Save the Cat and Screenplay and Mamet and talked about how Campbell is only applicable when dealing with two of Frye’s five modes of literature and how the Abrams classification of theories is a direct corollary to McCloud’s Four Tribes of Comics and why a teaser intro is a good idea in a genre story and how Galaxy Quest improves upon the Chekhov’s Gun principle and… a lot of stuff.  And man, I loved that class.  I absolutely loved it.  I was lucky to always have enthusiastic, engaged students, but everyone was always at the top of their game in narrative and its undergraduate parallel Scriptwriting.

I feel like one of the most important parts of teaching is making the effort to quantify everything.  To establish rules for why something works.  If it deviates from those rules and still works, then we have to be able to ascertain the reason.  If it follows the rules and fails, we have to be able to understand why and establish further parameters inside which failure is less likely to occur.

This may sound like it’s the easiest way to suck the fun/life/artistry out of storytelling, and it’s probably the mindset that drives the economics of the Hollywood studio system that is so often lambasted for simplifying process down to formula.  But when your goal is to make good stories then you (or at least I) want all the tools at my disposal.  I may not use all of them (and much of my last year has been an attempt to lighten the tool box, to extend the analogy) but I want to have them so that I can make a conscious choice as to whether or not I’ll use them.

 One of the things that I did, for myself and for the class, was to work up a sort of “table of contents” for story structure.  I would change it drastically each quarter, but it’s generally built on the idea of three-act structure, though I feel like the traditional second act is actually three very distinct parts, the first two quarters each constituting their own section and the second half, creating five acts, though not five acts in the Shakespearian format, where the true complications arise in the second act (mine still pop up in the first). 

Anyway, I began to use this in my own stories.  My hope was to eventually perfect it as a model which could be used on all of my projects, shaving off time and allowing me to focus on the execution of details.  Painting a car instead of building it.  I even went so far as to assign page numbers to each stage of the story.  For example, from The Creeps:

Pages 51-59: First minor showdown with monster intertwined with supporting character’s arc
For the first time, the reader sees the monster and there is now certainty of what the Creeps face.  In a monster story, this would kill the suspense – once you see the monster, it’s less scary.  But this is a mystery, so we can now have fun depicting the monster while still eliciting the suspense of its motivations or origins.
The support character is involved in this event, and the encounter serves to highlight the moral need on the part of the Creeps to address whatever problem he or she may be facing.

The trouble with this is that it doesn’t work.  In working out the outline I almost immediately stray from the page numbers and end up omitting large sections, or adding to them.  It might work as a starting point, but if the goal was to eliminate a step, then attempting to composite a universal theory of narrative at the onset of every project means that goal failed spectacularly.

But more than this:  In an effort to trim the narrative fat, I’m losing something.  In a conversation I just had with Tony Cliff (if you want to hear the part in which we talk about this, it starts around 1:12:50), I found that one of the things that I was losing was tangential scenes.  Fun bits, informative bits, sequences that do nothing for narrative propulsion but which give warmth and color to a tale.  But that’s not the big thing.

I’m no longer thinking of scenes.

When I started making books, I would think about the time period, the genre, and the location, and I would think about what scenes I wanted in the book.  I’d write them all down on post-its and put them on a big posterboard and move them around and add bits and pieces until there was a logical progression.  A scene puzzle on a scene board.  And that was it.

I don’t think I consider scenes anymore.  At least, not at the forefront of crafting a narrative. 

And that’s lousy!  I like working towards fun, visual scenes.  Without them, this is a stiff, talking head medium.  And I think I’ve gotten so wrapped up in the mechanics of plot that I’ve been neglecting that the narrative needs to work on a predominantly visual level, and good scenes are visual scenes.  Locale and color direction and staging trump dialogue and emotion every time.  Not that they’re mutually exclusive, but I’ve been so focused on the latter that I’m forced to consider the former in the execution of the pages, making that part of the job a lot more difficult (how do I make this info dump library scene visually compelling?).  If I were going scene-first, they wouldn’t be in a library.  They’d be hanging on top of a bookmobile on its way back from the VA hospital reading a heisted book that they've been expressly prohibited from checking out.  Which of those two possibilities would you remember after you’d read it?

So the conclusion I’ve come to is this, though it will likely change drastically as I attempt its implementation: Don’t write to structure.  At least, I shouldn’t, the way I have been.

Write to SCENES in your initial draft, THEN craft it to fit the tight structure.  There probably won’t even be that much by way of changes, really, and it’ll keep those visually iconographic moments key in your mind while you’re working.

Are there dangers here?  Absolutely.  When something artificially builds to what the creator intends to be a stay-with-you visual scene, you can tell, and you can feel it (as Falynn Koch brought up in class years ago, the entirety of the library characters' storyline in Day After Tomorrow is clumsily intended to lead directly to the boat wolves scene).  And working on hard genre stuff as I do there’s always the temptation – a temptation to which I’ve succumbed in the past – to knowingly or subconsciously borrow heavily from the visual iconography of existing scenes from that genre.  There can be a way of doing that successfully (Gore Verbinski is an example of a guy who explicitly borrows from visual genre conventions but does so in a way that makes the work uniquely his own), but the balance between originality and hearkening is one that has to be carefully struck.  But I think the benefits outweigh the reservations; I’ll be giving the old scene board another go.


  1. Great and timely read as I'm currently stepping up my work on Rumspringer! I feel like I've intuitively written to scenes for the most part, and those sections of the story feel great. But the problem areas of the story are those that lack an inspired scene to maintain engagement, or those where I haven't managed to reel several exciting scenes into a cohesive narrative. I suppose at this advanced stage of crafting a narrative, where inspiration is less frequent and contrivance becomes increasingly risky, it's time to step back and really assess the pieces and consider how the "formula" might be helpful.

  2. Jacob, that's the trickiest part with the scene-first approach, I think, avoiding that sense of contrivance. I'm certainly not going to abandon hard structure, but doing what you're doing - working out the parts of the story that "feel" right - first, I think that I'll be able to plug them in (?) and see what's missing, narratively, or at least how to play the scenes.

  3. Also, I can't wait to read Rumspringer.

  4. Any suggestions on how to streamline an unwieldy "über-outline" into a simplified plot overview from which one can more effectively assess overall pacing, structural logic, etc.?

    I feel that's the next step for me, and before I plunge into that task operating solely on instinct, I was wondering if there are any helpful templates or something out there. Or if I should read something beyond McKee.

    Thanks for the encouraging enthusiasm about Rumspringer! Chronic hand pain has really slowed me down on this, but hopefully I'm hitting a good stride now.

  5. Howdy! I came here searching on information about "Catfoot's Revenge", and found this! (Thanks for the clarification... I thought it was a new volume!)

    I'm a theorist... I don't have the discipline or self-esteem to actually write, but I'm fascinated by the sausage making! (And I was lucky to take what felt like a masters-level class taught by Denny O'Neil!)

    Your tangential scene problem sounds like "kill your darlings". In a comic, I could see it as either a sub-plot in the background, or perhaps a single panel or "chicken fat". Otherwise, it could upset the pacing, where a one- or two-page diversion could upset the pacing. (UNLESS you're using Levitz' A-B-C plot paradigm, but I don't know if that would work for Crogan, where each story spotlights one character.)

    Don Rosa, when he created comics, stated that he usually knew the beginning and ending first, and used those as guidance while writing a story. (An added bit of spice... classic Disney comics never used periods, since they could be mistaken as burs on the printing plate! So every sentence was either a question or an exclamation! It really adds excitement, don't you think?)

    Myself, I always worry about "page turn". Is there a little hook at the end of right-hand page which makes the reader want to turn the page?

    As for texts, have you read Jewett and Lawrence's "The American Monomyth"? That might be a good secondary course to teach! Spend a week on each movie/franchise mentioned in the book! (Yes, I know you're "retired"... ah well...)

    Hope to meet you on the publicity trail this year! (BEA? ALA? NYCC?)

  6. Thanks, Torsten! I've read parts of "The American Monomyth," but schedule has prevented me from reading the whole thing, which I will eventually do.
    I do spend a lot of time worrying about page turns. The book on which I'm currently working has maybe three or four pages (out of sixty-something possible turns) where I don't feel as though I'm forcing the reader to turn, compelling them with some sort of cliffhanger (either through dialogue or action, a question posed, a line unfinished, etc), and that's because they're in (hopefully interesting) expository sequences, and I hope that the interest in the info being discovered will compel the reader to continue. Also, no visual reveals on the right hand page, etc.
    My big worry is that I've been killing darlings with such reckless abandon that there might be little left in the books to love, that the nuance and flavor gets lost in the service of story propulsion.
    I'll be at ALA and NYCC, I believe, so I look forward to meeting you there!