Super Short Excerpt: The Parts of a Scene for Graphic Novels
Something I've been working on in irregular bursts, and will take a long while to finish. This part is not complete yet. Just sharing...
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Just like traditional film and stageplays, a graphic novel story is divided into Acts. Acts are divided into Sequences. Sequences are divided into Scenes. Scenes are divided into Beats. All of these have a beginning, middle, and end. The main difference between them is the level of change that takes place. Changes on the Beat level are not as pronounced as those on the Scene level. Changes in the Scene level are not as pronounced as those on the Sequence level, and so on. The process of the change is what is known as the Arc (though beats aren’t normally described as having an Arc, since it’s the smallest unit of a narrative.)
If you’re creating a love story, for instance, the Story Arc could begin from the time Mr. Wrong meets Miss Right, and ends at the point when Mr. Wrong and Miss Right get married and live happily ever after. The Arc chronicles Mr. Wrong’s change from “being lonely and single” to “being happily married.”
An Act can cover Mr. Wrong’s change from “being lonely and single” to “being lonely and single, but hopeful,” as the Act ends with Mr. Wrong falling in love with Miss Right.
A Sequence can cover Mr. Wrong’s change from “being lonely and single” to “being lonely and single, and hopeless,” as the Sequence details Mr. Wrong’s initial failure in finding a romantic relationship.
A Scene can cover Mr. Wrong’s change from “being lonely and single” to “being lonely and single, and impatient,” as the Scene tells of Mr. Wrong’s argument with his best friend about why he can’t seem to find a romantic relationship.
The Beats of the above Scene chronicles the dynamics of Mr. Wrong’s argument with his best friend. For example:
MR. WRONG: Dude, I’ve been looking for the right girl for a looong time. Nothing’s working.
BEST FRIEND: I hear ya.
MR. WRONG: There’s gotta be something wrong with them.
BEST FRIEND: Maybe there’s something wrong with you.
(beat change; Mr. Wrong becomes defensive)
MR. WRONG: Me? ME?!! I’ve tried everything! Should I get plastic surgery?!
BEST FRIEND: Just guessing. If nothing’s working, something’s wrong with you.
(beat change; Mr. Wrong becomes confrontational)
MR. WRONG: So what’re you saying? You’ve got a girl. Are you saying you’re better than me?
BEST FRIEND: Don’t even go there. I got a girl because I’m me. You’re gonna get a girl by being you.
(beat change; Mr. Wrong becomes impatient)
MR. WRONG: By being me? So what’s “me?” Tell me what’s “me.” What’s that side of me that I need to show so that girls will like me?
BEST FRIEND: I dunno. I’m not a girl.
MR. WRONG: AAAARGH!!!
You can have any number of Beats within a Scene, but the Beats have to serve the overall objective of the Scene, the change from one state to another state. Because if there’s an absence of change in a Scene, then that Scene is considered either as filler, or as exposition. Fillers are unnecessary. Exposition works best if used to help effect the needed change in a Scene.
As an additional example, let’s look at issue #112 of Thunderbolts (Warren Ellis and Mike Deodato) and see how the creators structured a Scene. (Unfortunately, due to copyright issues, I can't post images)
In the first Scene, Norman Osborne meets with the Thunderbolts to debrief an operation to apprehend the perceivably inferior Jack Flag, an encounter that had near-disastrous results.
Storytelling-wise, any Scene has a number of components:
1) A Story-Level Objective
2) A Beginning State
3) A Process
4) An Ending State
5) A Writer’s Objective
For this scene… the Story-Level Objective is the debriefing. Osborne wants an explanation for why the operation turned out the way it did.
The Beginning State is the Scene’s “psychology,” or “mood.” A clear set of circumstances that is also defined by the mental, physical and emotional conditions of the characters at the beginning of the Scene. All of these guide the way the Scene pans out. To support the Beginning State, note how Deodato executes the visual aspects of the first few panels. The Thunderbolts are sitting, their arms shackled by power-dampening devices—an inferior position. Osborne, on the other hand, is standing--a superior position. What’s at stake here is the Thunderbolts’ reputation, precarious enough as it is, and Osborne’s superior position lends to the Story-Level Objective.
The Process beings. Moonstone, the group’s leader, attempts to alleviate Osborne by calling the operation a success. A psychologist by profession, she explains that what happened will help the team get public sympathy, and emphasize the threat of non-registered superheroes.
At this point, the beat changes, when deposed team leader Songbird questions Moonstone’s abilities to lead the team, to the point of accusing Moonstone of gallivanting with a civilian for casual sex after the operation. Songbird is affected by the results of the operation, because she desperately wants to be respected as a hero, apart from her total lack of respect for Moonstone.
Beat change: Moonstone sees that Songbird is taking things personally, and stresses how everything is just strictly business. She turns to Osborne, assuring him that the next day’s news will be favorable.
Last beat change: To settle the matter, Osborne says that they would need to review the video recording of the encounter. He invites Radioactive Man to his office for a private discussion. The Scene ends with Songbird looking distraught.
The Ending State of this Scene is one of unsettled frustration on the part of Songbird. Her disappointment goes up a notch. It’s no longer just about the team’s failure, or Moonstone’s manipulative nature, but Songbird’s impression that what she says means nothing to Osborne.
There are other things that happen at the end of the Scene, but aren’t depicted. As far as this Scene is concerned, we only see how it affected Songbird. The Scene does affect some of the other members of the team. In the following Scene, for instance, Radioactive Man tells Osborne that Songbird should be the team leader because she “has heart,” to which Osborne responds that having heart has no place in Thunderbolts leadership.
The Writer’s Objective for this Scene is not really to show how the operation failed, but more to reinforce Moonstone’s manipulative personality, Songbird’s frustration, as well as increase the tension that already existed among the team members. A Writer’s Objective is required in every Scene, even though the Story-Level Objective was not fulfilled. This first Scene is still an important one, because it drives the character’s decisions in future Scenes.