Monday, June 10, 2013

How To Start A Graphic Novel Story From Scratch

You have a great idea for a character. You've established who the character is and where the character's from. You know what the character does for a living, even down to what the character looks like.

So where's the story?

Practically all dramatic stories, from comics to novels to film, start a story this way:

Ordinary Life ---> Disturbance

When you want to find your character's story, one of the things you can do is "follow" your character through a typical day. Imagine the character going to work, having lunch, talking to friends and colleagues, or meeting up with a lover. Take notes. Who are your character's friends? Where does your character hang out? What does your character think about on a daily basis? This is the story of your character's Ordinary Life.

You might ask: My character's a superhero. His Ordinary Life involves catching criminals!

Yes, that's true. Being a superhero does involve finding and catching criminals. Ditto a detective or a police officer. But they do have their down time. And it's highly likely that most of the crimes they solve aren't high-profile ones, but simply petty capers that are par for the course.

The story that we're looking for is a Dramatic Story. And by dramatic, we mean that your character has to make particularly tough choices and test his or her resolve.

The only way to get your character to go through this kind of ordeal is to introduce a Disturbance.

A Disturbance (or Inciting Incident) is anything that happens in your character's Ordinary Life that is "out of the ordinary," that impacts your character so much that something has to be done. In other words, a Disturbance causes an imbalance.

  • In Ozma of Oz (by Eric Shanower and Skottie Young, based on the book by L. Frank Baum), Dorothy Gale's disturbance happened when she gets lost at sea and ends up stranded in a mysterious island. She has no choice but to explore and find food and shelter.
  • In Arrowsmith (by Kurt Busiek and Carlos Pacheco), country boy Fletcher Arrowsmith's disturbance happened when members of an elite dragon corps visited his small town to recruit new soldiers. Wanting to make something out of his life beyond his rural existence, he leaves home to go to the recruitment camp.
  • In Kick-Ass (by Mark Millar and John Romita, Jr.), Dave Liezewski's disturbance happened when he, on his first night as Kick-Ass, gets stabbed by punks then gets hit by a car. Having experienced first hand the hazards of the streets, he dons his Kick-Ass costume again.
  • In Watchmen (by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons), the disturbance takes place when The Comedian is murdered. The heroes then try to solve the mystery.
In all four examples, the Disturbance launches the character into an Extraordinary Life, where the character learns new things, faces new threats, and meets new characters he or she would never have had met in the Ordinary Life.

In coming up with a Disturbance for your story, go through your notes about your character's Ordinary Life and ask: How do I shake things up for the character? What kind of rug do I need to pull from underneath him?

Shaking things up can be either:

1) Occupational - The disturbance has something to do with the character's job. For example, the hero encounters a strange, new villain that destroys a few city blocks.
2) Personal - The disturbance has something to do with the character's personal life. For example, the hero discovers that he has a child with a former lover who had died.
3) Both Occupational and Personal - For example, the hero encounters a destructive new villain who is actually his child with a former lover who had died.

List down possible Disturbances, and for each Disturbance, list down a number of immediate actions your character might take to restore balance. By listing down Disturbances, you'll begin to generate ideas on what your story could be about. Pick one or a few to expand and explore, and have fun with it. Just be sure to make it interesting not just for yourself, but also to your potential readers.

In choosing a Disturbance, here are some questions to answer:

1) What's at stake? The Disturbance cannot be ignored because your character would have a lot to lose by not dealing with it. If your character finds out that her husband has been cheating on her, at stake is her self-esteem and her pride.

2) What's the risk? Restoring the balance has to challenge the character. It shouldn't be easy. The character would have to learn new things, look at the problem in unconventional ways, or experience great discomfort.

3) How long will it take? For a graphic novel, which will take up at least 72 pages (my definition, at least), dealing with the Disturbance has to be the equivalent of a roller coaster ride. The character would have to take a number of steps to fix everything.

NEXT: In the next blog post, we'll see how coming up with an ending first can significantly help you in story generation.

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