Sunday, June 16, 2013

Outlining Your Graphic Novel Story

In the previous blog post, we broke down the events in the first volume of The Walking Dead comics series in terms of Challenges and Reveals to see how the story builds tension and anxiety in the reader. In that blog post, we also mentioned the idea of arcs.

An arc chronicles a transformation, or a change of state. When you look at any story, the main characters begin the story in one state and end in another state, for better or for worse. When we started, we asked you to plan out the beginning of your story as well as come up with an ending. This is the overall arc of your story. In the first volume of The Walking Dead, main character Rick started with wanting to reunite with his family. That is his beginning state. At the end of issue six, Rick has, indeed, reunited with his family, but he also completely lost his friend Shane because of them. Completely, because not only did Shane lose his physical life because of young Carl, he also lost his emotional life because of Lori.

The events that took place across the six issues chronicles the changing of Rick's state.

At the start, we asked you to develop the beginning of your story of a character. Then, we asked you to come up with a temporary ending. This is the overall arc you're working with. Now, you have to decide how many issues, or chapters, you would need for your character to move from the beginning state to the end state. You do this by outlining in specific steps how the beginning leads to the ending in terms of Challenges and Reveals, then dividing these into individual issues or chapters.

At first, this may be a challenge for you, so here's a tip: Take your favorite graphic novels or limited series (choose a short story to start off), and outline the events of their stories as we've done with The Walking Dead in the previous post. This will give you an idea of how the writers broke down the events, what steps were needed, and how many Challenges and Reveals were used in each issue or chapter, to complete the story.

An easy way of coming up with the steps is to work backward from the ending.

For example, let's have a story about a guy who decides to avenge the murder of his family by a homicidal alien. At the end of the story, the guy kills the alien using a special device.

With that ending, you ask, "What do I need for this ending to happen?"

1) The guy retreiving the device
2) The guy finding the alien

This doesn't sound like much, but it's something to work with. Let's continue by adding more:

1) The guy retrieving the device

Reveal: The device is held by a reclusive bounty hunter, who is reportedly not very nice
Challenge: Getting the device from the bounty hunter

2) The guy finding the alien

Reveal: The alien has killed others
Challenge: Determining where the alien will strike next, or if there's a pattern to the murders

Let's expand this more:

1) The guy retrieving the device

Reveal: The device is held by a reclusive bounty hunter, who is reportedly not very nice
Challenge: Getting the device from the bounty hunter
Reveal: The device can only be powered by a special energy source
Challenge: Getting the energy source to power up the device

2) The guy finding the alien

Reveal: The alien has killed others
Challenge: Determining where the alien will strike next, or if there's a pattern to the murders
Reveal: Analysis reveals that the victims had a special DNA sequence
Challenge: Sifting through a database to determine who else has that special DNA sequence
Challenge: The guy encounters the alien, but fails to stop it

So, essentially, you're moving from the general details to more particular details to create a full outline of your story. If this were a six-issue limited series, we could assume that retrieving the device and powering it up could take up the first four issues, while the last two issues will be about finally discovering the exact location of the alien and killing it.

When working backwards from the ending, don't forget the beginning. The beginning has to support the decisions you make. If you've established that you're character is more of a brainy guy than a brawny guy, how will his characterization affect your event decisions? If you've introduced friends and colleagues in the beginning, how will they play a part in the middle? In the ending? This is where you start adjusting the beginning and the ending details to make sure they, literally, "meet in the middle."

NEXT: Once you have a full outline, you can then divide the outline according to the number of issues or chapters you plan to have. We'll tackle that in the next blog post.


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