Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Writing For Scary Go Round/Bad Machinery

I received a message the other day through one or other channel (telex perhaps), asking how I go about writing the 100-page stories for Bad Machinery. I was never the most careful plotter in the past, which lead to a lot of Scary Go Round stories that petered out or ended unsatisfactorily.

Of course, such is the nature of expectation that I'm pretty certain that any ending will be unsatisfactory that doesn't definitively terminate every single plotline you have been dealing with, and in a long, ongoing project that was very difficult. It lead to a "drift in/drift out" of stories that I didn't mind, because I enjoyed making little worlds far more than tying things up in the kind of neat bows that don't exist in real life. But I was also a lazy plotter and my best received stories were the ones that started and ended properly, with points mapped out in between.

So for Bad Machinery, I made a strict rule to rein in my bad habits - 100 pages a story, with all plotlines within self-contained enough that they could be read individually. I decided on a three act structure to help me get my timing right. This was a technique I used for my "Heavy Metal Hearts And Flowers" book back in 2004, why I never used it again is a mystery.

Before I start writing I will have had a theme in mind, a central protagonist or a location. I'll do research , draw a lot of sketches of characters, kind of get a feel for the shape of the project and get excited about it before I have to have any structure at all. In the past I would set off in a direction and after a few weeks find that I had set myself up something quite dull to write and draw. By thinking ahead in an abstract way, I can avoid making bad decisions on the spur of the moment or losing enthusiasm quickly.

Once I'm ready to write and have the jist of the story in mind, I write out all the plot points I can manage on lined paper. The first act will be very detailed with everything (narratively) I need for the next 32 comics, there will be loose ideas for the middle third, and a skeletal structure for the final part - really just an idea of the ending and how to possibly resolve conflicts.

I'm meant to write 4 comics a week, to draw the following week, but with a strong structure I can often write more, as the dialogue is the easiest and most fun part to do. During the course of writing I will add things in which occur to me during the drawing of strips and they can be expanded when I come to write acts two and three.

Finishing the plot for part three is the hardest part of the writing because I have to make sure I finish everything and balance plot against dialogue. But it's a problem solving exercise that I've come to enjoy more and more over the years.

By keeping parts two and three loose until I get nearer to them, I get the benefit of both knowing where I'm going, and knowing that I have time to deviate from that path.

Unlike drawing, where I have to sit in one place in peace and quiet, I plot and write dialogue all over the place, often when I'm out and about. Nothing stops that part of my mind like modern distractions so I try to get as far away from the Internet as possible whenever I can. I've done this more and more in the last year and hopefully the results are evident.

I'm always happy to answer writing questions if people need help.

6 comments:

mordicai said...

I've been trying to cleave to the three act structure in my RPG game; I too am kind of disastrous at plotting, & will encourage my players to explore the story-- resulting in meandering, nonsense diversion-- when I should be reigning them in. Not to mention that I've stories that are meant to be short that sprawl into multiple sessions. Focusing on three acts has really helped narrow the focus.

Jeremy D. Impson said...

You're self disclipinary efforts have had great results, and thank you for the providing insight into the jet-setting world of webcomic strippery!

Timothy J Swann said...

Fascinating - I love to see behind the magic, and this may be helpful as I'm just entering some bits and pieces of comic writing (as an occasional contributor to particlefiction.posterous.com ), so I will bear all of this in mind!

Kat R said...

I love learning how other people approach writing comics, especially when I'm a fan of their work (I love your stories and art!) I think working this well has really made your comics shine <3

Currently, I'm working with my fiance to get our story all written out and polished so when we get to actually creating the comic out I know where I'm going and can have a lot more fun/won't have to stress about the plot anymore XD He does most of the writing but I do the second draft and all the preliminary art stuff, and later the actual comic art as well.

aithon said...

would you be amenable to posting a glimpse of your scripts? i'm really curious how writers in different media structure their work.

jddavenport said...

Cheers! Thanks for sharing your process. Your output's always been great, but lately it's definitely become more focused.