STORY STRUCTURE

I’ve written nearly a dozen comics, or more accurately, I’ve written nearly a dozen issue number ones of comics that petered out around issue three. That’s a nearly a dozen stories I’ve started and abandoned. Very nearly a hundred characters I’ve written extensive backgrounds on and abandoned. Six of them actually got off the ground with a completely penciled, inked and colored issue one.

But today I finally finished my first, complete story arc. That’s five issues consisting of a total of 169 pages penciled and inked by Dexter Wee, with additional grey washes, graphic design, lettering and coloring on the covers by myself. It’s a magnificent journey that took three and a half years to complete. That included a full year of research, research that included studying the biographies and filmographies of Charlie Chaplin, Hedy Lamarr and Errol Flynn, reading The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, reading about writing, reading about art, rereading all of my favorite comics and dissecting them, and even more reading on top of that. All of that research before seeing a single page from Dexter.

And all of that time I spent researching is what helped me finish my first comic series. That research aided me in unearthing the very thing that helped me finish it. While reverse engineering the works of Alan Moore, pouring over Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics so many times that I wore out the glue holding the pages together, working though the formulas of three act structures and storytelling guides of Syd Field’s Screenplay, Aristotle’s Poetics for Screenwriters, and Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat, I made a miraculous discovery.

I found a treasure map.

It was the map that unlocked the story that was already within my psyche. And it made all the difference. My problem in finishing was never that I became distracted, or that I was lazy, or that I didn’t know how the story was going to end. On the contrary, it is usually the eureka spark of the beginning and ending that compels me to tell the story in the first place.

My problem was I always got lost in the dense jungle of act two. In comics, it is even easier to get lost, as I would Quantum Leap like Sam Beckett from issue to issue, hoping each time that my next issue would be the issue that led to the big finale I conceived.

What I needed was a map to guide me through the undergrowth. And here, presented to you, is that map.

 

As Above, So Below

In deconstructing the the greatest deconstructor of the 20th century, Alan Moore, I saw him reference Hermeticism several times, so I picked up The Kybalion – one of the myriad of esoteric books that purportedly contain the ancient knowledge of Hermes Trismegistus. It primarily focuses on seven axioms, one of them being the Principle of Correspondence, stating “As above, so below; as below, so above”.

The significance of this quote is that it that “macrocosmos are the same as microcosmos. The universe is the same as God, God is the same as man, man is the same as the cell, the cell is the same as the atom, the atom is the same as…and so on, ad infinitum.”

So beyond being the essence to all the mysteries of magik, astrology, and dynamic interconnectedness, I found this idea to be an important key in writing and in storytelling. The big macro story being told is the micro scene. Here is how I utilize the concept to structure a story arc and issue arc in a comic book.

In Poetics, Aristotle first described the dramatic structure that we have all learned since primary school; beginning, middle and end, or as it is termed in play and screenwriting, first act, second act and third act. Now typically, a three act structure isn’t precise, equal thirds. Instead, the story is actually four parts, with the second act being twice the length of the first and third, split by the midpoint. I’ll write a primer on the basics of storytelling in a later article, synthesizing every bit of study I have done on the artform into what I personally find to be the most salient method for creating the muscles of the story.

For now, I am going to focus on the skeleton of the story. Basically, I take the classic three act structure and utilize it for each story arc, and also for each issue, and each scene within the issue.

So here is how I apply that structure to a macro story arc. First, I determine how many issues I think it will take to tell my story and divide by 4. For instance, when starting The Fuhrer and the Tramp, I initially thought it would be a breezy 4 issue mini series, 24-25 pages a piece, coming in at 100 pages. So it would break down like this:


Arc Structure
Act 1: Set-up Issue 1
Act 2.1: ConflictIssue 2
Act 2.2: ConflictIssue 3
Act 3: ResolutionIssue 4

Next, I break down a standard 24 page by dividing by 4, and outlining a comic like this:


Issue Structure
Act 1: Set-up Pages 1-6
Act 2.1: ConflictPages 7-12
Midpoint Page 12
Act 2.2: ConflictPages 13-18
Act 3: ResolutionPages 19-24

Now obviously, this isn’t set in stone. This is just a guide, and it is flexible and can be bent to fulfill the needs of the story being told. From there, I take each chunk of pages and break it into three act structures. So for Act 1, or pages 1-6, I divide that into three micro acts. So that breaks down as like this:


Page Structure
Act 1: Set-up Pages 1 and 2
Act 1: ConflictPages 3 and 4
Act 1: ResolutionPage 5 and 6
Act 2.1: SetupPages 7 and 8
Act 2.1: ConflictPages 9 and 10
Act 2.1: ResolutionPages 11 and 12
MidpointPage 12
Act 2.2: SetupPages 13 and 14
Act 2.2: ConflictPages 15 and 16
Act 2.2: ResolutionPages 17 and 18
Act 3: SetupPages 19 and 20
Act 3: ConflictPages 21 and 22
Act 3: ResolutionPages 23 and 24

As above, so below.

As we get more granular, each scene has its own movement, its own function and its requisite needs to tell the macro story. Following this structure keeps the momentum moving forward, and I found that instead of being rigid and not allowing for spontaneity, it created the need for me to be spontaneous by necessity, not because I got bored or distracted. This is the footer and these are the studs for my walls. It is with my wallpaper and decor where I get to be spontaneous.


4 Issue Arc Structure
ACT 1:

Set-up

ISSUE 1
Pages 1-6Set-up
Pages 7-12Theme Stated
Pages 13-18Inciting Incident
Pages 19-24Catalyst
ACT 2.1:

Call to Adventure

ISSUE 2
Pages 1-6Refusal of the call
Pages 7-12Lock-in
Pages 13-18Crossing the threshold
Pages 19-24Bad guys close in
MIDPOINT
ACT 2.2:

The Promise of the Premise

ISSUE 3
Pages 1-6Promise of the Premise
Pages 7-12Complications
Pages 13-18Catastrophe
Pages 19-24All is lost
ACT 3:

Climax and Denouncement

ISSUE 4
Pages 1-6Dark night of the soul
Pages 7-12The Final Battle
Pages 13-18Climax
Pages 19-24Denouncement and Catharsis

That is the basic skeleton the macro story arc, each issue and each micro scene. If you want, you can break it down further and outline three acts in each page, but I think that most writers will find that to be overkill.

The next article will be an analysis of the purpose of each story beat, The Inciting Incident, The Promise of the Premise, Denouncement, etc, followed by a practical demonstration of the method using The Fürher and the Tramp as an example.