Monthly Archive: August 2015

Story Construction 8 – The DC Way: Single Issue

This week’s column turns its attention to ‘The DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics’ by Dennis O’Neil.


Denny O’Neil is perhaps best known for his Green Lantern/Green Arrow stories from 1980s.  These tales brought a new level of maturity and social relevance to comics as they continued to struggle to regain the ground lost during the retreat in the 1950s.  They also made Denny O’Neil a bit of a household name, at least in comics circles.

O’Neil is a somewhat old-school in his approach and his descriptions and, frankly, it is actually quite nice.  He has a customer focus that I like.  He seems always to be oriented towards selling a story to his readers, not because he is a crass peddler of so-so melodrama that he has no investment in but rather because he seems to really care about telling stories.  To wit, he opens the book with a very nice sentiment about stories:

Make me laugh. Make me cry. Tell me my place in the world.  Lift me out of my skin and place me in another.  Show me places I have never visited and carry me to the ends of time and space.  Give my demons names and help me to confront them.  Demonstrate for me possibilities I’ve never thought of and present me with heroes who will give me courage and hope.  Ease my sorrows and increase my joy.  Teach me compassion. Entertain and enchant and enlighten me.

Denny O’Neil

That said, he does tend to wander a bit and key observations are sometimes located far from related points.  In addition, the overall composition of the book is a bit disorganized, which is a bit ironic, as will be discussed below.

For O’Neil, a story is a structure narrative that should resonate on at least one of three fronts; a story should have an emotional effect, demonstrate some important point, or explore a character (hopefully all three).

Having established that his goal is to help the reader tell a story that hits one of those points, the rest of the work is devoted to how might the would-be writer accomplish such a task.  The book is divided into two parts.  The first and largest part concentrates on delivering the story within the confines of a single issue.  A point that only becomes apparent near the end of part one (last paragraph actually) when he finally says that everything up to this point deals with writing a single, self-contained issue.  The second part deals with mini-series, graphic novels, maxi-series and crossovers, and ongoing, interlocking series.  Some of the most interesting tidbits are found in this part but for now I’ll be reviewing and summarizing Part One this week.  Next column will cover Part Two.

Stylistically, Part One is crafted more like having a dinner conversation with an old friend who you haven’t seen for a long time.  The narrative flows back and forth between interesting anecdotes and the exposition of general principles.  Overall, it is reasonable to say that O’Neil covers three main areas:  Story Structure, Techniques, and Practical Advice.

Story Structure

In Part One, O’Neil provides a quick-and-dirty list of story structure – or at least he thinks he does.  Actually, the list seems to be made up of only two entries: One-Damn-Thing-After-Another and O’Neil’s Heavy-Duty Single-Issue Structure.

The One-Damn-Thing-After-Another is listed more as homage to the early works where the action came fast and furious.  The plot, defined as the time ordering of events, was central at the expense of story and so the writer is encouraged not to use it except perhaps in rare and controlled circumstances.

The rest of this chapter is spent on the Heavy-Duty Single-Issue Structure.  What O’Neil defines as the essential attributes for this structure can be succinctly summarized.  The structure consists of 3 acts.

Act 1 opens with a hook, possesses an inciting incident, and establishes the situation and conflict over the McGuffin (what the hero and villain are fighting over).  The hook should be an action scene, pose a question, or present some type of danger.  It should never be used solely as an establishing shot and never be wasted on an inanimate object.

Act 2 develops the current situation by laying in complications which take the plot in a different direction.  It should also have major visual action.

Act 3 contains the events leading to the climax and includes another dose of major visual action.  It should close with a denouement that returns the old status quo or establishes a new one.


One of the many travelers’ tales that O’Neil treats the reader to is a discussion about just how Stan Lee handled the large work load he had in the Marvel early day.  As the story goes, Lee would often simply confer with his experienced artist partners, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, discuss with them the bones of the plot, and then trust them to deliver on the pacing and art against which Lee would write the narration and dialog.

This approach forms what O’Neil calls the Plot-First approach to story structure.  Since few of us are either Lee or Kirby or Ditko, O’Neil suggests that the approach be started with a plot typed up in a few paragraphs and sent to the artist who then returns about 125 panels for the writer to add the written word.  He lists three advantages that the Plot-First approach affords:

  • Writer can fix omissions in the after the fact
  • Writer can be inspired by the art
  • Writer can be lazy/efficient

In the first point, O’Neil is explicitly recognizing that the comics art form is still a business with a customer base that expects product out on a regular schedule.  Mistakes happen and he is acknowledging an advantage that makes meeting a deadline easier since the writer can adapt the story to the art rather than the artist having to go back and fix the panels.  Likewise, the third point is also deadline-oriented, allowing for the possibility that the writer may be engaged in other and equally important activities.  Only point two is devoid of any sense of managing deadlines and is solely focused on the quality of the product itself.

In contrast to the Plot-First approach, O’Neil offers the Script First approach.  Here the comics writer is far more akin to the writer of a movie or television script.  Each ‘shot’ is detailed along with the basic flow and tempo.

Full Script example

He also lists three advantages of this method:

  • Writer in full command of the story
  • Writer can change the story quickly since rendering isn’t started
  • Writer is in charge of his deadlines


O’Neil clearly regards this approach as the one that put the writer closer to his art or craft.  Nonetheless, he never lose sight of the practical considerations that enable the writer to efficiently work with his artist (point two) and his career (point three).  He does suggest that a writer who employs the Full Script technique try to sketch the layout before submitting the final form.  He cites Archie Goodwin and the success he had following such a practice.

Practical Advice

Perhaps the greatest strength of this work is the tidbit of practical advice that O’Neil peppers throughout the discussion.  There is structure for when they appear or how they connect. Instead they seem to occur when some piece of the structured presentation triggers them and they form the anecdotes mentioned above.

As a result, there isn’t really any point in building a grand narrative to house them and so I’ll simply list the ones that captured my attention.

  • Don’t underestimate the importance of the splash page for setting the mood, establishing the story, and easing the reader into the story. O’Neil is against the modern practice of pushing the splash page to later pages.
  • Captions are to be avoid when dialog balloons will suffice. O’Neil cites one editor who believes that many readers even skip the captions and he further cites the notion that nothing grabs a reader’s attention as much as ‘listening’ to what a character has to say.
  • Know the end before you write.
  • Start scenes at some point of interest (skip the mundane). Nobody want to see the characters get up and brush their teeth (unless, I suppose, an assassination attempt occurs just at the moment they start to gargle).
  • Generate rising action by ratcheting up the tempo.
  • Distinguish between surprise and suspense. Used here, the two terms are antonyms with suspense being preferred since surprise only shocks the reader for a few panels (before the understand) whereas suspense builds over long periods of time as they know generally what is going to happen but not how.
  • Never write a panel or scene that doesn’t contribute to the plot.
  • The hero must be agent of the story’s resolution – he must act and be involved (even if he is the anti-hero)

On piece of advice is worth particular attention.  O’Neil stresses that the exposition be clear.  Writer’s must go out of their way to ensure that the reader is following.  For example, the writer must make flashbacks visually delineated from the normal flow.  The reason for this emphasis is best understood in O’Neil’s own words

“I emphasize clearly [telling your story] because one of the reoccurring and embarrassingly valid criticisms of modern comic books, particularly the adventure and fantasy titles, is that they’re extremely difficult to understand on the most basic level”

Denny O’Neil


Ironically, things are not always clear in his exposition in this work.  For example, the layout between pages 22-23 obscures the connection between the textual and visual ordering of the mechanical steps of page construction (i.e., script, pencils, inker, letterer).  The text calls each out in the traditional order but the visuals aren’t labeled.  Elsewhere, what appears to be a visual example of the Full Script technique is juxtaposed with text talking about Plot-First.

Nonetheless, Denny O’Neil’s take on single issue story construction is a fun and valuable read. Next week, we’ll see what he has to say about larger-scoped works.

Story Construction 7 – The New Marvel Way?

After the rather heavy analysis of Alan Moore over the last three weeks, I thought I would take a look at a lighter presentation to the approach to comic book creation found in the back of the 2005 Free Comic Book Day offering from Marvel Comics.

Tucked in the back of the issue, after a story involving Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, and the Chameleon, is a short 8-page crash-course in the mechanics of creating comic books by John Barber.


Using the short story that preceded it as a guide, Barber’s treatment focuses essentially on one page, discussing how the page is transformed from script to finished product through a number of steps.  In a nutshell, these are:

  • Creation of a plot/script
  • Generation of rough thumbnail sketches showing panel configuration and action layout
  • Detailed penciling based on the thumbnails
  • Inking of the penciled page
  • Coloring of the inked page
  • Lettering and captioning

For the most part, the creation of the plot/script is not covered.  No details are given about how the creator gets started, what points should be covered in the writing, how to pace the panels, or any other details.

Barber simply provides the bare-bones description of what a plot/script is and, despite its brevity, this description is actually quite revealing of his point-of-view on the creative process and the writer’s role.  Specifically, he says that the script is the writer’s way of describing each and every panel via the panel description, which provides a verbal summary of the image the reader will see, and the dialog, which contains what each character will say (and I suppose what captions, if any, will be used to provide exposition).

As way of an example, the following page of script is offered to describe a particularly action-packed page in the story.


Barber characterizes the panel description as the writer’s method for telling the artist “who’s doing what (and sometimes why!).” This terse and seemingly innocent sentence suggests that Barber is endorsing a method that is very much like what Gaiman presented in his ‘behind the scenes’ look at the creation of Sandman.  The emphasis is on the writer calling the shots in the story-telling and it is from his mind that the visuals come.  The artist’s job is to render the scene for the writer, according to the writer’s conception, with small visual changes either due to aesthetic or to technical details, but with little input on the overall storytelling structure.

Admittedly, this is a lot to read into a few sentences, but given that this ‘how-to’ was part of the Marvel Free Comic Book Day offering in 2005, a showcase for Marvel creativity, and that the refined tastes of the modern young reader are more visual now than ever before, I think that it speaks volumes.

Further evidence of a writer-centric approach can be found in narrative that accompanies the four figures presented in the later pages showing how the writer’s description transitioned from thumbnail sketches (a), to pencils (b), to an inked page (c), and finally to colors and letters (d).


According to the text, the thumbnails are produced by the artist and then sent to the editor (in this particular case, Barber) for confirmation that the rendering is following the writer’s plan and leaves ample space for dialog and captions.  After the editor gives his approval, the artist produces pencils that mostly match the thumbnails, although a side-by-side comparison of panels 1 and 3, show that the artist has changed the composition from the original conception. However, the artist doesn’t deviate, even in this case, from the panel description originally proposed by the writer.

Consider panel 1 that has changed most from the original thumbnail.  In both compositions, the basic idea is preserved as can be seen by comparing the final panel version directly with the panel description provided by the writer.


Barber does touch upon a more collaborative component to this work when he discusses panel 1 during the inking step.  He says that the action is pretty complex and that to make it clear “we put our heads together to figure out how to make the panel work.”  The result of this collaborative group-think was to omit certain details of Spider-Man’s costume as being obscured by the mid-section of Mr. Fantastic as he begins to turn visible.  Again, this input on the story-telling is confined to technical details of the visuals but doesn’t touch the story or plot itself.

What’s most remarkable about this presentation is the implication that the artist’s job is to render the writer’s concept – not to embellish or change it.  I am sure that embellishment does happen but when and under what circumstances it occurs is not touched upon.   I must admit that I found this ‘21st-century’ Marvel way surprising after many of the traveler’s tales I have heard at various conventions and Marvel’s own press about the central role of the artist in the storytelling.  Perhaps the most well-known example that Marvel has presented about the impact of the artist on the story is famous page 12 from X-Men #57 where Neal Adams as the Beast falling from the roof of a skyscraper.


They had sold this as a basic component of the Marvel Way in the 1970s through the 1990s and the pinnacle of this approach was reached by the style-over-substance, artist-centric nonsense of the mid to late 90s that resulted in the mass exodus of ‘talent’ from Marvel to Image.

I suppose that if Barber’s brief exposition is to be held up as the Marvel standard then the pendulum has swung the other way and maybe that’s all for the best.  After all, as the early Image comics proved, there’s only some much eye candy a reader wants before they crave a more filling helping of solid stories.

Story Construction – Part 7: Just One Bit Moore

In this final installment of the exploration of Alan Moore’s work, I’m going to show examples from his early run on the Swamp Thing.  Although Moore has done a great deal of work that is critically acclaimed (V for Vendetta, Watchmen, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, etc.) he really made his mark with Swamp Thing, which remains his best work.

It is also the work most germane at the time he wrote his treatise on comic book creation that was covered in the last two posts, and most of his techniques are visible in his tenure on that book.

The material below is from his first two years on Swamp Thing, which span issues #20 – #43.  My sources are the collected trade paperback reprints, some of which are almost as old as the run itself. I find that Moore’s stories are best enjoyed without the interruption of advertisements and other various distractions (letter pages, inside covers, etc.), since his stories are predominantly about mood and atmosphere.

Moore’s central ideas from his Alan Moore’s Writing for Comics were: to focus on a story concept; build a structure that matched; worry about transitions; worry about pacing and flow; and put in plot and dialog last.  These five main points will be covered in turn below.

Story Concept

The first point that Moore raised was the idea of having a relevant story to tell.  By relevant, he means one that has some meaning to the reader – a fascinating idea, a socially important tale, and so on.

For Swamp Thing, Moore chooses as his basic idea the concept that the Swamp Thing is actually a hybrid between man and plant, having the physical and essential properties of a plant but with the memory, consciousness, and intelligence of a man.  With this basic idea at their core, the subsequent tales all fall into the perspective of man’s interaction with the plant world.

To flesh out this idea, Moore has to connect the scientist, Alec Holland, whose coincident death with the Swamp Thing’s creation leads all to think the two are the same entity, with the plant-thing-that-thinks-itself-a-man that he was creating.  Here Moore drew on the existing ‘science’ of cannibal planarian worms (as explained in issue #21 by the Floronic Man)


to establish how even the Swamp Thing could believe that it was Alec Holland.  Published in the early 1960s, this science was largely discredited even though the sensation it created lingers to today.  Whether Moore was impressed by this story and reworked Swamp Thing around it or whether he wanted a plant-human and found the science convenient is unknown to probably all but him.

What is clear is that this simple idea forms the core of almost everything that he writes afterward.  By making the Swamp Thing truly a plant, Moore can draw a huge number of new ideas all from a single premise.  The Swamp Thing is now a plant elemental who speaks for the entire plant kingdom and, in some sense, for the earth itself.

One of the more fruitful lines of concepts is the reoccurring notion of eating a vegetable substance produced by the Swamp Thing


and the Floronic Man’s consumption of these tubers allows him to have some access in the awareness that the Swamp Thing possesses as an avatar of that portion of nature known as ‘The Green’.


This in turn drives the Floronic Man mad so that he orchestrates the subsequent, horrific events that fill the plots of issues #22-24.

Later on, the idea of consuming a portion of the Swamp Thing plays out in many different ways.  Two of them are particularly notable as they comprise reoccurring ideas.

In issue #34 the Swamp Thing wishes to have a ‘sexual communion’ with his love interest Abigail Cable but being composed of plant matter, he lacks the necessary anatomy.  As an alternative, he produces a fruit that when consumed takes Abigail on a psychedelic trip through his awareness.  The lovers join on a spiritual level and their version of marriage and union is established.

In issue #37, the Swamp Thing begins to learn that his consciousness exists independently of the plant matter that forms his physical shape.  As a result, if his body is consumed by fire or damaged by toxins, he can abandon it and regrow a new one.  This then leads to his ability to transport himself, almost instantaneously, anywhere in the world.  This handy trait not only allows him to respond to emergencies world-wide, but it also opens the door for subsequent explorations of consciousness and soul.

Story Structure

Moore spoke of several story structures, but the one that he seems to favor is the idea he calls elliptical, where the events at the beginning of the tale match, in some fashion, those at the end.

The image below is a reproduction of the first page of Issue #21, which starts with “It’s raining in Washington tonight.” and shows the Floronic Man reflecting on the events of the day through a finely paned window.


The image below is the last page of the same issue showing the same structure verbally and visually as the opening page. Note the subtle changes in the appearance of the Floronic Man’s reflection in the panes and the bookend placement of the “It’s raining in Washington tonight.” to close the issue.


Another structure Moore suggested is the gimmick where a central piece is used to build the rest of the story around it. In Issue #35, the reoccurring motif of the newspaper articles form the backbone in both the visual imagery and the background information needed to convey the impact toxic waste has on the environment.



In his book, Moore spends a lot of time discussing transitions. His concern, seemingly above all else, is that a bad transition will break the spell under which he has placed the reader.  As a result, much of his work shows an attention to this point.

His approach is to think about storytelling in units of a whole page with the transitions linking the pages together.  The most common linkage is verbal, where the same word is repeated between the last panel on one page and the first panel on the subsequent page.  Often the word is used in different context or with a different shade of meaning, thus mimicking the way the brain connects disparate notions of a word together to create humor or double entendre.

The following image is a transition between pages 21 and 22 in #Issue 25.


Note the use of the word “blood”, first as a last name, second as the substance, to link two different threads together.

Verbal transitions also provide larger linkages.  The following example comes from pages 11 and 12 of Issue #26.  The first two panels come from page 11 and are in the relative orientation on the page; the first one being on the top left, the second being on the bottom right.  The word “believe” links the change in mental state of Abigail as she ponders what a young man has told her.  The word “believe” also links her realization to her subsequent discussion with her husband Matt (note Matt is soon after done away with to make room for the Abigail-Swamp Thing romance).


Transitions can also be used to provide linkage between larger entities.  This is the well-known ‘cliff-hanger’ end to comics where a scene at the end of one issue is essentially the same as opens the subsequent one.  That said, the transition between issues #30 and #31 with the Swamp Thing holding Abigail’s body is particularly well done.

Structure and transition meet in Issue #30, where the gimmick is also the transition.  In this issue, a denizen of hell has escaped and returned to plague the living.  Whenever this “returned man” smiles or chuckles or whatever, somewhere in the world someone commits evil and madness.  The clause “the returned man smiles…” and the following “… and…” provide transitions and structure for the majority of that issue.


Finally, one of my personal favorites is the almost humorous juxtaposition of the word “lines” in the transition between pages 16 and 17 of Issue #41


Pacing and Flow

Since Moore is writing a horror/suspense story in Swamp Thing, setting atmosphere and mood is essential.  This is done predominantly by slowing the pace of the stories down and focusing on the sensations or psychological implications of the events.  Often, a deliberate pacing is achieved by interleaving stories about ‘the inside’ and ‘the outside’.  The inside shows the internal mental state of the character, often in confusion or madness, and its inclusion allows for a slow build-up in tension without ‘filler’.

It also allows for more bizarre scenes with a dark humor that adds to the creepiness rather than detracts from it the way conventional comedy would.  An example from Issue #22 is the internal madness the Swamp Thing endures after he discovers that he has been living a lie by thinking he was a human transformed into a monster.


Note the word play of “planarian” and “plain Aryan” and the reoccurring theme of eating.

Sometimes, Moore and company do need some filler to round out the page count.  Even in these cases, they manage to use it to good effect as in the very bizarre and horrific accident that ends the life of an insurance salesman when he is impaled by a sword fish.  This sub-story fills 3-4 pages of Issue #25 and offers again some black comedy that serves to heighten the horror.  It also provides a very nice transition (pages 14 & 15)



As discussed last week, Moore claims that the plot is often the least important piece.  But is that claim really true in practice rather than just in theory?  I believe the answer to be yes.  As a horror/suspense writer Moore’s predominant interest is in setting mood.  As a result, what happens is not nearly as important to him as how the characters feel about it.

As a very clear example, consider the content of Issue #28, entitled “The Burial!”.  The whole issue is devoted to the Swamp Thing coming to peace with the fact that he is not Alec Holland.  The plot of the entire issue can be summarized in one sentence:  Swamp Thing digs a grave for Alec Holland, finds Holland’s remains, puts them to rest in the ground, and comes to peace with his existence.

Moore chooses the elliptical story structure here, starting with an empty grave


and ending with burial mound and the resulting peace.


The above 4 panels constitute a small fraction of the 135 panels found in the issue.  The remainder of the space is spent on finding Hollands remains both physical and psychological and how the Swamp Thing reacts to this.

Many of the other issues fare similarly and it is reasonable to regard Moore as being more in line with Poe or Lovecraft in his approach to storytelling.  His focus is almost always on the characters and not on the events surrounding them.


Having toured Alan Moore’s work for the past 3 weeks, what to make of it?  I think there is no denying that Moore is talented and that he is a consummate professional in his craft.

He clearly has mastered some basic, compelling approaches to sequential art and uses them to great effect, with frequent innovative variations on these techniques.  However, I can’t escape the feeling that there is a sort of glamour, in the traditional fairy sense, about his work; that style exceeds substance and that impressions and feelings dominate events.  In real life, events matter, results are important, and talk is cheap.  While I admire his work, I judge that much of his storytelling is more like a dream.  Once the sleeper awakens the particulars fade but the feelings remain.

Story Construction – Part 6: Even More Moore

Last week’s column reviewed the first half of the book Alan Moore’s Writing for Comics covering the general thought process of the writer, the type of structures the creator might think about using, and the pacing of the events in the structure. This week will finish the review by discussing world building and plot and dialog.

As discussed earlier, since Moore’s work deals with the planning and writing components, he doesn’t dwell at all on specific visuals (perspective, color, etc.).  The book, which is 47 pages in length, has 22 panels, each isolated from the others in both location and in content.  Clearly this is not a tome on drawing, nor does it concern itself with the visual composition.  Its focus is on story-telling plain and simple.

World Building – Locale and Character

Under the broad heading of world building, Moore lumps both the development of the characters and the construction of the inanimate locales in which they live. For him, the back stories of the environment in which the characters live are on the same ground as the back story for each character.  The locales history is important to building a believable and consistent world, even if the bulk of it is invisible to the reader. To quote

Before writing V [for Vendetta], for example, I came up with a mass of information about the world and the people in it, much of which will never be revealed within the strip for the simple reason that it isn’t stuff that’s essential for the readers to know and there probably won’t be space to fit it all in.

Alan Moore

This approach, which I rather like, shows roots in the gothic literature that has come before wherein the location of the events narrated is often a character in its own right.  Consider that the first ‘entity’ that the reader encounters in Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher is the melancholy house of the same name and that much of the text is devoted to discussing the bleak and depressing nature of the setting and the feelings that it provokes.  The house and the ‘gray tarn’ that surrounds it are just as important (or perhaps more) as the human characters of the story – the narrator and the two Usher siblings.

Moore also advocates for a complete understanding, on the part of the writer, or the rules of the world that is being constructed.  This is the concept of verisimilitude, where the fabric of the world being discussed is complete and self-consistent.  Characters react in a well understood way to the rules of the particular environment in which they find themselves, just as we would react consistent (although not necessarily rationally) to the rules of ours. Moore states

What is important is that the writer should have a clear picture of the imagined world in all its detail.

Alan Moore

But he also cautions the creator in being too explicit in the exposition of this world.  If the verisimilitude is the skeleton, Moore would advocate that none of the hard bones be obvious.  All of them should be wrapped in soft flesh that hides the structure underneath.  He cites the work of Howard Chaykin in American Flagg, where the reader is exposed to the political realities and popular attitudes though bits of advertising and media coverage of the events in that world.

Once the locales are built, the next piece is characterization.  Moore calls this piece highly problematical.

He analyzes the evolution of character in the comics medium from its inception until the time of his writing.  The earliest approach involved portraying a character in a ‘one-dimensional’ fashion – the character is good or bad; a hero or a villain.  Although Moore doesn’t mention it, this type of portrayal means that the vast number of characters in the world, which were neither good nor bad, per se, were actually part of the scenery.  They were the organic piece of the locale that the creator provided – the good natured cop on the beat who offered a piece of advice at the right time.

As time progressed, Moore claims that characterization became more developed and he cites Stan Lee as the person most responsible.  He says

Thus Stan Lee invented two-dimensional characterization: “This person is good but has bad luck with girlfriends,” and “This person is bad but might just reform and join the Avengers if enough readers write in asking for it.

Alan Moore

Despite this evolution, Moore believes progress since that point has been minimal. He blames this lack of progress on the industry reliance on the 15-word skeleton.  If a character can’t be summarized in 15 words then it is no good.  He throws out the example of Captain Ahab from Moby Dick as an ‘insane amputee with a grudge against a whale’ but notes that Melville spent more than 15 words delving into Ahab’s psychology.

Moore advocates that the writer should start by looking at real world people.  Perhaps this was good advice back in the nineties when this piece was first written but in the intervening years real life has rapidly accelerated its imitation of art and I am not quite sure that people today allow themselves to be complex.

He also recommends a ‘method-acting’ approach to writing characters.  He claims that he imagines himself as the character and then tries to understand how he would react in a given situation.  The particular example he includes involves his use of the character Etrigan the Demon in Swamp Thing.  As  a denizen of hell (or what passes for it), Moore imagines Etrigan as having a densely built body, needed to survive the rigors of such a place, and so he frames the pacing of the demon’s movement appropriately.

He finishes with a personal conclusion that almost everybody has a practically infinite number of facets to their personality but that each of us chooses to focus only one a few at a time.  He urges creators to tap into the well spring and to become adventurous in their characterizations.

Plot and Dialog

The final ingredient is the plot and the accompanying dialog.  Despite Moore claiming that

I suppose we might as well think about coming up with a plot although… if you’ve read much of my work I very often can’t be bothered with this formality.

Alan Moore

his chapter on plot and script is by far the largest in his book.  He begins by criticizing the ‘disproportionate amount of effort … expended on coming up with madly elaborate plots involving dozens of characters’ he does end up conceding that there are some stories where the plot is the central idea. He cites murder mysteries as the primary genre where this idea holds.

Only after this long introduction does he actually define what he means by plot.  Roughly speaking, if the world is the ‘who’, ‘what’, and ‘where’ then the plot is the ‘when’ – the time sequence of events that get the world from its initial state to its final state; along the way telling the story that needs to be told.  (Note that the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ seem to be a complex interplay between the world and the time).

For Moore, the creator has an idea he wishes to communicate and the plot underlines and reveals this idea in an interesting way.

Since the plot must fit within a given page length constraint, the plotting mechanism is inextricably linked with the discussions of pacing, rhythm, and flow that he covered earlier. He also emphasizes that the plot can always be done in an ‘interesting way’ simply by the style in which the plot follows.  He asserts that a good writer can make even a mundane topic interesting with the correctly constructed sentences.  This is, of course, a habit that the British school of thought believes and practices on a regular basis even outside the domain of comics.  Consider Douglas Adams opening sentence in The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul

It can hardly be a coincidence that no language on Earth has ever produced the expression “as pretty as an airport”.

Douglas Adams

Concerning dialog, Moore’s fundamental advice is to speak the dialog out loud.  This litmus test will determine if the dialog is natural enough to be digested by the reader.  In his assessment, the majority of comics dialog fails this test.

Finally Moore discusses the visual look-and-feel.  For him, the visual narrative is simply what goes into the pictures but that it is vital that the writer think visually and try to take advantage of all the possible ways to convey the point.  He further urges that the writer try to create rough thumb nail sketches of the pages before writing the story.

Next week will be the final installment on Alan Moore in which various stories from his successful run on Swamp Thing are presented and a comparison between his practice and his theoretical structure, as presented over these last two columns, is made.