Monthly Archive: September 2015

Story Construction 11– Peter David on Plot and Script

This week’s column completes a two-part study of the work Writing for Comics & Graphic Novels by Peter David.


David defines the plot as having two aspects.  The first is the development of the hero as an individual.  The second is the events that serve as a vehicle for that development.  This later piece is called the plot.

According to David, the plot doesn’t necessarily require choice from the character.  For this he cites the movie The Terminator which forces Sarah Connor to grow up.  I find this somewhat hard to swallow, as Connor always had the choice to just lay down and die rather than stiffen and fight back.  I interpret that he is trying to say that whether the character is predestined to be subjected to a set of events or that the character’s choices shape those events is not important. What is central is that the character evolves inside as the events evolve outside and that it is this internal evolution that readers find compelling.

On plot pacing, David suggests that all scenes be trimmed down to the essential information.  To this end, he advises, like O’Neal, to start and end on the action, whether that action is physical (i.e. a slug fest) or mental (i.e. a test of wills) or emotional (i.e. a fight between husband and wife).

Like Moore, David also advocates for connectors (as he puts it) between scenes have a thematic overlap, like using the same words, albeit in different contexts, to end one scene and begin the subsequent one.  Another feature that David advocates in common with Moore, is to end a scene at the end of a page where possible.

At its most basic level, the story structure that David recommends is one that is a combination of ups and downs (roller coaster) superimposed on an overall rising action to the climax with a small release at the end for the denouement.

To this end, he offers the three-act structure is a good model.  Unfortunately, he defines the essential pieces of the three-act structure using the movie the Karate Kid, which makes it a bit difficult to understand the theory as a whole (unless you know the movie exceedingly well or are willing to watch and rewatch as you read his books).  As near as I can render it, David defines these essential pieces as:

  • First act used to introduce the setting and cast
  • First-act turning point where the essential problem is introduced
  • Second act used to define the stakes of the problem and intensify the tension
  • Second-act turning point where some complication arise or where the hero gets some insight into what lays before him
  • Third act where the problem resolution crystalizes into a simple choice
  • Climax where the here chooses and the problem is resolved one way or another

As a textbook example of the three-act visual storytelling, David proffers issue #51 of the Fantastic Four.  Since it was a standalone issue, it was easy enough to dissect, and David includes many of the pages from that issue to illustrate the main points.  I’ll try to summarize them verbally and visually, although it should be noted that I draw the line between the second act turning point and the third act differently than David.

Act 1 establishes the situation. We start with the Thing standing in the rain and feeling sorry for himself.  He eventually meets a mysterious man who invites him in out of the rain and who, through some heavily drugged coffee manages to get the Thing to fall asleep.


As we near the end of Act 1, the turning point is reached where we now see that the mysterious man (called the Changling) is going to steal the Thing’s powers in order to exact revenge on the Reed Richards


Act 2 deals with the consequences of this switch. Being able to pass himself off as the Thing, the Changling infiltrates the Fantastic Four and suspense builds as his plans for revenge go unnoticed by everyone but a now all-to-human Ben Grimm.


Act 2’s turning point comes, when the Changling finds himself able to affect his revenge simply by inaction. Reed Richards, having invaded sub-space, approaches a region where all the negative matter, including him, is being annihilated with positive matter.  Reed will be destroyed if the Changling doesn’t reel him back in with the tether, one end of which is attached to Reed’s suit and the other is in the Changling’s hands.


Act 3 plays out when Reed’s tether breaks and the Changling and a horrified Sue watch as Reed plummets towards certain doom (that is actually an oxymoron in comics but never mind that now). The Changling has s single choice to make.  Do nothing and reap his reward as Reed dies or make an effort to save the man he has hated for years.  Here the thought balloons scripted by Stan Lee show the Changling’s internal conflict.


The Climax comes when the Changling decides to save Reed’s life at the expense of his own.


The clean-up and denouement of the story re-establishes the status quo until the next issue where it is disrupted all over again.

As a side note, it is interesting that David mocks the standard plot construction put forward by Jim Shooter (although he doesn’t cite him by name) that the poem Little Miss Muffet was a perfect form of storytelling as it has all the needed elements:

  • The set-up or the establishment of the status quo (“Little Miss Muffet sat on her tuffet, eating her curds and whey)
  • The action motion (“Along came a spider and sat down beside her”)
  • The reaction and resolution (“And frightened Miss Muffet away”)

David also discusses at some length the idea of having intersecting story lines that rise and fall independently when they are not overlapping each other.  I found this discussion a bit hard to understand in practical terms but I suppose that it comes with practice.

Finally, David has a detailed section on the mechanics of the script writing.  Here he is also not markedly different from the earlier works examined.  He cites the two conventional approaches: Marvel Style and Full Script.  However, his coverage of these two approaches is far more detailed than either O’Neal’s or Moore’s work.  In addition, he offers a comparison and contrast between the two methods using his Spy Boy comic.

Marvel Style


Full Script


Finally, and a bit surprisingly, David discusses the stylings and placement of word balloons.  Most of what he says here is not found in any other work and it was refreshing to see this point dealt with in such detail.  Once again, he provides practical examples explaining the how-tos including this presentation from The Incredible Hulk #424.

Balloon placement

Overall, I’ve found David’s book to be the best of its kind so far reviewed.  It is a good read, fun and easy to get through and filled with information unavailable in either scope or detail in any of the other works I’ve reviewed so far.

Story Construction 10– Peter David on Character, Conflict, and Theme

Starting with this installment, I’ll be reviewing and summarizing Peter David’s contribution to the canon of comic book story writing entitled Writing for Comics & Graphic Novels.


Peter David got his start in writing comics quite a bit later than most, beginning his career in the Marvel sales department before getting his break in writing some brief pieces for The Spectacular Spider-Man book.  His real break came when Marvel assigned him to take over the writing reins on The Incredible Hulk, which had been a lack-luster title for decades (perhaps not always in sales but most always in content).

David creatively re-imagined the whole incident that turned Bruce Banner into the Hulk as a manifestation of a multiple personality disorder stemming from childhood abuse, thus turning Bruce Banner into a comic book version of Sybil.  This approach not only revitalized The Incredible Hulk but it established Peter David as a writer of note and opened doors for him to write in other venues as well.

His strengths are focusing on characters and the small details that make them seem real and believable.  Not surprisingly, the first half of his work on comics writing is focused on character and theme.  The second half deals with the more mechanical aspects of story structure, plot, and scripting.  I’ll be looking at the first half in this post, followed by part 2 next week.

It is fairly easy to summarize David’s point of view on the comics writer by simply looking at what he has to say on page 15

Consider this simple fact:  Writers are the only part of the creative team of a comic that begin with absolutely nothing.  The penciler has the script with which to work, the inker has the pencils, the letterer has the dialogue, the colorist has the finished art, and the editor oversees it all. But the writer is the only one who must pull his contribution out of the ether, drag it kicking and screaming from the recesses of his mind and put it down on paper… so that everyone else can do his job.  The writer can’t be bypassed.

– Peter David

David sees a lot of similarity between movies and comics since the writer must think visually when crafting both.  He claims that the storytelling arcs and techniques he’ll cover in this work are applicable to both.  This claim may be true but I doubt the overlap is as broad as David asserts.  As discussed in earlier columns on Alan Moore, the comic affords the reader with the same ‘choose your own pacing’ and ‘wait, let me review that’ features that written prose does and I think that makes a great deal of difference.  Nonetheless, there’s no denying the strong visual component that both mediums demand of their writers.

In terms of characters, David believes that what readers want are characters to whom they can relate; characters that will cause them to make a personal investment of time and emotion.  In his own words, a writer’s story stands or falls on his characters.  However, he recognizes that the reader will often force an unrealistic consistency on a character – a kind of consistency that they themselves can’t live up to since they are human.  He also recognizes that there are times when, either by design or inadvertently, the writer has the character acting contrary to established norms.  During those times, the writer must keep the reader ‘in the loop’, as it were, and provide some mechanism to clue the reader that the creative team hasn’t lost its collective mind, even if that mechanism is as obvious as having the offending character acknowledge, “I just don’t know what’s come over me.”

Peter David also feels that a story is not real or meaningful unless the conflict is real and balanced.  No straw man arguments – all sides need to be meaningfully represented (even if not endorsed).  I suppose a reasonable way of interpreting his thoughts is that everyone has reasons for what they do and the better stories present the motivations found on all sides.  He summarizes this approach with the maxim: ‘Make Everybody Mad’.

One way that he presents for getting every side heard is to craft a villain who stands in opposition to the hero’s perspective and then to give a credible reason for that villain to hold that view.  This approach often leads to the villain not really being a villain but rather a character in opposition to the hero.  So, conflict between two heroes is a viable plot point and common occurrence.

Another ingredient for realism is to express the small things in a character’s life openly.  The examples he cites are the Hulk’s love of baked beans and the Martian Manhunter’s fascination for Oreo cookies.

These humanizing details are one of my favorite facets of David’s work and easily his greatest strength.  One of the best examples of this type of craft came while he was at the helm of X-Factor. In issue #87, he found a way to make Quicksilver truly memorable as a character.  Up to that point, the Marvel speedster had always been either whiny and unsympathetic or sinister and unsympathetic.  In one fell swoop, David managed to reinterpret Quicksilver’s entire past in one easy to understand scene


I recall this very scene as vividly today as when it hit the streets in 1993.  In my opinion, it is the textbook example of what can really be accomplished in the comics medium; a method of storytelling that could only be done in a comic.

The other key component of the first half of his book is David’s universal analysis of stories and their relation, through conflict, to theme. At the most basic level, he views all stories as being able to be described in terms of what he calls three fundamental conflicts:

  • Man against man
  • Man against self
  • Man against nature.

Since all drama is conflict, he views these three archetypal forms as the building blocks for drama.  And the purpose of the drama is to flesh out a theme.  The conflict illuminates the theme.  Here, David provides a concise anecdote to describe his terminology.

Your theme is that aspect of the human condition that serves as the spine of your story, and as many elements of our story as possible serve to illuminate that theme.  … What’s Spider-Man about? Well, the plot is about Peter Parker getting bitten by a radioactive (or genetically altered, take your pick) arachnid and being transformed into a human spider.  But the theme is, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

– Peter David

How the writer actually reveals the theme is a delicate endeavor.  And even what could be thought of as a clearly elucidated theme is always subject to the final interpretation of the reader.  Nonetheless, the writer has to have a well-defined theme, so that, even if others disagree about the interpretation, they still agree about the general notion.  For example, if the theme is about ‘with great power comes great responsibility’ then the drama should focus on showing the conflict between a duty-bound hero and his long-suffering wife who complains that the extra time he spends on his job should be spent with her.

Specific techniques that David advocates for managing conflict include:

  • Tapping into family matters – father & son, mother & daughter, etc.
  • Keeping the conflict small – small equals real
  • Allow the characters to gaze in disbelief at the outlandish things happening to them – maintains reader buy-in
  • Outfitting a hero with a personal weakness to accentuate his struggle with himself
  • Try to generate a mix-and-match, six-sentence precis as a prelude to a full story.

Of course, there are lots of fine points that I’ve omitted and some very interesting exercises that are worth examination.  But on the whole, the first half of David’s book is fairly structured with him emphasizing and re-emphasizing the same points about character, conflict, and theme discussed above.

Next week, I’ll finish my review of his book by covering the more technique-focused second half of the book on plot and scripting.

Story Construction 9 – The DC Way: Multiple Issues

This is the final installment of the review of Denny O’Neil’s ‘The DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics’, covering Part Two dealing with his techniques and advice for handling longer forms.

One of the shortcomings of ‘The DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics’ is that O’Neil dumps a great deal of information into Part One on the single issue that is more logically housed with the longer form techniques. Much of the information that rightly belongs in Part Two deals with characterization, world building, and the techniques needed to fill and to manage page counts that are much larger than the standard 22 pages of glory found in a single issue.


His point-of-view on this can be roughly summarized to say that if the writer can handle the single issue well, he will have the skills and disciplines needed for tackling larger works.  While I understand and appreciate this sentiment, it seems likely that O’Neil has developed this perspective from his experiences writing single issues for a pre-existing universe (Marvel and DC) and with pre-existing characters and series.

It is doubtful that a single comic covering an unknown world and sporting characters that are completely unfamiliar to the reader can meet the ‘Heavy-Duty Single Issue’ structure he advocates while simultaneously allowing the writer the space needed to build drama, interweave subplots (what would a subplot do in a single one-off issue anyway) and explore each character.

Had I been the editor, I would have structured Part Two on the longer form to cover building drama and building product, but alas I can only propose this structure after the fact.  So in that spirit, let me review O’Neil’s advice in these two categories.

Building Drama

As mentioned last week, O’Neil is always conscious that he has a readership that he must attend to; a customer base whose desires and needs he must always be meeting.  It is from this perspective that he tackles the concept of drama.

He basically defines drama as the conflict over the McGuffin, a term popularized by Alfred Hitchcock that means the thing over which the protagonist and antagonist are fighting or the device which triggers the plot.  As discussed last week, O’Neil is all about rising action.  Any effort that distracts from the main thrust associated with the McGuffin is wasted because it actually blunts the ‘emotional arms race’ he is trying to cause.  Because of this focus on rising action, he favors the idea of suspense over surprise.  Suspense clues the reader in to what is going on and allows the reader to anticipate what comes next for as much of the story as is possible, even if the characters within the story are ignorant.

For the long form, the tensions associated with the McGuffin play out over a larger page count and longer time frame.  So it is natural to really take the time to explore the characters in the story in a way that the short form simple can’t accommodate.  Doing so not only makes the reactions to the McGuffin more real, since they have a foundation, but it also prolongs the suspense thus improving the climax.

So exactly how should the writer explore his characters? The central questions that need to asked and, at least partially, answered for this discovery are:

  • what does each character desire and wants does each have
  • what does each love or cherish
  • what does each of them fear
  • what motivates them

These questions apply equally well to all characters in the story, even if they are not answered so thoroughly with the minor ones as for the major ones and, perhaps, most importantly, answers to these questions are vital for understanding the villains rather than the heroes.  O’Neil’s ideas on character are that their actions speak louder than their words.  So I suspect that he would recommend that a writer address each of these questions with an interaction (verbal, physical, cosmic, etc.) rather than with captions or dialog.  Unfortunately, he doesn’t explicitly state his preferred method of tackling the inner state of the character.

But he does link characterization with subplots and states the subplots are good ways to introduce additional facets of the character’s lives.  Being the consummate business man, O’Neil sees subplots as also serving additional the duty in the long form of setting up and sustaining prolonged readership but cautions that their use must be done with an eye towards the maxim that each comic book is somebodies first.

Building Product

Once the general idea of how to build the drama in the long form is decided upon the next point to work on is how big will the long form be?  O’Neil distinguishes between 5 different types of long form work:

  • Miniseries – between 2 & 6 issues with a definite story
  • Graphic Novels – single publication with a much longer page count
  • Maxiseries – usually 12 issues serving a grand or epic story line; crossover event
  • Ongoing Series – standard uninterrupted series
  • Megaseries – something like a crossover event but engineered on a bigger scale

Each of these has its own strengths and pitfalls and the interested reader is directed to read the details for himself.  Roughly speaking, O’Neil believes that they all can be tackled with the 3-Act structure he discussed in the single issue context.  For larger works (except the graphic novel) each issue should have a 3-Act structure, a set of issue should then interlock to have a larger 3-Act structure, and so on up the line.

The graphic novel is more fluid in that the story starts and ends in one book so the burden of carrying a reader forward, to coaxing the reader into buying the next issue, isn’t there.  Nonetheless, I suspect that O’Neil would be inclined to say that working from the 3-Act structure for a graphic novel would be fine too.

Subplots are also important in the maxi-, ongoing, and megaseries, as they allow for smaller pieces to be introduced, grow, and mature.  Of course, subplots have been the staple of all serialized fiction for decades so much of what O’Neil has to say on these points should be obvious to all but the most inattentive watchers of ongoing TV shows or readers of serialized fiction.  He does make a useful distinction between story arcs and what he calls the Levitz Paradigm.

Story Arcs, by his definition, are complete stories that cover multiple issues but which are connected to the ones before and after by only tenuous threads.  There are definite jumping on and off points and a collection of multiple issues can stand on their own as a graphic novel after the initial run.

In contrast to Story Arcs, the Levitz Paradigm works with multiple overlapping story lines that grow from cold, to cool, to simmer, to boiling over.  As one moves up the heat scale another is placed on the open spot and so on.  With this technique, there really isn’t a jumping on or jumping off point.  So if the readership can be hooked it will tend to persist.  An example of the Levitz Paradigm for ‘Legion’ is shown below.


One last note is worth discussing about the long form – continuity.  Whether it is the demographics that are reading comics, the internet’s ability to serve up fast answers, or some other factor or factors, it is clear that audiences in all media desire continuity.  O’Neil recognizes this trend and categorizes the types of continuity into three kinds which he labels ‘A’, ‘B’, and ‘C’ but which, for convenience, I’ll call, puddle, pond, and ocean.

The puddle type of continuity covers the basic notions that characters should not change names, or hair color, or other simple traits (without reason) during the course of a story.  It is the simplest and smallest type of continuity and one which the writer should be maintaining.  The pond continuity is a bit bigger and covers all the critical back story events of a character that may not be in play in the story being told but which must not be contravened.  This type of continuity is important, although the writer may not be solely responsible for maintaining this one.  The ocean continuity is the vast universal continuity that covers the shared universe that all DC characters inhabit.  O’Neil doesn’t have much in the way of constructive advice for this last type of continuity and, frankly, who can blame him.  Tangles in this kind of continuity have driven Marvel and DC to numerous reboots of their universes.

Final Thoughts

Overall, I wouldn’t claim that the reader will get well-structured advice with a pedagogical touch from O’Neil’s book.  There isn’t much in the way of a how-to or a best-practices.  Rather, his book is like picking the mind of self-taught veteran for all those pro-tips that you usually get only one at a time when working side-by-side with an expert.  It is from this point-of-view that the O’Neil’s work is best consumed.