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.

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