- In this Issue
- Kristen Bell
- Not Comics
- Press Release
- Story Archive
- Video Games
- March 2009
- February 2009
- December 2008
- November 2008
- October 2008
- September 2008
- August 2008
- July 2008
- June 2008
- May 2008
- April 2008
- March 2008
- February 2008
- January 2008
- December 2007
- November 2007
- October 2007
- September 2007
- August 2007
- July 2007
- June 2007
- May 2007
- April 2007
- March 2007
- February 2007
- January 2007
- December 2006
- November 2006
- October 2006
- September 2006
- August 2006
- July 2006
- June 2006
- May 2006
- April 2006
- October 2005
- September 2005
- August 2005
- June 2005
- May 2005
- April 2005
- March 2005
- February 2005
So, you want to be a writer? You read comics regularly and find yourself consistently saying ,”I could do better than that jerk (insert name of writer you dislike the most).” Or, “My ideas are better than those appearing in (insert appropriate title) right now.” Or, “What (insert the name of the publisher you dislike the most) really needs is some new blood. They need a writer like me.” Join the crowd. The world is filled with would-be writers. Many try; few succeed.
I’ll tell you what it takes to be a writer — not just for comic books, but a fiction writer in general. Maybe it will help a little, maybe a lot, maybe not at all. In the end, it’s all up to you. If there’s one truth about writing, it’s this: The only person you ultimately can blame for your success or failure as a writer is yourself.
I encounter fledgling writers all the time, and I do mean all the time. For example, I’m in a cab, going to a meeting or heading for the airport. The cab driver’s in a talkative mood. Sooner or later, as most cabbies do, he asks me what I do for a living. I tell him I’m a writer, then wait for the expected reply. I’ve heard it in New Orleans, in Manhattan, in Chicago, even in Paris. “Hey — I’m a writer too. Been working on a manuscript for months (or years or decades). Maybe you can take a look at it? See what you think? It’s a great story.”
Several years ago, I taught Writing Thriller Fiction at Columbia College in Chicago. It was a popular course, and I conducted it for three years until I became too busy with other projects to continue. At least four of my students have become professional writers. I’ve also participated in seminars for high-school students interested in writing. I’ve contributed chapters to several books on how to write. So I do have some fairly strong credentials when it comes to discussing the mechanics of writing.
My writing career can be judged or dismissed by the numbers: 15 novels, nine non-fiction books, more than 30 short stories. Add in a monthly comic book series, with two more rescheduled. I’ve won two World Fantasy Awards and have been nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula awards. I do know something about how to write a story.
I’m also well known as an editor. I’ve put together about 130 anthologies. Books I’ve edited have sold well over a million copies. One of the anthologies I co-edited, “HORRORS, 365 SCARY STORIES,” won the Horror Writers Association Award for the best anthology of 1999.
I know what makes a good story and what doesn’t. While I might not have written a lot of comics, I feel confident I understand how to tell a story.
First, let’s look at a few facts about publishing.
Each year, about 45,000 books are published in the United States. Of that, about 8,000 are fiction. In simpler terms, every month sees about 700 novels and short story collections published in hardcover or paperback. Seems like a huge number, but when you compare the fiction to the non-fiction numbers, you realize that only about one out of every five books printed in the United States is fiction. A majority of people who make their living writing are composing books about cooking, using a computer, or selling ice to Eskimos.
Fiction writers get all the headlines, but fiction is the poor stepchild of the publishing field. A few writers dominate the news — Stephen King, Tom Clancy, Anne Rice, etc. but they are the exceptions, the writers who are millionaires. Writers are among the lowest-paid professionals in our country. Writers make teachers look like they’re overpaid. Lesson one of this mini-course in writing is, “Don’t quit your day job.” Only a few writers can earn a full-time living from writing. And when I say a few, I mean exactly that. A few.
There are exceptions, of course. Writers who sell their first book for a million bucks and then go on to sell novel after novel to the movies. But you can be struck by lightning just as easily. An average book editor looks at about 100 manuscripts per week. A magazine editor (and there aren’t many fiction magazines being published these days) receives about 1,000 stories a month. Book editors consider themselves lucky if they buy a book every few months. A magazine editor normally finds three or four publishable stories per issue.
Do you find the numbers intimidating? You should. It’s estimated that for every novel published in the United States each year, more than 100 are rejected. Just plug in the numbers, and you’ll see that you’re talking about 800,000 manuscripts! Because it’s likely most of the rejected novels have been sent to more than one publisher, we can cut that number in half, leaving us with 400,000 unpublished novels. That’s a lot of competition. These days, selling a first novel to a major publisher is about as easy as being drafted by a professional football team. Like I said, many try. Few are chosen.
Is the comic book field any easier? Not much. According to Diamond Distributors, there are about 350 comics published per month. Of course, a number of these are creator-owned (and creator-financed) comics. Even if we assumed that all 300 were open to new writers, that’s 300 titles and a market of several hundred thousand readers. If even one in 10 fans thinks he or she can write a script (or be an artist), that’s 20,000 or 30,000 competitors. While maybe it’s only one in 100 who thinks he or she can write, of those 300 titles, probably fewer than 40 or 50 will look at stories from new writers. It’s not as bad as the book field, but the odds are by no means cheering.
Counting on making money as a writer is a pretty dangerous idea. Still, the news isn’t entirely bad. New writers do get hired to write comic books, just as new writers sell novels to publishers. It does happen. Sometimes, it’s luck and circumstances. But most of the time, it’s something else. One word defines the key to success — determination. If you want to write, and you want to be published, you’d better be determined. If you’re not committed, if you’re not dedicated, if you’re not determined beyond any shadow of a doubt to make it as a writer, you won’t succeed. If you’re not willing to accept disappointment, disaster, and rejection, you won’t make it. Only a few people have the stamina, the heart and the overwhelming desire to become a professional writer. But, if you’re one of those people and you’re determined to make it, no matter how long it takes, then you’ve got a chance. A chance, not a guarantee, because there are no sure things in life. Still, if you’re good enough, a chance is all you need.
The first basic rule of writing is you have to know your grammar. Sure, writers violate those rules all the time. But, they’re published authors who know what they can get away with and what they can’t. As a beginning writer, you don’t have that advantage. Sorry, kids, but life’s unfair. You must know English grammar — where commas go, that every sentence needs a subject and a verb, no run-on sentences (that’s a big no-no), and the dozens and dozens of other rules that you were supposed to learn in school but probably forgot.
Along with grammar, there’s another tricky little devil you’d probably prefer to ignore. Spelling. If you want to write, you need to spell. And, much as I hate to inform everyone, spell-check is not the ultimate lifesaver. I wish it were because I’m not a great speller myself. Spell-check only catches words that are spelled wrongly. It ignores words that are used wrongly, or words that are spelled wrongly but spell another word that’s spelled correctly.
Take for example a name we X-Men fans know so well. Rogue. She’s a wonderful character, one of the very best. Her name is Rogue, which means a malcontent or a renegade. It definitely is not Rouge, which is a blush women use to color their cheeks. Rogue, not Rouge.
I won’t dwell on this subject other than to issue one warning. Editors see dozens, sometimes hundreds of manuscripts every week. An editor’s job is to go through those manuscripts and find the few that might be worth publishing. So, the editor uses a few shortcuts to make life easier. I know because I also work as a book editor. I read the first page of most manuscripts. Any manuscript that has more than two spelling errors on the first page gets discarded. Any manuscript that has grammar mistakes immediately gets tossed. Why? Because I figure if the writer can’t follow the most simple, the most basic rules, then anything else in the story isn’t going to be any better.
Now, I’m sure lots of you are saying “That’s not fair. The story, despite its spelling mistakes, despite its grammar mistakes, could be the next “The Hunt for Red October.” Well, maybe. But I doubt it, and every editor in the business doubts it as well. If you can’t write basic, correct English, using good spelling, then you might as well stop trying to sell professionally. It’s not going to happen.
Let’s assume you follow the basic rules of grammar and that you spell your words correctly. What other rules should you remember? How about white paper? Editors look at manuscripts on blue, green, pink, yellow or bright cherry paper and toss them. Black ink on white paper. Double-spaced, please, as it’s easier to read and easier for editors to make notes in the margins if they do like it.
These rules might sound stupid. They are stupid if you don’t follow them. If you’re going to have a story rejected, at least have it rejected on the merits of the story and not on how you forgot to follow the basics.
Moving on to something a little more substantial, let’s talk about a question so old it’s probably engraved on the pyramids.
Where do you get your ideas?
It’s a question every professional writer is asked, and one that every fan writer has a dozen answers for. Unfortunately, for every correct answer a fan writer has, he or she has five or six that are dead wrong.
Your ideas come from your imagination, from your own thoughts, not from someone else, nor in reaction to what someone else wrote. You loved the “Dark Phoenix Saga.” Great. Don’t write a new “Dark Phoenix Saga.” It’s not a new story anymore. It’s been done. You disliked “The Ages of Apocalypse?” I can understand that, but once it’s done, rewriting it the way you think it should have been done, isn’t going to impress an editor.
Editors want new ideas, not recycled ones. I’ve read dozens and dozens, maybe hundreds, of letters describing how fans would redo the X-Men universe or change the story line into something they think would work better. I’m impressed with their ambitions, their desires, but not with their stories. Where’s the imagination, the excitement, the newness? Does every X-Men epic have to revolve around old villains, old plots like Onslaught and the Sentinels and the Externals? Okay, I admit that sometimes they slip into stories being written now, but not that often. The same old, same old only works so many times. If you want to be a successful writer, you can follow the lead of those whose stories you like. But don’t copy their writing; don’t imitate their work. Write something new and different you can imagine Chris Claremont might have done if his thoughts had ever turned in the direction you find fascinating. Stop rehashing the Brood, the Phalanx, and let poor Jean Gray live without the Phoenix Force.
That’s what Warren Ellis and the fine writers who wrote the Counter-X books did. That’s what Fabian did with Gambit, and Joe Harris did with Bishop. And that’s what I tried to do with “Cable”: take these characters in new directions, down new paths they’ve never gone before. Maybe you don’t like my stuff, or Warren’s or Joe’s or Fabian’s. But, at least it’s not the same stuff you read 15 years ago, recycled and updated for today. That’s not progress. That’s leftovers.
Every story has a theme. One primary idea serves as the focal point of the story. It doesn’t matter if the work is a short story or a novel. Or it could be a comic book one-shot or a 15-year series. A good story has a catch-point, a touchstone that summarizes the basic concept that permeates every page of the work. Sometimes, the theme is obvious. In X-Men, the theme is how mutants adapt to a society that treats them as outcasts. In the movie “Independence Day,” it’s how mankind deals with alien invaders. In “War and Peace,” the subject is the title.
Where does that idea come from? Every writer has a different approach, but they all boil down to one notion. A writer looks at the world with a critical, questioning eye. “A writer’s eye” is what I called it when I taught creative writing.
Writers look at the world with tinted glasses. If you’re writing romance, those glasses might be pink ones. Murder, the tint is blood red. Horror, the color is jet black. Mainstream writers probably look at the world in stark gray. Comic book writers look through multicolored lenses. In all cases, the effect is the same. You look at the ordinary and see the extraordinary. As Bobby Kennedy once said, “Some people look at a glass of water and see it half empty. I look at the glass and see it half full.” Comic writers see the glass filled with poison. Or they see a liquid that turns a man into a human spider. Or they imagine a potion that changes Dr. Jekyll into Mr. Hyde. It’s all in the viewpoint, all in the writer’s eye.
Where do writers get their ideas for stories? Everywhere. Pulp writer Arthur J. Burks once bragged to some friends he could write a story about any object in his apartment. One buddy pointed to the doorknob. Burks sat down and wrote a story about a hollow doorknob installed in a mansion and used by crooks to hide stolen diamonds. He sold it in a day.
Several years ago, I was asked to write a horror story about modern life. At the time, I was receiving numerous offers for free credit cards for a Mr. Ro Erg. What a computer somewhere had obviously done was take the first two letters of my first name and the last three letters of my last name and came up with a new person, Mr. Ro Erg. It was silly and dumb, but looking at those credit applications, I decided to preserve the mistake in a story. I studied those the applications with “a writer’s eye.” How could such an innocent mistake lead to a horror story? Mistaken identities, a reversal in personality, a secret life. All ideas that came to me just thinking about those credit applications. Ro Erg was published in “Dark Love.” It’s been optioned twice for the movies, and the story has been reprinted in nearly a dozen overseas markets. It’s a mean and nasty story, but the concept came from a form letter and my imagination, looking at the ordinary in a different way.
When I got the assignment to write “Cable,” the first thing I did was review all the back issues I had of the comic. This time, I didn’t read them just for pleasure. Instead, I read them with a writer’s eye. As I perused each issue, I asked myself questions about Cable, about his history, about his world, about the events happening in his life. I asked the questions basic to any story — what, when, where, who, how and why?
By now, I hope you’re starting to get an idea of what I mean by using “a writer’s eye,” how to come up with ideas by looking at stories and concepts and ideas and asking questions that have never been asked before, or by studying a subject and noticing the holes that exist. To be a writer, you have to expand your horizons. Stop asking the obvious questions that aren’t interesting. Ask the questions that should be asked but never are. That’s when you’re using “a writer’s eye.” When you start coming up with answers, that’s when you start thinking like a writer.
You’re going to use your imagination, let your ideas run wild, look at comics with “a writer’s eye.” Unfortunately, when you look at the X-books, you get the feeling that all the good ideas have been taken. After all, these comics and their offspring have been published for nearly 40 years. Hundreds and hundreds of issues, with the X-Men, individually or as a team, fighting menaces from the Earth, from outer space, from other dimensions, even from Hell. They’ve fought each other innumerable times as well as their brothers, their sisters, their mothers, their fathers, and quite often, their creators. Where’s the new ideas?
I’m asked this question every time I teach a class, a seminar, or even give a talk in a library. How do you keep coming up with new ideas? And my answer is always the same. Like Will Rogers (I know, way before your time), I get my ideas from reading the newspaper.
You might be able to get the same help from TV, but TV news is so rushed and so fleeting that you rarely get the details straight before they’re talking about the weather. I’m a news junkie, always have been. I read four newspapers a day, five on Sunday. If I have time, I read the New York Times online. But I don’t just read the headline stories. I read the little stories, the stuff buried on page 18, or the columns in the sports section or letters to the editor. I read the papers looking for story ideas, and I always find them. I read stories and think about them. The good ones, the stories that make an impression on me, I cut out and save. I have several files filled with oddball stories, crazy events, screwball happenings. Real people act crazier than any character in the dumbest comic ever written. When I need an idea for a story and my imagination is on the blink, I read through those files, and within 15 minutes, my mind bubbles over with ideas.
Fifteen years ago, I read an incredible story about a guy who was caught smuggling a mummy back into a museum. It seems that the teenager’s uncle was a night watchman at a big Chicago museum. One night, the uncle got drunk, so his nephew, who was a big (but not very bright) young man, put on the old man’s uniform and hat and went to work in his place. He got inside the museum with no trouble. Now, it turned out that our imposter wanted to prove to his buddies he had gotten into the museum after hours. So he went to the mummy room, opened one of the mummy cases, and took out the mummy of a baby entombed 3,000 years ago. He had no trouble getting the mummy out of the museum under his coat. When he got it home, he discovered that by accident he had broken off the mummy’s head and crushed most of it to powder!
Worried that he might be charged for the damage, our bright young man went to Toys ‘R’ Us and bought a Cabbage Patch doll. Seems the heads were about the same size. He then bought a roll of white gauze tape, played Dr. Frankenstein and tried to tape the Cabbage Patch doll head onto the mummy’s body using white gauze tape. He tried smuggling the repaired mummy back into the museum, but he was apprehended.
I read the story, and though I had no thoughts about mummies or Egypt in mind, I saved the article. Years later, I wrote a horror novel based on ancient Egyptian sorcery loose in the modern world. I titled it “The Dead Man’s Kiss,” and the story of the smuggled mummy made it mostly intact into the story. The teenager’s punishment was worse in the story than in real life, where he got off with a fine and a reprimand.
If you want to find ideas for stories, read the papers. Don’t copy stories from the newspapers. Use them as jumping-off points. Look at those stories and say, what next? Why did this happen? Who committed the crime, and how? Ask enough questions, and you’ll come up with a story.
Harry Stephen Keller was a mystery novelist who wrote dozens of novels in the 1920s and 1930s. Keller, whose work was nothing spectacular, did have a large fan following. He made no secret of how he plotted his books. Like me, he cut out interesting articles from the newspapers every day. He threw all the stories into a fishbowl. When the time came for him to write a new novel, Keller rolled up his shirt sleeve and pulled out five unrelated articles from the inside of the bowl. He read them over, studied them, then started writing his plot. No matter how mismatched the five articles were, Keller used them as the basis for the plot of his book. Sometimes the plots were rather wild and took incredible twists. Often, events came together in almost magical ways.
I wouldn’t advise using Keller’s method for writing fiction these days. The idea is to stay alert. Keep up with the news and with what’s happening in science. Then let your imagination take over.
OK, now we’re at the important stage: the secret of how to finish a story. Read it and remember it, and if you make a million dollars next year writing books, please remember me.
First, though, let’s cover rules of developing a story. These rules apply for a story written for comics, for a short story, or even a novel. They’re actually simple. Here’s what to do.
First: Every good story needs one (yes, one) good idea to work. Sure, you might have three or four or five great ideas, but every story needs one. Call it your theme, call it your central point, call it your underlying storyline. You need a good idea that can be summarized in one sentence. Here’s some of the following:
A good woman is given great power and slowly turns bad.
A hero from the future comes back to the past to alter time.
A young boy sees his parents killed by criminals and vows to grow up to be a crime fighter.
An alien child from another world grows up on Earth and battles evil.
Simple, huh? Those are basic concepts. To be a story they need to be expanded. Consider your basic idea a round ball of molasses (or chewing gum if you prefer). You’ve got to take that molasses and stretch it, pull on it, shape it, expand it, fight with it so that it no longer is just a small lump of goo but a huge sheet of sugary stuff. You need to take your basic idea and expand it into a plot. The first idea is the basic underlying theme of the Dark Phoenix Saga. Chris Claremont took a simple, human idea (the abuse of power) and tugged, pulled, stretched and shaped that concept into a story that became a comic classic.
There are plenty of other neat ideas and concepts in the Dark Phoenix story — the Hellfire Club, the alien race killed by the nova, Jean vs. the X-Men — but they are all wonderful details that round out the story and make it great. Chris could have written the Dark Phoenix Saga without the Hellfire Club or the X-Men or any of a dozen other details. But he needed that basic concept, that underlying theme to make the story work. Once you have that basic good idea, you’re on the road to writing a great story. From a great idea comes a great plot.
Let’s say you have that great idea. You’ve given it a lot of thought, you’ve concentrated on it and have lots of wonderful stuff you want to say using that idea. What’s next?
Second rule: A story is like a human body. Your basic idea is the heart of your body. The plot is the skeleton. Without a skeleton, people are nothing more than mush. Without a plot, a story isn’t anything either.
You take that basic idea and look at it with a writer’s and say to yourself, “What does this imply?” or “What’s going to happen because of this event?” or one of 100 other questions. You study your idea and look at what happens next. You have a heart, but now you need someplace to put it. You need that skeleton, the plot, for that idea to develop and work.
Character development is extremely important, as is setting, but a story that is all character and no plot is not a story. It’s a sketch. A story that’s all scenery and no plot is a landscape. A story has events that follow logically from one point to another.
Please, please note that word “logically.” You can’t write a good story if the story doesn’t make sense. As you’re developing a plot, you need to ask yourself again and again and again, “Does this make sense? Would anyone act this way?” The problem with so many terrible stories we see on TV or in the movies is that the people act so dumb. Why go into the basement when you know a serial killer is on the loose and you’re home alone? Wouldn’t it make more sense to call 911 than end up with an axe in the middle of your forehead? If your plot doesn’t read true, then readers aren’t going to believe your characters. If you want to keep someone reading, you need them to believe your characters are intelligent, not idiots.
There’s a reason I compare a story to a human body. Remember that all the bones are attached to each other. Your plot has to flow from one point to another, and everything needs to be attached. Everything needs to be there for a REASON. I type that in big letters because many writers, amateur and professional both, seem to forget. A story is exactly like a skeleton. If halfway through a murder mystery, you spend a chapter describing the hero going for a swim in the swimming pool, later in that book that scene better have a reason. Otherwise, you’re just wasting the reader’s (and your) time. A well-told story does not contain material that is not relevant to the plot. Sure, it has sections that develop character and setting, but those are important elements to any story. Scenes that have no explanation and no tie-in with the story are filler. They might make the book or story longer, but they serve no useful purpose. The goal of a good writer is to construct a story that ties together perfectly.
Comics are somewhat different than regular novels or short stories in that they are a continuous medium — that is, the adventures continue on and on, like a soap opera with superheroes. Sometimes there are glimpses of things to come — events that happen that are not explained in the story, or sometimes, not for several stories to come. That’s foreshadowing, a standard practice in fiction. That’s allowable, within limits. If you’re going to use foreshadowing, one of the basic rules of writing dictates that you don’t begin a plot thread and leave it dangling until the readers have forgotten it.
Foreshadowing is fine, as long as you keep hinting from time to time that that mysterious stuff that seems to make no sense is going to be discussed and explained in exciting fashion.
How can you tell if you’ve written a good plot? Play doctor. If your plot works, it should be just like a skeleton. Remove a bone from a skeleton, and a person is permanently damaged. Remove a scene from your work, and your story should be permanently damaged! If you can cut five pages from your story and it still reads exactly the same, then you’ve written five pages too many.
Watch “The Sixth Sense.” Or “The Matrix.” Or “Dark City.” Every scene in those movies is there for a purpose. Cut out a scene, and the movie doesn’t make sense. The plots work, and they work well. Then watch most Hong Kong action films. Cut out any scene other than the beginning and the final fight. No difference. Because the plot isn’t important, it’s just an excuse for a lot of action. It’s eye candy, and it looks great. But, give me the choice between “The Drunken Master” and “Dark City,” I’ll take “Dark City” every time.
That’s two basic rules of composing a story. Now, rule three, the big secret. It’s something plenty of writers know, but I don’t know that you can find it in any book on writing. Know the end of your story before you begin writing the story.
Simple, right? Or maybe not. I’ve talked to hundreds of would-be writers at one time or another. Their biggest trouble? Finishing a story. They have a great idea, they have the talent to write the story, but they never get it finished. Though they have the idea and they have the plot, they don’t know how the story should end. They write themselves into a corner, and they can’t get out, so they put the story into a drawer and forget it. To succeed as a new writer, you need to know how your story ends before you start writing it.
I’m not saying that once you’ve written five or six novels and a few dozen short stories you need to follow that rule all the time. By then, instincts are going to keep you going, and most likely you’ll have the ending in mind even if you’re not actively thinking about it. But I still follow the rule.
I’m not just saying that. My most popular novels are a trilogy of books called “The Masquerade of the Red Death.” They total about 275,000 words, or 1,300, double-spaced manuscript pages (which would work out to around 45-50 comics the way I write them). When I started working on the series, I came up with the theme of all the books. Then I gave the plot some thought. Then, I wrote the last chapter of the last book. After that, I started chapter one of book one. When I reached that final chapter nine months later, I needed to rewrite four sentences. Everything else remained the same. I do practice what I preach.
Why is this rule so important? When you know how a story ends, you have a goal to work toward. In writing “The Undying” storyline (Cable 79-84), I knew all along the truth about the Undying. That way, I was able to slant my stories in a certain way that I always knew exactly where I was going and how I was going to get there. I was able to develop the story taking place in the desert. I was able to show the Undying taking possession of one body after another. I was able to refer to Azazel and know who and what he was. Most of all, I was able to keep everyone fooled into thinking that the Undying were supernatural, when I knew all along that they were not,and not once in the story did I ever say that they were. I just made sure that most of the characters thought they were. Knowing the ending of the story, I was able to play fair with the reader and yet use misdirection to give the story somewhat of a surprise ending. Knowing how I was going to finally destroy the ending, I was able to construct my story so that I ended it with a scene that I really enjoyed writing.
That’s one reason. Another is confidence. Amateur writers lose steam, especially when faced with the problem of tying up all the details they’ve so lovingly constructed in their story. Thus, the story never gets finished because they have no idea what to do. If you know the ending of your story before you begin, that doesn’t mean you can’t change that ending if a better one occurs to you. What’s important is that you have an ending.
So come up with that great idea. Give some thought to your plot. Then figure out an ending, a good one. Then, and only then, start writing.
If you’ve ever taken a creative writing class, or studied writing in a well-taught English class, you’re probably familiar with the phrase “Show, don’t tell.” In writing fiction, it’s always best to show what’s happening than have some character tell what’s happening. Fiction is a visual medium. When an author begins a story, “It was a frigid, cold day in New York City,” he’s hoping that you’ll conjure up in your mind a vision of Manhattan in winter — with its huge buildings and glitter, bustling shoppers and streets filled with slush and icicles hanging down across doors and rooftops. Comic books do the same thing, but they have the advantage of when you read a scene, you don’t have to rely on your imagination, which is one of the great appeals of comics and graphic novels.
Show, don’t tell, also addresses action in a story. Characters should be shown doing things. That’s the way to make a vivid impression using your creations, by letting their actions speak more than words. A threat stated might be intimidating, but a threat shown in its full gory detail is frightening. Show, don’t tell, means exactly that. Use action instead of words to forward your story and make your characters real.
I’ve already discussed some of the important details you need to learn to become a writer. First and foremost, you need one good idea to base your story upon. Just one, not dozens. One idea, however, that you examine and examine, asking all the necessary questions about it. What, why, who, where, when, how? An idea that is broad enough to lead in many different directions, yet an idea that is simple enough for readers to understand its meaning when you come to the end of your story. Ideas for my recent Cable stories include “Cable fights a band of unkillable creatures who transfer their personalities from one body to another and call themselves the Undying,” to “Cable travels into the far distant future to rescue his time-lost sister, Rachel, from a mass murderer named Gaunt.” One sentence should be enough to describe your idea, but the idea needs to be large enough to fill many pages.
Another point I’ve stressed is that you need to know the ending of your story before you begin. Along with knowing the end of the story, you need to have some idea of what the plot is about. I compared this to having a skeleton for your story, so you understand what events are going to take place and how they relate to the story as a whole. Like any skeleton, your plot needs to be connected to support the structure of your body. If there are bones that aren’t connected, then they are useless. Same with a plot. If you have scenes that don’t tie in with the rest of the story, then they are wasted and unimportant.
The ending of a story is the brain. The plot is the skeleton. The basic idea of the story is the heart that keeps the body alive. Now, what about the muscles and flesh? They’re what makes the body complete, that keeps the body working, and turns a skeleton into a human being. In fiction, the flesh and blood and muscle of a body are the characterization and setting. Add those two to your story and you have a complete work of fiction. Ignore either, and you have a bare-bones story, and skeletons don’t sell. This column, I’ll discuss characterization. Next time, it’ll be setting.
Characterization makes real people out of skeletons, full figures out of stick figures. A book character needs to be defined so that the reader loves or hates him (or her). Character is more than a group of traits or likes and dislikes. Character is the inner beliefs and soul of each person who appears in your story. Character can be developed in many ways. Most often, it’s show or tell — or a combination of both.
Nathan Dayspring Summers, the man known as Cable, is one of the toughest characters in the Marvel Universe. However, having someone like Irene or Jean or even Wolverine state this isn’t going to make anyone believe it. Instead, Cable has to be shown in action, needs to be portrayed in a manner that shows just how tough he really is. Thus, when Gaunt taunts Cable, wondering if he’s capable of putting up a good fight, Nathan has to respond in kind. That’s the point of devoting page after page of Cable No. 86 to the fight between the two men. Being tough doesn’t always mean that you’re the strongest man around, but it does mean that mentally you are the hardest to keep down Nathan refuses to be beaten. He continues to fight until he’s the last man standing.
Another scene that demonstrates show, don’t tell, is Rachel’s involvement in the fight. She might not be as physically tough as her brother, but mentally she’s as rough as anyone in the Marvel Universe. Though Gaunt holds her a prisoner, her mental powers caged, the real Rachel shines through in Cable’s dream. She’s not merely an excuse to lure Cable into the future. She has her feelings and emotions, and most of all, her stubbornness and fighting spirit. Rachel’s not the innocent bystander type. She’s not above doing whatever she deems necessary for Cable to win the fight, including participating in the battle.
Again, many characters can be developed by telling, not showing, without ever using any pictures at all. But, what fun is that? When, in the Undying story line, Cable learns some of the history of those mysterious beings, it is told, but in a manner so that the entire story is illustrated by scenes from that history. Because showing exactly what happened is a lot more frightening than any mere description in words alone could be.
When you write stories, the protagonists and antagonists need motives. Cause and effect is one of the basics of human behavior. It’s not the only rule, and oftentimes people act without rhyme or reason. That’s part of what makes us human. Still, having intelligent characters suddenly do stupid things for no reason is not good storytelling. Nor is having evil characters suddenly do good things for no purpose. In this case, however, it’s show and tell.
Characters are influenced by events, and if you want to tell a story that will be believable, highlight those events. Mystique is portrayed as a villain in the X-comics, but she doesn’t consider herself evil. (Show me a character that actually thinks of himself/herself as evil, and I’ll show you a stupid character.) She thinks she is fighting for all mutants. She uses any means possible to achieve her goals, but she feels that the ends justify the means. Mystique’s greatest character flaw, which is shown again and again, is that she has no doubts. She’s convinced she is doing what is right, what is necessary, which is what makes her so fascinating. She has reasons for her actions. Sometimes we’re just told that, but just as often we’re shown why she believes in her cause. Both techniques used together makes Mystique into a first-class villain.
If you want to write good stories, you have to learn “Show, don’t tell.” But you also need to know that sometimes “Show, and tell,” works in certain situations. Sometimes you need to summarize backgrounds and motives to show the more important stuff. Sometimes, telling becomes dialogue, where characters state their beliefs and question those of their enemies. It’s a shortcut that combines both show and tell in a logical and simple manner. It’s not always believable — having Post lecture Cable while they’re fighting (see Cable No. 87) — but it does get the story told within the number of pages allowed per issue. No rule or plot device is perfect and sometimes even the most basic ones have to be broken. The idea is to do it in a way that’s creative, useful and entertaining.
Develop characters by showing them in diffferent situations. Having Cable fight convinces readers he’s tough. Having him visit the grave of a man who died for no reason (as in Cable No. 84) shows he also has compassion. Characters must be well defined and not act completely at odds with their personality. If they do, their adventures become silly, and worse, meaningless.
So, now we’ve added muscles and blood to our skeleton, along with brains and a heart. The only thing missing is the skin. That’s our background and setting.
Backgrounds aren’t the most important part of a story, but they’re necessary. The background and setting are the skin, just as the idea is the heart and the characterization is the muscle. You can leave out anything you like, but you won’t have a story. It’ll be a monster, a creature without a heart, a horror without blood, or a demon without a skin. Not something that’s going to sell.
Even the most astonishing scenery in the world can’t compare to wonders of human imagination. A good author can use a few lines, or a few paragraphs, or a few pages, to describe locations and settings that are beyond anything real. A talented artist can do the same. That’s one of the greatest things about comic books and graphic novels and novels; you leave reality behind. There’s no limit to what you can envision. There’s no limit to what you can describe.
How do you do it? Long, involved sentences, with lots of adverbs and adjectives? Paragraphs that stretch out for most of the page? Description laid on so thick that you can almost feel it? Sorry, not in this century. That type of storytelling went out at the end of the 19th century. Lush settings are fine. Lush, overripe sentences are not. Short and snappy. Crisp and clean. That’s the way we write today. The rule of thumb for a sentence is that it can be read aloud using one breath. If you need to take another breath before you’ve finished, the sentence is too long.
Another rule to remember when you’re writing a story is that descriptions and settings are fine in the body of your text. However, they’re not part of your dialogue. It’s one of those rules that seems to have been forgotten in a lot of high schools and by a lot of teachers. Still, it’s true. Ask any editor. See what he or she thinks when you submit a story with lines like this:
“Gosh, Jack, you’re terrific,” gushed Sheila.
“Run for the hills!” trumpeted Craig.
“I don’t understand,” complained Ken.
I know, I know. Everybody’s going to write in and tell me I’m wrong. That using words like gushed, trumpeted, or complained is just giving the dialogue emotion. Nope. Not true. Emotion comes through the dialogue, the setting, the description, the actions of the characters. It doesn’t come through the way you write your sentences. People say things. Sometimes, they scream. A whisper is okay once or twice. But, that’s it. If you have to use gushing, crying, or moaning put them in sentences.
Jack moaned in pain as red blood gushed out of the wound in his side. His face twisted in agony. “Help me,” he whispered.
If you’ve been paying attention, you’ve memorized my big secret – know the ending before you start writing. But a great ending needs a great beginning. If you want to make a good impression on a date, at a job interview, meeting someone new, you look your best. If you want someone to read your story, you’ve got to lure them in. You need an opening sentence that captures your audience. In a comic book, it’s visual. In a story, it’s the first line.
There are books on how to start a story, how to write a first line that seizes the attention of readers. It’s not something that can be taught. Come up with a hook in your first sentence that intrigues your readers enough to wonder what comes next. Here are some first lines I’ve used.
Ralph was just reaching for the box of old clothes when the lights went out.
— from “Endure the Night”
Jake Edwards first encountered the Gray Ghost of Illinois University in the hallway of the graduate student apartment building.
— from “Three Steps Back”
Cold and alone, Sidney Taine waited for the Midnight El.
— from “The Midnight El”
“Four people gone without a trace,” said the bald-headed man.
— from “Terror by Night”
“I want you to locate,” said the man in dark glasses, “the Holy Grail.”
— from “Seven Drops of Blood”
It was nearly 2 a.m. and I was out of ideas.
— from “Chant”
That’s it — a short lesson on how to write. To be frank, writing is a tough business, and first sales are always the hardest. It took me 100 submissions before I sold my first story. Still, if you try hard and pay some attention to what I’ve discussed, you’ll have a fighting chance. These days, that’s about all you can ask.
—by Robert Weinberg
You can visit his site here.
copyright Robert Weinberg