How to structure your comic book story
By BBC Maestro
If you want to write comic books, you might have a fantastic story idea and amazing characters in mind, but one part of the puzzle remains - how to structure your comic book story. Here, we’ll take a look at one of the most popular methods, and how to break it down.
What is structure?
First things first: what exactly do we mean by structure?
Let’s take it from one of the world’s most renowned comic book writers, Alan Moore. As he explains in his BBC Maestro course on Storytelling:
“Structure simply means the shape and composition of the story.”
It is different from plot and story, though. As Alan Moore says, “Always remember that plot is not the story. The plot is not the structure. It’s just the plot. It’s what gets you from one end of the story to the other. But it’s not the most important thing in the story.”
Take George Orwell’s Animal Farm for instance. If you boil it down to the plot, it’s simply that some animals take over a farm. But that’s not what the story is about.
So, the structure is simply the means by which you tell your story. You can choose a simple structure or an elaborate one, but you do need to have a structure – otherwise, the whole story will fall apart.
How to start a comic book story
When it comes to structuring your comic book stories, Alan Moore suggests that “the first thing that will determine the structure is probably size.”
As a new writer, you may not want to dive headfirst into a novel but instead experiment with the short story. Alan Moore explains that: “In a short story, you will have to do all of the things that you’ll eventually have to do when you’re attempting your first novel, but you’re doing them in miniature.”
That means you’ll have to introduce your characters, introduce a dramatic situation, and resolve that situation, all within a smaller number of pages than you have to play with in a novel.
“So, basically, the short story is an excellent way to begin your writing career. In my own experience, it’s the only way to begin your writing career.”
Using the three-act structure
Whether you choose to start with a short story, or opt for a novel, one of the first structures you should familiarise yourself with is the three-act structure.
Popularised by American author Syd Field in the 1970s, the three-act structure is positive in both filmmaking and literature. It suggests splitting your story into three parts – a beginning, a middle and an end – with major plot points occurring in each third.
The beginning should introduce your characters and set up the story and situation. As Alan Moore explains:
“By the end of your first third, you should have established all your characters, and your essential situation, so your reader thinks they know what you’re doing going to be doing for the rest of the book.”
In the middle third of the story, the action kicks in. You may even change the course of the story, turning your readers’ expectations on their heads to “propel the story toward a new and unexpected climax at the end of the third part.”
The climax should come in the final third of your story, bringing the action to a head before resolving it – or leaving it open-ended for a sequel.
Alan Moore offers a useful tip for how to write a story outline for a comic book in three parts:
- Jot down ideas about scenes or characters on sticky notes.
- Spread them all out on the carpet or on a table.
- Keep adding to them as you come up with more ideas.
- When you’ve got enough sticky notes, start to sort them into three piles.
- Create a pile of things that logically should happen in the beginning, the middle and the end.
- Once your sticky notes are all in piles, you’ve got the basic structure of your story sorted.
While he suggests using the three-act structure for your story, he doesn’t necessarily advocate for the action happening in that order. He says:
“Once you’ve come up with the idea of your structure, you can do anything within that structure. You can chop your story into any order, as long as it will still maintain the reader’s interest and will still tell the story.”
You could, for instance, use flashbacks to tell your story. You could also work backwards, a format that’s often used in whodunnit stories, in which we know that a crime has occurred, and the story builds up to find out who committed it.
You might decide to repeat certain elements of the story, so you learn something about them with every repetition. Or you could rearrange the time sequence, chopping and changing between the past and present to tell your story.
However you choose to present your comic book story idea, think about what impression you want to leave. Each structure will leave the reader with a particular impression. So, according to Alan Moore, you need to:
“Work out what that impression is. Work out the shape of that indentation you want to leave in the reader’s consciousness. And then shape your story to leave exactly that kind of mark.”