Thursday, May 7, 2009

Guidelines for the Appraisal of Story Structure and Visual Storytelling

While digging through some old boxes, I ran across a document I helped draft as part of the Marvel Comics editorial training program.

The title is a mouthful: “Basic Guidelines for Editorial Appraisal of Story Structure and Visual Storytelling”

The document was probably drafted in the late ‘80s or early ‘90s. You can see the influence of Robert McKee’s story structure seminars in this document.

The transcribed document is posted below. I’d enjoy getting your reactions to it. Do you think it was/is a good set of guidelines? Is it too concrete or creatively inhibiting? Is it missing critical information? Has time made parts of it more or less important/relevant than when it was drafted?
“Basic Guidelines for Editorial Appraisal of Story Structure and Visual Storytelling”

Many writers and artists understand classic story structure and visual storytelling on an intuitive level. As an editor, you need to be able to intellectualize and put into words the various concepts of story structure and visual storytelling so that you can effectively communicate with your writers and artists. This outline is an attempt to boil down some of the basic concepts to help you do so.

The vast majority of stories we publish incorporate (or should incorporate!) classic story structure. There are several other approaches to structuring fiction. Both the minimalist and anti-structure approaches can and should be used on occasion. It should be a conscious decision by the writer and the editor when any approach other than classic structure is used.

A writer should be able to understand and successfully create compelling classically structured stories before he/she attempts to use the minimalistic or anti-structure approaches. Picasso successfully painted and sculpted in abstract forms because he had such a firm grounding in realistic (representational) art. He knew what he was abstracting from. So, a writer should have a solid grounding in classic story structure before he/she tackles the minimalist or anti-structure approaches.

The majority of prose fiction, TV and film scripts follow classic structure. Some tales will incorporate elements from two or all three types of story structure.

There are no real RULES…only PRINCIPLES. The conventions of any structure system can be successfully broken if the underlying principles of the system are understood and accommodated.

Some people, however, get so caught up in what they see as “rules” that their work lacks life or innovation.

To combat this, encourage your writers to do the first draft of their story using an intuitive or gut-level approach. They should then go back and see where the story matches and diverges from the principles of classic story structure. Where there are variances, the writer needs to honestly ask themselves if altering the story so it’s in line with the principles will improve the story or make it worse. In the majority of cases, the story will benefit from observing classic structure principles. Occasionally, diverging from the principles, or modifying them, will result in a successful story told in a unique way.

-All story elements are introduced early
-Story elements remain consistent
-There is a “closed” (or resolved) ending
-The protagonist is active and directly affects the resolution
-External conflict is emphasized
-There is a strong causality chain of events
-Time is continuous
-External and emotional conflicts are resolved.

An example of classic story structure is film is Casablanca.

-Has an open ending
-Some elements are not resolved
-Emphasis on internal conflict
-Protagonists are sometimes passive (“a leaf in the wind”)

Examples of minimalism story structure in films include The Big Chill, Breakfast Club and Fame

-Pseudo documentary style often used
-Time can be fragmented
-There is more coincidence than causality
-Reality is inconsistent

Examples of anti-structure films include After Hours, Monty Python’s Holy Grail, This Is Spinal Tap.

For comics that are part of a series, clearly re-establishing the long term and short term status quos is essential for a successful comic. A major reason Marvel’s comics outsell our competitors’ titles is that we usually don’t assume the reader knows what the Marvel Universe (MU) is and what has been occurring in our cosmic playground. The same concept holds for titles that take place in “universes” outside of the MU – don’t assume your readers have read every issue of the title or have retained encyclopedic knowledge of the title’s world/universe.

By giving readers just enough of the relevant back story and status quo info each issue, new readers are not left baffled (and alienated). By giving a new readers a good “hand hold”, we stand a much better chance of hooking them and turning them into regular readers. It is vital to grow, or at least maintain, a title’s readership. Most comic titles fight a battle of attrition as readers drift away for various reasons. Unless new readers are made to feel “welcome” that battle of attrition will end with the title’s cancelation.

This does not mean you want your characters or narrator to be spewing lots of exposition. Getting the basic long/short-term status quo info into each issue should be looked at as an opportunity to make that issue’s story more relevant.

Instead of revealing each bit of establishing info in drips and drabs, it’s possible for the same scene to—
-Give long and short-term status info
-Establish characters’ personalities and powers (and limits of those powers)
-Set up that issues primary or secondary conflict.

Look for ways to work the establishing info into the story in relevant ways so that the info is not expressed as exposition. This is easier said than done, especially if you have to keep coming up with new twists on how to accomplish this feat month after month.

For examples on how to do this, look at almost any early issue of Louise Simon’s work on Power Pack. An unusual way to recap an established character’s origin can be seen in Punisher War Journal #1.

Learn from the masters. There are issues of Lee/Kirby comics from the ‘60s where you learn the names, personalities, powers (and some of the limits to the powers), conflicts –all on the splash page! That splash can also set up that issue’s main action. The dialogue and art styles may appear dated now but the craft concepts on display are timeless.

Characters should be introduced early and in clear ways that show their personalities and powers in active ways. Comics are a visual storytelling medium –never tell what can be shown.

By establishing the characters’ abilities and limitations early in an issue, writers prevent un-established powers or abilities from seemingly appearing from out of the blue during a climatic battle. At the climax, it should be the winning character’s knowledge, resolve, skill, new technique using an established power, etc. that win the day – not some power/ability that was not previously established in that issue. So, Dr. Doom can’t suddenly use telekinesis in a fight unless it was established earlier n that issue that he’d gained that ability.

All stories/issues should have a strong central conflict and theme that all of the other story elements tie into and reinforce. If possible, even sub-plots should tie into an issue’s conflict and theme. There should be no gratuitous plot elements.

The conflict will often (though not always) involve at least one major character making a conscious and active choice between two or more difficult choices. We reveal a lot about someone’s basic character when we put that person into a crucible, testing their motivations and beliefs in severe situations. Shooter used to refer to this as a “can’t/must” situation: due to ethical, financial, time and/or physical restraints, the character can’t do something that the situation compels him/her to do.

We should see what tips the character’s conflict decision in a particular direction. Whatever it is that does tip the decision scales needs to have been set-up previously in the story.

The classic story structure elements below do not always have to be established in the order presented. If, for the sake of story impact, it’s better to switch 1 & 2, go ahead. Clarity of the storytelling should be the key point for all story decisions.

1. Establish long-term status quo: Character origin recap is often taken care of in the blurb at the top of the splash page. Characters names, powers, limitations, ongoing motivations, etc. should be re-established. Only long-term status quo info that is relevant to a particular issue’s story should be established.

2. Establish short-term status quo: This is anything that varies form the normal long-term status quo.

3. Set up the conflict(s) — internal and external

4. Show conflict decision (what tips the scales of the conflict decision between difficult choices?)

5. Show ramification of the conflict decision and the new short-term status quo.

The protagonist(s) should have to deal with an escalating series of “roadblocks” or reversals as the story progresses.

Primary character(s) should have conscious and unconscious motivations. These different levels of motivations are often at odds with each other and cause the character grief. A character may consciously desire to find love but, due to their unconscious desire for self-punishment, instead finds only hate. Taking that a step further, the character can lapse into self-hate, the extreme opposite of what their conscious desire to fin dlove. This is what McKee refers to as the “negation of the negation.”

The character’s internal (both conscious and unconscious) motivation conflicts should spark or feed into the external/physical conflicts.

The conflict decision that the character makes and the ramifications of that decision (along with the new short-term status quo) compose the remainder of the story.
The next section of the document, VISUAL STORYTELLING IN COMICS, will appear in a future posting.

I look forward to your comments on the above guidelines!


Red White and Blue Starfish said...

I seem to have happened upon this new comment almost immediately upon its posting! How fortuitous! There is much here to comment on, but for the moment, let me just say that this is comprehensive, and reiterates many of the basic truisms that hold fast over time about writing and structure (for example, I teach rhetorical structure, and I include these rules when I teach).

I think your final point about the mixed motives of the protagonist are very apt, and remind me of the play devices used by the Ancient Greeks to explicate one of their more complicated characters (Oedipus, for example). Thanks for bringing this up! Interesting, as always! ;-)

G. Kendall said...

"If possible, even sub-plots should tie into an issue’s conflict and theme. There should be no gratuitous plot elements."

I thought this was interesting, because I can't think of any examples of subplots in superhero comics tying in with the theme of a specific issue. I've always seen subplots used as teases for future storylines, or as a way to showcase characters who aren't the leads in the main storyline. It seems to me that most superhero writing is just about moving continuity along; giving any thought to theme has always seemed like a low priority to me.

I'd be curious to know how deeply most readers think about elements of a story that aren't immediately obvious. Axel Alonso, the current head X-editor, claimed in an interview that the X-Men have endured for so long because of the "metaphor". My attraction to the titles as a kid was mainly in the characters...I didn't pay attention to any political statements that might've been made.