Saturday, February 18, 2012

24 Page Plot First Story Structure

I had reservations about posting this because I'm eager as a beaver to try it out, but I figure what the hell. Information should be free in my opinion, plus I haven't posted in a while so why not.

The past couple months have been frustrating for me because I really feel I'm drawing the best I ever have in my life. However the frustration comes in transferring that flow of my artwork into a sequential story. Taking notes from my art-block of last fall, I felt the best way to get out writers-block was to just plow through it. So I buckled down and wrote about 4 scripts using Celtx. It looked like I was on the right path, but something wasn't feeling right. While I was doing this I was also doing my daily sketches. On average I sketch about 4-6 pages per day of heads, bodies, gestures, and sometimes even little comics.

The scripting method, of which I mentioned before, seems to be the industry standard so I stuck with it. It worked all right as I wrote a 32 page script, a 24 page one, and a 16 page one. With me sketching when I wasn't writing I felt that when I did have a script I was proud of it could be possible for me to draw 2-4 pages a day. Realistically I got my goals set on 1 page a day, but the amount of ease I'm drawing at is almost scary.

To give an example of why I think that, in the past I use to have a hard time just drawing heads, faces, or anything in general. One picture would take me hours. Not the kind of flow one wants to have if they want to be a comic artist. Because I sat myself down for 3 months and experimented with different styles, life-drawing, and  exercises that hard work as paid off. I'm drawing with no road blocks at all. No subject is too hard, no pose is out of reach, and composition is like signing my name.

Then came the scripts...

The first 3 were just me getting a feel for the process. I stayed true to my Story Structures I have posted here and unlike Celestial Chase I had fleshed out characters with unique personalities. It wasn't until I wrote the 4th script I felt I had something I could sell for $1. I was all eager to jump right in, but like the previous 3 I let it sit for a few days let it soak in. Unlike those first 3 I felt it was a good One-Shot to do.

Then I started drawing it...

This is where the frustration came in full force and I seriously thought there was something wrong with me. Either being lazy, uninterested, or possible suffering from a mental disorder that won't allow me to perform to my standards. I didn't get too far drawing it, I stopped after the 2nd panel. This was because I was already disgusted by what I drew. A-Big-Boring-Static-Panel.

I read my script over again, the one I thought was A-Okay. It wasn't. It was filled with too much nonsense. Nonsense a part of brain didn't want to draw. I sat there thinking about this. Maybe I wasn't meant to do this crap at all. Maybe I should give up. While I sat there trying to figure why I nearly threw up on what I drew so far I found I did something unexpected. I drew 4 pages of sketches in my sketchbook.

Now I was curious. Why can I draw for hours on end in my sketchbook ( the most I ever did was 12 hours straight ) but when it comes to actually doing a story I resort back to bad habits, get frustrated, and just give up? It was a mystery. Struggling to find an answer a quick Goggle Search made me remember the " Plot First " method. All of sudden my world didn't look so bleak...

" Plot First " in general

To start, Plot First is the method that was popular back in the hey-day of Marvel. To save time, and of course have one writer do multiple projects, they would give the artist the Plot First then add the dialogue later after the artwork was okay'd. The Plot itself was separated by pages so the artist had an idea of what to draw and where. This is what made Jack Kirby the legend he still is today.

With only the Plot, Jack would make each page a small story. Sometimes even adding more than the writer even thought of. Even Stan Lee said that Jack's layouts were so good that most of the time it didn't need dialogue at all. The sad part of this, is that I knew about the Plot First method 2 years ago, in fact I did it on  Celestial Chase, but I always use to think it was a cop out. A half-ass way of making comics. Writing a script gave me more control. With that control I could flesh out characters, get down to details in the story, stuff like that.

What I didn't realize, and what my brain was trying to tell me when I started drawing that 4th script, was that wasn't what I wanted to do. What I wanted more than anything was the artwork to tell the story, and the dialogue to fill in the details. When I wrote my scripts it was the opposite. The dialogue was telling everything while the artwork, no matter how hard I tried, was just static-boring-nonsense.

I also looked at the comics I was reading as of now. Batman Adventures, based off the animated series of the 90s, isn't dialogue heavy. In fact the only time captions are used is on transitions with the age-old " Meanwhile...". I dug deeper. TMNT, the comic that got me into comics back in the day, was also like this. The turtles were constantly moving and the art told the story. In fact all 4 graphic novels that I own could be read in less than a hour.

I also looked at how I sketched. When I was doing Daily Pages last year I was trying to let my artwork tell the story. It didn't work out that way, but I did them because that's what I was trying to accomplish. The last Daily Pages I did were exactly that. In fact they were precisely that. In a weird turn of faith I was sketching the way I wanted to draw comics, but when I draw comics I " play it safe " by limited myself to boring-static-panels. In the end the problem I had was I had enough. My brain stopped me from continuing that comic because I was doing something wrong, yet I drew 4 pages in my sketchbook because I was doing something right.

My New Process

I felt I was on to something, so I took what I learned from  Celestial Chase and started writing Plot First scripts. I counted how many scenes I wanted for a 16 page then a 24 page story. Yet something didn't feel right. They didn't feel like the comic books I grew up with. The ones that inspired me to pursue these endeavors. Frustrated again I remember a tutorial I ran into last year by Wise Sloth. At the time I felt it was an interesting concept, yet it felt too complicated to me. I also felt I wanted to experiment with taking 3 small stories to make them into one.

With a few days work I came up with this process...

Like WiseSloth's  process, this looks like a mess. But when I studied it and really analyzed it I got that feeling I found my method. Now this might not work for everyone, but for me it has to work. It has all the elements I want in my stories, plus it's divided up into 3 Acts so it feels like I'm making 3 short comic books that in the end will make a 24 Page story...that maybe I could sell for a $1.

I got the idea to break down one story into 3 short ones from a 4 page story I did last spring. It was one of the last Daily Pages I did, but I did it in one day. I also did it with having each page Plotted out first. Again the method was in my face, but my opinions at the time were that it wasn't right. After that I spent two months trying to make Celestial Chase which I ended up using the Plot First method anyways. ( I had 3 scripts for that comic I never used )

Even though I took the time to divide up the Acts, Pages, and even Panels, nothing is set in stone on that Structured Layout. It's there for reference so I know where to begin when plotting out the story. By knowing how many pages I want, I got an average count of Panels. Now panels I count as a drawing or picture if you will. If I stick to layout it comes out to 108 panels. Or 108 pictures. For fun I went back on those 4 pages I sketched in my sketchbook that night I gave up on my comic and counted how many unique images I had. It came to around 45 and were a mixture of head shots, bust shots, full body shots, panels, action scenes, and landscapes. 45 unique pictures that would be enough for one Act ( they average around 32 panels each ). If I can draw 45 pictures in one day, then in theory I could draw 8 comics pages in that time.

It was then I realized what I was doing wrong. I was thinking too much when it came to making a comic, but when I was sketching I was letting my artwork do what it does. Another thing I noticed when I was trying to draw my comic is I was trying too hard to do everything right. When I sketch, I never get things right the first time ( which is why I start with a light colored pencil. ) It isn't until I get a darker pencil the image starts to manifest itself. And if they get inked, it's finally finished to where I'm shocked I actually drew it.

In conclusion, I need my artwork to tell the story, but I also needed a path to get started. Nothing set in stone and no finished dialogue, just something to get the ball rolling. When I look back on this I realized I over-shot myself. I was pretty hard on myself for Celestial Chase, but in the end I did more good than I realized. I fixed my art style, I fixed my character creation, but I didn't know that Plot First was the method that was for me. So now I'll go into detail on how it works since a lot of the details are missing.

How it Works

Act I

In this section the Protagonist is thrown into a conflict right off the bat which is called In Media Res. All my favorite comics, mostly GI Joe, started off this way. That first conflict helps set-up Act II where the Protagonists actions in Act I set up a new problem/conflict that won't be resolved until Act III. The Climax in Act I can be a different problem. Or another way to go at it is to have it cascade into a bigger problem in Act II which leaves Act III as a bigger climax.

Why two Climax's?

Short answer, to keep the artist in me interested in the story. That script I wrote, it was 16 pages, but it had 1 climax and even that had 2 pages of action, the rest was all standing around and talkig. Action isn't necessary fight scenes. To me Action is when the Protagonist confronts the conflict of the story. It can be anything. For fun I made a short list of possible actions that can take place in the Climax.

  • Cat and Mouse/ Dangerous Game
  • Sex Scenes
  • Fight/Confrontation at a location ( for fun have it be a location introduced earlier in the story )
  • Debate
  • Chase
  • Confrontation of Fear
  • Confession of Love
  • Humiliation
  • Race for a Cure
  • Planting a Bomb
  • Breaking an Entry ( Solid Snake Style )
  • Stop a Confrontation
  • Race to the Finish
  • Escape
  • Public Execution
  • Trial
All of these examples are just a tip of whats possible for a Climax and will work with any genre. With 2 Climax's one could mix and match them. Climax I could be a Race for a Cure, while Climax II could be a Trial. Another reason for 2 Climax's is because the Acts are 8 pages each. In theory each Act could be it's own self contained story. The Climax in Act I is actually a catalyst for Act II and III. And if the author continues the comic book the Climax in Act III will be the catalyst for Act I in the next issue. Thus continuing the cycle of situations the Protagonist will be put through.

Act II

This section will be tricky, but by keeping it at 8 pages this should be enough for the author/artist to avoid Sagging Middles, the death for any story no matter how good it is. Act II is where the reader will learn more about the Protagonist. By having Act I as In Media Res the reader will already be invested in the story to see what happens next. Act II is where the author/artist go into details of their personal life, career, habits, or the setting. All while building up for the Climax in Act III.

This doesn't mean Act II has to be nothing but conversations. The Solutions that lead the Protagonist to Act III's Climax can also be auctioned packed. It's up to the author/artist if they want to bore the reader with walls of text or show through images of what the Protagonist does to get to the final Climax. Once all Solutions are met, the final Act comes into play.


This is where the story finishes, or it could be left open for another issue. I deliberately left Act III conservative with a 4 page Climax because this was the process I used for my new story. However the Climax in Act III can occupy the entire Act. The Solution in Act III can also be cut and added to Ending if one page isn't enough. This Act is meant for the artist in the author. This is where they truly let go and flood the pages with panels that pop without restrictions of preset dialogue.

The Introductions and Endings of Each Act

Again, each Act should be considered as a stand alone 8 page comic book. The only thing linking the 3 is the Protagonist and the cascade of situations that spill into each consecutive Act. For that I added the Introductions and Endings to keep with the tradition of a normal story. They can be used for scene transitions, changes in settings, mini-cliffhangers, or even be removed to make room for other scenes. In fact the 8 pages for each Act can be moved around as one sees fit, but for reference they're divided up that way to give the author/artist a starting point.

Nothing in that layout is set stone, but for me I need those Intro's and Endings to act as buffers so I can prepare for the next Act. What I'm doing is tricking myself into thinking I'm making 8 page comic books. Each Act is roughly around 32 panels. Earlier I mentioned how I drew about 45 images in one day. If I had something to draw about it could have been 8 pages of comic book. In other words, I'm attempting to play mind games with myself. Tricking myself into thinking I'm sketching, when really I'm drawing a comic.

That 4 page comic I did last spring was done in one day. And it was done in a method of drawing I no longer use. If I had taken my time, or done it now I still could have done it in a day, but it would have been more polished.


Overall the whole goal of this was to really sit down and see what I do right, and what I do wrong. I can't follow a traditional script, despite the fact I like writing them. I can't stand static panel, I have more fun when people are doing something. I like being challenged in both poses and composition.

I use to think it was laziness, but a lazy person doesn't give up on a comic then immediately draw what could have been 8 pages while they try to figure out whats wrong. So where do I stand today? Well I'm plotting out possible stories. In fact knowing I don't have to write any dialogue has flooded my head with all sorts of ideas. Will they be good? I'll leave that up to other people to decide.

All I know is I'm at that point where my standards are too high and that's probably the last issue I have to deal with. Every time I'm on the internet I'm amazed how people crank out material while I'm stuck in sketchbook land. But I don't consider that lost time. I had to have my art to my liking. And now I need the stories there as well.

In fact looking over that layout I made, any future projects I do following that might not be good. But that's the trick. It's up to the reader on whether or not it's good. All I can do as an author/artist is do what works for me and let the audience decide.

Personally I hate people who masturbate to their own stuff ( YOU KNOW WHO ) Artist and Writers who love to brag about what they consider their best work, despite the fact it's full of inconsistency's, Mary-Sue's, and unrealistic outcomes.

As for me, I hate everything I make. It drives me to improve. I hate Celestial Chase and every failed Tokyo Pop entry I made in the past. But they HAD to be made so I could learn from them. In Celestial Chase I thought I did more things wrong than I did right. 6 months later I realized I was looking mostly at the artwork. Yes it was horrible, it made me change styles. I also hated how I wrote it, but now I see that's how I have to write. And the character designs, well I'm amazed I actually finished that thing.

That's the key there. I finished it where as with all my character designs, a full script, and new style I couldn't even get started on my new project. Celestial Chase and every comic I made before then might have terrible, but they had the building blocks of the artist I was meant to be.

It's my duty to put that into practice and watch myself closely so I don't revert to those past mistakes and really make something I'm proud off. It's something to look forward too, and worth living another day.