Well, contrary to my earlier fears, people seemed interested in my long-winded ramblings about the creative process (or possibly there is nothing good on TV today!) And indeed, I got an e-mail asking for further clarification on my plotting technique, and comparing it to the writer’s own experiences in writing classes. And I figured, what the heck, I’ll talk about it s’more, and hopefully the writer of said letter won’t mind me usin’ that as a springboard!
You spoke of the problem of ‘plot paralysis’. I took writing and script writing classes in college and the main thing they beat us over the head with is that before you begin writing a story you need to know how it ends. In other words, you need to “flesh-out” your story before you write it, per se. In your approach, you are saying that you kinda know where you are going, but mostly you are making it up step by step as you go along.
On one hand, if you write the full skeleton of the story before you actually write the full story, you can get bored, but on the other hand, if you don’t really know where things are going you could just wander aimlessly and find yourself unable to wrap it up satisfactorily. Can you elaborate more on this and you work your method?
Well, that’s a damn good question, or set of questions, or observation, or–anyway, it’s good. My experiences with Freshman Writing (about the only formal writing classes I ever took) had nothing to do with plot and a lot to do with voice and with re-reading “The Things They Carried” and writing truly excreable poetry, but to be fair, I was a snot-nosed little brat who just wanted to write bad fantasy, and probably did not take as much from that class as I should’ve. (Thank god I didn’t know that fan fiction was an option, or it woulda been ugly.) But I can see why someone would give that advice about plotting in advance. It is sensible, and there are many people it could work for.
However, I am by nature something of a meanderer. And I have that luxury, with a webcomic, (provided I don’t get too absurd or self-referential or whatever,) which has in some ways, a great advantage over many another media, which is perhaps unique–I can afford to write it one page at a time. Even over print comics, it has that advantage–I don’t have to script out a 28-page-exactly script that says everything I need to say for that month, and ends at either a cliffhanger or a resolution. If I decide that the hyena needs an extra page to talk about his name, I’ve got it. And the flip side to this, of course, is the one I mentioned in the last post–you are uniquely committed when you put up a page at a time. If I am writing a 28-page-an-issue comic, and I realize that Character Z needs to drop some exposition on page 10, I can go back to page 10, and wham, it’s there, as if it had always been. If I’m writing a web comic, I cringe a bit and then find a way to work it in on the current page as gracefully as possible, ‘cos you can’t say “Look, guys, I screwed up–go back and re-read page ten, I uploaded a new version.”
And, of course, it’s only my ass on the line if I fail, so there’s a lot to be said about THAT, too.
In my case, at least, there’s basically two pit traps. One of ’em is plot paralysis, as already mentioned, when you’ve gone over it so much that you’re bored with it, you overwork it, the thrill has faded etc. The other is pretty much the X-Files effect, when you suddenly realize that it’s the fifth season, and you are so completely boned. You can, indeed, wander aimlessly, and not know where you’re going, or worse yet, find yourself painted into a corner.
However, ’tis better to have painted into a corner, than not to paint at all. Given the choice between the two, I know which way I’d jump. And one of the methods I use for avoiding corners is the breadcrumb one that we already covered. It’s worked so far. It worked for me with the dreams and the dustbunnies, and I had no idea where that was going. But it can be kinda scary. There’s an element of self-confidence required to simply fling oneself into the abyss and hope you left a rope strong enough to catch yourself, particularly when you don’t know which of ten potential ropes it might be, ANDyou’ve got a bunch of people watching you do so, and comparing you to one of the thousands of other abyss-jumpers in that particular abyss, and grading you on style and accuracy.
Fortunately, I have the stupid self-confidence of the mostly untried, so I keep goin’ with it. And I can do this in this case, because I’m the only one at the end of the rope. Try that with some other media, of course, and it’s you and a bunch of other people on the rope, and you can’t blame them for wanting a schematic of the rope, even if by the time you provide the damn schematic you’re so bloody sick of ropes in general that you no longer want to jump, you wanna go into pottery or something.
However, I have a feeling this may be giving the wrong impression of how I write. By the third page of “Digger,” I knew something, and by the fifth page, I knew I was wrong, but nevertheless, I had an idea, however vague. Had I tried to write out Digger’s story at the third page, on the strength of that idea, it’d be a very different one, probably involving the liberation of wombat slaves from an underground mine or something. And that story might have worked, but it wasn’t the story I ended up finding by page sixteen, when things started falling into place. But did I have even the vaguest clue of the ending when I first drew page one? Hell, no, unless you count “I suppose she probably gets home at some point.” Heck, I didn’t know she’d come up in a temple to Ganesh until about an hour before I drew it.
So hell, let’s take this out of wandering abstraction and get specific for a minute. I look at my outline, and find the following analysis: 3-C–Ganesh hints at Bad Things and orders the tunnel blocked up, but is curiously reticent about explaining what exactly he suspects is going on. (I picked this one because it doesn’t give away much of the future plot.) That’s a whole subchapter right there. I have no idea what he says, or how he says it, I don’t know anything about how I’ll lay out the pages, beyond Ganesh and Digger, I don’t know who will be in the room, I don’t know how Digger will take this news, or whether the hole can be closed with a big rock or if it requires the sacrifice of a virgin goat at high noon. I don’t know if Digger yells at him for being reticent, or stalks off in wombatty silence, or if she even notices. And it’s good that I don’t know, because this is pages and pages and months and months in the future, and if I keep running it through in my brain–plot paralysis, here we come.
But I do know, in a one sentence summary, what happens. However, would I know that if I hadn’t had to write an outline for this proposal to Graphic Smash? Probably not. Wouldn’t have written it down, anyway. And in other places, I genuinely don’t know what happens–there’s a chapter titled “Bad Things Go Down” with the heading “And there they go…” and which says simply “Bad things go down elsewhere, I don’t know what yet.” And that could be a fire that needs fighting that takes three pages, or it could be a political assassination a hundred miles away that requires two years. I have no idea, not even a remote shred of an idea. I am idea-less. But I’m stupidly confident that by the time I get there, it’ll be self-evident what goes down. The outline tends to alternate between these–the ones where I have an idea of what happens, and the ones where I just know that something happens, and have no idea what.
There are definite advantages to plotting carefully in advance. And there are definite advantages to just leaping into the abyss and hoping the rope holds. I think it probably depends on whether boredom outweighs terror for you–I can work with the fear that I can’t pull it off, but tedium just kills me. So you chart the road between paralysis and the painted corner as best you can.
Whew! Two in a row…