We’ve been discussing various elements of story construction such as the world, the plot, the premise and the characters. Now we get down to the nitty gritty.
Act Structure is the most classic form of story construction. It’s a system that has worked incredibly well for thousands of years. I’m going to give you the basics so you can apply these principals you see fit.
Most of us are familiar with the structure known as the three act play. In a nutshell, the three act structure is: The Beginning, the Middle, and the End of the story.
In comic books, this structure has become rare as writers tend to leave their audiences hanging with unresolved climaxes at the end of every issue. Most comics are serialized fiction after all. But there is a right way and a wrong way to handle cliffhangers.
For now let’s deal with the acts.
WHAT IS AN ACT?
Acts are blocks of scenes in a story, separated by act climaxes (“Turning Points”). A comics story is built up from this form: Panel>Scene>Sequence>Acts>Story. Every other medium employs the same form except for the panels. Panels are unique to comics.
The act serves to show a major change taking place in the story. It’s composed of sequences which build to that change, which is the turning point. The sequences are composed of scenes and the scenes are made up of the individual story panels.
The act serves to create a sense of closure for one part of the story. The audience can’t take everything at the same level of energy. We control the energy of the story through these compartmental devices. An act is the sum total of all its parts and it propels us into the next act until the climax and resolution.
Despite what many people think, the three act structure is not the most effective way to tell a story. Shakespeare preferred to do his plays in five acts. A story can be told in one act or seven depending on the objectives of the plot. Acts build the story’s emotional charge. If it takes more than three acts to build up the proper charge, then so be it.
Let’s focus on one and two act stories for a second. These kinds of stories are by nature, brief. The longer the story, the more complexity and reversals are needed, and thus more acts.
One act stories are usually very short. They have the “twist” or “surprise” ending. These stories are created in service of the ending. Everything leads up to a big surprise. The old E.C. Comics stories were written using this principle. Bill Gaines would come up with some twist ending idea and bounce it off his collaborator Al Feldstien. They would often write the story backwards from the ending. This is not a bad idea, actually, and it worked well for them. The ending is one of the most important components of a story. But we’ll deal with that later. One act stories are pretty much reserved for short fiction because you don’t want to take too long getting to the punchline. The comic gag strip, such as “Garfield”, uses the one act story structure. The structure of a three panel strip is: Setup, Beat, Punchline. The beat being a pause of some kind before you hit them with the joke.
Two Act stories are often used in half hour TV sitcoms. The first act takes place before the commercial break in the middle. Its purpose is to get the characters into trouble. The second act gets them out again. Hopefully, the climax of the second act will have a slam bang ending with a nice twist. This format isn’t bad for one issue comic book stories. Especially if they’re simple action plots. But the three act structure is probably best.
THREE ACT STRUCTURE
This is the most widely used structure, mainly because it’s the most simple. It’s also the minimum number of acts needed to take the hero through all four of the story values. One and two act stories are mainly gimmick stories aimed at reaching a simple conclusion rather than exploring the depths of a character or their experience. With the three act structure, we can really begin to get down and dirty.
Act one serves to introduce the main characters, define their motivations, show us the Trigger Event, and get the story in motion for the second act. It’s basically an introduction to the story. But it needs to grab our attention and not let us go. It’s usually not that big a section of the over all story. And it ends with a plot twist that turns the story in the direction of the conflict.
Act two is the section where progressive complications threaten to defeat the hero. The villain gains his ascendancy in this act and is winning by the end of it. This is largest act in terms of size. It’s where most of the action takes place, where most of the character development occurs. You need to pace this section well and build it carefully for the big twist that throws us headlong into the climax.
Act three is the climax and resolution of the story. It is the smallest act in size and for good reason. Like its namesake, the climax doesn’t take long, but boy is it powerful! We couldn’t take too much of the climax at once. It would destroy it’s power. Energy in a story is a critical thing to control and the climax is an explosion of all the pent up energy we’ve been building. It’s where the forces of the conflict are at their peak. It’s here where the winner is determined and the outcome is revealed. The resolution is going to have to be short, because a long resolution makes for a dragged out ending. I’m sure you’ve seen them before and know what they feel like. So the third act is where we finish the story with our final body blow to the audience, and then we wrap it up nice and sweet so they don’t lose that warm, glowing feeling the climax gave them.
CONSTRUCTING THE ACTS
Now that we have a rough idea what acts are and what purpose they serve, let’s talk about how we put them together.
Every act is composed of sequences. Sequences exist to create the Turning Point/Act Climax. They tell the story of how the Turning Point/Act Climax came about. Every sequence builds energy to create a lesser turning point which throws us into the following sequence. The last sequence in an act ends with a major turning point.
Sequences are composed of scenes. Scenes are events that, when placed together, form the story of the sequence. Scenes end with mini-turning points that are smaller that the ones that end a sequence. Except for the last scene in the last sequence. These turning points can be as subtle as a change of expression on a person’s face, or as powerful as a planet exploding. It all depends on where they are in the sequence.
In comics, panels are used to create the scenes. It’s possible to do a scene in one panel, but generally, a scene is made up of two or more panels. Each panel is a static image showing a snapshot of action taking place. There will be dialog, narration, and possibly sound effects to make this static image come alive in some way. But these devices are not always needed. Panels are the only element of the act structure that does not end with a turning point. Not unless they are the last panel in a scene.
So…how do we construct an act? We start from the first image in panel one. Many people like to start with the “Splash Page”, a single panel page that has a dynamic image to rouse our interest. This first image sets the mood for the story right off the bat.
You can set the mood of the story with the first scene and take it from there. Once you establish the mood, you have to work within its confines. Changing the mood of story once it’s been set can be a difficult and dangerous thing to do. I’m sure you’ve read books or seen films where it was unclear whether it was a comedy or a drama. This is because they set one mood, then changed it, then changed it again.
It’s important to either keep the mood consistent, or build toward a change in mood at the act climax. Don’t try to make a major mood change mid act or you will make it difficult for the audience to decide how to feel about the story.
Before we go further it’s important to understand the concept of polarity. Every action has a polarity in story terms. Positive or negative. Non action is neutral. But as we discussed before, neutral does nothing, so it must be used sparingly.
We either start a scene with a positive or negative panel. Positive means things are going well for someone (pleasure), negative means things are going bad (pain). If it isn’t clear what’s happening then it’s neutral until we know better.
Every scene starts either positive or negative. And whatever the polarity of the beginning, the end should have reverse polarity. Otherwise the scene exhibited no change. Nothing happened. Everything evened out.
It’s possible to switch from neutral to negative or positive. In the case of an opening scene, maybe we started with an establishing shot of a house. There’s nothing positive or negative about a shot like that unless you show a missile coming down on the house, or show a party going on in the front yard with people having a good time. Failing that, the shot is neutral. Starting neutral means an undynamic opening. It’s your choice.
Polarity allows you to build the story energy, leading up to the Turning Point. Just as every scene starts with a certain polarity and ends with the opposite polarity, so should the sequence and so should the act. This gives the audience a feeling that things are happening. Tensions are building.
When you start positive and end negative, that shows change in the status quo, from good to bad. Reverse the polarity at the beginning and ending of a scene and you have a scene change from bad to good. You can go from negative to negative or positive to positive, but it should be a huge jump in polarity intensity so we feel something happened.
The level of intensity is determined by how strong the charge is. A weak negative charge is a customer saying “No thanks” to a waiter offering dessert. A strong negative charge would be him shooting the waiter between the eyes. A weak positive charge would be the customer saying “Okay, what’s your pies today?” A strong positive would be the customer giving the waiter a million dollar tip. .
Audiences need to feel an ebb and flow. A steady stream of positive or negative is wearing. Too much positive is boring. Too much negative is a downer. Too much neutral puts you to sleep. You need to alternate the polarities of your scenes, as well as the strength of the charge. So you might start with mild charges and slowly build toward your climax. Or you might start medium and then lower the charges from there and then build them up again as you go along. You should have lower charged scenes every now and then between high voltage scenes to keep the energy from being too wearing on the reader. Some people call these “quiet moments”, and they serve a good purpose when used properly.
It’s also important to note that the next scene, sequence, or act, should begin with a different polarity than the previous one ended. If you go from negative to negative, the audience starts feeling depressed. If you go from positive to positive it’s not interesting. Too many negatives or positives in a row and the energy level starts to drop in the audience’s mind. The charges should go the way you want them to go. It’s okay to link charges if we’re building toward an act climax. Then you can go from bad to worse, from good to great, spending on your goal. But save that kind energy flow for last.
Neutral charges can be like throwing a bucket of cold water on a horny person. It can take all the fun out of things. So beware of neutral charges. Use them only when you want to deal with irony or are starting a story. They can be used to bridge scenes with extreme polarities, if you want to create quiet moments, but again, think carefully when using them.
Because we’re dealing with a visual medium, we have a lot of choice in how we present data to the audience’s eye. Text can add the charge, but one has to be careful using copy without a supporting image. Copy requires you to take the time to read it. An image can tell you something instantly. If you’re relying on copy, make sure it’s short and sweet.
REMEMBER: Start positive, end negative, or visa-versa
ACT STRUCTURE IN SERIALIZED FICTION
This is a very difficult thing to pull off well, but it’s also extremely important to understand if you have to do it.
Just as each story needs to build toward a climax, so does each act. And a serialized comic story in multiple parts can be viewed from this same perspective. Each issue should have a structure, building toward a crisis or climax. At the end of the story is a turning point which throws the momentum of that issue toward the next. This should be done in a compelling enough manner to make us want to read the next one. Make us want it BAD!
The concept of story polarity becomes extremely useful when we deal with serialized fiction. We need to start positive, end negative or visa versa, and with a vengeance! The end of each story must make us really want more. To do that you have to show a build in story energy toward that climax.
The ebb and flow between the Hero and the Villain should become more and more frenzied in each issue. The first issue’s tensions build toward a climax that’s level 2 in strength. The next issue needs to build to level 3. The following issue needs to build even higher until it can’t go any further. Then, that’s when you end it.
But the audience doesn’t want story arcs longer than five or six issues anymore. It’s really hard to sustain their interest that long. Even then, you’re pushing it. Long, drawn out epics will earn you a plethora of ill will if you aren’t careful. And then it’s hard to woo the readers back to the book.
Keep those story arcs short and sweet. Three issues is plenty in most cases. It’s hard to sustain story energy over too many acts. You start to experience diminishing returns. The audience has a hard time remembering plot details from month to month. You can’t expect them to do that. Especially if they read a lot of titles.
Your set ups shouldn’t be paid off three issues later. People are confused easily these days. The Audience has developed a taste for instant gratification, so you have to get to the point. Therefore, it’s advisable to make your stories tight. Get those points across quickly and succinctly and build toward a story climax soon.
Personally, I think the industry should return to a standard of one issue stories, with multi-part stories being reserved for truly important epics. It becomes far too easy for writers to pad out their plots over multiple issues while they try to figure out what the next story arc is going to be. Single issue stories tend to be a lot more satisfying for the readers. They get a complete package for the price of their comic. They get a fix on who each character is and what they’re about. When you come into the middle of some multi-part epic, it’s really confusing. All those brain addled books of the early to mid-90s have done a lot to drive our audience away. We need to win them back.
With the price of comics being what they are these days, it’s suicide to expect people to fork out the money for a multi-part story unless it’s one of the coolest things they’ve read in a long while. Single issue stories are more satisfying. They tend to be what sells a new reader on a book. Alan Moore established himself well on SWAMP THING with “Anatomy Lessons” and other one issue tales. Grant Morrison sold new readers on ANIMAL MAN with one issue stories like “Coyote Gospel” and “Death of the Red Mask”. Neil Gaiman probably sold more readers with his one issue stories in SANDMAN because, again, they are complete reads for the price of a single comic. Nothing shows the merit of a writer’s talent better than a single issue story. To date, my most financially successful comics were LEX LUTHOR: THE UNAUTHORIZED BIOGRAPHY and HARDCASE #1…both single issue stories.
Also, when you have to pay more money to read the rest of a story it seems like a rip off. Especially when the story wasn’t that great to begin with. The industry has expected people to just keep buying these half-assed titles and readers have been voting with their pocketbooks. They’re voting NO!
The Audience wants a pay off. They want consequences in their stories, not just fight scenes they’ve seen a million times already. They aren’t shelling out two bucks or more for nothing. If nothing is what they get, nothing is what your readership is going to be. Sooner than you think.
It’s a rare story that can sustain readership over a long haul. WATCHMEN did it, but it was also a limited series. The readers knew they would only have to buy 12 issues to get the whole story. And it kept most of them interested enough to keep reading.
The two or three issue arc is the safest bet for most continued stories. If you really need more than three issues, you’d better make it worth the while of the Audience. There must be truly original surprises and pay offs in each issue. There must be a sense of great momentum. Failure to achieve that will result in huge drop offs in readership.
When you continue a story, make sure the turning point at the end is a major surprise. The villain standing over the apparently dead or unconscious form of the hero is not a surprising ending. It’s an ending that has been flogged to death since the 1970s. Nowadays, you need a turning point that has major implications for the character. It raises an urgent question in the mind of the reader: “Oh, god! How the hell are they going to straighten THIS out!?”
The old, Villain standing over the unconscious Hero scene does not raise that question. Because everyone thinks: “Oh, he’s just going to wake up, the villain is going to spill his plans, and then the hero will beat him.” They’ve seen it a zillion times already. Even if you plan a different scene in the next issue, it doesn’t matter. The audience has already decided what will happen and thirty days later they may not be interested in buying your story to continue.
You must give them a real reason to come back. It must be so compelling they are quaking like junkies experiencing withdrawal until that next issue comes out. This can be done with a major reversal using story values, a subject we delve into shortly.
And if you can’t pull off a great cliffhanger, write a one issue story, dammit!
REMEMBER: Keep those story arcs short and sweet. One issue stories are best.
Every picture isn’t worth a thousand words. I can describe a panel in five. But regardless, these are extremely important components of your story. They are the beats in a scene.
Comics are like visual songs. The text is the lyrics. The art is the music. You need to think of it that way when you write. Each panel is going to make the scene go up or down. They are the notes that you hear in the visual song.
Think about the images you choose to present. These images have to have weight and power. They have to be interesting and informative. And they have to provide some kind of insight to the characters. If someone is merely talking, choose their facial expressions and body language carefully. Make sure you aren’t wasting time with boring shots.
Of course, if you’re only writing the script, you’re dependent on the artist and he may choose to ignore your descriptions, but you can’t worry about that. Do what you think is right. You can always argue with the artist later if they draw something different.
Your job is to create feeling with every shot. Emotion is short. It only serves to make feeling specific. An audience cannot sustain emotions for long while reading a story. Mood is no substitute for emotion so don’t hold back those gut punches when you need them. Save those intense panels for your turning points and climaxes.
There will be times you introduce a location or a character. In those shots make sure we get a good look at all the relevant things we need to see. Establish them well. Clarity is the most important thing. The less there is in a panel to distract us, the easier it is for us to read what’s there. Figure out what needs to be there and stick to that.
The panel is a two dimensional image, but we can create the illusion of space by working in three levels: Foreground, middle-ground, and background. The foreground is that which is closest to us, the reader. The back ground is the farthest from us and the objects in the foreground. It’s sometimes good to use the foreground for items we want the reader’s attention drawn to. The background becomes a place for action to take place. The middle ground is anything that happens in between
It’s an extremely bad idea to have multiple actions taking place in a panel, unless you want two levels of story telling to occur at the same time. But people tend to be confused when too much is happening in a panel. You can use the foreground to focus on actions dealing with the main characters in these scenes, and the background for things they are either unaware of or actions drawing their attention.
Example: (Couple in Diner)
The couple in the foreground get our attention, because they are closer to us. We can read their dialog. The changing scene in the background with the big man drawing closer gets our attention next. We know he’s coming toward the couple before they do. This makes for a suspenseful sequence.
Some writers make the mistake of trying to show multiple actions in a panel to advance their story faster. They’ll have character A punching character B in the foreground, while character C shoots character D in the background and character F is in the middle ground talking about how important it is to understand other people’s feelings while character G accompanies him on the violin.
This is ill advised because the panel becomes cluttered with all those figures, and it does a disservice to the action. Action reads better when each shot is clear and simple. Too many distractions slows down the pace of the scene. When you want to slow down the reading time, complexity does the trick. So does a lot of copy. But in the case of action, you want it to be clear and simple because that’s more exciting.
When you write a panel it’s a good idea to tell the artist only what they need to know in a clear and concise manner. Too many words describing a scene, or too many objects to be drawn, will turn the artist off. You want them to be inspired, so make their job easy and give them room to be creative. Never demand things from the artist, always be polite and ask. If something needs to be in that shot, make it clear to them that it’s important. But cut to the chase and avoid boring them. You want them to find the story exciting when they read it the first time.
When you have scenes with lots of characters, keep the number of characters in a panel to a bare minimum. That is, unless you’re requesting an establishing shot of a group. In that case, give them a big panel or a page to do it in. People’s bodies take up a lot of room in a panel. Dialog usually has to go in there, so you’re going to need all the space you can get.
Crowd scenes are something artists really hate to draw. If you must have a crowd scene, or show an army approaching, don’t be surprised if they cheat and use some trick to avoid drawing all those figures. Don’t ask for a crowd scene unless you really need it.
It’s also a good idea to request no more than five or six panels to a page, maximum. The more room the artist has, the more freedom they have to draw things into the shot. They don’t like doing seven or eight panel pages if they can help it.
An exception to this rule is pages with a lot of talking head shots. Those don’t require so much work. But you still need room for copy. Always be aware of the need for copy.
When two characters are talking to each other in the same panel, the character who speaks first needs to be on the left side. We read from left to right, so the first balloon has to be on the left, over the first character. A lot of artists, even experienced ones, either don’t know this rule or forget to do it. Make sure it’s pointed out to them if you switch the speakers.
For example, let’s say in panel one you have Joe Blow talking to John Q. Public. Joe speaks first, then John Q replies. The next panel is a close up of Joe’s face as he says something. Then panel three has John Q speaking to Joe. We went from a panel where Joe Blow was the first speaker to a panel where John Q. Public talks first. A lot of artists will draw panel three exactly like panel one, with some minor variations. They’ll forget the rule that the character who speaks first must stand on the left. So don’t forget to remind them.
If only one person is speaking in a panel, then it doesn’t matter. But if two people are talking, this is a rule to remember.
Panels come in all shapes and sizes. There are three basic shapes. The “box”, which is generally square. The “flapjack”, which is a long, shallow rectangle. The “silo” which is a vertical flapjack that runs up the side of the page from top to bottom.
The silo is great for introducing a character because you can easily get a full figure shot of them. When characters are introduced, it’s important that we clearly see what they look like so we’ll know them in later panels. The flapjack is mainly used to show head and shoulder shots of people talking. Or to show a panorama view of a scene. It’s also good for POV shots. Everything else is generally well serviced by the box.
Odd shaped panels like circle and triangle shapes are design elements that an artist is best equipped to deal with. In general, they are not a good idea, simply because your goal is to tell a clear and concise story. When panels are misshapen it’s often difficult to determine which one you’re supposed to read first.
The same rule applies to panels that cross pages. These go from one page to the next and are hard to follow. People are used to reading all the panels on a page before looking at the next page. If you cross pages with panels, they have to consciously make the adjustment. And then go back to “normal” reading when they get past this section. That is very distracting, and distraction is something to avoid. It’s better not to do them. I’ve never seen it done in a way that wouldn’t have worked better if they stayed on their own page.
Double page spreads are panels that take up two whole pages. These should be reserved for highly critical shots that involve complexity or serious emotional impact. They should not go to prosaic scenes or incidents that could have been handled in a splash page or less. The audience views these things as filler when they’re wasted on unimportant shots. When they think you’re adding filler, they start thinking the story is junk.
When describing the panel to the artist, it’s a good idea to keep your panel descriptions clean and concise. Tell them exactly what they need to know, but don’t go into excessive detail. There are some writers famous for the detail they put into a panel, but they usually have something to say that’s relevant. Personally, I don’t think it’s a good idea to distract the artist with too many things. When they draw the page they need to look at your panel description and be able to get the gist of it quickly. If there are too many words, they may forget some element you described and will forget to draw it.
You also don’t want to burden them with too many details, because your job is to inspire them not to order them. You are giving the artist the information they need to translate a cut of time into an illustration. You want them to be interested and excited. You want them to show a love for every line and texture. Because we’re dealing with a medium where art is a major selling point. The art has to not only tell the story, it has to sell the book.
REMEMBER: Make every shot count and make them clear.
Now that we understand polarity, we can talk about scenes. Scenes are the smallest component of the story, after panels. They are like miniature stories within the story. And they should follow the same basic formula of story structure. A>B