Writing Topics 07 from Denny O Neil Class on Comic Books at NYU

There are 12 posts here

9 are Denny’s Notes, which were posted to Bleeding Cool at the time

1 is my 3 springboard topics I submitted to Denny at the time.

2 refer to one of the 10 books Denny gave on his reference list, a book written by Sarah Beach


How To Write Comics And Graphic Novels by Dennis O’Neil #1 – First Class


Dennis O’Neil has a long history in the comics industry as both a writer and editor. He’s best known for writing Green Lantern/Green Arrow and Batman, through the seventies, Spider-Man in the eighties and for editing Batman-related titles in the nineties. A widely published novelist and screenwriter, he is currently lecturing at the NYU on Writing Comics And Graphic Novels, starting today.

I’ve been teaching classes on how to write comics for about 20 years now, ever since Howard Cruse asked me to take over his class at Manhattan’s School of Visual Arts. (These days, I work at New York University) With all that experience on my resume, I can state that I cannot teach anyone how to write comics.

Writing is self-taught. You acquire the skill by applying the seat of your pants to a flat object and moving a stylus across paper or tapping a keyboard, and you continue to do that until someone begins paying you to do it, and then you spend the rest of your life teaching yourself how to do what you’re doing.

It is a lonely life – you can get help before and after, but not during – and if the notion of closing a door behind you and manipulating verbal and visual language for many hours every week is abhorrent to you, then perhaps you would be happy applying your skill and intelligence and enthusiasm elsewhere.

There’s an old witticism: Writing is easy. All you have to do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until you begin to sweat blood. I’ve never found it to be that grim; if I had, I would have probably stopped doing it years ago. On the contrary: at times, it has been the best thing in my life.

I won’t teach you to write comics, and I doubt that anyone else will, either.

What I can do is give you information – tell you what has often worked for other writers, in and out of comics, alert you to mistakes that beginners often make, acquaint you with certain realities, point you in directions that you may find useful.

what are comics. For an unimpeachable answer, consult the works of Scott McCloud. For a quick-and-dirty definition, I offer a slight variant of something Stephen King said: comics are a story delivery system.

And my own definition: Comics are a language in which image and word cooperate to convey information and story.

Both Mr. King and I mentioned that comics are about story and so, we ask, what is a story? Here is a definition that has been my staunch companion for all of those 20 years. Ready?

A story is a structured narrative designed to achieve an emotional effect, demonstrate a proposition or reveal character.

Now add:

It must have conflict and there must be something at stake.

Action should rise and culminate in most powerful moment.

Everything should be presented with maximum clarity.

Every element of the strip – writing, art, coloring, lettering – should be aimed at achieving all of the above.


How To Write Comics And Graphic Novels by Dennis O’Neil #2 – Recommended Reading

Let’s begin with a reading list.

  1. Screenplay – Syd Field.
  2. Adventures in the Screen Trade – William Goldman.
  3. Hitchcock- Truffaut
  4. Save the Cat – Blake Snyder
  5. Comics and Sequential Art – Will Eisner
  6. Graphic Storytelling – Eisner
  7. Understanding Comics – Scott McCloud
  8. Writing for Comics with Peter David – Peter David
  9. The Writer’s Journey – Christopher Vogler
  10. Scribbler’s Guide to Myth – Sarah Beach

The list is not definitive – far from it. But the works cited above might be useful for someone trying to grasp what writing for visual media is all about.

Last week, we had a pleasant surprise, a visit from Larry Tye, who’s writing a book about Superman for Random House. He asked me questions, the students joined in, and the semester was off to a serendipitous start. But, alas, this week we’re back to business-as-usual, which means the innocents who show up Wednesday night will have to listen to my blather for an excruciating two hours-plus. Let us remember the Buddha’s first noble truth: Life sucks!

Those of you who were with us last week, both at NYU and here at our cozy website, will recall that we offered a definition of the word “story.” At the risk of boring you with repetition…

A story is a structured narrative designed to achieve an emotional effect, demonstrate a proposition or reveal character.

Now add:

It must have conflict and there must be something at stake.

Action should rise and culminate in most powerful moment.

Everything should be presented with maximum clarity.

Every element of the strip–writing, art, coloring, lettering–should be aimed at achieving all of the above.

Now, to push the definition thing a bit further, let’s define comics: Comics are a language in which image and word cooperate to convey information and story.

Let’s look a bit harder at the comics-as-language trope.

This particular and peculiar language, like conventional languages, has different parts –radically different kinds of parts that are processed in different areas of the brain. Those parts are words and images, and they have to work together as, for example, nouns and verbs cooperate to convey meaning in a normal English sentence. So writing comics is similar to writing television and movie scripts, which are also about words and images melding to convey narrative – similar but a long way from identical. Most of the people who have worked in these diverse media would, I think, agree that writing comics might be a tad more demanding. (Writing comics scripts doesn’t pay as well as doing the equivalent work for TV, but did I say life was fair?)

Some particulars:

Comics images must be static – a comic book world is a world lit by a strobe light. (And one of the most common beginner’s mistakes is the asking for movement within a panel.)

There is an image-to-copy ratio. Stripped of poetry, this means that too many words will obscure the picture and the information it contains.

There is a limited amount of visual information that will fit on a page, and therefore a limited number of visual information any single page will accommodate.

There is a limited amount of pictorial information that will fit into any single picture – no artist is going to cram the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade into, say, a seventh of a page.

So, your task is simple: just become as fluent in comicese as you are in whatever language your parents spoke while you were growing up and you are a master comics writer. (Well, okay, half a master comics writer. A third of a master comics writer? There are other elements, such as structure and plot that you should be conversant with, too.)

Next week, we’ll have a look at O’Neil’s Industrial Strength Can’t Fail Super Homogenized structure for a single-issue superhero story and from there, we’ll proceed on to other kinds of structures.


How To Write Comics And Graphic Novels by Dennis O’Neil #3 Homogenized For Safety

Our topic today is story structure. A while ago, a teacher of screenplay writing - it may have been John Truby - said that structure carries meaning. Amen, say I, with the nitpicky adjustment that the events embodied in the structure carry meaning, if I understand Mr.Truby correctly.

In other words, it ain’t much about the talk.

Structure, apart from its meaning-toting duties, enables us to tell our tale with maximum effectiveness and in such a way that our reader/audience can become involved in and understand the action and dialogue.

What I’m about to give you is something I cobbled together decades ago because I realized that I’d probably have to be prolific and I couldn’t expect the muse to visit several times every month, fickle vixen that she is. So I sought something I could control -think about - that would enable me to write comics that, if they weren’t brilliant, were at least publishable. So here it is:

O’Neil’s Industrial Strength Can’t Fail Super Homogenized structure for a single-issue superhero story .

Hook -
Inciting incident.
Establish situation and conflict.
(Major visual action.)
Develop and complicate situation.
(Major visual action.)
Events leading to –
(Major visual action.)

That will look familiar to anyone who’s studied drama or screenwriting. What I’d done, when I slopped that together, was reinvent the wheel. It is your basic three-act structure, slightly tweaked, and familiar to dramaturges of all stripes. It is a logical way to tell a story, so I shouldn’t break my arm patting myself on the back for arriving at it.

Let’s look just a bit more closely at some elements. Kindly ask your questions in italics, please:

Why major visual action? Well, it’s a visual medium, after all, and we’re assuming we’re doing a superhero story and superheroes who don’t engage in action probably don’t have major movies made about them. (We’ll get to other kinds of stuff later.)

What do you mean by hook? For openers, not what the writer’s guide that DC Comics used to send out meant by the word. For them, it was what in the
Plot that might interest the reader - Lois discovers Clark’s secrets, for example. Here,we’re talking about an image, or, very rarely, a bit of copy on the first page that pulls the reader into the story and prompts him to turn to the second page, where your dazzling plot and scintillating dialogue will suck him into the rest of it.

What do you mean by inciting incident? The same thing Robert McKee, who introduced me to the term, means when he refers to it in his screenwriting course. It is what sets the train of events in motion - Miles Archer’s murder in The Maltese Falcon, for example. By the way, the hook can incorporate the inciting incident, but doesn’t have to.

Some of you are complaining that nobody does one-issue stories anymore. Well, that’s not completely true, and might become less true in times ahead. And we have to begin somewhere: what I’m trying to emphasize is the importance of a beginning, middle and end, and those elements remain important whether you’re filling one issue or a dozen.

Graphic novels? Okay, that is a bit of a separate topic and on a future agenda. Now, about those longer stories. The most common structure in television drama, or an increasingly common one, anyway, is what I call the uberplot structure, mostly because I don’t know its real name. It is very applicable to comics and, in fact, has been used, in a slightly different iteration, in comics. The reason is obvious: comics and serial television face the same problems, giving the hero something satisfying to do in each episode, and yet giving the series continuity - the illusion of real life and a reason for the audience to keep coming back. The solution is to give the hero some big overriding task that will take a long time to settle and smaller tasks he accomplishes in every installment. So, to take a current example: CBS’s show The Mentalist. Every week, he helps those waggish funsters in the California Bureau of Investigation solve a murder. But his real concern is finding the man who killed his wife, and his work for the CBI is a means to that end. Presumably, down he line, he will.(Let’s hope he has better luck than Adrian Monk. That poor schlump has been after his wife’s killer for eight seasons.)

Next week, more on long-form stories.

This really applies to any long-form narrative, including the novel, serial or not. A good plot isn’t just a single incitement-action-climax-anticlimax cycle, but a series of minor climaxes, with the stakes getting higher with each cycle. While this may be unfamiliar to men who have never made love to a woman (and many who have), it’s a tried-and-true method. What’s different about serials (whether novel, movie, TV, or comics) is that they have to pace heir mini-climaxes on regular intervals that match the length of each episode.


How To Write Comics And Graphic Novels by Dennis O’Neil #4 – Why Don’t You Grow A Spine?

As I mentioned last time, single-issue stories are relatively uncommon in mainstream comics these days, a situation that may or may not persist. But some of what applies to a self-contained story applies equally to one that stretches from here to yonder. Mainly: keep the plot moving and keep the action interesting. Many stories will fall naturally into three sections; hence, the three-act structure familiar to movie and theater people, a version of which I presented last week.

Now, let us agree with Robert McKee, and stipulate that in the wordsmith dodge, there are no rules, only principles. Having so stipulated, I hereby present rules for writing long-form stories. Hey, I’ve got an idea–let’s call them nonrules!

Non-rule 1: Have enough stories to fill the allotted number of pages.

Don’t pad or stretch. This requires, of course, that you have at least some notion of the tales you’re planning to tell when you type the opening sentence.

Non-rule 2: There must be a major change, development or reverse in every issue.

Don’t mark time. It is a mistake, as John Truby warns, to merely visit your characters, look in on ‘em, see what they’re having for breakfast…If the scene doesn’t move the plot or establish character, it has no business in your story. Each installment must have one turning point/surprise. In each, hero must accomplish something.

Example? Sure. Here’s a workable structure for a four-issue mini-series:

Issue 1. Hero learns of/defines problem. Encounters first opposition.

Issue 2: Hero begins to seek solution. Opposition intensifies.

Issue 3: Hero finds solution. Opposition intensifies.

Issue 4: Hero solves problem.

Nothing here that’s a Word From On High. You might want to have your protagonist find his solution in the final issue, for example. But – another note: It’s a good idea to end the issue on a reason for reader to continue buying series. Put the hero in some dire predicament, present the hero with a vexatious question…You get the idea.

Beginning with issue two, it’s desirable to provide enough exposition for the reader to understand immediate situation. Learn from television, those shows that open with something like, “Previously on Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace…” followed by a minute of enough stuff to allow newcomers some orientation. I’m not suggesting you do the TV thing exactly; some of you clever devils will figure out ways to incorporate the exposition into the narrative, maybe.

Non-rule 3: Know the ending when you begin.

This is always important and most important in this form. Here are a couple of potential dangers.

  1. When you figure out best ending, previous installments are too far along to change. This, of course, assumes that you don’t have the luxury of completing the whole series before the first issue is in print. one often didn’t.

  2. You might bore readers because material they’re reading has nothing to do with narrative spine.

Narrative spine?

I encountered this useful term in William Goldman’s excellent book, Adventures in the Screen Trade, but the definition below is my slight reworking of Goldman’s idea. (This does not mean you shouldn’t read Goldman’s book, which is both informative and highly enjoyable.)

Okay, narrative spine: the sequence of events leading to inevitable conclusion.

A final note and then I’ll get out of your hair: the “inevitable conclusion” mentioned above does not mean that there is only one ending for any given story and hence you can’t have a better idea after you’ve worked out your initial plot. You can. But a new ending must be as logical, and at least seem to be as inevitable, as the original.

Next week, springboards.


How To Write Comics And Graphic Novels by Dennis O’Neil #5 – Network King

This week, we’re lowering our foreheads and eschewing discussions of aesthetics and craft to blather a bit about selling the stuff. Writing for a large audience–doing any creative thing for a large audience–is always going to be somewhat about money, and those who have it, and convincing them that you are The Man or The Woman. (Remember: while he was painting the big ceiling, Michelangelo had to deal with Pope Julius II, not his favorite person, who owned the ceiling and probably paid for the paints.)

A quick digression: Yeah, I hate this too. I’m not good at self-promotion, small talk, networking, building a fan base… any of that. If I were a beginner today, that might be a serious problem for me. But if I were a professional, I’d have to either find a way to get it done or con someone into doing it for me.

End of digression and on to the subject of springboards. I don’t think I can do better than to quote my old friend, colleague, once and perhaps future co-teacher, Danny Fingeroth, who currently conducts a class titled How to Write Comics and Graphic Novels at The Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art in New York City. (And if you hurry, you can still register for the current sessions.) Danny?

A springboard is a short–no more than 1/4 or 1/3 of a page–summary of your story, designed to give the key story points and what the story is thematically about. It’s designed to sell your story to an editor (not a consumer), so therefore you must give away the story’s secrets and twists. You must do this as intriguingly and entertainingly–and as briefly–as possible.

This odd entity, this mini-story, is what you present to an editor when you want to convince him (her) that you are capable of delivering work that will please readers. In days of yore, and perhaps in certain instances now, a springboard wasn’t always necessary. Once the writer had established a relationship with an editor, a conversation would suffice.

And in days even further yore (yoreier?) what we’re calling a “springboard” would have been virtually indistinguishable from a plot, provided the writer was working in the method established by Stan Lee at the fledgling Marvel Comics. In this approach, the writer did a plot, which was given to a penciller, who rendered the visual narrative onto art board. The art board (later, photocopies of it) was given to the writer, who then wrote appropriate dialogue and captions and, usually, took the process a step further and drew the balloons and caption boxes onto the artwork with non-photographable le blue pencil. (Once photocopies became the norm–this will not astonish you–our writer drew balloons and boxes onto the copies using…I dunno–pointed stick dipped in mud? Whatever.)

That was then, and then is not now. I’m told that Stan’s method isn’t much used these days, and if it is, I’d bet that what’s given to the artist is a lot more than a springboard. The last time I worked like this–and remember, I’m a lazy sod not given to unnecessary labor–my plot (for a Daredevil story) exceeded a page.

When I edited Doug Moench, he’d send me plots that might run 25 pages for a 22-page story. (Doug is emphatically not a lazy sod.) We might remember that when Stan was enmeshed in creating Marvel, collaborated with guys like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, who really understood visual narrative. Maybe someone less experienced should move further along the learning curve before adopting the so-called “Marvel style.”

At the end of the day, there ain’t no right and/or wrong in these matters. There’s what works here and now, in these circumstances, and what doesn’t.

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Okay. These do the job.

My Springboards


It is World War II, when the war was going well for the Nazis. That is, except for one small location in Eastern Europe. In Berlin, A German office orders a doctor to give a soldier a serum that will force the soldier to relive his experience as the only survivor of an attack by the Resistance there. The soldier is only able to say a few words before he become hysterical. The German officer decides the situation requires his own personal attention.

Meanwhile, an American officer reviews with a young, brilliant female scientist her progress in developing a super soldier formula for the Army. Joan Wayne has succeeded in using her serum on herself, giving her the powers of the early Superman, but has made no further progress after months of experiments on soldiers. The officer tells her that she is needed in the field. After a month of special training, she is on a plane bound for Eastern Europe.

Joan parachutes many miles from the rendezvous point. It is near dawn when a werewolf attacks her. There is a savage battle and Joan wounds the werewolf severely. It is dawn and the werewolf reverts into a man. Miraculously, the wounds of the man immediately heal. He tells Joan that he is part of the Resistance. Together, they go to a nearby castle, which is headquarters. They are shocked to find the castle in ruin, as a result of a German Air strike. They go inside to see if they are any survivors. They find the a woman, pinned down by extremely heavy rubble. The two use their supernatural strength to release her. The woman tells Joan that they are all that is left of the Resistance. She reveals she is the leader of the Resistance, a countess and a vampire,


After four decades, Achilles and Athena meet. Walking towards Central Park in New York, Athena asks Achilles to perform a dangerous job for her. Athena then notices that they are being followed. They run into Central Park. They use the heavy metal lids of garbage cans and pointed tips of a fence as makeshift shields and spears. Using these, they kill the 6 agents that followed them. They agree to meet later at the Planetarium and separate.

Later at the Planetarium, Athena introduces Achilles to scientists and engineers opposed to the Organization, a secret group that has limited technology to 1960s levels. Athena and Achilles realized that they are in grave danger and talk of reuniting their old group. A member of the group gives Athena a passport of an older man. Athena morphs into the man, just like in the Odyssey. Athena will go to to Glastonbury, England and then find the Isle of Avalon and bring back Morgan le Fay, Puck and Ariel. The group will take Achilles near his destination by yacht, after that he will use his strength and endurance to row the rest of the way. After arriving at Columbia, South America, Achilles will find Lucifer Morningstar and Michael Archangel.

The two groups will then use the power of the ley lines between sacred places to get them to Externsteine, in Germany and from there go to their old headquarters at Castle Krumlov in the Czech Republic.


At dawn, the man of many names returns to the Scottish highlands, after 1700 years. It is All Hollow’s Eve as well as the day of the Tithe of Hell. Fairie and Hell, gradually coalesce with this fragile dimension.

His parents and the people of his village had feared him as a child. In his sixteenth year, looking at a pool, he saw his true self - pointed ears, horns on his head, a long tail, and cloven hooves. He left the village and joined the Roman army.

Jack found himself to be immortal and invulnerable. His strength, speed and agility were one hundred times that of Olympic athletes. He could turn invisible, cast illusions and shape shift.

He was the perfect assassin and spy. As For the identities he had assumed, look in the history books for those with mysterious backgrounds or deaths. One such individual was famous in 1888, when he had given the police in the Whitechapel area of London a merry chase. Yes, he will introduce himself as Jack, not knowing his real name.

Fairie and Hell finally stands before him. He puts the special gloves on and brings his sword of silver and iron. Fairie is beautiful as first, until he ignores the illusion of glamour of its inhabitants. He instinctually recognizes the Queen, whose form is a repulsive combination of crocodile, octopus and insect.

Fin Bheara, consort to the Queen, challenges Jack. Fin points out the seventeen year old blonde girl tied to the stake, to be sacrificed to Hell. He tells Jack that Jack was the Changeling that Fin had swapped for her at her birth.

Jack leaps toward the queen and holds the sword to her throat. “What do you want?” screams the Queen. He demands the girl and then grabs her. He runs like the wind. Soon they are outside the boundaries of both Fairie and Hell. The girl says her name was Moyna. Jack tells her, “For 25 years, you will walk with me and show me the wonders of this world and make me understand. Then I will set you free.”

The Queen blames Fin for the escape and declares that he should be the sacrifice to Hell. Fin barely escapes and vows vengeance against Jack and Moyna. Meanwhile. hunters from both Hell and Faire search for all three.

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How To Write Comics And Graphic Novels by Dennis O’Neil #6 – Whoever Knows Fear…

Every so often, I have the privilege of standing in front of some of the students of the excellent Upper Nyack Elementary School and telling tomorrow’s savants, usually first graders, about creating characters. It pleases me to be able to say, without lying, that I am telling them what I tell the people who attend my college-level classes, that one way to create characters is for the writer to ask and answer four questions.

You may or may not be as smart as a first grader, or a university student, but in any case, a little exposure to those questions probably won’t hurt you. So here they are:

*What does my character always want?

For Superman, they answer could be that he wants to honor the values he inherited from his foster parents, those loveable Kents. James Bond? A life of high adventure and sensuality and to serve her majesty. Sylvester the cat wants Tweety for dinner…

*Who or what does he love?

The answer doesn’t have to be complicated, or romantic. Superman’s truth, justice and the American way are just fine (though, these days, he might have a bit of trouble defining that last one.)

*What is he afraid of?

This is my favorite. I heard it asked and answered in a television interview with Robert Towne, who wrote what is, for my money, the best ever private eye movie, Chinatown. If you’re familiar with the movie, you might be amused to ask yourself what scares Towne’s hero, Jake Gittes (superbly portrayed by Jack Nicholson). Got it? On tenterhooks waiting for the answer? Okay, I’ll take pity on you: according to Mr. Towne, Jake is afraid of looking like a fool.

*Why does he involve himself in extreme situations?

In a series, involving continuing characters, the answer usually involves what he does, either for a living or another reason that doesn’t go away. This explains the video popularity of cops, private eyes, doctors, sometimes lawyers: their reason for getting themselves into life-and-death situations is built into who they are. It’s what they do.

In the innocent and unsophisticated days of yore, the answer for superheroes was: Because he’s the hero. I mean, he’s wearing the costume, isn’t he? And the guy in the funny suit is the superhero, unless he’s the supervillain, but let’s not go there. The genre has moved past that, though often not too far, and the costumed folk can be as motivated as Jake Gittes, or Hamlet. The “he’s-the-hero” answer might still be sufficient answer for some kinds of stories, those intended for a young audience. I think it would also work elsewhere, provided the writer is willing to labor mightily to make the narrative interesting and witty.
I wish I could tell you that answering the above questions guarantees you a successful character creation, but I’m pretty sure you don’t want me to lie. However…if you can’t answer any of the questions with regard to your latest creation, you might want to take another look at your work. If you’re still satisfied…well, as I keep insisting, there are no rules.

And, of course, having answered the questions still leaves you with just a tad of work to do before you’ve produced the next Harry Potter, such as deciding your character’s gender, occupation, nationality, name, appearance and whatever makes this person really unusual, admirable–you know…special. This last one is especially important because, as you may have heard, character is action and what traits your protagonist uses to bring about the solution to his problems, and hence complete your plot, are usually what makes him/her interesting and worth paying attention to in the first place. The Fantastic Four’s Thing might solve a crime by bashing someone while Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot might solve the same crime by mentation–employing those “little gray cells” he was so fond of.

We’ll return to character-building next time.

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How To Write Comics And Graphic Novels by Dennis O?Neil #7 ? A Beached Hero

If we were breathing the same air–if you were sitting in front of me during one of my New York University classes and the subject under discussion was the characterization of heroes, I might blather on about Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs and Campbell’s Hero’s Journey Outline and Vogler’s adaptation of Campbell?s work. Instead of burning off column inches by going into all that, I will save myself a lot of keyboarding and simply recommend a book:

The Scribbler’s Guide to The Land of Myth, by Sarah Beach, which contains all the information mentioned above and much, much more. (Full disclosure: Ms… Beach was kind enough to dedicate the book to me, and I thank her for that.)

Just so I can’t be accused of being lazier than usual, I’ll add a few hundred words of my own, and I?ll begin with a definition of hero:

The hero is–must be–the agent of the story’s resolution. Furthermore: the hero must act on the situation, rather than be acted on, and s/he must be directly involved in the main plot. I suppose the hero can be an antihero–behave badly–if s/he fulfills those requirements. But since hero has a pretty precise definition–it’s from the Greek and the original means to preserve and protect–we might be more comfortable referring to creeps and cads who serve the hero’s narrative function as protagonists.

For the rest of our time together, we’ll make it easy by assuming that our actors-on aren’t creeps and cads, okay? I’m aware of the trend, which I first noticed in the 80s and which has reappeared, of giving heroes, even and perhaps especially long-established one, some unsavory characteristics. I’m not going to throw rocks at the bright and creative folk who have done these stories. Rather, I’d like to suggest a simple test for whether you should take Captain Goody Two Shoes and remake him into Private Poopy Loafers.

Do the hero’s actions add to or distract from the story?

In other words: are you doing the revamp merely to make the nominal hero look creepy. If so, I’m afraid you’re a bit like a kid scrawling a naughty word in wet concrete. Get past the momentary shock and what do you have? Maybe something to amuse those who are in rebellion against their inherited values, and hooray for them!–where I come from they’re the people most likely to accomplish something. But you might not be creating a narrative for the ages, nor one of wide appeal.

Television’s Dexter has to be a serial killer for the series to work. Frank Miller’s recast of Batman in the original Dark Knight Returns is necessary for a novel that emphasizes certain aspects of the character that were only implicit in earlier iterations. (And later writers who chose to emphasize other aspects were also doing a proper job.)

But ickiness for the sake of ickiness? Maybe best not to try this at home.

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Scribbler’s Guide to Myth

Mythic motifs at work in storytelling (Contents copyright by Sarah Beach unless otherwise noted.)

Everyone is on a Journey
September 28th, 2009

A lot has been written about the Hero’s Journey. Even I have tossed in my two cents worth on the matter. It can be very, very hand for any writer to know the shape of the Hero’s Journey. But many writers have gotten stuck on a single model, Chris Vogler’s redaction of Joseph Campbell’s outline. I’m not saying that it is a bad model, for it isn’t. But the problem of being stuck on it is that the Vogler/Campbell outline is not the only one available.

It is entirely possible for a writer to be on fire for his story, and struggling to get his plot to “fit” the Hero’s Journey outline that he knows — only to dispair because his story doesn’t want to go that way. It’s possible for that frustratd writer to think that he is wrong about his story (even though he is still jazzed by it, in the back of his head). So he stops.

Now, it’s my feeling that no writer should give up on a story that excites him. It may be a mess, plot-wise, and need work. But no writer should feel she has to give up on something just because it doesn’t fit one outline. So, that’s why I felt it important in The Scribbler’s Guide to the Land of Myth to mention some of the principal variations of the Hero’s Journey that I have encountered over the years. The different outlines often have elements not included in the Vogler/Campbell model. But every writer should also remember that these things are not cut in stone: they are very flexible, and you can move things around a bit, to suit your own story. After all, you are the storyteller.

Getting comfortable with the Journey your Hero is on is only the first step, however. If you want to add depth to your story, and to help the other characters take on substance, you need to remember that the Hero is not the only character actually going on a “journey” in your story. The villain is pretty sure he’s the Hero of his own life. And your love interest or B Story sidekick is also making a journey. Do you know the shapes of their Journeys?

This brings us to another reason why there is an advantage in knowing multiple versions of the Hero’s Journey. Your three principal characters do not have to be traveling according to the same pattern. In fact, it can be very interesting if they are not. Nor does everyone’s Journey have to start at the same point. For instance, your villain’s journey may begin well before the point where you want to start the story. This could turn into what Blake Snyder called Act Zero material. The Journey for your B Story character may not be so complicated.
The mechanics of coordinating the different Journeys will reveal how well you understand your plot. A villain’s high point may be your Hero’s darkest moment, or it may just be one of the trials and tests the Hero meets. It’s your story. You decide. But at this point, index cards or a computer program that has a similar function, where you can shuffle and mix individual story beats can be a big help.

And there can be great satisfaction in looking at the meshed outline, mere you can clearly see where each charcter is on his or her particular Journey. When you realize you know exactly what the villain wanted as his victory and what is a set-back for him; when you know just what the B Story character’s Journey is, at that point your story become more solid and deeper.

Everyone is on a Journey. Everyone has a goal. They may not all be met by the events in your story. But when you start constructing things this way, you will discover that it is very useful.

As always, if you are interested in talking more about this matter than blog comments allow, visit my MESSAGE BOARD.

Burning Jeopardy August 13th, 2009

One of the many things I talk about in The Scribbler’s Guide to the Land of Myth deals with franchise storytelling. This can cover comic book series, sets of movies, television shows or a string of novels. Most such creations are built on what I call the “Incidental Jeopardy” context: that means that in any specific story, your main character (upon whom the franchise depends) has a 50/50 chance of failing to meet his or her goal. But some other series get set up where the main character is driven by some burning goal. I call this the “Constant Jeopardy Syndrome,” where the set up is such that if the main character ever reaches his goal or solves the Big Problem of his life, the series ends.

In the book, I discuss the problems encountered with the Constant Jeopardy Syndrome, especially that involved in keeping the characters emotionally realistic. The point is that when over a long span of time a character fails to solve the Main Problem in his life, he tends to lose emotional credibility, especially if the constant failure doesn’t seem to faze him.

Cable’s USA show Burn Notice is constructed on a Constant Jeopardy Syndrome: Michael Westen used to be a spy and got burned — this means he has been black-listed and rendered an official non-person, no bank accounts, no official records (driver’s license or passport). The series deals with his attempts to find out who burned him, why, and his getting himself reinstated. (And if he ever achieves all of these, it’s likely the show would end.)
Since Michael is presented from the beginning as being one of the very best at his job, if he did not make some progress in his quest to solve his Big Problem, we would quickly lose interest.

Fortunately, the series creator and writers address this by giving Michael progressive stages of existence (professional and personal problems) to deal with.

One of the first obstacles he has to face is that he has been dropped into his hometown of Miami, Florida, where he has to deal with his mother.
Madeline Westen is expert at wielding emotional blackmail over Michael — which works because at rock bottom, Michael is a good guy and does love his mother. Madeline also serves to show that although Michael may be officially a non-person, he also needs to relearn how to be a real person, with a real (ie, emotional) life.

Madeline is assisted in this by the presence of Fiona — the love of Michael’s life.

Fiona’s “official” position is “not his girlfriend.” Except that she is his ideal partner. The ups and downs of their relationship ring true, for they are dealing with real issues: the nature of Michael’s old job, what that job requires of his character, how to accommodate another person deeply into your life.
The two characters are alternately obstacles and assistants in Michael’s hunt for information and reinstatement.

First after being burned, he was watched by FBI minders. He upped the stakes on them, to the point where a special overseer was assigned to keep Michael subdued.

It’s a new problem in Michael’s way, which he removes over the course of a few episodes by creating the appearance that the overseer has been compromised. This leads to the mystrious organization that burned him revealing itself slightly.
The series very carefully continues revealing obstacles for Michael to overcome. Each step forward also reveals more of his own character to Michael. First, he seeks to put a face to his new “manager”, Carla, and in fact draws her out to revealing herself.

She tells him she helped burn him in order to recruit him to the secret organization she serves. She sets Victor to “manage” Michael.

Victor is like Michael (ie, burned), “but with rabies” (according to Sam Axe, Michael’s friend and sidekick). Michael transforms Victor from opponent to ally and the pair remove Carla, forcing the organization’s Management to reveal himself. Michael is offered better conditions in the organization, under the threat of removal of their protections (from enemies and authorities).
Michael opts to reject the protection and the job. The new set of obstacles in his way toward reinstatement include dealing with a police detective who has suspicions that Michael is behind some unusual occurances in town.

Michael succeeds in turning her from opponent to an at least hands-off observer. So the next obstacle steps up. “The Devil” (Strickler) offers Michael assistance at reinstatement, in exchange for Michael working for him.

This is too much for Fiona, who questions what this deal will do to Michael’s character. This emotional “real person” challenge conflicts with Michael’s desire to be an “official person” again.

Every time Michael progresses closer to his goal, either a new obstacle gets in his way, or the goal becomes slightly redefined and moved. The writers avoid all the traps of the Constant Jeopardy Syndrome: failure to make any progress toward the goal and/or lack of emotional reality. The audience is satisfied by the proof that Michael is indeed as competent as claimed (he makes progress), and also maintains a realistic emotional response to both his successes and failures. The show is a fine example of how to handle the Constant Jeopardy Syndrome.

The Problem with Wonder Woman
August 2nd, 2009
Every so often readers (and writers) comment on problems they have with the comic book character Wonder Woman.

The Amazon princess, Diana, was created in 1941, by William Moulton Marston. On the heels of the appearances of superheroes like Superman and Batman, Marston felt that girls deserved their won role model. His creation was beautiful and strong, and carried the Lasso of Truth. Detecting truth was a matter of interest to Marston, as he invented the polygraph, popularly known as the “lie detector.”

Wonder Woman has a number of contradictions attached to her — she is a warrior and yet she is also an ambassador of peace from the Amazons to “Man’s World.” Try as they might to downplay the incongruity of a warrior society such as that of the Amazons also purporting to be more peaceful than the rest of humanity, writers have been stuck with it. It just will not be shaken off. Recent writers have shown the Amazons as less than perfect in their adherence to peace. Yet, “warrior for peace” remains an element in the character of Princess Diana.

The Lasso of Truth also forces an unusual quality upon the nature of Wonder Woman. By using it, Diana can force a perpetrator to face aspects of his or her own nature that they have been denying. Even if she doesn’t use this pwoer, its presence with her is a constant reminder of what she could do. It bestows a certain implacibility to her character.
Molded in clay by her mother, Queen Hippolyta, given life and powers (strength, flight, and apparently immortality) by the Greek gods, Diana is in her origin somewhat removed from normal humanity. And yet she is not really a goddess (although one writer did have her become the Goddess of Truth for a time).

However it came about, there is something in the nature of Wonder Woman that defies easy pigeon-holing.

She won’t be easily pegged and yet, readers do have a sense when she’s being taken off track, when she is “out of character.” She is caring and merciful, and yet if she goes too far into emotional territory, something feels “off.” She’s passionate about her family and protecting those under her care, but romance inevitably seems unbalanced when brought into proximity with the Amazon princess. (It might be that readers feel she has no peer, so that all possible romantic partners are “beneath” her.)

Some of the factors that create this unsettling nature spring from how closely Wonder Woman’s character parallels that of the Greek goddess Nemesis. Nemesis was the daughter of Night, which places her in the realm of the mysterious and unaccountable. We have come to treat nemesis as a negative force, but she wasn’t such originally.

She was all about keeping things in proper balance. She made sure virtue was rewarded and injustice was brought to balance. She is, in fact, the figure of Justice we see in courts these days; blind-folded for impartiality (she doesn’t care about your social status), holding both a sword and a balance scale — and she will use that sword to help put the scales in balance. Nemesis is very unsettling — and Wonder woman, for similar reasons, carries the same effect.

Diana is a “divine hero” — in a community, but not of it, and she brings a boon to society. We are a bit ambivalent as to whether we want to take the whole of her boon: truth and peace require things of us that are hard to give up.

But one of the other crucial elements that figure in the nature of Wonder Woman is that, unlike Nemesis, she is not a figure of Night. By nature, with her openness and her commitment to reason and truth, Wonder Woman fits the dynamics of a solar figure.

She’s “a babe,” a confident woman, beautiful and bold. And yet, Wonder Woman remains difficult to peg. That is, perhaps, part of her enduring power to fascinate us. We try to sort her out, to figure what makes her tick, because we don’t really want to deal with someone as completely committed to truth and justice as the Amazon princess is. She’s not some wild woman who needs taming, nor some insecure heroine who needs coaching. She is, as she has always been, Wonder Woman and something more than we expect.

Before Going “Up”
July 6th, 2009

It’s one of those rules you learn in screenwriting courses: don’t front-load your tale with your Hero’s backstory. Sure, you the author need to know it, but don’t explain it all up front. Get on with your story, and explain it later, in little bits and pieces.

Write it out for yourself if you need to, but don’t stick it in the actual story in one piece. My friend Blake Snyder calls this “Act Zero”. Most of the time you do not need to explain the backstory before you begin the adventure.

And then, there is Disney-Pixar’s Up.

Let us be clear: the story-adventure of Up actually begins when Russell shows up on Carl’s doorstep insisting he has to help the elderly man. That is Carl’s Call to Adventure, and he’s not having any of it. (His Refusal of the Call makes for a bit of comedy: he sends the kid on a snipe hunt.) That is, structurally speaking, where the story starts.

So, that wonderful, poignant stuff that went before that moment, what was that?

Backstory. Act Zero.

Usually, we do not have to see that up-front. But let’s consider why we need it for this story.

The Hero’s Journey (and Carl is our Hero in this story) begins in the Hero’s Ordinary World (or his Old World). Usually, something needs to be changed, and he ventures out from that world. But in Up, if the presentation of the story really did start with Russell at the door, what follows would still be entertaining and engaging (crusty old man learns to care about someone while on a wild adventure), but it would not have the depth of meaning that Up possesses. We actually do need to see this Act Zero.

First off, we see that Young Carl is almost exactly like the young Russell we will shortly meet. He dreams of adventure, but his scope is small. Until he meets Young Ellie. In the boisterous Ellie, he meets someone who startles and entrances him with her active response to the call of adventure.
Of course they fall in love. Their enjoyment of each other is its own adventure. Their dream of a real adventure is a shared dream, but not the real glue of their lives (though it will take Carl a while to understand that).

It is important for us to know that Carl is capable of love and that he does understand the call of adventure that has a hold on Russell. And that we are given the chance to love Ellie too, this gives us the powerful gift of wanting Carl’s adventure to succeed. We connect with the forces that drive him on, in a very powerful way.

The storytellers use Act Zero to also set up the Opponent, and very nicely compact it with Carl’s youthful hero worship of Muntz. Because that hero worship is something we understand, it adds a poignant bite when Carl learns his Hero is no hero. Carl has to be his own Hero.

Up is one occasion where the storytellers present at length how the Hero’s Ordinary World became what it is. And unusual as that is, they made it work — basically by giving it its own three-act structure and telling it swiftly, without over-dwelling on it.

Beautifully done and perfectly structured. (Warning: these storytellers are trained professionals, so “don’t do this at home.” Remember, Up is an exception when it comes to revealing the backstory.)

“Divine” House
July 2nd, 2009

Dr. Gregory House has a genius for diagnosing unusual medical conditions… And he sets about changing illness to health, Transformer figure. As I say in The Scribbler’s Guide, all doctor stories are Transformer stories.

But House is also an example of what I call the “Divine Hero.” Now, this doesn’t mean that the Divine Hero has superpowers. It means that the hero comes from outside the community, bringing a boon to it. He is in the community, but not of it.

Gregory House is in the community of the hospital, but he is not really of it. He refuses to conform to the dress code, he is always at odds with Cutty’s administration, his only friend is Wilson (whom he regularly provokes). But the boon he brings to the community is his skill as a diagnostician, and they genuinely value it. So they keep him.

What makes for the dramatic tension in the show is the fact that Gregory House does not want to be this Divine Hero. He is a misanthrope, disliking people. He doesn’t really want their praise or appreciation. His personal conflict is that the one thing he does well, that he loves doing, is the one thing that actually requires him to be in contact with other human beings.

House is just one of the possible ways of using the Divine Hero archetype. And an excellent, off-beat one.

Star Trek Trinity
June 24th, 2009

The release of the 2009 Star Trek movie re-sparked my interest in the character archetypes of Kirk, Spock and McCoy. I made some initial comments about them as a guest blogger on Colleen Doran’s blog. But that was comparing Kirk and Picard.

A well constructed character will have at least one archetype at the core. When multiple archetypes are blended, you can create very interesting dynamics.

Let’s start with McCoy. In this particular trinity of characters, he is firmly in the position of sidekick. Sidekicks are often Trickster archetypes, for their job is to puncture the excesses of the principal hero. Cranky McCoy frequently does this to Kirk and to Spock. When Kirk pushes for some outrageous solution, McCoy puts the brakes on. “Damn it, Jim! I’m a doctor, not a bricklayer!” He also relights the fire when Spock dampens things too much with logic. I read one critic who commented that McCoy was a bigot. One assumes the comment was inspired by McCoy’s comments about Spock as a “pointy eared hobgobling.” But I think it is an error to call McCoy a bigot: he has no such reaction to other Vulcans or other aliens. This reaction is specific to Spock. It is another manifestation of his function as a Trickster, to puncture the excesses of Spock’s logic.

As a doctor, of course, McCoy is also a Transformer, changing the things around himself. But this is often secondary to his function as a Trickster. In the film, when McCoy first arrives on the scene, he transforms Kirk’s situation from being solitary to having a friend.

Spock is in many ways Kirk’s Shadow. In being such, he also highlights the point I make in The Scribbler’s Guide to the Land of Myth that a Shadow is not necessarily an evil figure. In this case, where Kirk is often passionate disorder, Spock is the opposite of that, emotionless (apparently) order.

But Spock is also a Threshold guardian: he oversees the possibilities of Kirk’s choices. In the film, he is the one who has constructed the Kobayashi Maru test which winnows out candidates for command. Kirk, of course, thwarts this judgement, so Spock plays the next checking move of questioning Kirk’s ethics. By doing so, he forces Kirk to become more than just contrary, to find the justification for his actions.

However, the one thing Spock is not, or rather is not best at, is being a Ruler. He treats his judgements as absolute, and so does not readily attend to the advice of his subordinates, at least not when he is in command. In the film, when Kirk (fulfilling his function as First Officer in putting forward his criticism of Spock’s choice and offering an alternate) counters him, Spock over-reacts. He uses his authority not simply to remove Kirk from the bridge, but to abandon his appointed First Officer on the inhospitable and nearly deserted planet. This is not wise leadership one would expect from a Ruler.

Kirk, however, is a Ruler. Although he frequently pushes the envelope of a circumstances (a manifestation of his being a Transformer and Trickster), he does pay attention to the skills of his subordinates. He delegates tasks appropriately.

This trio of characters provide balance and challenge to each other. The dynamic between them continually shifts about; it is never static. This is why they continue to be a fascinating set of characters.

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Scribbler’s Guide to the Land of Myth - table of contents

The material was organized on the structure of a tour book (hence the title). The inspiration was because I was going to have to address some things about the Hero’s Journey. The train of thought just led from there to “how to prepare for the journey”.


Just about all the books on the Hero’s Journey and writing deal with the structure of the story. What I go into is the significance of the various elements in the journey motifs. And I’m drawing from about six different Hero’s Journey outlines, so it’s a lot of material. I think too many writers use the outlines (particularly Chris Vogler’s) as a blueprint, and overlook possibilities that might serve their stories better. I harp on flexibility a lot.

SECTION ONE: Setting Out
SECTION TWO: Quest and Conflict

This section actually deals with the specialty journey motifs of Grail Quests. Grail Quests are a particular type of story, with a particular type of relationship between the Hero, his Goal, and the context of the story.

SECTION FIVE: The Anti-Hero’s Path
There’s not a whole lot actually written about the Anti-Hero, so I tackle that. The dynamics are slightly different than the usual story.

This actually refers to the mode of the storytelling: comedy, tragedy, and what I call the “straight through” drama.

I’ve yet to see very many people deal with this. Some of my research grew from reading Northrup Fry. But the rest was pieced together from many different places.

SECTION TWO: The Seasons
This part deals with all sorts of character archetypes. ALL sorts.

SECTION ONE: Sex (or Gender)
There are some motifs that are gender specific. So I figured I’d get those out of the way first. I think we’ve tried to be so egalitarian between the sexes, that we’ve avoided some of these matters. But since they’re part of our human nature, I went for it.

Whatever you may think of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in regards to psychology, the pyramid of needs is a useful story-building tool. So I tackled it here.

The traditional seven Jungian archetypes. Yeah, I go over them again, because some of them could do some renewed attention. (I really go to town with the “Shadow” figure.)

SECTION FOUR: Professional Specialists
An additional set of character archetypes I developed to expand our mythic vocabulary. These are not just about how the character functions in the plot, but what the character is in his or her nature.

SECTION FIVE: Good Versus Evil
I’ve heard too many people complain that writing characters who are “good” is boring. And I came to the conclusion that they didn’t have very good definitions of what makes a character “good” as opposed to “evil”. So I discuss that opposition, add a couple of new character archetypes for these issues, and include a discussion of the seven deadly sins and the seven virtues.

Again, there wasn’t a whole lot of material on Father Figures or Mother Figures, so I had to analyse and construct descriptions for these. Because they are much more than “Mentor” figures. I’m really pleased with this section, because it is REALLY “all mine”.

Buddy figures, doubles, and “fair” versus “dark” figures all get the run through here.

SECTION EIGHT: Community Heroes
This is all about Heroes that have special community significance. The Divine Hero (coming from outside, bringing a boon), the Outlaw Hero (cast out of society, but continuing to fight an injustice inside that society), the Sacrifice. And what I call the Band of Companions (ie, “group hero” stories).

Oh, yeah! You’d better believe landscape can be mythically important: sky versus earth, land versus sea, towers and mountains versus caves, civilization versus wilderness - it’s all here.

Franchise storytelling and what to consider. This includes my personally developed theory on “the Constant Jeopardy Syndrome” versus “the Incidental Jeopardy Syndrome”.

Also known as appendices.

In an effort to give folks a better idea of what my book The Scribbler’s Guide to the Land of Myth (www.scribblersguidetomyth.com) is all about, I thought I’d offer a freebie to LiveJournal readers. So I’m posting the Introduction to the book.


How I Got Here

Once upon a time… Isn’t that the way stories begin? At some point something happens that moves us to tell a story. So let me tell you how this book came about.

I’ve always had a love of mythic stories. Something about them caught at my imagination, giving me joy. I was never sure what it was, for I was still young then, and uninfected by the rational thinking that fills our educational process. I read a story about the Hawaiian volcano goddess Pele, and some corner of me responded to her passionate violence. I read the tale of Odysseus and his desire to get home, and admired his wit and wily nature.

Years later, as a college student I studied literature, in order to learn how to write. Along the way, my love of mythology also prompted me to an even more serious study of that field. Those studies helped me find the key that explained my early love of mythic stories. Myth is the language of the human psyche. The stories of myth capture the drama of our inner soul searching, our journeys to understand ourselves and our world. As much as science details the mechanics of the universe and existence, it cannot answer a question like “what does this mean to me?” We may try as much as we can to be objective about human nature and how it functions, but we cannot escape the fact that our lives are subjective. We are not impersonal collectors of information, we are gatherers of interconnected experience. Things happen to us, which we give significance one way or another. I may know that objectively the sun is a star many, many times the size of our planet, burning basic gases and throwing out radiation and light. But some days, when the sky above me shines bright blue, ornamented with high piled clouds and the sun’s glory gets captured in those rolls of white, I can easily imagine an awesome, powerful being sitting up there, fabulous and wonderful, just out of my sight. I can’t help but think mythically. We all do it.

Given these human impulses, it helps a writer to become familiar with myths. The mythic significance of the world around us, and of our own actions, has not really changed down the eons of human existence. The story of Gilgamesh, the earliest known epic, can be read in translation today, and still be understood, because it is about being human. And yet, like all languages, myth does have its grammar.

So how do we, as storytellers, learn that grammar? For we really should learn it. Does it lie in becoming familiar with the multitude of stories from all the different cultures? Not really. Although such a knowledge will give us access to many story plots and their endless variations, unless we understand the heart of the myth we are no better off than if we only knew one story. Until you know what is mythically hidden in the cloak of night, night will only be darkness in your tale, and it will tell your audience nothing deeper than the fact that the lights are out.

Through the years, I had begun collecting notes from many sources about the significances of myths and images. I would turn to these notes from time to time to check myself in my writing, to see if I was on the right track with a particular tale. But my notes were never all in one place, never organized in a fashion that would let me find just what I wanted when I wanted it. As knowledgeable as I was about myths and what many of them meant, some days when I was hashing over a rewrite, I longed for a road map through the land of myth. “I have this scene happening at night, but where the heck are my notes about what night can mean?”

How I longed for a reference book that pulled these concepts together in such a way that I could easy find them. Volumes of mythology and encyclopedias and dictionaries of myth and folklore, though valuable, were not quite what I needed in molding my stories into even better shapes. What was needed, I felt, was a single volume which gathered things together in a way to help and inspire storytellers. The result of these considerations is in your hands.

Why You Need This Book

As I said, myth is the language of the human psyche. As storytellers, we want our work to touch the hearts of our audience. We want our stories to encourage, or alarm, or scare. We want our stories to challenge or inspire. We want, for whatever end, to reach that subjective core within the people receiving our story. To do that, we need to be grounded in the language of the subjective.

Many others have produced books about myth and psychology, about writers and myth. Many of them deal with the internal connection between the heart of the writer and the journey the story’s hero ventures out upon. This is very true: every story is a reflection of the author’s heart, in some fashion or other. If you, as a writer, do not understand that, you will probably miss many important elements in your own story. However, this book is not about the psychology of the writer and the writer’s experience. It is about the experience you want to create in your audience.

This book is designed to give you the grammar of myth. It is designed to show you the variations in structure and significance. The more we know about the significance of an image or an action, the more we as writers will be able to make our stories touch the awesome power of myth. When a story resonates with a mythic tune, it stays with the audience longer. Is that not what we want to happen? This book will help you deepen the mythic significance of your stories.

How To Use This Book

The book has been ordered along the model of a travel guide. It was in part inspired by the fact that the first section was going to have to deal with the hero’s journey motifs. But after starting out that way, it quickly became clear to me that this was exactly the sort of structure for the book that would be most useful.

For issues dealing with plot, explore the GOING ON THE JOURNEY section. Here you will find an examination of the elements of several journey motifs. The fact that there are several journey motifs will surprise many. In no way am I trying to imply that one motif is better than another. Indeed, in order to avoid the idea of outline-as-blueprint, the motifs from the different outlines have been gathered into one generalized form. There is some apparent repetition, but each discussion adds more to the understanding of a motif and how it can be used in a story. The reason the variations are included is because sometimes, when a writer is stuck, finding out that there is an alternative to a pattern can open whole new prospects, new landscapes. By comparing the different terminology used in the various outlines of the Hero’s journey, we will broaden our awareness of possible story choices.

In the TRANSPORTATION section, we will look at the traditional divisions of drama. There is the Upturn of Comedy (meaning stories that move toward happy endings, not just stories that are funny), the Downturn of Tragedy, and what I call the Straight Through trip of Drama (where the story usually contains elements of both comedy and tragedy).

TIME OF TRAVEL considers the implications of the daily cycle as well as the yearly cycle. The significance of weather is also included in this section.

LOCAL RESIDENTS deals with character archetypes, not just in how they function in the plot, but what they are as people, in their relations to the hero and the rest of the characters in the story. Let me state at this point that aside from the sub-section that deals with imagery that is specific to males or females, the rest of the archetypes can be applied to either sex. In point of fact, a hero in a story may be either male or female. But I will use the term Hero to refer to the main character that you are sending out on a journey. Additionally, some of the character discussions have supplementary units, such as the exploration of Special Objects under the character heading of the Holy Ones.

From the character archetypes we then travel into LANDSCAPE. Here you will find contrasting elements grouped together: sky vs. earth, towers vs. caves, sea vs. land. Also under this heading, we will look at some other physical elements, such as fire and vegetation.

The last section, THEME PARKS, deals with what I call popular mythologies. By this I mean constructs which will sustain multiple visits, whether it is in the context of a television series, movie franchise, or on-going literary character.

In the text, to flesh out the concepts we will be looking at, you will find two things. The first is brief descriptions of myths that represent the element under consideration. These descriptions will be set off by indentations, and will appear in a different typeface.

This combination of indentation and typeface will be used throughout for the description of the myth that applies at that point. After the myth itself has been described, the appearance of the text will be returned to normal.

The second item for fleshing out the discussion will be the inclusion of examples of the mythic elements as used in films. The use of film examples was chosen because movies (and television) have become the most powerful emotive medium available to storytellers. Although I will not assume that you have seen all of the films, or remember all of the plot points, I will not be giving you complete descriptions of the plots. I plan only to describe the context of the particular mythic element under consideration. But I do hope the discussion will inspire you to check out the example. I want to assure you at this time that every single film that is cited has been specifically reviewed for this book. I have read some screenwriting books recently where it became obvious to me that the writer, in referring to a film, had not re-watched the film before writing about it, but instead commented on it only from memory. Reviewing the films has been a fascinating experience. I did not want to give you a catalogue of all the mythic elements in every film I mention, but it was fun to find other mythic elements at work in addition to the ones I planned to cite.

The text can be read straight through, or you can jump from point to point, whichever suits your purpose at the time. In the appendices, the various journey motifs and hierarchies will be listed for speedy reference.

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Bookmarked! Thanks, Turok!


How To Write Comics And Graphic Novels by Dennis O’Neil #8 – Bester Both Worlds

During my first stint as a card-carrying, full-time comic book editor entitled to health benefits, personal days and my own invitation to the office Christmas party, I screwed up. I thought that the bossfolk had hired me because they thought I could write and therefore all I had to do was make the work of the writers I hired indistinguishable from my own. Which was dunderheaded.

That approach wasn’t dunderheaded when I, a beginner, was being edited by Stan Lee and Roy Thomas in Marvel’s salad days, the mid-60s, because what was making Marvel a publishing phenomenon was Stan’s way of doing the work and that included his writing. But later, when I was dubbed Ye Editor at another company, in another era, really, there was no house style. Each of the several editors had his/her own methods and the books they produced were not all governed by a single sensibility So the editorial task was simply to get the best possible stuff from the creative people, given whatever limitations and restrictions were established. To cram another’s prose into the procrustean bed of my own productions was to get, at best, third rate O’Neil when what we should have wanted was first rate (fill in the name of some poor freelancer whose labor was massacred by the younger and dumber me.)

Editing is a complex, difficult, stressful, and often frustrating profession and no two editors seem to do it alike. I guess that over the past 50 years I’ve worked for about 100 different editors in various media, of which maybe a dozen were at the top of their game, none of who had the same methodology. How, for example, did Louise Simonson and Dick Giordano extract good scripts from their scribblers without ever, to my memory, issuing direct instructions? Watch me shrug and get on to the two points I want to make in conclusion:

Point the first: Editing is, among other things, a helping profession, like teaching or nursing. The editor’s task, when dealing with writers, is to help them, and that means correcting their mistakes so they don’t put foolishness into print and thus appear to be less than the sharpest tacks in the corkboard. Such mistakes might range from simple missspellings* to breeches in the inner logic of a plot. Your job, Mr./Ms. Editor, is to make your subordinates look good.

And point the second: It’s not about being able to exert your will and whims on others, and that’s why individuals who most covet big offices might not be well suited to occupying them. There’s a quote from the late, great Alfred Bester that I cherish:

Among professionals, the job is boss. Which means that you are not as important as the story and neither are your writers. Of course, the story wouldn’t exist without them, and I’m not suggesting that we eliminate editors from the process, either; it’s nice having a backstop. But getting the best possible story, given constraints of talent and circumstance–that’s the prize.
(*Like I’m even going to try to edit this – Editor Cut-And-Paster Rich)

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How To Write Comics And Graphic Novels by Dennis O’Neil #8 – Continuity Day

There are a number of meanings to the word “continuity” as applied to fictional narrative, and they all apply to comics.

Let’s start with the easiest and simplest, the kind of continuity that is the task of a script supervisor on a television or movie set: making sure everything is consistent from shot to shot or, in comics, panel to panel. Names; relationships; clothing and locations, possessions and jobs and extend this list as you will–all the minutiae of your fictional world has to be consistent within that world. A lot of this is the responsibility of the editor, but don’t allow yourself to get lazy, thinking that the editor will catch all your goofs. (Editors are only human, despite what you may have heard.)

That kind of continuity applies to individual stories and story arcs, and once upon a time, it was just about the only kind there was. It also applies to continuity within a series, which we might as well define as an open-ended succession of narratives concerning the same characters and set in the same milieu. Like, you know, your favorite monthly comic book. All the names and props and locales, et. al. must be consistent, but that’s only for openers. The characters’ histories and origins have to be all of a piece, as do the geography and sociology of your make-believe.

Enlarge that–enlarge it a lot–and we have the final arena in which continuity is vital: the whole friggin’ universe. I refer, of course, to a fictional universe or universes, not that spangled majesty outside your window. For a long time now, fictional universes have been elements in DC and Marvel comic books and, to a lesser but still significant degree, to some television and movie franchises. Given half a chance, the continuity problems for a universe will be daunting; not only must the creative folk deal with the various continuities mentioned above, but they have to maintain consistency over a long, albeit bogus, historical time line, that can extend into both past and future; keep sometimes ill-defined geographical relationships in order; and sometimes go far, far away, like to other galaxies inhabited by other life forms and keep their ducks in a row, (or whatever passes for ducks in extraterrestrial ponds.)

Continuity can be a storytelling tool and that’s all to the good. But it carries its negatives, too. I strongly advise you bards out there to never, never do continuity for its own sake–say, to fill in a blank in a story you read a dozen years ago that’s been gnawing your soul ever since…unless–you can get a good story from the blank-filling, a story that will be satisfying to readers who never heard of the glitch that’s been bothering you and would not care if they did. That is, most of us. Any occasion for a good story is the right occasion. And anything that doesn’t contribute to the quality of the story is a candidate for the dumpster. You don’t want to bore your readers with irrelevancies and you don’t want to distract them from narrative elements that are important.
My, my, and aren’t I just the little doctrinaire munchkin during the holiday season!

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This is awesome thank you so much!!!

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