Breaking story is one of those things that’s ethereal and difficult and it’ll break you before the story breaks. The trick is to let the little pieces of you Voltron back up and bust that story over its knee, Bo Jackson-style.
I like discussing breaking story because I believe it’s truly crucial in making the difference between a story where things happen [anyone can write a sequence of events that happen in order and have some semblance of cohesion and story and ‘cool’ moments – hell, they get published all the time] and a story that matters [where you make me feel, and the characters earn their big moments, and the craft of structure and dialogue and everything works towards making something special happen]. These two different things are world apart and yet they look so close.
Now, I wish I had the answers for exactly how to make the latter appear in your story. To have a formula to make Batman: Year One or Scalped would be great, but the fact these things craft their own formula– they get there first, and they do it the best– is what makes those books the classics they are.
I can’t just make great stories out of thin air [and that’s the pull quote for my tombstone sorted] but I can hopefully point you towards some things that’ll stop all your work being the former; a bland sequence of scenes where stuff happens but oh dear lord why do we care because it’s just stuff, happening, and it doesn’t matter because the complications are just thrown in and the resolutions are beyond a deus ex machina, they are absurd and not well thought out but they keep things moving amirite, and then you get to the next scene and you make it all not matter again because it’s hard to bring theme into play and it’s easier to just have things happen because people like to read about things, almost as much as they lap up the stuff you leave on the page. Because being pablum is the new cool, yeah?
Take your time crafting your story, make it the best it can be, the best you can be, otherwise what’s the point?
And I have all this on the brain at present because I’m in the pit and breaking a story right now. It’s arduous, and you start to doubt yourself, and there is never any certainty. I think it hurts the most because at present I have a story outline that starts, has stuff in the middle, and it ends. It’s even got some good beats and I dig some of the ending. But it’s just not goddamn good enough. Not yet.
I think the first step, like in all things, is admitting you have a problem.
You need to be able to spew your idea, which might not even be up to being a story [because there’s a difference between an idea and a story], and you need to be able to stand back and know if it’s good enough yet. You need to be able to see if it’s just a sequence of pieces that fit or if it’s something better than that. Kids play with a million jigsaw puzzles before they are five, and they form all kinds of pretty pictures, but how many make The Last Judgment?
It is also hard to have this objective view of your work. It takes distance, time, training. It’s easy to get excited because you wrote some words and they aren’t gibberish and grawlix. It’s powerful to feel a sense of satisfaction that you completed something – even just a story draft. But the true craft comes in looking it over with critical eyes and know it’s missing something.
The first thing you need to attain this is distance.
Ed Brubaker was on the Nerdist Writer’s Panel recently, which was a recording of a panel from WonderCon and he spoke about an interview he read from an old pulp paperback master name of Ross Macdonald where he spoke about notebooking his ideas. Macdonald would cook up a new idea, and he’d spew the first thoughts into a notebook, and then he’d put that notebook in a drawer and he’d let it sit for maybe a month.
The beautiful thing here is, if the idea is worth its salt, your brain will not stop picking at it. In the shower, brushing your teeth, mowing the lawn, making lunch for the kids, drifting off to sleep at night, the goddamn daily commute, all of these times will yield little thoughts. You’ve put the pieces out of your head, you’ve made some attempt to order and make sense of them, and your writing brain now just won’t stop. It’s the Terminator of story breakers, and it’ll either break it proper, or it’ll bust it to pieces and prove it doesn’t work. These are the only two options every time.
So right now, I have this idea. I got it while standing in the backyard pushing my two kids on our swing set. I’m pushing them, laughing, playing, but behind the facade this messed up murder thriller is unfolding in my head. And it’s like sheet lightning – weird connections are being made, sometimes you don’t see it all, and you catalogue what you can. I stewed on it all afternoon until I finally got in the office that night and then I inked hell out of my IDEAS notebook. I start a new page, I put the tentative project title up the top, if I have one, this one is called REACTION, and I start blasting notes out. Inciting incident, character profiles, questions about how they cope with certain fallout.
I then tinker with the notebook over the next week. Then I let it sit a week. And then I feel bold so I type up the story into some cohesion. And it all comes together. But it’s missing a certain something. I know it, instantly, I feel it. It’s lacking. It’s at this moment of realisation that I know I need to step away from the computer. The little screen and the regimented lines are no good for open creative thinking. I need to go back to the notebook.
I know some people use whiteboards to track and break story. I use my whiteboard to rank projects in production and generally manage time, not story.
So now I know what to do. I have slotted this notebook away and will keep it away for a little longer. Maybe a month, maybe shorter. I then fill my time with writing other things. I’m writing this here right now. I’m prepping a series of posts on my site for November that I’m really excited about. I’m looking at some Deer Editor stuff because, yes, there will be more. I’m planning this writing course I’m going to teach. I’m looking over art for this other stupid big weird thing I’m doing. I’m catching up on East of West. I’m writing my weekly newsletter. I’m emailing this editor about a pitch, and rereading the pitch until I see what’s wrong with it.
I do all those things so my back brain, the sleepy donkey swatting flies with his tail, is secretly giving this notebook idea the side-eye and figuring out what might fit.
Does the story need an alien thrown in? Would the lead character making the wrong choice help propel the narrative further? Do they have two kids, not one? Is it set in a vineyard in Tuscany? How many clowns is too many?
Like a good editor, you ask yourself questions. You ponder, you wonder, you experiment. No great story ever came fully formed, it needed to be beaten up. You’re moving the pieces around like a Defensive Coach the night before the big game.
Or, to beat one more damn analogy into you [because you can never have enough], think of it like Michelangelo waiting to sculpt from massive marble blocks, thinking to himself, “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” That’s our job as the creator, to take our time, chip away, to sit back, to assess. It’ll be terrible at times, and you’ll want to find easy outs, but when you get it done right…
I know that maybe in a fortnight or so, I’ll be ready to crack this notebook back open like a crypt robber looking to find the treasure beyond the spider webs as thick as rope. I need to sit with just the notebook, away from the computer, just move the chair so the computer’s not even in sight or reach, but leave it on, for the music, the sweet blessed vinyl soundtracks on youtube, and then just take all this narrative detritus in my head and formulate it in better ways until a through line becomes more clear. Until my characters have earned their beats. Until the theme of the piece means something. I let the brain get laterally creative in ways it just can’t on that pixel-regimented screen.
I believe in notebooking, and sometimes in this creative industry, where there are no true formulas to greatness, and you never really know, all you are left with is your belief in yourself. And sometimes that’s just fine.
Ryan K. Lindsay is a comics writer who has logged time at Dark Horse, Monkeybrain, Vertigo and other esteemed publishers. He currently writes Negative Space, a comic we here at Loser City love quite a bit. You can (and should) pick Negative Space up from your local comic shop ordirectly through Dark Horse.