You are not good enough to write a massive story and stick the landing.
Truthfully, nor am I, I suspect. But sometimes it’s refreshing to hear it, and without the kid gloves on. There aren’t enough demotivational posters getting around up in here.
You just aren’t going to drop that 60 issue knowledge, but your brain will want to go epic. Because running down new narrative alleyways is fun and exciting and makes you feel like a big boy. It’s also where the big bucks are, right? Pushing your story out– or having it run out in all sides like a big bang– feels right. It also means you can delay having to tie it all in together and so you get to do the easy things like ask questions in your world, and introduce bad ass characters in sweet ass splash pages. But you aren’t connecting it all, threading it all, and making it all count.
Because a story is just about only as good as its ending.
And what publisher or creative team is going to invest six years to let you close this opus? Not many is the answer you will be faced with at the start of your career [which is a nice way of saying absolutely none].
So the solution to all this is to start short.
I know, I know, where’s the money in that? Where’s the toy licensing deal? Where is the GLORY?!
Hell, those things barely apply to the most successful comics, they certainly aren’t even going to sniff at you in the early days. They just aren’t, deal with it, at some stage we all must.
So, how short am I talking?
That’s the golden size.
Why? Well, you can introduce characters and world comfortably in that space, you can establish and build tone, and you can set up some small moment and twist it at the end effectively if you are good enough.
And if you aren’t good enough? This will get you closer. Better than scribing 60 issues of some Preacher knock off will do for you and your soul. Write ten five page scripts, and maybe one of them will be good. I’m not kidding, go do it, now, I’ll wait…
Some of them sucked, didn’t they? Yeah, yeah, mine, too.
But I’ve told you that your early stuff isn’t good enough so I might as well hitch up my pants and at least try to help you get better. Or, at least, as better as some hack like me can manage [this is like getting group therapy with Charles Manson and his wives– it won’t fix you, oh no, but you’ll get something from it].
Write, write, and write. That’s the first golden rule.
Then write five page scripts. Do it across a multitude of genres, utilising a bunch of different voices, genders, tones of intensity. Stretch yourself around, see what fits like a glove and also make note of what looks like MC Hammer’s pants on you.
Imagine trying to experiment with different genres but only across complete minis. It would take you years to even cover just the basics. With these five page ditties, you can cover all the majors, plus get into some ‘house electric jungle’ beats within the one calendar year.
I was always convinced I’d be a horror writer. Since I knew I wanted to write, I knew horror would be my jam. How wrong I was. The more I wrote, and read, the more I saw gonzo sci-fi as my wheelhouse, with crime threads thrown in. And still I want to branch further.
Once you’ve found a bit of a wheelhouse, then dig in deeper than an Alabama tick, and really start making time on these things. You’ll probably even start to make a few actual comics, with collaborators, and which people can read. They won’t, but they could. Exciting, right? Wait, you didn’t make any of the very first ones, did you? Aw, c’mon :]
Alright, let’s get gritty. Let’s talk structuring your five page short. There’s not a lot of real estate, you’ve gotta get in and out quickly and smoothly. It’s a four colour heist and every second counts.
So, what does your story need?
- A location
- A main character
- Maybe some other characters to bounce off
- And usually some kind of twist in the end.
Twist endings of some kind are going to work best for the page constraints. There’s little room for character arcs through change so having something memorable at the end will make the story punch.
Think about setting up your world quickly, establishing shot for the location, quick character connections to establish who does what in this tale, and then build the tension with every panel until the coiled spring pops at the end.
Hell, here I am telling you, lemme show you.
Ed Brisson wrote a comic of thematically connected shorts called Murder Book – which you can read a few of here for free-– and they are a masterclass in roughly what I am proselytising here. Short punchy stories with a killer twist, all crime stories set around murders. Go, read them all, study, and buy the Dark Horse collection which features more of the same but that’s not available on the site.
Murder Book is one of the best examples of how this game works. A prime example is one Ed wrote and Johnnie Christmas illustrated for the back of Grim Leaper – an Image/Shadowline mini from Aluisio Santos and Kurtis J Wiebe. The brief for Ed, Jeremy Holt, Joey Esposito and myself was to write a five page short about a love story to die for. Ed dropped a Murder Book short with love in it and it’s absolute dynamite.
You can’t read it online for free but you can read a great analysis of it on the Comix Tribe website by Tyler James. He discusses the watertight structure of the book in these terms:
“Page 1 – In medias res, establish the scene, the compelling situation, and the main characters.
Night time on a quiet suburban street, a teenage girl and her boyfriend have just murdered the girl’s parents.
Page 2 – Develop the characters and give them a goal.
Young, dark, gothy kids in love and with blood on their hands…and now they need to get away.
Page 3 – Make it clear whose story this is. Provide a twist!
Interior monologue lets us know it’s the girl’s story. Her motive was that her parents wouldn’t let her date who she wanted to. The twist, is that she calls 911 to report the murder, that her boyfriend did it, and that he is trying to kill her!
Page 4 – Increase the tension, build to the resolution, further develop character.
The girl keeps the cops on the line, and is clearly a pathological liar/psychopath as she throws her boyfriend under the bus.
Page 5 – Find a resolution, and nail another twist at the end.
The cops arrest the boyfriend, and we find out that the girl used him to kill his parents so she could be with another boy. “
And this is pretty good stuff. It’s certainly a great place to start. Hell, hold it up to another Murder Book short from the same creative team and see how they go [though with 6 pages this time].
“Midnight Walk” by Johnnie Christmas and Ed Brisson [LINK]
PAGE 1 – Establish setting and lead character [guy walking through the woods] and then build to a page turn [huh?]
PAGE 2 – Introduce a complication and then await character response [guy finds a girl under a tree, then discovers she’s dead– what will he do?]
PAGE 3 – character response in emotive fashion [guy freaks out, can’t quickly solve this problem, page becomes tense]
PAGE 4 – introduce new complication to the mix, ramp up emotive tension [group of guys find this guy by her body, they assume the worst, will their aggression topple over?]
PAGE 5 – problem explosion [our guy gets his ass kicked]
PAGE 6 – final denouement with a twist [guy is killed by this group – as some kind of rough retribution – but final panel reveals maybe the girl isn’t dead after all #womp]
It’s terse, it’s sharp, and it’s goddamn heartbreaking. I still remember reading this for the first time and being angry at Brisson for doing this to this poor bastard. That’s six pages to completely drown the reader in their emotions.
And emotion is the best string to pull in your short. Grab a thread of terror or disgust or sad hilarity and just pull with every damn panel you give yourself.
Now, because I’m narcissistic on a megalomaniacal level, I want to offer up something of my own, though I’m actually going to pick it apart and show some flaws, too. Consider, Survivor–– a six page short you can read for free at that link with art by Daniel J Logan, letters by Mike Perry, and nascent wordsmithing from me.
Page 1, in which I indicate a scene, a world, and a man within it [empty nihilistic universe, guy trying to survive]
Page 2, in which we drop a little more knowledge and then we end with a major complication [the kid is crying, what to do ,what to do]
Page 3, in which the main character reacts, through historical exposition
Page 4, in which our lead character must make a decision, and I try to make you care about him on an emotional level [the ultimate parental tragedy]
Page 5, in which I finally show you the Big Bad hinted at, and the crescendo mounts, and we can only guess that…
Page 6, in which I’m scum and I hope I kick you in the nuts on my way out the window [the father leaves his kid to face certain death just so he can survive].
Now, this short isn’t perfect. But the emotion in it resonates and people react to this one, which is always nice. I think the emotion, and DJL’s rad art, saved me here because the story is bloated.
I should have cropped Page 1, just did a cold open on him in the space diner with his kid hiding, like Tyler says, in media res, establish everything on Page 1, and I don’t.
I also feel like Page 3 is just exposition, but I needed it to set up the angle on surviving, and that HE is a survivor, so HE knows how to survive, but not necessarily save others. It sets up his goal, to survive, but I still feel like I could maybe script it better.
Page 4 I am happy with, the emotion sits on the page well, we see what ths story is completely. And then Page 5 is kinda filler. I mean, you need it for the page turn reveal, this builds the tension, so I wouldn’t change it, but you can see how real estate gets stolen for the structure so you need to use what you can wisely.
Page 6 is a splash and I’d keep it that way because it’s the purpose for the short. No one actually cares about the back story, it is there to serve this moment. This is that twist you are coming to the short for.
It’s also interesting to note you could set this story anywhere and it works. This could be a zombie story, a Viking marauding party tale, anything. Because it’s about the emotion, the parental conundrum, and that works anywhere. I chose sci-fi and aliens because I dig that stuff, and I know zombies are played and won’t get eyes, and DJL draws good stuff in this realm.
These examples are why five page shorts are your best place to start, because if you can do this, then you are showing your entire skillset.
To prove my point with a mic drop of a link, consider Paul Allor’s debut collection of 5 page shorts, Clockwork–– in each story, you can watch someone growing and exploring and doing it right. You can also see him playing with different genres, tones, and the emotions he draws out of you. Stack his stories against that structure laid out above, he’s on point. So get in there, study, and start considering your future.
If you are inclined to dig into some homework, I want you to find the best five page short you can find online. Scour Challenger Comics, or Study Group Comics, anything you can find and dig on and then run it against Tyler’s algorithm, see how it holds up.
Then, for those looking to get really nasty, write your own five pager [I know you didn’t actually do it above, you lousy liar, you] and maybe even write a few, three, a dozen. Write some up, let them sit, and then edit it against this structure. Hit me up if you get something good and make me feel something in my cold dead hard Australian wombat heart.
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.