Unfortunately, the 3.4 million other things I have up in the air got together and conspired against this idea. But not until I wrote most of a Tutorial One. It's been sitting in storage for a couple months, collecting dust.
I don't know how useful it is in this state, but I thought I'd just post it and see what happens. If there's enough response, I can certainly be convinced to do more. If not, I hope this is helpful!
My overall goal is was to create a set of tutorials that will be helpful to a lot of people. I'm going to use concrete examples, but I am hoping to include enough general knowledge that most of this can be applied to any kind of visual storytelling format or style.
I'm also starting from scratch.
I've written a new story and chosen a graphical style, and they may or may not be anything like the things you're doing, but again, I hope to include methods and steps that will work for most comic and manga artists and writers.
If I'm missing something or not digging deep enough, I'd love to hear from you. I'd also like to hear any suggestions you have for the current tutorial as well as ideas for future tutorials—like what would you like me to focus on?
Here's a little bit of background—some highlights about what I've done before we get started: I'm an author and illustrator. My first novel Seaborn came out summer 2008 from Juno Books. I have several short stories in print and online zines, including one in the June issue Fantasy Magazine. On the illustration side, I have some pen and ink work in issue 10 of Shimmer, and I've written and illustrated the weekly graphic novel Saltwater Witch for a couple years. Okay, I'm sort of newbish in certain areas, and I'm hoping to learn as much as anyone from putting together this series of tutorials.
I plan to dig into lots of things, but I probably won't spend too much time with drawing and coloring techniques. Lots of great tutorials out there already. I assume you already love to draw, may even have your own web comic, or are working on a graphic novel. Even if you don't, these tutorials should add to what you already know, and may even get you started—or at least get you thinking about different aspects of visual storytelling.
I'm not going to start with a work in progress, but with a completely new comic. I already have a complete story in mind. I have characters, plot, style, some initial sketching done, and I'm going to build each tutorial from the progress I make. Here's how I hope things go: you get to see--in real time--what I see, and I'm going to document what I do, why I do it, when, and even how in most cases. I'm going to post my complete written story before we really dig into creating a graphical version, so you can read it and know where things need to go along with me. I'm going to go through my own exercises for pulling out dialogue, developing scenes, building suspense, showing emotions, and driving the storyboarding and design from the plot. I also have a few tutorials planned on cover design, character development, and storytelling in general.
Okay, let's get started.
I like to start with a story. Even if it's not a completely filled out story, you should have a clear story arc, a beginning that pulls the reader in, a middle full of action, an ending that ties most things up for the reader. And all of this done with compelling characters.
I'm starting with a story based on a couple chapters in Sea Throne (the sequel to Seaborn), with an existing character, Nikasia of the Kirkelatides. She's pretty badass. One of her family's claims is to be descendants of the goddess Kirke (Circe).
I'm not going to go too far into the story right now, but before I get to the tutorial on storyboarding, I'll lay enough of it out for you, with a synopsis and the full text of the story, so you can see everything--as much as I can. I think that will make it easier to understand why I'm selecting specific scenes, characters, and paths through the plot. At the same time, I'd like to hear from you—post on my blog or email me. Go to SaltwaterWitch.com for my email, links to my blog, and other stuff.
So, here's what I think I need to get started--in no particular order, because I think you need them all. For this first tutorial, I'm going to focus on 2 through 4, but I'll give you enough of the story to get going:
1. Story (at least a clear story arc)
2. Hook for your opening scene
3. A very clear look, voice, and motivation for your main character.
4. Establish where and when the story takes place as early as possible
I even have a working title for my story: Syren Tears.
I'm not sure if this is the final title, but it works for now—and on a few levels. Syren gives the reader the impression that the story is probably about the sea and may have a female main character—mythical sirens were female. I'm going with a funny archaic spelling of Syren to distinguish my syren from the purely romantic or seductress aspects of the word—focusing on the much more fun ship-wrecking and destructive aspects instead.
On to the story:
Let's start with the core idea. You should be able to boil everything down to something like this--in one line:
Syren Tears is the story of a vengeance-driven descendant of the goddess Circe, who learns something important about the nature of revenge and what a destructive cycle it can become.
This is the heart of the story. I've distilled it all down to this one line, leaving out important plot points like the chain, a time and place, and characters like the dragon and that fisherman's son. I didn't even mention the main character's name. You could, but unless the name is important to the plot, at this level, I'd just leave it out.
The important thing here is to understand that even at this level you can see what the reader has to experience and realize before everything's done—that this "vengeance-driven" character is going to learn something valuable, and when she does, it should be important enough for the reader feel that the story is complete, or maybe even to think, "I hope she learned that lesson."
That's enough of the story to go on—more when we dig into plot mining—that's the process of going through the story and determining what absolutely needs to be shown to the reader to drive the plot, and what can be left out.
I put Hook second on the list. This is about hooking your readers, showing enough to get them into the story, giving them more questions than answers.
My own preference for writing is to make sure the reader comes out of the first scene or chapter thinking, "I need to know more about this character or place" and I even like to push the reader into thinking, "what the hell just happened?"
A balance somewhere between the two is probably best. You do not want to raise so many questions that the story appears inaccessible or bewildering. You also don't want to come anywhere near answering most of the questions raised.
When I say "questions", I mean what's going through the reader's mind at each step through your art and dialogue. The reader's mind is going to ask a lot and take in even more than most of us think—raising questions about details like hair and clothing styles, ways of speaking, details in the background, colors, facial expressions—like why is the main character smiling when she clearly should be scared?
You want intrigue, you want to build interest in your world and in your characters, but you also want to leave a lot of gaps—especially in the beginning.
What's the hook for Syren Tears?
I think in most stories you want a "hook", something sharp, shocking, interesting, or perplexing to draw the reader in. The opening hook I've come up with for the opening scene in Syren Tears is my main character turning in circles, cart-wheeling in the ocean somewhere, scowling straight out from the frame, and the word "DEAD" repeated over and over.
I sketched a quick set of ideas for the opening panels, and then went through each one with some detail:
In a matter of seconds, readers get enough to understand where things are happening—in the ocean (see the sharks?), may even grasp the when, judging by how contemporary they see her clothes. This is clearly a woman who looks angry, is thinking, repeating the word, or in some way surrounded by the idea of "DEAD".
It also raises a lot of questions, like what's up with the word "DEAD" and why is she obsessing over it? Who is this woman? Why are her eyes orange? Why is she so angry? What the hell's she doing in the water? Why isn't she afraid of those sharks? Why, why, why.
That's exactly what we want from the reader at this point.
As the artist and storyteller, it's your job to get your readers to ask these questions. And you definitely don't want to answer them all at once. When all the questions are answered, the reader closes the book and goes home. Keep the questions coming in your reader's head by dropping a steady stream of hints, plot devices, dialogue and other story elements.
But not too many.
It's the balance between these two—readers understanding just enough about what's happening with questions piling up—that pulls them into the next scene or chapter—looking for answers. On one level, storytelling is all about keeping that balance, dropping hints for questions on the front when the ones on the back have been pulled off and answered.
Point number 3 in the list of things I'm going to cover in this tutorial is about establishing a clear look, voice and motivation for your main character.
In my mind, the "look" is about two things, the style and reproducibility. Unlike Saltwater Witch, which is a painted style, rich shaded colors, some lines showing through, heavy use of the palette knife, with Syren Tears, I'm going with a flat look, solid colors, very little shading, and scene depth in a few distinct layers. You probably already have a favorite style, or one in which you're comfortable working.
The second part of "look" is about the artist's ability to consistently draw or paint the same characters over and over with a range of expressions, clothing, and action. I added this to "look" because this is a particular problem of my own. All you brilliant comic artists out there, I envy you the skill of consistency, your ability to make a character look alike page after page. For this reason, I'm going with the simpler style with Syren Tears.
On to a character's voice.
Voice is about consistency, too. It's also about character development and plausibility—the belief your readers have in your character's actions and manner and words. It's not just about how a character sounds, but the words and actions your character uses and performs.
Here's a very obvious example: If you've already established that Dwight doesn't know anything about cars, it will throw the reader off when Dwight starts talking about engines and replacing a camshaft sensor.
But voice is much more than that.
I have to think about this some more, but it seems like one aspect of voice is the written analog to consistency in the way characters appear. So, voice is consistency in the way characters behave and speak. When you read a novel, and you think "this doesn't sound like Angela" you could say the writer "lost Angela's voice" for that chapter or line of dialogue.
So this is one more thing to keep in mind: readers will notice even subtle differences in appearance and tone in the way characters look, act and speak.
The character development aspect of "voice" is around making the dialogue work for your character. The way your characters speak to each other establishes them in the reader's mind. Part of me wants to tell you not to waste words, because it's powerfully crazy what you can fit into one line of dialogue.
Here's an example:
"Yeah, I didn't think this would work either, but then Zeke showed up with his toolbox and like a kilo of C4."
You don't know who said this, or why, or in answer to what, but let's look at what's been said...really said.
Yeah –you just know the character is youngish, maybe twenties, casual, especially when combined with the "like" a kilo of C4.
The fact that this character appears to be comfortable talking about a kilo of C4 (explosives) and that things are now expected to "work" because of it, tells us a lot.
What does the "I didn't think this would work either" phrase mean? It could mean this is a fairly reasonable person, who thinks things through, who projects some kind of outcome, and then weighs what he or she knows to determine if it's worth pursuing. It could be this character is a pessimist, and thinks most things will fail.
Overall, it tells us you'll just have to read on to find out.
There's so much the writer in you can put into motion in the reader's head with one line of dialogue. Don't miss any opportunity to plant the hints and details about who or what's going on. Don't answer every question—a few of them is okay. As long as you're giving the reader more to wonder about. Don't beat the reader over the head with info dumps. Readers are smart. They pick these things up.
And to wrap up, a tiny bit about character motivation.
The story teller needs to know what drives a character. I don't think you need the reader to know everything in your main character's head.
In fact, by the end of the first scene, I think readers should have a hint, just enough to give them an impression of direction and drive in your character.
Motivation is tricky for several reasons. For readers to really buy into your character's drive, they may need to be with your characters for a while. You should expect that, and in that case you may want to take your time divulging everything. One the other hand, in many many stories the motivation is a reaction to whatever the bad guy's doing.
If you take away one thing from this tutorial, it's that the bad guy will be driving much of your plot. It's the bad guy who wants to take over the world and your hero is the one who's in place to stop him. It's the bad guy who has wronged your heroine, emptied her bank account, broken her arm, hacked her iPad, stole the most valuable thing in her life. What's she going to do? Hmmm... That's right. Go after him in a big way, get her stuff back, and if possible, hand the bad guy a big plate of justice.
Back to my example story, Syren Tears. I love internal struggles more than any other plot type. You may have noticed in my one line core story description, I don't mention an enemy. That's because it's inside the heroine Nikasa. She is both the good force and bad force in this story, and the clash is entirely with herself. Her out-of-all-proportion drive for vengeance is what gets her into trouble, and what drives her to act.
In some ways, this makes the story more difficult to tell. Let's see if I can pull it off.
Okay, that's it for tutorial 1, an intro and a first scene overview—but a lot of ground covered very shallowly. I hope I didn't bore the crap out of you, and hope that you'll check out the next tutorial!