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Greg Pak @gregpak
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Great question, Frederik! Thanks for asking! So... a few thoughts about outlining an arc of a comic book series... which is, in many ways, THE HARDEST PART OF THE WHOLE JOB for me!
Planning the initial story arc of a comic book series often feels like the toughest part of writing comics because in order to nail down that story, I have to nail down all the big things that make the series and character tick.
That initial story arc is a kind of mission statement, laying out the main character's big motivating dynamic, building the world, setting the genre and style, and establishing the supporting characters and villains. So it requires a ton of thought.
I carry around small Moleskine notebooks in which I take notes about the big stories I'm trying to crack. (I know! I'm a walking cliche! But those notebooks are so portable and they really do feel nice to write in! I stock up whenever they go on sale. ;-) )
I kind of talk out loud in those notebooks. Just free-wheeling, brainstorming about what the characters want and do and what kinds of relationships they have and what the story's really about.
In big, broad strokes, I'm looking for the plot/genre hook and the character arc. Sometimes I boil that down by talking about what the story's about... and what the story's REALLY about.
With PLANET HULK, the story was about the Hulk going from slave to gladiator to rebel to conquerer on an alien planet. That was the plot/genre hook. But what the story was REALLY about was a monster becoming a hero. That was the character arc. Once I had both, I knew what to do.
Sometimes it can take a while to figure out what the story's really about. Sometimes you think you know what it is, but you only REALLY figure it out late in the game. That's fine. That's how stories develop.
But in all my best work, I've got a really good grasp on that big character arc by the time I'm writing that first issue. So I can seed that big story from the very beginning. Hint at those big themes from page one, panel one.
Knowing what my story's REALLY about also makes every other step in the process easier because it helps me decide what should and shouldn't be in the story. It helps me figure out WHY a scene is necessary and makes it possible for me to write it well, with intention and purpose.
Another PLANET HULK example - knowing the story was about a monster becoming a hero informed all of the stuff I did with the Hulk's supporting cast, the Warbound. The Hulk went from someone who just wanted to be left alone to someone who bound himself to these fellow warriors.
So every scene with the Warbound wasn't just fun stuff with cool monsters and gladiators -- it was part of a gradual, step by step process of the Hulk bonding with these fellow gladiators. Knowing how it all fit in that big arc helped me decide what needed to be in the story.
The order in which elements come together can vary. There's no set rule. Sometimes you figure out your genre and know you're going to have certain things happen in the plot as a result. And THEN you figure out what those moments REALLY mean character-wise.
And sometimes you know there need to be certain scenes/moments as part of the big emotional arc, and then you figure out how they make sense in terms of the plot.
But by the end, ideally every scene moves the plot forward and moves the big character arc forward at the same time and in the right way at that point in the story.
So, a few actual practical things I do when outlining a story spanning multiple issues...
I almost always start the document with a ONE LINER giving the one sentence elevator pitch for the story. And then a one sentence WHAT IT'S REALLY ABOUT that describes the emotional story, the subtext. I literally write that out so my editors see what I'm going for.
(I'll go back and tweak those sentences all the time as I work on the story and figure out more stuff, by the way.)
Sometimes I'll do a section where I list the main characters and write a few sentences about each, laying out what their deal is and what they want and how they relate to each other. Not always. But sometimes it's helpful to lay the groundwork.
Then I describe the first issue, scene by scene. I don't go into as much detail as I might in a detailed outline I'd do before writing that issue. But I try to give a sense of the experience of reading that first issue, of how the story unfolds and the characters are introduced.
I'm trying to sell this experience to my editors, of course. But I'm also really trying to figure out for myself if this story works. Describing those big beats in order helps me see if it has legs, if it actually flows, if it's compelling.
And then I do shorter descriptions of the rest of the issues in the arc -- just a paragraph or two, laying out the big plot points and emotional beats. If it's all working right, you should be able to read those brief descriptions and get a real feel for how the story plays out.
The great thing this barebones outlining does is help ensure that each issue moves the story and character forward. It can be easy to get lost in details and lose track of how the big arc is moving forward... or to repeat beats, both in plot and emotion...
...but when you lay the story out in simple bullet points, it's easier to see the big structure for the whole thing and ensure that each issue ends with the plot and the characters in a different place from where they started.
It also becomes easier to see where you need those additional beats -- the quiet character moments before the big climax, for example. So I'm constantly going back and editing and rewriting and reworking the outline as I figure out different elements.
For what it's worth, the best stories I've written almost invariably are the ones that had the best outlines from the start. No story adheres to the outline 100 percent in the telling -- things shift and you learn more and figure out better ways of telling the story...
...but when I have a good, solid outline at the beginning, I'm able to layer in all kinds of thematic, character, and plot detail from the get-go that pays off gloriously by the end.
Also worth noting that my initial five issue outline invariably improves if I have a good sense of what I want to do in issues 6-12 and even 13-18. Knowing the HUGE arc of a story/character HUGELY helps with an ongoing series.
With WEAPON H (the first issue of which comes out next Wednesday!), I knew where the story was going through issue 10 before I started writing issue one. That's HUGE. Means that we're seeding stuff in that very first issue that'll pay off in a big way much later down the line.
And it means that I know how the emotional arc for Clay in the first five issues leads into a bigger emotional arc that takes us through the next big story. So there's purpose to everything and I know why I'm writing every single scene I tackle.
A few other practical things I keep in mind when outlining that longer story...
1. What does the reader need to know at each moment in order to understand what's going on and enjoy the unfolding mysteries? Sometimes you need to explain stuff; sometimes you don't...
...but it's important to think through what kind of information a reader needs at each point in the story. I think I've often tried to NOT overexplain every beat or moment. But as a reader, I realize I sometimes really appreciate it when a writer just clearly explains some stuff.
2. Important to understand your story well enough so that you can adjust on the fly, particularly in work-for-hire comics. If you understand what's REALLY important in your story, you can quickly make adjustments to accommodate editors' needs in a shared story world.
One example -- in WORLD WAR HULK, I originally wanted to use Thor. But Thor turned out to be unavailable given the current continuity. But I knew my story well enough to be able to brainstorm on the spot with editors and figure out how the Sentry could work just as well.
There are always some elements in your story that are really essential -- if they get diluted or removed, the story really loses its heart and soul. But there are always elements that can be shifted or swapped without damaging the big arc.
When you know your story well enough, you can confidently roll with things and make smart suggestions and adjustments, playing with the team while also telling the essential story you need to tell.
3. There are almost always better ways to tell different parts of the story. BUT you can't let the quest for perfection prevent you from hammering out that initial outline. The outline is a first step that you can then improve with the input of your editors & collaborators.
Getting it all down and then improving it is the only way to move forward. Waiting 'til it's perfect before you write it all down means you'll never write it all down.
4. Think about the audience for your outline and adjust accordingly. Some editors really just need to see a couple of pages. Even just a page and a half. Don't give them ten pages if they really just want two.
This is really getting into the difference between an outline and a pitch. Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference -- every outline is a pitch to a certain extent -- you're selling this story to yourself and your collaborators.
But there can be a difference between an outline you'd make for a project you and your collaborators are definitely doing and an outline for a gig you're trying to get.
Honestly, the hardest thing is doing an outline for a gig you haven't yet gotten that's going to be read by editors you don't really know well. There are a million variables that you just can't predict regarding personal preferences here...
...but my take is generally just to write the story I love the way I'd love to see it. And if that syncs with the editor, then it's meant to be and we're off to the races. If it doesn't, then maybe it's for the better for that project.
That being said, it's totally appropriate to ask if an editor has a preferred page length or format or any preferences regarding the outline before you finalize it and send it in.
My favorite way to work is when I have editors who are committed to me and the project and we just freely dig in and work to make the best story we can. Then I can crank out a detailed outline with all the good, fun, meaty stuff and we can make it sing together.
5. If I'm outlining just one story arc, at the end of the document, I'll often include a couple of sentences or paragraphs indicating where the story goes next. Mini-pitches for the next couple of stories down the line. Helps me remember where things go next.
6. If I get stuck, talking with collaborators is key. Sometimes writers can get defensive & possessive, hesitant to share for fear of getting undermined or distracted. And that's totally valid in some circumstances - you don't want to share your story-in-progress with EVERYONE...
...not everyone on the planet is gonna get your story. And it is possible to damage your story or your passion for it if you share it too early with negative folks who know how to critique but not help build. Doesn't mean they're bad. Just not the right helpers for you.
BUT your actual collaborators on the book are a different matter. These are your partners and a TREMENDOUS resource when you get stuck. I LOVE TALKING WITH MY EDITORS. They make everything better. Seriously.
And talking with artists can be INCREDIBLY helpful. @AaronKuder and I worked hand-in-hand every single step of the way with ACTION COMICS until we were actually cowriting in the end.
With WEAPON H, artist @csmitharts and I got on the phone with our editor and talked through a bunch of stuff early on -- and Cory's thoughts absolutely helped establish critical things for the story and the whole vibe of the book.
Forgot to shamelessly plug -- if this thread was interesting/helpful to you, please feel free to subscribe to my email newsletter! gregpak.com/sign-up-for-th…
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