Crafting a story — part 2: Collecting your Ideas

A few times now I have visited the Pixar Exhibition “25 Years of Animation.” It is great to see all the different ideas all those amazing artists came up with in terms of story and how the movie should look. It’s also really fun to see that some characters and environments don’t look at all like they do in the finished film.
I frequently heard that Pixar makes use of three elements they focus on in their movies, and I really think they hit the nail on the head with these ones. Every movie consists of: story, character and world. They work simultaneously on these elements throughout the entire movie.

Pixar exhibition

This is true also for artists who work in comics. (And this applies to illustration as well, since it’s also a form of narrative storytelling) You need characters your readers can identify with, or despise, or root for. These characters experience things that takes us on a journey with them. This is your story. And you need a setting in which this all takes place, the world.
Of course, since we work in comics, this all needs to be presented visually, so next to writing, a comic artist has to do a lot of designing. Everything, from the way your characters look, to the shape of the trees in your environments, to the kind of cups the characters drink from, it all has to be drawn and thought about. It also has to fit into your story and into your world. This all can be daunting, but also a lot of fun. There’s a great deal to be learned about the world and about how to draw things. In my opinion, this process of discovery is part of what makes creating comics or illustrations so awesome, so I`m trying not to be too intimidated and just go with the process without thinking too much of all the work.

The first thing I do when I start new project, in this case: a webcomic, is a process I call “collecting.” It’s grabbing all the ideas you have so far and putting them on paper or in the computer. I use sketchbooks and Photoshop for sketching, a program called Evernote to capture ideas and reference links and to write pieces of dialogue that come to mind. (I don’t like how it handles images so I use Pinterest for collecting visual reference, or I just save the files to my hard drive) What I love about Evernote is how it makes my notes available across platforms. I’m on the road a lot so I can always jot down new ideas that come to mind and open them again on my computer at home.

So the first phase of every visual story is a lot of writing, typing and sketching. No editing, just having fun with new ideas, grabbing them and saving them for later reference.
There is nothing yet, no story, no characters, no sets, no villains, no style, no wardrobes, no architecture, so you can go crazy! Write, draw, make mind maps, lists, discover your characters’ speech, the way they walk, the culture and history of your world, draw out scenes that come to mind and then write and draw some more.
By this I don’t mean that you should write this 1000 page book of background info first. Capture the things that are relevant to the telling of your story. (unless you like writing 1000 page books about your world’s history, then, by all means go ahead!) Usually you will feel when you need to think some elements of your story through some more, in my case I`ll hit a wall somewhere in the process. (hopefully somewhere at the beginning)
Another note about writing: a longer story like Reminiscence is not just written in an evening of inspiration and then finished to use. You start out with a rough outline and then you start adding and subtracting elements, shaping the story as you go along and as you discover more about who your characters are and what you want to say.

This process of collecting my ideas is nearly finished for Reminiscence. I have a few plot holes left to fill but the main storyline is clear. I am really starting to get to know my characters through thinking about their history and personality traits and I am now in the middle of character design, costumes and concepts for environments. I’m also thinking about my story thoroughly. What is it exactly that I want to say? How does the world work in terms of physics and culture, and why? This is the editing and refining stage. I’m still having new ideas and I still need some, but I have enough information to start doing the decision-making about what to keep, what to skip, and what to add. This process will continue until the comic is finished. Things will change along the way, but that is good if it makes the story better.
In the next two weeks I will talk about how I think through my ideas, story wise and art wise.

story_char_worldEventually I purchased an app for my iPad called Storyist that is made for authors and screenwriters. (unfortunately it`s not available for Windows) It does a lot of the formatting for you and I especially liked the feature that lets you make notes on digital cards and rearrange them. It certainly helped me to write down and change the order of the loose scenes and keep track of how the story’s structure was coming along.
Of course this can all be done on actual cards and paper as well. It doesn’t really matter what you use, as long as it’s useful to you. Sometimes it’s easy to get lost in all the possibilities to capture ideas. I personally have a weak spots for new programs and apps that will “make my life easier” and I can easily fall into the trap of focusing on the tools, not the skills. But no program will excuse you from doing the basic work and think your story idea through untill you have a clear vision of where you want it to go. And when I`m really honest with myself, I wouldn’t want to have it any other way.

Question: what is your favourite method for collecting ideas? How do you go about it?
Action: put your ideas (stories, characters, random ideas, dream projects etc.) to paper and/or capture them in a computer-based program. Even if you just keep them for later reference or don’t do anything with them, it can be really freeing and inspirational to get them out of your mind and seeing them in front of you.

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