Crafting a story – Editing the story through writing

Last week I wrote about collecting all your ideas. After you feel like you have a fair amount of material that you can work with, it’s time to start editing. This process can be compared to that of a sculptor who works with clay: picture a big block of clay and having to sculpt a human face out of it. You start with the basic shape of the form and slowly make your way towards more detailed features. You chip away the clay where you don’t need it and you add some where you do. This is the same with story and art and also true for illustration. The portfolio pieces I have in mind have to tell a story as well, or “communicate an idea,” so you will. So I have to ask myself a few questions before I start. I think I’ll make a post specifically about the preparation for an illustration somewhere in the coming weeks. So stay tuned if you want to know more about how I go about that.
I usually start the story editing process with writing, so that’s what I’ll be talking about this week.

Writing

Now, you might have a pile of random thoughts, characters, settings and scenes. How to make sense of it and, even more important, how to make a cohesive and structured story out of it that your audience will be able to understand? The answer is that this process is different for everybody and it might take some experimenting for you to figure out what your way of building a story is.
Some start with exploring what the (main) characters are about and let their interactions, histories and their fears and desires shape the story, some start with writing a basic plot and add in the elements and characters they need, others will think of an ending and try to figure out the most interesting way to work towards that. You probably already have some of this stuff and you can look through your notes and drawings for interesting starting points for yourself. Then just experiment what works for you, or even for this specific story. It might be very well that my process will be different when I start something new.
Reminiscence started with the basic plot and characters first, I derived those directly from stories I liked as a child. (Bands of friends on an adventurous journey being my favourite) This also informed my choice of style and time period, but more on that in the next article.
My challenge then was to make a structured, entertaining and interesting story out of it and to discover what I wanted to say with this comic. Now everything was pretty basic in my mind, I only knew that I wanted for it to be an adventure, I wanted a group of friends that looked and behaved differently from each other, I wanted to make it look appealing (first to myself but hopefully also to others) in terms of style and last but not least: I wanted it to be fun to draw. After all, I have to work with this story for a few years.

When it comes to writing I am learning a lot at the moment. This week I have written some more about a few side characters and that helped me add more dimension to my main characters for example. I`m also figuring out who my antagonist is and what drives him.

These are a few of the things I bear in mind at the moment when I’m working on, and expanding, my ideas:

1 I don’t edit my sentences.

Next to drawing, I’ve always written stories. I used to be more of an illustrator before I wanted to make comics, so I would write stories and make pictures to go with them. Because of this I easily fall into the trap of wanting the writing to be good. When I’m editing for a comic though, the writing itself isn’t that important. It’s essential that I get the ideas on paper so I can use them in my drawings. So I try to turn my inner editor off and follow the trail of my thoughts. In the idea phase I even write in a weird mixture of Dutch and English. I write it down how it comes to me and what conveys the idea in the best way for me.

2 I want my story to have a main idea that binds everything in it together, a theme.

This is the most important part of a story. It is the thing you want to say, the idea you want to explore, or the message you want to bring. What is your story about? The theme is the framework of your tale, it binds together all that happens. In Invisible Ink, a great book about storytelling, Brian Mc Donald says: “Having a point gives your story resonance.”
He also gives an example of the theme for the Wizard of Oz. You might think the theme is: “there’s no place like home.” But in fact, that is not the message of the story. It runs more along the lines of: “you might already have what you are looking for.” Every character Dorothy meets reflects that theme.

3 I ask a lot of questions.

One of the things I can forget is to make sure that things are what they are for a reason instead of adding them because it’s cool. One of the most important questions you can ask yourself when you write is: “why?” You do this to think through your story’s believability, but this also relates to your theme. What is this story about? And what happenings communicate that message?
Think about this concept in Disney’s Tarzan: right before the movie’s climax, Tarzan decides to leave the gorilla’s and to go off with the humans to England. One of the writers for Tarzan wrote a section of the script in which Tarzan, indeed, sails to Europe. (He doesn’t in the final version of the movie.) It seemed like an interesting possibility to explore, but they discovered that they lost track of their story and their main idea (theme) by moving away from Tarzan’s gorilla family and natural environment. Why? Because the movie explores the idea of “family.” More specifically: the theme of the movie is: “what makes a family? Is it the one you were born into? Or is it the people (or gorilla’s) that raised you? In essence, Disney’s Tarzan is a tale about adoption.
Adding cool stuff is great, but asking yourself questions about why this is relevant to the story and the idea that you want to convey and then incorporate this in your writing can add a whole new level of resonance for your audience.

4 I keep a list of things I still need to figure out.

The amount of notes and drawings I have can become overwhelming very fast. And when I’m writing my brain can go all kinds of directions and remind me of things to figure out that is not directly related to the idea I’m working with at the moment. So I write those thoughts down in a separate file to come back to. It also helps me to keep track of what I already thought through and what needs work.

5 I think in terms of story, character and world, and how they relate to each other.

Remember these from the previous article? These are the main things to explore. Before I wrap up this article, here are some examples of questions you can ask to make the essence of the story more clear to yourself:

– what is my theme? (for more info on theme, read this great article on the Paperwings Podcast website)
– how do the characters and their actions reflect the theme?
– what kind of world do my characters live in? What time period? How does this effect their behaviour?
– what rules does this world obey? What are the things that can and can not happen? (Think fantasy, science fiction or a regular world)
– write character descriptions and their histories to help you understand where the characters come from.
– how do the characters relate to each other? What do they think of each other?
– how do they react when faced with trouble/fear/loss etc.
– what are my characters worst nightmares? How would they react if they were taken out of their comfort zone and if they were faced with their biggest fears?
– what do my characters want more than anything? What are they willing to do to get it?
– how can I describe my story in a few sentences and make it interesting for people who know nothing about it?
– what is the biggest obstacle I can lay in the path of my protagonist? How does this move the plot forward?
– what is the atmosphere of the world my story takes place in?
– what is the opposite side of my protagonist’s character? Would it be interesting to add a character that has those characteristics? Maybe the antagonist?
– how does the world’s history affect how life is for it’s inhabitants?
– what kind of nature can be seen in this world? What architecture? What is the culture like? What languages are being spoken there?
etc, etc.

And of course, since we’re working with visuals: what does this all look like?

More on that is to come in the next article.

I have a lot of resources about writing, here are my favourites:
Books:
Invisible Ink by Brian Mc Donald
Save the Cat by Blake Snyder
Websites:
the Paperwings Podcast
the Write Practice
Pixars` 22 rules of storytelling article (originally tweeted by former Pixar story artist Emma Coats)

I hope you’re finding these articles helpful. If you want to add to these ideas or have any feedback, please consider leaving a comment.
Next week’s article will finally feature a lot more artwork. See you then!

Question: do you write before you start a comic project or even an illustration? If so, what does your writing process look like?
Action: write for 15 minutes about an idea or a theme that you want to explore. How can you convey it convincingly? Think of questions you need to ask.

6 comments

  1. Tanja says:

    Wow, Henrike. You’re showing me a whole new world. These posts are amazing! My brain is completely mesmerized. You already know that my storytelling skills are nonexistent because we talked about it. You make it sound much more approachable than I originally thought. Granted, it’s a whole new level to grasp (or master even), but reading about your process rendered my fears to even try it ridiculous.

    I never thought about writing a story before starting an illustration. But just reading about it in this post made me excited to try it out!

    • That’s great Tanja, go for it!!

      I don’t agree with you that your storytelling skills are non existent. You’ve told me plenty of stories when I was visiting you. Everybody can tell a story.
      It sort of looks the same in how you go about telling your friends what you were doing last saturday. You think about what you want to tell them and (subconsciously) what the point to your story is, then you tell them in the best way you think makes your point. The thing is you’re usually not that observant to what you’re doing.
      But it’s the same with storytelling through illustration, think about what we learned at OA. What is your About? That is your theme. 🙂 How can you “tell” this as good as possible with images? The writing for an illustration can be meant to figure that out.

  2. Sanne says:

    Thanks Henrike for sharing these wonderful tips! Since I’m exploring writing it’s really helpful to think through these kind of questions. 🙂

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