It’s an old axiom: writers should read. We read all sorts, of course – from cereal packets to literary masterpieces. It’s all grist to the mill – the brain. Naturally, if you write in a particular genre, it makes sense to read works in that sphere. But if you want to bring freshness, sometimes it’s a good idea to read outside your favoured genre – outside your comfort zone, even.
If you’re writing contemporary fiction, you may believe you can wing it by not doing any research. That’s possible, but not highly likely. The modern world is complicated.
If your fictional world is in the future or on an alien planet, then you may think that since everything is ‘made up’, then ‘anything goes’ – but you’d be wrong. Characterisation, motivation, logic, genetics, science, history, magic – any or all of these subjects may be pertinent, not to mention types of clothing, armour, weaponry.
If you’re writing a historical novel, then research is definitely required; but don’t just stick to the history books, read fiction set in your chosen period – not to slavishly copy, but to absorb the place, the patterns of speech, the manners, and the everyday lives.
One resource writers might not consider is comics.
Comic books have been around a long time and have developed to a high degree of sophistication.
Comics – like those story-boards for movie-makers – help the viewer/reader visualise a scene and the action. Not all modern comics are action-packed, some are emotional in content, their characters with real-life issues. Not all comics are for kids, either.
Delving in my pile of magazines the other day, I came across a March 2003 copy of Write Now! ‘the magazine about writing for comics, animation and science fiction’. No longer in print, copies can still be purchased online. Within its pages is a lengthy article by Dennis O’Neil that may be of interest to all writers of genre fiction. Dennis O’Neil is an award-winning writer and editor, now retired.
O'Neil first asks what is a story? His answer is that it isn’t a random slice of reality, but a structured narrative. That’s the essence: structured. Within that structure it should aim to evoke an emotional response from the reader and reveal character. Usually, without character there is no story. In the best stories, everything must count, and quotes from Poe: very word must be aimed towards a final effect. And with Poe we know what that effect should be!
He advises the writer not to waste words or images, because that’s a sure-fire way to bore the audience.
Naturally, for stories in comics, there are advantages: the visuals tell much of the tale. But good comics are a symbiosis of word and image. Fiction writers can do the same, to a certain extent, by visualising the scene – imagine you’re detailing the scene for an artist to draw. If you do that, then the reader can ‘draw’ the scene in their head.
Comics invariably have constraints thrust on the writers/artists – number of pages and preferred ratio of image/text, often depending on the publisher. Genre writers have similar constraints, in all probability – length of book (word-count). So, descriptions may have to be broad visual brush strokes and not contain too many complex sub-plots – unless you’re writing a series!
He pleads for clarity – establishing characters and conflicts early on. Within scenes, make sure there is no confusion – do you know where everybody is standing, what they’re doing? Employ that inner artist to ‘draw’ the scene.
Dialogue: it should be obvious who is talking at any time. In comics, this is easy – we have those speech bubbles, but even these cues are cunningly placed to move the story forward, from character to character, panel to panel. In your fiction, you can attribute speech without labouring the point. If there are only two characters speaking in the scene, then you don’t need ‘he said’ or their names most of the time. Speech in comics is usually brief – minimum number of lines per bubble. In reality, that’s the case too: avoid lengthy speeches, edit it down to fit the ‘bubble’.
He advocates never simply inserting a character; that person has to have a reason, a purpose for being in the story.
Always keep in mind what he calls the ‘story spine’: what the story is about. Its theme, its ‘message’, its reason for being!
Story must have conflict – it may be emotional rather than physical. There must be something at stake: the set up.
The story must lead to the most powerful moment: the win or lose instant.
In all likelihood, if you use ‘structure’ in your story, you’re going to provide pacing which will produce a page-turner.
Basic structure can vary, as nothing is immutable, but it’s always worth knowing what works, and then twist it afterwards to your own ends:
Situation and conflict
Critically reading comics can emphasise these guidelines and prove helpful in your genre fiction writing.