Dec 29 2008
Generally, a book has only 5-20 pages (depending on audience age and genre) to establish three critical elements.
- The status quo of the main character. What is this character like before everything goes wrong? In the Lord of the Rings, for example, Frodo celebrates Bilbo’s birthday before being called upon to save the world. In Superhero Nation, Gary is a workaholic accountant.
- The inciting event. What throws the character off his status quo? Usually, this is the point at which everything starts to go wrong. For example, in Superhero Nation, Gary narrowly survives a car-bombing very early on. This forces several changes on him: first, he is transferred away from his job for his safety. So he’s completely out of his social comfort zone. Second, assassins are now trying to kill him.
- A goal for the main character. This is usually a response to the inciting event. This can be as simple as “I want everything to return to normal.” Gary wants to rebuild his life by getting a job somewhere and he wants to survive the assassins. This brings him to the superpowered Office of Special Investigations. Wacky hijinks ensue! (Buy the book when it finally gets published, heh heh).
A lot of manuscripts get bogged down in details that are typically too far removed from these three goals.
- Prologues. They usually lack immediacy and, far too often, they just skip the main character entirely. Ick. The main character is almost always the best available way to hook readers into your story.
- Backstory. Typically, it doesn’t really matter what your character was doing 5 or 10 years ago. Readers want to know what’s happening now. If you are literally unable to start the story without explaining what happened 5 or 10 years ago, you may wish to reevaluate the starting point for your story. Ahem. “If your backstory is more interesting than your current era, you’re writing the wrong story.” If you have to introduce backstory, try to keep it to a bare minimum. Tell us only what we need to understand what is going on now.
- Side-characters. If the side-characters are the best hook to your story, there’s probably something wrong with the main character and/or the plot. For example, if a fantasy novel wants to show us the parents of the hero right before he is born, that will trap us in backstory. Furthermore, will readers care about the hero’s parents? Probably not. If they were the most interesting characters in this book, they would be the leads. Harry Potter #1 was very well-written, but it made a questionable choice to start the book when Harry was an infant. It was a very slow beginning.
- Elaborate settings. Typically, the main character is a better hook into the story than the world is. A strong character can be relatable and likable, mostly unlike a strong world. Try to limit the setting at the very beginning to just what we need to understand the main character and the plot.
I originally wrote this article for novelists, but it’s largely true for comic-book writers as well. The main difference is that a comic-book writer has even fewer pages to establish the status quo. What is your Peter Parker like before he becomes Spiderman? If your character has a particularly interesting origin story, I’d recommend giving the status quo no more than half an issue (12 or 16 pages, probably). But readers tend to appreciate introductions that are much shorter. A good establishing shot is typically sufficient and lets you get to the interesting stuff faster. (I love alternate identities as much as anyone, but usually the superhero identity is more gripping. Would you want to read a comic called The Amazing Peter Parker or Clark Kent/Bruce Wayne?)
In a comic that probably ranges from 24-32 pages, you really need to get to the inciting event (probably the radioactive spider-bite or however else your hero got his powers) as soon as possible. In a superhero story, I’d recommend giving the hero his powers early enough in the first issue that you can introduce his goal. Ideally you can conclude the first issue with a fight or some other climactic event that gives you some room to offer some resolution (which satisfies readers) while setting up a greater conflict that will leave the readers wanting more.