PLOTTING A SERIAL WEBCOMIC, PART 4 “Breaking Down a Chapter”on September 16th, 2011
One of the things I didn’t learn to do until Chapter 4 of the SuperFogeys was to break each Chapter down by strip. Before Chapter 4, I would write and draw a strip at a time, keeping in mind where I wanted to end up with the chapter and trying to make each strip as entertaining as I could on the road there. It was seat-of-my-pants creation. It was fun, but by Chapter 3 it was coming across like stalling. The story just wasn’t moving along. So, starting with Chapter 4, I established they way I continue to work to this day: strip-by-strip breakdowns.
Unfortunately, none of the breakdowns from Chapters 4 and 5 survive. I would erase the breakdowns as I wrote the more detailed scripts. It wasn’t until Chapter 6 that I started saving the breakdowns and the detailed scripts in separate documents.
So, let’s take a look at the breakdown for the first 6 strips of Chapter 6:
176 – Display of pictures of Dr. Rocket and friends and enemies. At the end of the panel stands SG and CS in church clothes.
SG: He sure was an evil #$&@, wasn’t he?
177 – CS remarks that almost everyone is there, but not Jerry. He doesn’t see Li’l Miss Missle. Surely she’d show herself for her own father’s funeral? Swifty wonders aloud if Tom would show up for CS’s.
178 – -Star Maiden and Swifty moment. Death, M.D. says hi to them, comments on SM’s condition and tried to take her temperature, which ticks Swifty off.
179 – Space Pig outlines the program. Dr. Klein will say a few words first, and then all are invited to come forward. We see heroes and villains alike.
Spy Gal: And why aren’t we doing this in a church?
CS: Dr. Klein said he couldn’t find one that would take him.
180 – Dr. Klein speaks a bit about DR and his place in Valhalla.
181 – Dr. Klein continues, but is interrupted by the Thrice Evil who accuses DK of something, but it’s hard to tell what exactly. He’s not very intelligible.
What we see here is a story, but not a lot in the way of jokes. If I thought of a line, I wrote it down, but otherwise this is just me keeping the story straight. In this breakdown, you can see specific details that would become more important later (like Tom and Thrice Evil) that I’ve made special mention of. By the time I got around to actually scripting and drawing Chapter 6, my ideas for what that chapter would be about and my understanding of the SuperFogeys story in general had greatly expanded. I’d moved way beyond my initial ideas.
One of the big things I keep in mind during the break down phase is pacing. That’s why you have a strip like 180 and it’s one sentence description of Dr. Klein speaking. I knew I didn’t want to jump straight into the Thrice Evil interrupting Dr. Klein. That would have been too quick a move off of Space Pig conducting. But I also didn’t know what else to do with that strip. Doesn’t matter. I knew I could figure it out later. Didn’t need more than a sentence to mark its place in the narrative.
This is maybe the trickiest thing about doing serial webcomics: pacing. Because, while you do want to make sure each and every strip is a satisfying bite, you don’t want to forget about the meal. Think about it: there’s really only one time any given strip will be read in isolation–and that’s on the day it’s released. After that day, it becomes a part of the archive and will only be read a part of the larger whole. So your strips not only have to be satisfying in and of themselves, they have to work for an entirely other experience as well. That’s friggin’ hard to pull off.
I’m not above going back and changing strips once it becomes obvious it doesn’t work as well as it should in the greater context. Take this strip for instance:
That’s how it originally appeared here on the site. A month ago, I went back and read Chapter 12 from the beginning and noticed something was way off. This is what the strip looks now:
Yep, I just flat-out deleted all the dialogue. It’s a transition strip and I felt the dialogue didn’t give you the sense of time and space. The first version played out like just another joke. The second one makes you stop and consider what’s happening.
But… that second version would never fly as someone’s introduction to SuperFogeys. It’s not the first thing anyone should see because it’s means NOTHING on its own. Works great in the archive as part of the chapter, not so great by itself.
Anyway. Once I feel like I have a pretty good breakdown, that’s the point at which I start showing my ideas to trusted friends like Mike DeVito at Th3rd World. Mike is always real good about spotting a moment I may have forgotten to include or coming up with an idea that I haven’t thought of. Other people’s perspective on my work and ideas is a very important part of my process.
With webcomics, you only have about four panels at a time to tell your story. Notice that the strips in my breakdowns are relatively small events individually. Two people looking at a table of memories. One person (or person-like thing) taking another’s temperature. You take them as a whole and you have atmosphere and story.
But what I still don’t have are those tasty, satisfying bites that make you come back for more of the meal. That can only happen at the script stage.
Next: Writing the Script