3-Point Plotting

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(Writing 101 post, fair warning)

When we make serialized content, from comic issue to television episode, we deliver it in discrete chunks. Each of these chunks should feel somehow complete while still dragging the audience forward to the next installment. I know that over the long run you have a lot of cool stuff, well-thought out character dynamics, epic deep background, but how do we start when we’re just staring at that blank page? How do we build the basic … chunk?

First, some vocabulary. People tend to use two words interchangeably when talking about narrative structure: “plot” and “story”. E.M Forster wrote in Aspects of the Novel: “”‘The king died and the queen died’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief’, is a plot. The time-sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it.” (Have you read Aspects of the Novel yet? You should. Now.)

Fair warning, I tend to alter those terms in my discussions, for purely personal reasons. ”Plot” to me is the engine, the machine of causality driving the narrative. ”Story”, to me, has an emotional feel. I think of Neil Gaiman stories, fairy stories, “tell me a story”, etc. “Story” is the whole package, the characters’ emotional journey, all that … feelings goop. I can abide a poorly plotted tale that winds up being a good story, but struggle to think of a bad story saved by a strong plot. No one ever walked out of a movie saying “I felt nothing, but man, the causal chain was fucking tight. Two thumbs up.”

Right, so for purposes of this and any further writing: Plot equals casual chain engine, Story equals the emotional playground, themes, etc. etc, arty bullshit.

So, when faced with the mind-devouring void of a blank page, how do I start?  Personally, I go back to basics. Plotting almost every story I’ve written (or supervised the writing of) I need to see the DISRUPTION, REVERSAL, and CONCLUSION to even begin.

THE DISRUPTION is readily apparent in episodic structure. It’s the inciting incident, the problem, the change which the characters in the show MUST deal with. In an episode of CASTLE it’s the body dropping, in an episode of LEVERAGE it’s the introduction of the case. It’s also, crucial, however, in serialized stories. In every episode of BREAKING BAD you can spot the disruption to the status quo — no matter how screwed up the status quo may be — in the first act. “I have a dude in the basement I have to murder, and I at this point still an in-over-my-head Chemistry teacher …” The Disruption is the accelerant, the problem which looms larger than all the rest for at least this little chunk of the long form story.

An old acquaintance, a former enforcer for the Irish mob in Montreal, had a great expression which anybody who’s worked with me has heard: “Is that a five-minutes-from-now problem or a twenty-minutes-from-now problem?” The full explanation, best done in a voice slurred just a bit with Bushmills, went like this …

“Some problems can wait twenty minutes. Sometimes you gotta solve a problem in the next five minutes or unpleasantness shall occur. And sometimes there’s a guy in the room with a fuckin’ knife. Deal with the guy with the fuckin’ knife, and move on from there.”

The Disruption, ideally, is the guy in the room with the fuckin’ knife. Now, it’s not necessarily that. As you move the intensity of the Disruption back in the timeline, the tone of the piece changes. “Guy in the room with a knife” gives you danger, pulp plotting. A “five minutes from now” problem gives you urgency, but control. Part of the fun is in watching the ad hoc planning your characters throw together to deal with the “five minutes from now” problem. Competence porn lives in the world of the “five minutes from now” problem.  A “twenty minutes from now” problem gives you dread.

See all those feelings? Tools in your Plot tune your Story. A good Story plays with these timelines all the time, changing things up. New problems emerge as knife/five minutes/twenty minutes problems, or the existent problems change in intensity as the Story progresses. The latter’s preferred, by the way, as you move forward in the narrative. Better to have a “twenty minutes from now” problem jump up at you than just dump a new problem in at the last minute.

Regardless, the Disruption is the main problem your character will be focused on solving for the amount of time you’re expecting the audience to pay attention. In episodic TV, the stays quo is implied (the continuing show premise or serialization), allowing you to drop the Disruption as close to the opening of the show as possible. In a TV pilot, however, you need to spend precious page weight describing the unfamiliar status quo. This is one of the reasons the pilot is rarely the best episode of a TV series.

THE REVERSAL is best described by my friend DJ McCarthey: “It’s the moment, when the movie … becomes an entirely different movie.” Too many scripts I’m submitted have a bunch of mini-reversals, the dreaded “and then” syndrome. Stuff happens, and then other stuff happens … Even in a well-plotted story when all the plot developments occur primarily because of the actions of the characters or logical but unexpected complications of the setting (the much loved SOUTH PARK creators advice “replace all moments in the outline  of ‘and then’ with ‘therefore’ or ‘but’) the story feels flat.

It’s a subtle distinction, but a good central reversal — and the middle of the story is the right place for it — always seems to elevate even a straight-ahead episodic-style story.

One of my favorite examples is ALIENS.  Their Reversal is when the missions transforms from a rescue mission to a desperate escape. In one issue of BLUE BEETLE I wrote, it’s the moment when Jaime’s problem goes from stopping the bad guy to saving lives, and realizing he’s not going to be able to save all of them.  In the LEVERAGE series finale, it’s when you realize that the story’s not about what Nate Ford did to steal medicine for a sick kid, but what he’s doing right now to steal something we don’t know aboutwhen Sterling shows up. I’ll fully admit we didn’t pull this off every time in LEVERAGE, but we did our best.

To me — and hell, remember all this is very personal, your mileage may vary — the best reversal is the point of strongest conflict in any interpersonal conflicts in your Story. Because, remember, if you’re doing this right, the emotional Story is riding right along on top the engine of that Plot. That Disruption didn’t just introduce the change in the world’s status quo, it was the spark of whatever emotional Story you want to tell with this particular chunk. If the Disruption set up the differing opinions and viewpoints of the characters, the Reversal is what throws those conflicts into high relief. It’s the testing ground, what sets up the emotional payoff to …

… THE CONCLUSION. The end. The new status quo. Not the return of the status quo, but the new one. Whatever new equilibrium has been reached. “Equilibrium” because it’s a situation, in serialized storytelling, which should be able to be easily disrupted. The status quo is always a delicately balanced thing, little stepping stones of resolution as you leap across the river of your season-long Stories.

Even if your series is highly episodic and the Plot brings closure, the new status quo establishes the emotional balance of your continuing Story. If even a little bit, attitudes are changed, secrets revealed, the basic emotional dynamic of the characters is explored, and someone has shifted if even just a little bit. (Note: we’re talking serialized narratives here. Different purpose for the Conclusion in close-ended work.)

Narratives with no Story progress are almost impossible to sell these days, and I think that’s because the audience has moved past being simply amused by Plot, or perhaps become too meta-aware of Plot structure for it to hold their attention in a meaningful way. There are cheats, of course — “nobody ever puts down a whodunnit” is a hack we’ve been exploiting for decades now — but generally, audiences expect more than just a satisfying causal chain. They felt something. Maybe they need to see that reflected back at them by the characters.

End of day, when faced with a blank page, I start with those three ideas. Disruption / Reversal / Conclusion. FWIW, the fact that the Disruption and Conclusion are bound to each other by the nature of the Story you’re telling, I find the Reversal the most interesting piece of work in writing. The Reversal’s often more revelatory about the inner style of the writer than any other piece of their work.

The concept of Disruption/Reversal/Conclusion is fractal, of course, but we’ll discuss that in another post.

Oct 21, 2013 In: Comics 14 comments

ARCANUM: Hey, That Art Looks New!

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Hello all, and welcome back to a slightly different looking ARCANUM.

After the pilot story — “here’s your team, such as it is”, it’s time to dig into the meat of the ARCANUM 5-season arc. You’ll notice the art style is a bit different. This is not because we’ve changed artists. No, Todd just has multiple awesome styles in his back pocket. Clever bastard.

Old look:

Blog ARCANUM 1

New look:

Blog ARCANUM 2

(God, I love the hands in that image. Hands are a bear for artists and actors. Seriously, you can tell how good an actor is by what they do with their hands when at rest.)

The change comes about to a great degree because, over the course of the hiatus, we reconsidered the tone of the story overall. I kept talking about that 1st great season of X-FILES, where they are just suffused in that Vancouver grey. Like the X-FILES pilot our first real story happens in the Northwest.  This isn’t a matter of slavish imitation, but certainly the similarities resonated as I was plotting out this storyline. And like X-FILES we are an alien invasion story. The aliens just happen to be ancient fairy stories. (And hey, doesn’t that sketch kinda look like a grey …)

“I think we’re more a horror comic,” I said to Mark during one conversation. “Like a Vertigo book, in the old days when Vertigo meant Vertigo.” One of the main themes of ARCANUM is that magic is disruptive and scary and awful. Magic is a corruption, a rot. The big brassy high-colored 1st chapters made sense in order to give us the action look in that 1st Incursion, but as the story goes on ARCANUM very much becomes a tale of unsettling noises in the night, madness borne of broken physics. Soon we’re going to be in the realm of high-beam flashlights and basements filled with things that make you re-swallow your lunch. DUNGEONS & DRAGONS told through the DELTA GREEN lens.

So Todd is now giving us greys and washes, with slightly more impressionist backgrounds and faces very much built around the eyes and mouth. It’s more overtly an character-acting style, which fits. In particular, the Thrillbent process exploits facial expressions in an almost animatic way, which works well with this style.

It feeds back in to how I’m writing, too. Knowing we’ll be dealing with a more subdued palette, in my head I feel the action will come across as more grounded, more noir, and so I write different action sequences.  This may be more bleed over from my film background, but it’s even a matter of choosing close-shots during fights rather than wide-shots.

I’ve said before that I find comics writing brutally difficult, because you have to not just be the screenwriter but also the director and editor on every page. The artist, though, has to be the A-operator, all the actors, and the Director of Photography.  As everyone in Hollywood knows, Directors get all the juice, but the Director of Photography — the DP — is the real power on a set. In television in particular, Directors come and go on literally a weekly basis, but the DP is there for every episode. If your favorite show has a signature look, it ain’t the “directed by” guys giving you that candy. For an insight into the process, here’s an interview with the DP of BREAKING BAD.

(Bonus anecdote: On my first one-hour drama, I asked the DP what, exactly a Director of Photography does. He said “We’re the guy who stands behind the Director and whispers: “… you don’t want to do that.“)

All this echoes something Phil Hester (@philhester) recently tweeted: “The surest way to be seen as a great comic book writer is to get your claws into a genuinely great comic book artist.”

We certainly hope you enjoy the return of ARCANUM. Please do check it out, and our other fine comics like Mark Waid’s INSUFFERABLE, the dark, gritty crime drama of THE DAMNATION OF CHARLIE WORMWOOD, and the very creepy horror comic THE EIGHTH SEAL

Thrillbent is just beginning. Thanks for reading and spreading the word.

 

 

John Rogers has been in the entertainment industry for 20 years.  He created and ran the TV show LEVERAGE and wrote the comic BLUE BEETLE for DC Comics. For Thrillbent, John writes ARCANUM.  Follow him on twitter @jonrog1.

Oct 14, 2013 In: Comics 7 comments

ARCANUM: What’s with this Hiatus, Then?

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Basically, I neglected to quit my day job.

When Leverage wrapped, I had two projects to occupy my downtime: the Thrillbent 2.0 launch and the founding of my own production company, Kung Fu Monkey Productions. It takes a good year of development to pull any projects together for TV development, so I figured I had some room to spend exclusively on Thrillbent.

Arcanum is a difficult comic series — it’s meant to duplicate a TV series, which means breaking 13 full interlocking stories per arc, rather than a single serialized story. There’s also, for a fantasy series, a ridiculous amount of research. Savvy readers will be able to figure out from the real-world clues already dropped under exactly what location the Arcanum facility is constructed. The full timeline of all the plot links stretches from historical figures of the mid 1800′s through World War One to modern times. This is my Big Swing, so to speak. But, as I’d just gone from “A Show Eating My Life” to “Relatively Unemployed”, Todd and I jumped in with a certain comfort in the lead time we’d built up.

What I did NOT anticipate was rapidly closing the deal with my friends at TNT for a new pilot or two, my friend Dean Devlin getting the rights to a dream project we’d talked about for years, and the fine folks at Cinemax giving me a call for … something. Never mind the ruthless efficiency of the young people who work at my company, who scared up about 20 projects I’m NOT writing for development. Essentially, my TV career post-show did not suck at quite the Season I believed it would.

All that to say there was no way we could keep jamming the art through as my Arcanum scripts got farther and farther behind. We needed a gap for me to get the first batch of stories fully completed and give Todd and Troy a chance to do their best work. I’d also like to start doing what the Eighth Seal lads are doing — offering Arcanum issues on Comixology ahead of their Thrillbent release.

And so Arcanum takes a rest until September, with the exception of some concept art and research notes we’ll post occasionally. In the meantime, the Monday slot will be filled with Todd and Geoff Throne’s great indie action book, Prodigal. Supernatural treasure hunters who punch stuff, fight ninjas and dragons, and banter. It was this book which made me ask Todd to come on to Arcanum, and of course you all know Geoff Thorne from Leverage, so I’m sure you’ll dig the series as much as I do.

Thanks for your tolerance as we screw around with our little publishing experience, and be sure to check out Thrillbent’s other titles.

Jun 25, 2013 In: Comics 6 comments

The Sausage, as She is Made.

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Rather than take all the fun out of the fiction, I thought I’d give you a quick background on how Todd, Troy and I put together Arcanum. Everyone works differently on Thrillbent, but this is the general production template.

I write each episode, defining each slide and generally calling out the panels.  Every now and then I’ll just suggest something, not detail it out.  The fight between Cole and the Elven Swordsman in Episode 002 — or #102 if we’re using standard TV episode numbering, which probably makes more sense in this format — was originally scripted as “Give me as many panels as you think interesting, across as many slides, to show me Cole using stick-fighting to take this asshole apart.”  Sometimes I’ll call a editing pattern, which Todd then translates into page space. In today’s installment, for example, I called for a 50/50 to mimic a cross-cut between Subject Zero and the door to the vault opening. In my head they were side-by-side, but Todd designed it as a top-and-bottom spilt, which worked even better.

Todd then sends me layouts, a sample of which appears as the header for this blog post. I approve, he then does the full art digitally, combining colors and inks and what-have-you, whatever guys like him do to make the pretty pictures. It all seems very difficult, frankly.

When Todd delivers the color pages, I tend to re-script.  Not a massive re-write but sometimes I look at an action or an expression and realize I want to adjust. Sometimes I see that thanks to Todd’s art, I don’t need certain dialogue.  It’s a much more fluid process than print production, a bit more of a conversation.

With the script properly adjusted, each dialogue line being numbered so the letterer knows what goes where, I take Todd’s art and export all of that week’s installment into a single pdf document.

I load that pdf into Goodreader, my iPad doc reader and editor of choice. Using a stylus I lay-out where each dialogue balloon goes, or at least suggest it. Mark taught me how to do this, but I’m a sad dilettante compared to him. He can see the page layout instantly, has an almost musical sense of how comic page storytelling should work. I kind of galumph along.

Arcanum 006 panel one

This often leads to further tweaks to the script. With all that done, I upload the script, lettering-guide pdf and the original color art to our FTP server. Troy Peteri, our in-house letterer and general file genius, letters the comic, does the final image prep, and dumps it back onto the server.On the appointed day Lori Matsumoto, our general site coordinator, makes sure the comic goes live, sends out the appropriate texts, emails and tweets, and off we go.

We’re a little more complicated than most similar sites as we’re coordinating a giant chunk of continuous, new material. But I find it boggling and impressive that most webcomics are a one-person show, a single person tackling all that, often three times a week. There’s a reason we use them as our distribution/production model rather than print. That sort of hustle is what you need to move the model forward. Time will tell if we’ve learned the right lessons.

Go ahead and read today’s installment here.

May 06, 2013 In: Comics 2 comments

ARCANUM: Immortality is So, So Creepy

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Even pseudo-immortality, the thousand-year lifespan, has a nasty ring to it.

Not just because of what it might mean for the individual who’s rocking the forever-life, either — and there have been plenty of discussions of that idea, both in the vampire myth and in science fiction. One of my favorite authors to tackle this idea is Richard K. Morgan in his Altered Carbon series. In this universe people are implanted with tiny upload hardware, almost impossible to destroy, allowing your persona to be transferred from body to body. Not quite the traditional view of immortality, but the tone — the weary, noir sensibility of an endless dream-like loop — is spot on.  People who’ve lived too long in the AC universe are fundamentally wrong in an alien way. They have seen and done too much. They’ve gone past nihilism. There’s an … absence where the fundamental connection to other humans should be.

No, what’s even creepier to me is what a society of such people would be. Look around us now. Boomers are freaking out over millenial values, just as their Greatest Generation parents freaked out over theirs. I have people working for me who’ve never even seen a dial telephone.  Change hurtles ever onward, and the only thing more corrosive than the fact that the future isn’t evenly distributed is the fact that there are plenty of humans who don’t want this future at all.  It’s all too much change, it may be literally too much change to process for human hardwiring. Many older humans are living future shock, right now.

It was ever thus. But the difference now is that those people are alive.

In 1900 the percentage of the American population over the age of 45 was 17.8%. In 1950 it was 28.4%. As of the last census the share of the US population over 45 is 36.4%. Hell, the 65+ share’s gone from 4.1% in 1900 to 13.3% in 2010. More and more people still in the society, with greater and greater influence, still constructing societal and legal norms based on emotional, psychological, cultural and technological frames of reference that are less and less relevant.

We’d all like to think we’d reinvent ourselves, re-assimilate, learn and grow along a constantly regenerative learning curve. But most of us wouldn’t. We’re just not cognitively wired for it. We crave stasis, because our lizard brains crave safety and security.

Now, am I bashing older people in general, painting them all as regressive? No, of course not. But the law of averages is the law of averages, and people are people, and the vast majority of we humans formed our core values in our adolescences, locked our social and political opinions in our early 20′s. Grudges dig deep. To call out a specific example: no matter who you voted for, wasn’t it a little goddam tiring in the 2000 election to still be refighting the 32-year old Vietnam War records of the two candidates for the US presidency?

Now imagine it was the Civil War.

Imagine it now.  A functional lifespan of, say 200 years.  Working with people who owned slaves.  Trying to negotiate international trade treaties to deal with global warming by reconciling voters who watched their brother’s head get spun into a fine red mist by a Boston infantryman or a Georgian cavalryman. Getting funding for stem cell research from voters who grew up believing not only were black people a genetically inferior race, but other versions of white people were, too.  200 years is what Bruce Sterling posits in Holy Fire, a gerontocracy, and it’s a goddam mess.

Now make it 500 years.

Nothing ever forgotten. Nothing ever truly passing.

The death of history and the birth of the Long, Eternal Now.

So when you posit a race of beings who stare at us pitilessly, as so much mortal cannon-fodder in the midst of their centuries-long feuds, I do not fantasize about meeting them. I want them to sod off post-haste to the Grey Havens, good and gone.  The prospect of them returning, and dealing with them as an enemy with reality-bending powers and millenia of strategic experience, does not fill me with elfin glee. That’s horror, to me.

ARCANUM, as usual, can be read here.  And you can browse our other comics, from continuing series to quirky short subjects, here.

Apr 29, 2013 In: Comics 2 comments

Clarke’s Law, Harry Potter, and ARCANUM

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Or at least Clarke’s 3rd Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

I have a physics degree from McGill University in Montreal, where several well-meaning humans — with the exception of a Thermodynamics professor who intentionally posted incorrect office hours — attempted to instill in me an appreciation for the order of the universe. The problem is, of course, when you learn to speak the mathematical language of physics, the “order” gets pretty damn weird.  Or, as my Quantum Physics professor said on the day we ground out the math for quantum tunneling: “This is the bit where people’s brains begin to crackle.”

It’s hard to understand, as we wander around with cell phones in our pockets,  the disruptive effect quantum mechanics — the physics of the unknowable, or at the very least the physics of the best-guessable — had on the scientific world in the beginning of the 20th century. Einstein’s famous “God does not play dice with the universe!” quote comes out of this era. To put it bluntly, the smartest people on earth were, on a daily basis, losing their shit.

ARCANUM is born out of two impulses. First, blending body horror with fantasy, much as Charles Stross found the inherent harmonies between Chtulhoid Horror and Cold War sensibilities in the Laundry Series. We’ll discuss that later.

But it also comes out of my love of science fiction, specifically my amusement at how the most important, disruptive moment in most alien invasion movies is tossed over the movie’s shoulder. The aliens have come from beyond the stars, they have come for our …

… wait, what? No, they don’t want our seawater, they don’t want our brains, whatever you — THEY CAME FROM BEYOND THE STARS?! Assuming that’s not a generation ship or some self-replicating/self-perpetuating nanobot swarm, those aliens just BROKE PHYSICS.

Except, of course, in the (mainstream) alien invasion story, they didn’t break physics. In every (mainstream) alien invasion story they’re here. We can shoot them, and talk to them, and be dissected by them, they’re wandering around in our physical universe and so are beholden to the same physics, Newtonian or Quantum, that we are. So that fictional universe has rules, the aliens just … apparently … know some better ones than we do?

But faster-then-light travel mucks with such fundamental boundaries of our physical universe that if they can circumvent that, they can damn well circumvent any of the boring rules which would allow us to interact, or perhaps even perceive them. There’s an inherent paradox — if the aliens are interstellar, they are certainly not walking our streets in hacked-together HALO armor gunning down humans. Unless that’s, like, a thing they get off on. Which would be double-plus ungood now that I think about it.

For chrissake, in the 21st Century one country is untouchably pounding the hell out of terrorists and unfortunately placed Afghani weddings with remote-piloted drones operated by kids from half a planet away. And we don’t even leave our local gravity well except for special occasions.

Those aliens would not be fight-able. They would be unknowable. They would incomprehensible. They would be soul-shatteringly terrifying. They would be terrifying sky gods who rain down destruction on a helpless human populace as if by … magic.

So why not jump straight to magic?

This is tied to one of my pet peeves in the Harry Potter universe (stay with me).  I am always a little disappointed that Hermione Granger (the hero of the series) at no point says “You know, I rather like science. Has anyone noticed that none of what we do obeys the laws of physics, and yet we co-exist with the world of Muggles where the laws of physics hold sway? I mean, shouldn’t we talk to some clever Cambridge blokes about the fact that we gesture and point with a stick and manufacture objects out of thin air –”

– THEY MANUFACTURE OBJECTS OUT OF THIN AIR?! Assuming that’s not a self-replicating/self-perpetuating nanobot swarm, those tweens just BROKE PHYSICS.

You see what I did there. (After all, the Harry Potter Universe is Secretly Terrifying).

The structure of Arcanum is derived from my instinctive love of that paradox. There are multiple alien invasion styles to choose from, of course. To emphasize the horror aspects, I’m patterning our magic invasion on the slow-burn secret invasions of UFO or The Invaders or the criminally short-lived Threshold. If anything even vaguely resembling alien tech were discovered, you’d see the US government immediately put two programs in play: 1.) a Manhattan project to unravel the broken physics of said tech and 2.) a secret military/intelligence agency to keep tabs on it. Just substitute “magic” into those sentences and you have Arcanum.

Next time: immortality is so, so creepy. In the meantime:

Catch this week’s Arcanum here. Start from the beginning here.

Read Mark Waid’s Insufferable, his awesome super-hero meta-story — what if you were a dark detective of the night, and your teen sidekick grew up to be a douchebag? —  starting at the beginning here. The latest arc, Season Two, starts here.

Read our gritty, true-life crime thriller The Damnation of Charlie Wormwood here.

And sample all our comics, from our continuing series to one -shot experiments to shorter (8-10 week) series, from the THRILLBENT HOME PAGE.

Apr 15, 2013 In: Comics 3 comments