Quick update before I get to this post - we've just about finished issue three. It's scripted except for the panel descriptions. All the dialogue is written and the panels are broken down with a good idea of what they each should look like and what needs to be going on, I just have to go through and describe the visuals so someone who wasn't a part of the conversation can imagine it. And yes, some of that will probably change some of the paneling and dialogue a little bit. But for the most part, it's all in order.
Now, onto the blog:
A few days ago, a fellow member of a Facebook group for comics creators wrote a post explaining that she has this story epic that's been festering in her mind since 2005 and when she does the math in her head of the number of story beats she has and the average amount of pages each will take, it breaks down to about 1500 pages. Sounds awfully familiar, doesn't it? We started writing our story in 2005, and our first draft of the story came out to an estimated 1500 pages (including the covers). She asked if anyone had any experience with a story that large which needed to be organized. And booooy, did I have some experience to share.
I didn't expect to write as much as I did, but when I was done I realized my response could make a good blog post for my series of blogs about my learning experiences. So without any further setup or segues, here is a version of my response to her, revised for the blog:
Right at the top, I'll tell you I am a STRUCTURE JUNKIE. I am also a painfully organized planner when it comes to stories.
To give you the short version right up front, here's how I went about it - I planned my whole story to take place over three large parts - call it a trilogy if you like, but I think of it as a very large three act story, or a beginning, middle, and end. Once I had the main sweeps of my three parts figured out, I refined the entire thing with a focus toward the beginning - that is, the first part... and when that I was done, I refined that first part with a focus toward its beginning - that is, the first story arc of the first part... then I refined THAT, and so on, until there was really nothing left to do but script the first issue.
It was a challenge getting everything to fit and make sense, because frankly, our story is a little heady and "out there". But now that we're almost done scripting the first arc, I'm able to say it was SO worth doing the work in order to know everything about everything through the end of the story before we began, because we're able to put things into the story very early that we know will come into play later, and we can write confidently, knowing what options we need to leave open so we don't write ourselves into corners or screw ourselves by making an important plot point impossible or improbable.
Does it sound like a long, repetitive process? Sure it does. It is! Does it make sense for everyone? Heck, I don't know. Probably not. But it makes sense to me, and I feel our story is going to be so much stronger because of it than it would have been if we didn't think it through all the way.
Now to help you understand (in case you don't already), let's make this analogous. Imagine my 1500 pages were 1500 um... I dunno... Honey Nut Cheerios. If you don't have 1500 potential pages to write, imagine a smaller number. If you have a seven volume epic to total 9000 pages, then imagine that's the number. It doesn't matter. What the Cheerios represent here is a giant pile of all the material I know I'm going to need to put my story together. Get me? So where do I begin?
First, I roughly arrange my 1500 Cheerios into three piles of what I estimate are 500 pieces each. This is me framing my epic in terms of the three volumes it will take to tell it. And at this stage, it's rough, it's certainly not exact, but I've got my Cheerio trilogy summed up at least in back-of-the-DVD terms. Sweet.
Next, I look at those three piles of 500 and arrange them each into into three to five piles of what I guessed were roughly equivalent amounts. Hooray, now I've got back-of-the-DVD descriptions of each arc. It's all the same material I already had, but the pacing is a little more figured out. I might start to realize at this point that I need to borrow some of the Cheerios from the next part or the last to fill out one of these piles. Or that one pile might actually need to be bigger than the others to accomplish what it needs to accomplish, and that's okay. And yes, some of those Cheerios will certainly need to be eaten, because they aren't doing the story any favors and I'm not just going to throw Honey Nut Cheerios in the trash. Those things are delicious.
At this point, it's safe to turn my attention just to the first three or four piles - which represent the story arcs that make up Part One / Volume One / The Story Without a Subtitle - and start to scoot them around, making sure they really are fairly equal piles. This was already pretty well accomplished in the last step, but in divvying out the Cheerios from beginning to end, I might have some new ideas about structure, or symmetry, so it's worth another look. The big point here is that I'm pretty much done thinking too much about the piles formerly known as Cheerios #501 - 1000 and Cheerios #1001 - 1500. I trust that I will get to those piles later, and that they are figured out well enough at this point that I can work on JUST the first part and still end up where I need to be by the time I've written my way to part two.
So, Pile One / Arc One... let's do this. I'm going take that first pile of, I don't know, let's say 100, and divide it exactly into four piles of 25, because our first arc is four issues of 24 pages plus a cover. So this is me thinking about the arc as a story unto itself. Again, I already have all the material. I've spent more time thinking about this arc than the rest because thinking about what happens in this arc has been a part of every step so far. So now I'm breaking it down into four piles that all work together the way they need to work together in equally divided sections. "Pile / Issue One accomplishes this, but Pile / Issue two accomplishes this, but Pile / Issue three accomplishes this, therefore Pile / Issue Four accomplishes this to both bring closure to elements of the first three piles AND to move us into the 'but' of Pile Five, which will be the first Pile / Issue of arc number two."
And at this point, finally, there's not much left for me to do but begin scripting issue one. So I move to the first pile of 25 Cheerios and, one by one, arrange each piece in a grid. And you might guess that I arrange my grid into six groups of four, or four groups of six, or three groups of eight... and you'd be right. That's me outlining the story beats of an issue. It usually starts as a four act or three act story (because an issue is a story AND part of an arc, which is a story AND part of a volume, which is a story AND part of a trilogy... again, see this blog for my thoughts of beginning-middle-and-end-centric structuring).
And of course, the very last step would be to look the Cheerios in this, my first and most organized pile, and describe each and every one in detail. And that, my readers, is called writing the script, one page at a time.
Wow, this blog post ended up being more than twice as long as I expected it to be! I'm going to save the rest for the next post. Come back later for part two, where I apply the Cheerios analogy to the real-life example of the outlining of Spooky Corps.