Maximizing Emotional Impact: How To Keep Your Audience Engaged Scene by Scene

Birthright #1. Alternate cover
We'll be using Birthright #1 as
an example (below).
In many ways movies, books and comics are like a personally-engineered roller coaster ride: we take the audience to the bottom of despair, lift them back up and make them cry from sheer joy, take them around the corner to face an unfathomable danger, make them laugh as the hero goofs around with his nemesis, and then make them anxious as he subsequently gets bludgeoned to near death. We let the reader share in the despair of the hero as he crawls away from the scene, having lost all hope in himself.  Then we take them to the cathartic moment when the hero realizes the change he must make within himself to defeat impossible odds. In the end, we leave the audience soaring as evil is vanquished from the hero's world - world that is now forever changed due to the hero's (and the audience's) ordeal, but changed for the better.

What the above sequence does is simply setup a series of scenes (which together form the full narrative), where each scene reverses the emotional tone at its beginning to an opposite emotion by its end. The audience is literally taken from shock to relief, from fear to comedy, from emerging victory to desperate defeat, from hopelessness to Eureka, and from a battle against impossible odds to a real victory and lasting emotional growth for the main character.

Just imagine all the emotions your readers were subjected to in the various twists and turns of the story!

Birthright - the building of a perfect scene

Birthright #1, a comic by writer Joshua Williamson, artist Andrei Bressan and colorist Adriano Lucas illustrates this twisting and turning of a scene in an awesome, fast paced intro:

Bliss

The book opens with a scene of family bliss. Father and son are playing catch. The father wants to talk to mom privately on the phone, so he throws the ball deep into the woods (behind this hill).

A Family United

Writer Joshua Williamson deepens the sense of bliss and strong family ties as we see the boy's mother and brother secretly prepare a birthday party for the boy while the father keeps him busy.

A family divided

Although the father was well intentioned in throwing the ball into the woods, it leads to a terrible tragedy: he cannot find his son. We can see stress building up and a seed of discord in the family is planted, beautifully illustrated by the conversation between father and mother turning tenser.

Despair

Remember how this scene started with bliss? The creators of birthright have now turned the scene into its very opposite. The emotional pay off comes exactly because this scene ends in such a dramatically different tone compared to its opening.



None of these deeply emotional moments happen automatically. We must craft them scene by scene, intentionally causing the dramatic shifts in emotional tone that together create the roller coaster  effect that's so satisfying.

Anatomy of a Scene

Every scene must create a meaningful change in the life of its characters, a change that draws on an underlying conflict to dramatically transform its emotional tone into its exact opposite. Study your scenes. If any of them don't have this dynamic, you don't have a scene.

1. Reversal

Take a piece of paper and write down the emotional tone of your scene (+ for positive, - for negative). Read to the end of the scene and again write down the emotional tone (+ or -). The two should be reversed. This turns every scene into a mini-story with a beginning, a middle and an end.

In the above example, the scene has 3 acts:

Act 1: Beginning

The status quo of a happy family is shown. Everything is positive: a lovely day, a happy father and son playing ball, a mother and brother who secretly prepare the son's birthday party. You can see how writer Joshua is building our sense of feeling good about this world with the introduction of every new element.

Act 2: Complications

The father realizes his son hasn't returned, goes into the woods and tries to find his son. Tension is building and the mom is obviously starting to point the finger at the father.

Act 3: Reversal

You can feel hearts breaking as the father stands alone in a now frightening environment full of threatening shadows. He is alone and in despair at lost his son.  Contrast this with the sunny hills and happy smiles in the beginning of the scene. Emotional changes like this must occur in every scene if you want to keep your audience engaged. The roller coaster effect comes when you string your scenes so that the + and - are in opposing movements: +-/-+/+-/-+/+-/-+.  If you end a scene low, start the next scene also at a low and take it to a high. This isn't really necessary, and Birthright definitely doesn't treat all of its scenes in this fashion, but the more you can stick to this kind of rhythm, the stronger your audience's emotional reaction will be.

2. Conflict

The reversal must take place around a central conflict. (Only one conflict per scene, please - help your audiences to connect with each scene by keeping it simple.) The conflict usually comes to the foreground in Act 2 of the scene (Complications). In Birthright  the conversation between father and mother helps us to feel the losing of the son more personally, more deeply. It also symbolizes the conflict with reality in an interpersonal way, as you can feel the blame starting to rise up. We NEED the conflict to be resolved, but because this scene started on a positive note, we MUST also be disappointed, frustrated in our desires.

Crafting Strong Scene Sequences

And there you have it in a nutshell: the secret formula to creating an emotionally gripping story is reversing the emotional tone back and forth through a sequence of scenes, using conflict as the fulcrum.

It's important to make sure that the emotional reversal in scene 2 has a bigger impact than that in scene 1. Then keep it going, only giving the reader a few breathers here and there as we take the pressure off for a bit (usually at the beginning and in the middle of ACT 2). In fact, comics are generally so short, that we often don't have to worry too much about putting in more than one breather. One will do, and afterwards we'll keep ratcheting up the emotions right until the cliffhanger.

One thing to keep in  mind is that if you don't keep upping the emotional stakes as the story progresses, the reader may be able to inoculate him or herself against the emotional ups and downs.  You can prevent this by always making sure that each subsequent scene is more emotionally intense than the last.

If you can do this, you will have emotionally engaging stories that will keep your readers looking for more.

Further reading: How to make every scene a great scene - a checklist

Good luck and write well!

How to make every scene a great scene

Almost all comic stories are broken down into scenes, each scene covering action in a particular place or over one continuous period of time. A strong story will be composed of well-crafted scenes where each and every thing that happens in a scene not only makes sense in relationship to the other elements of that scene, but the scene itself makes sense in the context of the story as a whole. So if you want to have a strong story, you've got to have strong scenes. Here's how:

Make your story come alive by sculpting each scene:

Kraven's Last Hunt

Account for every decision a character makes

Everything in your story needs to be there for a reason. This includes what your characters say and do, and why. When looking at your characters' decisions, make sure you know the following:
  • Why do they do it - what is the character’s motivation?
  • What challenge must they overcome specific to the scene?
  • How do they transform to make the right decision?

Everything must have consequences

Consequences help drive the story and keep character tension. Make sure you're aware of the stakes in each and every thing that your characters do and in what happens to your characters:
  • How a character responds must have consequences.
  • What happens to a character must affect him/her.

Provide conflict everywhere

Conflict is the sun around which all your story elements should be revolving. A strong story has strong conflicts that are relevant both to the characters and to the readers.
  • Portray every character in some sort of conflict of interest.
  • Use the conflict to either demonstrate or grow the character.
  • You can always have a third party inserted for comic relief where necessary.
Kid Miracleman

Create suspense

Suspense is part of the fuel driving the readers to keep reading. Here are some ways to keep those pages turning -
  • Let the audience in on an agonizing secret important to the audience but unknown to the characters. They'll fret for the heroes to find out.
  • Action with peril (of death if possible).
  • Have the audience root for an outcome (success, romance, etc) but frustrate them terribly with endless obstacles.
  • The trick is to set up an expectation but fulfill it in a completely unexpected way.

Everything must have a reason

One of the most important things both new and experienced writers seem to forget, is that everything - EVERYTHING - in your story needs to be there for a reason. How can you tell if a scene needs to be in your story? Try cutting it out. Does your story still make sense? If it does, then delete the scene. A tight plot is where every single scene is so necessary, that removing one can make the story fall apart.

This goes for characters, too: delete characters that don’t change the story and don’t affect its outcome.
Magneto rips out
Wolverine's adamantium.

Provide focus

Don't confuse the reader by giving unimportant events or characters too much time. Keep the main story events and character(s) central.

Great scenery

  • Choose backdrops that are majestic or demonic, but always larger than life. Don’t just have a meeting, have a meeting at the top of a mountain or at a picturesque waterfall.
  • If you are using a familiar, grander-than-life setting that is familiar to the audience, see if there's a way to make it seem odd or unfamiliar in some way. This gives the audience a new world to discover. For example, bring your characters to an abandoned circus, the world fair at a time when it is being broken down, or the White House at night or under attack, etc.

Bring everything back

Repetition can be a strong friend and ally in your story. Whether it's a minor character used for comic relief, and artifact that was used briefly, or even a theme or a rarely used super power, your audience will appreciate the familiarity these story elements bring. One way to do this is to make a list of everything that is mentioned, every artifact, character, etc. and make them come back at some further point in the story.

Foreshadowing is also an excellent tool for bringing back your characters and artifacts: a momentary introduction to a character at one point of the story can foreshadow their playing a key piece in plot pages later. Just make sure you don't wait too long to reintroduce whatever element you're using.

In the end, your story is only as strong as its scenes. Making sure every scene has purpose, a driving force, and all of the elements mentioned here will go a long way towards getting your audience hooked and keeping them there.

For a more involved tutorial, be sure to check out: Maximizing Emotional Impact: How To Keep Your Audience Engaged Scene by Scene.

Otherworldly Paper Sculptures by Jen Stark

Artist Jen Stark creates interesting and mind-bending paper sculptures in 3D that often have some interactivity built into them:

Pieces of an Infinite Whole



Cylinder


Point of Exposure

Burst


If you enjoyed this art, go visit artist Jen Stark's website

Evolution of a Character Design

Emilio Laiso has created a beautiful design for The SoulCager, one of the major villains in the Damaged Universe. I wanted to share with you the various stages in the design.

Body

First, he created the body concept; the character bio read (I'm redacting a lot here): He is ridiculously muscular, tall (7-8 feet), with reddish colored skin, and a burnt, stitched together, primitive look.

Armor and Costume

Next came the costume design. He wears armor with round portholes that allow us to see the faces of the anguished souls of those whose powers he has trapped, swirling around deparingly. These portholes light up with the essence of the power he derives from “the Light” and are connected to each other via power lines that also light up. Grown into his back are the skulls of both those he has slayed and those whose souls he has trapped in the portholes.

Detailed Front Design

Now we can see the portholes in more detail and how the wires that connect them light up.

Detailed Back and Extras

We can now see the skulls of the vanquished clearly on his back. We also see a detail of the portholes, where the trapped souls of the vanquished live in an eternal, tormented state.


If you want to see more of Emilio's art, check out Hack/Slash: Son of Samhain from Image Comics. It's a terrific read, powered by the awesome talents of creator Steve Seeley, writer Michael Moreci and, of course, artist Emilio Laiso.

How to create the perfect pitch?

How to create the perfect pitch?

Recently I submitted 2 pitches to a publisher, and it got me thinking on how to build a good pitch. Of course, the true insights came days after the pitch was submitted, but that's par for the course. One thing I did notice while creating my pitch, however, was that pitching can actually create a great feedback loop: the plot informs the pitch, which in turn, informs and enhances the plot. I realized that thinking about the pitch while drafting the plot can add valuable elements to the story.

So how do we create the perfect pitch?

Pitching 101

The Central Conflict

Look at your story and try to identify the central conflict. This central conflict can be either emotional or action-based, but a really good plot has elements of both. The central conflict usually forms around what the protagonist wants and what challenges s/he must overcome to get it. It also helps to determine the stakes: what is the COST if the hero fails to overcome the central challenges? In comics, the stakes are always high so it's usually a good idea to make the cost as big as possible (e.g. failing = dying).

Your job: write down the central characters under the heading "Characters." Next, identify the central conflict between the characters and their challenges. Write this down under the heading "Conflict." Next, determine the cost of failure. Write it down under the heading "Cost."

Pirates of the Caribbean movie poster
If you wrote Pirates of the Caribbean you would note it down as thus:

Characters: Blacksmith Will Turner, his love the governor's daughter (Elizabeth Swann), and an eccentric pirate “Captain” Jack Sparrow.

Conflict: Will's love is kidnapped by undead pirates.

Cost: The eternal loss and possible death of Will's precious lover.

Show Progression of the Plot

You must be able to see the whole story in your pitch. This means you need to have some idea of how your plot is going to progress from beginning to end. Great plot lines begin in what's known as the "status quo" (how your hero lives their life before the challenge presents itself), and then progress to a point where the status quo is undermined (usually by introducing the main threat or challenge).

Your job: determine the status quo of the characters and write this down under "Status Quo." Then combine all the notes you've made so far: Characters + Status Quo followed by Conflict (clearly demonstrating the Cost of failure).

For Pirates of the Caribbean this would tally up as follows:

Blacksmith Will Turner teams up with an eccentric pirate Captain (Jack Sparrow) to save the love of his life (the governor’s daughter) from the pirate's former allies, who are now undead.

This is a great pitch, because it sparks the imagination and creates the desire to see more. There's also a strong sense of plot progression: the lovers are torn apart when the the governor's daughter is kidnapped by undead pirates. Will must then team up with their pirate Captain (who is not undead) to fight them and recapture his love. In the end, we imagine, the lovers will be reunited and perhaps the Captain will be redeemed.

It doesn't matter if the reader of the pitch draws the right conclusion (perhaps you could delight and surprise the reader by subverting his or her expectations). What DOES MATTER, however, is that they can see a mini-story in their head just by hearing the pitch.

Extras

If the time frame matters in the story, be sure to include this in your pitch. Also, make sure that your pitch is worded in such a way that we can determine which story genre we are dealing with (action, drama, comedy, etc.).

The Hangover movie poster
Here is how this would work for the movie The Hangover:

Characters: 3 groomsman

Conflict: They lose their buddy right before his wedding to the Las Vegas underworld.

Cost: Embarrassment, failed wedding, failed friendship.

Status Quo: The final days before the wedding.

Time Limit: From day after bachelor party until wedding.

Genre: Comedy.

All this can be combined in this movie pitch:

In Las Vegas, three groomsmen lose their about-to-be-wed buddy during their drunken bachelor party, then must retrace their steps in order to find him and get hilariously embroiled in the city's underworld.

By adding the word "hilariously," we indicate that we are dealing with a comedy, not an action film. You get a sense of limited time by describing their buddy as about-to-be-wed and starting the adventure with the bachelor party.

Pitching your comic book

The above rules are universal and will work for your comic book pitch. I offer you an example pitch for The Killing Joke as an example:

The Killing Joke

Characters: Commissioner Gordon, The Joker, Batman.

Conflict: The Joker wants to force Commissioner Gordon to justify his own existence.

Cost: The corruption of Commissioner Gordon's soul.

Status Quo: The Joker has escaped, as per the usual.

Time Limit: Until Commissioner Gordon cracks.

Genre: Dark, sadistic story.

With the above summary of each component, we can already see the trigger words for our eventual pitch. We know the characters we have to introduce, how to portray the story (sadistic), etc.

The pitch could be as follows:

The Joker kidnaps Commissioner Gordon and systematically and sadistically ruins the life of his daughter in order to drive him insane and show to the world that the only difference between us and him is "one bad day." Batman must solve the clues and rescue Gordon before the Commissioner breaks.

If your pitch must include the ending, here's the spoiler you might not want to read -

Batman saves Gordon in time, but not before Gordon's life lies in ruins. Gordon, however, has held on to his sanity - disproving the Joker's theory - and tells Batman to arrest the Joker by the book.

As a clincher we could add:

We get a dark insight into Batman's personal wounded soul as the Joker and Batman both bond when they cackle maniacally at the Joker's joke.

This is the genius of Alan Moore's script: to show us that while Gordon held on to his humanity, we must question whether Batman has not indeed lost it.

In Conclusion

By examining the elements of our story: Characters, Conflict, Cost, Status Quo, Time Limit and Genre, and then combining them, we can create the perfect pitch. Not all of these elements need to be included, however. Use only those that create a compelling plot that helps the reader imagine the entire story.

You can probably tell by now how drafting a pitch can alert us to missing elements in our plot and/or possibly even help us elevate our plot to a new level. That's why it's helpful to start thinking about the pitch early on in the process.

In a future blog post I will share the publishers who you can send your pitch to. Stay tuned!

Sneak Preview of Fallen: Dark Forebodings

Superhero Comics Meet Film Noir

At Studio Octane Comics we are working hard to complete the first episode of our series "Fallen." We'd love to hear your feedback on what we've got so far.  And if you are a comic book publisher and think you might be interested, drop us a line!

Synopsis:

A 1930's P.I. can see ghost images of every murder that ever happened or is about to happen. He becomes a hot ticket in his city. One day he accepts a strange case and begins to see visions of his own demise. Entering into a sexual relationship with his client, he tinkers with future outcomes which result in the case growing weirder and weirder.

Art: Raffaele Ricciardi / Colors: Kote Carvajal /
Story by yours truly, Lorenz Lammens (@lorenzlammens.com)

Click on the images to enlarge them ;-)








We'd love to hear any question, comments, and/or feedback you can throw at us.  Please drop us a line! And feel free to share it on your favorite social networks (using the links below). Every little bit helps!

Hope you enjoyed it.

The Archetypal story and how to keep it fresh

The Hero's Journey
Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey
So ya wanna be a comic book writer, but you're not quite sure how to avoid falling into the trap of creating yet another generic, run-of-the-mill, comic book stereotype that may be interesting to you and your friends, but not quite anyone else.  And that begs the question, how does one find that perfect story, the one that is not only larger than life, but also compelling and socially significant in the long-term?  Well, to get there we must first answer a couple of key questions:

What makes allows one set of stories to clearly strike a chord with the public, while others get dropped by the wayside?  How can my story be both unique and yet culturally significant?

One theory to the answers to these questions can be found in the study of archetypes:

1. The Archetypal Comic Book Plot

Imagine this: a powerful villain has a goal that threatens the balance of our world, or at least a part of it. The superhero intervenes and eventually defeats him/her.

Sandwiched in between this predictable beginning and end are a number of other elements: the motivations of the villain and his machinations to wreak havoc on the world, the hero uncovering the villain's plot bit by bit, the hero's struggle against inner demons while overcoming different challenges along the way. Perhaps the villain teams up with others and we get to witness an interesting power struggle within their ranks. Or maybe the hero teams up with other heroes, and they all fall into conflict before finally figuring out that they need to cooperate to defeat the villain(s).
Recognize this plot outline? Wonder why it's so ubiquitous? You could, of course, try to right a comic book without these elements and come up with a wholly original plot on your hands, but unless you're both lucky and a writing super-genius, it's unlikely that many would be into it. After all, people pay for books because they expect to have a craving satisfied, often in a totally unique way.

Carl Jung uncovered the archetypal
story every culture retells.
The fix they are looking for was described by the Swiss Psychiatrist Carl Jung in the 1940s - 1960s. After researching cultures from all over the world, he discovered that all stories - sometimes going back thousands of years - display certain common elements. This, he argued, is because our brains work in similar ways: we all have blueprints in our minds that allow us to be human and relate to the world in a uniquely human way. He calls these blueprints "archetypes," and they are the reason why we see the same basic story repeated in all eras and in all places of the world. In his book Man and His Symbols, he describes this archetypal story as:

The universal hero myth, for example, always refers to a powerful man or god-man who vanquishes evil in the form of dragons, serpents, monsters, demons, and so on, and who liberates his people from destruction and death.

These hero myths vary enormously in detail, but the more closely one examines them, the more one sees that structurally they are very similar. They have, that is to say, a universal pattern, even though they were developed by groups or individuals without any direct cultural contact with each other—by, for instance, tribes of Africans or North American Indians, or the Greeks, or the Incas of Peru.

But if every plot is a variation of the same, shared archetypal "dream," how do we diversify our storytelling and escape the trap of boring cliches?

2. The Archetypal Experience in an Uncommon Setting

Our job in becoming highly original storytellers is to create a world and characters so rare, that the audience lives with a sense of constant wonder and discovery. We take our readers far beyond their usual hunting grounds and lead them into a world where the mundane falls away and everything is an adventure. Once we start them on this journey, we ground the reader by relating this exotic world to a universal human experience. The characters in our stories have lives so unlike ours (spies, superhumans, space explorers, etc.), yet they're confronted with conflicts common to our everyday experience (guilt and redemption, change vs tradition, tribalism vs individualism, etc.).  Although these conflicts are being played out with life and death stakes, and in settings that are exotic and dangerous, the best stories will still have some connection to our psyches, to what makes humans 'human.'

Put another way, our strange and alien world becomes a mirror in which we see ourselves and our inner conflicts. But instead of having our conflicts rehashed in the ordinary manner, the struggle is now retold in epic proportions. Our conflicts take the form of the bravest of heroes fighting the most powerful of foes. Our fear of failure becomes a cliff at the edge of the mountain range. Our struggle to succeed becomes the hero's struggle to not be pushed off the cliff, but instead to defeat the villain.

Ultimately, a good story resolves these conflicts in a way that gives us a a deep sense of satisfaction - a feeling, albeit temporary, that everything in our lives actually does make sense and our everyday conflicts are shared by something larger than ourselves. It gives us a cathartic glimpse of what it feels like whenever we try to answer the eternal question that has plagued mankind: how should we lead our lives? (First posed by Aristotle in Ethics.)

In the end, our love for heroic stories comes out of a quest to make sense of the chaos of life.  And if you can give just a glimpse of that in your story, you're that much closer to creating a work that is not only entertaining, but perhaps even meaningful.