"Jack Nicholson was not impressed with this joker..."
While very funny when you see it on its own, this picture has a backstory that may change your mind:
Jack Nicholson walked out of the Wolseley Restaurant in London on the night of January 22nd, 2008 when paparazzi informed him of the death of Heath Ledger. They told him it was a drug overdose which prompted Jack to say “That’s awful. I warned him.” Then somebody shoved a Joker photo in his face for him to sign.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Don't confuse the reader by giving unimportant events or characters too much time. Keep the main story events and character(s) central.
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.