How To Be A Better Writer

By | Thursday, April 19, 2007 2 comments
Ah, the Internet is a wonderful thing, isn't it? I was just reading someone talk about how real improvisation experts don't really like Thank God You're Here (the alleged improv show from David Grier and David Foley) which led to a link from an improvisation expert explaining why he didn't like the show which led to a link on How To Be A Better Improviser.

Now why would I bring that up here on my blog about comic books?

Because the "rules" for improvisation comedy denoted in that last link are ALSO excellent rules for writing in general, and comic books in particular! The basic idea behind/summation of all of these improv rules is to get the ball rolling quickly so that your audience knows what's going on and can follow along as the scene grows organically. Which is exactly what comic book writers should be doing as well!

If you've read a bad comic book -- and I'm sure you have -- what types of problems did it suffer from? Aside from possible problems with the artwork end of things, it was likely either because A) the story, or at least parts of it, didn't make sense; B) characters were not identified well or didn't serve a useful purpose in the story; and/or C) nothing significant happened. Go back and pull out the worst issue in your collection, and see if it wouldn't have been immensely helped if the author had followed those rules of improv.

And, of course, the over-arching rule of everything is what I've been tacitly implying: don't overly compartmentalize your learning. Don't focus on writing comic books; take everything you've ever learned and apply it to your writing in general. Being able to do that is what separates an Alan Moore from... well, anyone else who doesn't write that well!
Newer Post Older Post Home


Richard said...

I'm gobsmacked. I've taken improv classes and I've written comics...and I never saw how clear these parallels are.

And then it just becomes thuddingly obvious when you consider the continuity fixation of superhero comics at the Big Two, and how satisfying it is when a writer comes along with a successful "yes and..." and how cheap and dirty it feels when a writer pulls a denial to get out of a scene he doesn't want to play.

When Moore made his first big splash with Marvelman and Captain Britain and Swamp Thing, what characterized these but the common thread of "yes and..."? He didn't toss out anything that had been established about those characters previously, but in each case he found the "and" which threw everything before into a different light. And from there, he went into "If this is true, then what else is true?" By contrast, the reboot -- "this character you've been reading about for years never existed, and nothing you were told about him is true any longer" -- is the clumsiest sort of denial.

I know what you're saying refers to good writing in general, not this narrow subset of comics in particular...but it strikes me as very telling.

Well, if I've done else worthwhile today, I can say I've gobsmacked someone! :)

Personally, I've never done stand-up or improv or anything, so the rules were wholly new to me. And that probably helped to de-contextualize them -- I wasn't particularly trying to learn how to do improv, so it was easier for me to make a free association like this.

This is why, I think, a good writing teacher will tell you to NOT limit yourself to studying one particular form of writing. (And, indeed, it applies to most if not all art forms!) The best rules apply across the board regardless of what medium you're working in.

Regarding comics in particular, they are, in fact, a form of long-term improv. As a comic book writer, you're going to be focusing primarily on the current story you're working on. What happens later, whether that's just with the next story arc or what the next writer does or what a writer does 20 years from now, is completely up in the air... until you get to that point and someone has to write that next story. That person may or may not be privvy to the thought processes that got to that point, but they have whatever was laid on the table to work with. "Yes, and..."

Same thing with TV shows. And movie franchises. Any medium that multiple authors contribute to.

It's less significant where there's only one author, but it's still a relevant point. Imagine if J.K. Rowling decided that Harry Potter was really a long-lost Weasley brother, and that he was really given up for adoption simply because the Weasley's couldn't afford another child at that time. Everything we'd been told about Harry's parents were lies to cover up some massive conspiracy. (Totally absurd concept, I know. That's the point.) Imagine how all the Harry Potter fans would react to that.


Probably not unlike when Marvel told everyone that Peter Parker wasn't the real Spider-Man; the real Spider-Man was some guy named Ben Reilly. ;)

In a non-comics realted note, the improv rules also defined for me the love/hate relationship I had with Whose Line Is It Anyway? I generally found the show funny and entertaining (moreso with the original British version) but some of the games just made my skin crawl. Turns out because the premise of the games didn't really allow for the improve rules in their basic premise or somehow curtailed their usefulness. Their superhero game, for example, readily forces characters on and off stage for no real reason. The ho-downs and song-styles games complete avoid the "Yes, and..." concept altogther.

Amazing what you can learn by following a few links on the Internet!