Before I begin, I do want to thank everyone who has been writing in asking questions. At the same time, I’d love to see some discussions on the writing columns I’ve been doing and on the interviews. Does anyone actually care about any of this? Why don’t you start new topics on the message boards and let me know. Thanks.

A month of two back, when we talked about writing plots, we first discussed ideas and theme; what the story is actually about versus how you decide to tell that story. I quickly sketched out Star Wars done, almost beat by beat, as a modern crime story. As I said at the time, you can take any theme and write it in almost any genre because themes are the big picture, the real truths, the story under the often paper-thin plot that passes for story to most folk. Plot is the contrivance, the series of events you use to tell that bigger story. You can, of course, do stories without theme, but unless you find something to make them interesting - for instance CSI, where forensic detail is what the keeps you riveted for 42 minutes – the story will be flash paper thin and ultimately a waste of time. It’s a problem comics suffer greatly when writers do stories that are merely a collection of fights and not about anything more.

Only those writers who, no matter how crudely they go about it, want to say something a bit more than “Ouch, that hurt!” make comics fun to read. They give real soul to what could be a stick to the eye. It really doesn’t take much. You don’t have to be a great writer, per se. You simply need to want to tell a story. About something. That story then can be couched in any terms, from the most abstract concept to an issue of Mickey Mouse or Spider-Man.

Many folk bad mouth the super-hero genre because it’s essentially adolescent fantasy, but that would by like saying they wouldn’t read, say, Animal Farm, because it’s nothing more than Donald Duck-like funny animals. The super-hero genre is not the problem. If anything is, it’s that we haven’t yet fully explored the form. Instead, we’ve been stuck repeating our favorite comics from the 1960s, better written, perhaps, better drawn, most certainly – craft has improve incredibly - but thematically they’re pretty much the same as they’ve always been.

I’m not the one, but I’m hoping someone out there will, sooner than later, I hope, find some new approach that will change the genre, not by rupturing it, but by understanding its truths and moving it to the next level. There are other things you can do in comics, even in the super-hero genre, that explore new areas, plum human emotion and are still thrilling and exciting to young readers and old. You don’t want to take away why super-hero comics work; you want to expand its arena so more readers can enjoy them. Readers take from fiction what they bring into it, so a kid reading a well written story may be able to enjoy it, but not on the same level as someone older, with more life experience under their belt. We’re talking about straight, fun, super-hero stuff. Just well done.

So, we discussed theme and we have a rough idea of our story. Now what do we do? Some people simply sit down and start typing. They actively don’t want to know exactly how things are going to proceed; they want to explore their characters as they write. They want to be constantly surprised.

I’ve done many stories that way and sometimes the results are incredible because your mind is freed and can move in many directions, often at once. But, generally, I find it works best to know where the story is going and to outline it in some fashion, to have my beginning, middle and end clearly set up, and then start writing. Knowing where I’m going helps me set my characters on their path. Then, once they are moving along, I can let them meander a bit, explore alternatives, and see if they work better. If it does, then I’ll proceed on that path. But if the story doesn’t work better, if I’ve moved away from my central idea, then I want to get my characters back on track.

To me, every story can be summed up with: If whatever you put into a story doesn’t advance the character and plot, then get rid of it. Comic book stories, TV episodes, even movies, are too short to take inconsequential side trips, even for a fun moment. EVERYTHING MUST ADVANCE STORY AND CHARACTER.


If it’s something you put in to a story just because you find it funny, or touching, or heart felt, or motivating, and it doesn’t advance the characters and your story, get rid of it. This is known as “killing your babies,” and believe me, often the more babies you kill, the better our story is. If you are enraptured over a wonderful line of dialogue, one that sings and is so poetic you can’t believe you wrote it in the first place, word of advice: kill it. Why? First, it probably doesn’t fit in stylistically with everything else you’ve written and will stand out like a bludgeoned thumb, and second, IT DOESN’T ADVANCE STORY OR CHARACTER.

If, in a good story, you see the writer seemingly meander off topic, when you’re done with the book, go back and see how that impacted the story or characters. Chances are, in some fashion, it will.

Note: There are many forms of writing that are not structured, the literary equivalent of abstract art. I’m ignoring talking about these because I’m discussing basics. You need to crawl before you walk and walk before you run. We’re still crawling.

All right. So you have your thoughts together and you want to start an outline. How do you do that?

Sorry. Can’t tell you. There’s no rules. I’m betting everyone does it in their own way. I can tell you the way I do it. Even though sometimes I don’t. Or I change my method. Or I find something that works better for a particular story.

This, by the way, this is one of the secrets of writing; there really aren’t all that many rules. There’s grammar rules, of course, but I’m sure in writing this column I’ve violated all of them. But grammar rules are usually thrown away when dealing with dialogue. Very few people speak correctly. I certainly don’t. Dialogue has to be character specific, and, frankly, when we get to dialogue, sometime way down the pike, I’m going to have a bitch of a time trying to explain it. But we’re not there yet, thank God.

That done, how do I outline? I do it in the most obvious way possible. I begin with:

1. (yes, I actually put the number one on the left side of my computer screen). I then write where I think I’m going to begin my story with a SLUG LINE (which establishes the location of the opening scene). For the sake of this column we’ll use the first scenes of Shawn McManus’s and my 1994 comic, THE MAN CALLED A•X # 1 (OR A-TEN if you want to know how to pronounce the ‘X’).

Before I begin, I need to say that I drew a detailed map of Bethlehem, or BEDLAM, as it was known to the people who lived there, the city where A•X lives. To me, Bedlam was not just a city, but another character in the comic, so it was important that I understand its many different districts. Also, because the concept of A•X was that our hero was wiping out mob bosses - without knowing why (or, for that matter, who he was) - it was important to set up the city and the crime bosses in advance so I knew who was where and what they were up to. I wrote detailed bios of all the major crime bosses and the section of Bedlam they controlled. I also wrote out a history of Bedlam that led to the current mob warfare.

So, to begin the outline, I put down the number 1 and decided on its location. Remember, I had already come up with my idea and worked up a short treatment letting me know what the story was about. 1. Liz Watkin’s apartment.

Okay. I now know my location. In no more than a line or two I then say what I think is going to happen.

1. INT. Liz Watkin’s apartment. She wakes from a nightmare. (note: INT. is short hand for INTERIOR – I’m setting the scene inside a Liz’s apartment).

Okay. I stop here and start thinking - should I show the nightmare or not? Do I have Liz TALK about what she’s just seen? Do I do a real head trip on her or…

I realize two things: 1: Comics are visual so the rule is SHOW, DON’T TELL. And 2: I need to get the story moving, so I go back and start with a new number one (Microsoft Word, with outlining turned on, makes it easy to instantly change outline numbers).

1. INT. helicopter. Over Iraq during the Gulf War. Liz is one of the soldiers. So is A•X before he became what he is, but we pay NO attention to him. The copter is HIT.

2. INT. Liz Watkin’s apartment. She suddenly wakes from a nightmare. She is dreaming of the above and the nightmares have been coming for awhile. Establish her character.
Okay, So now we don’t have to verbally explain her nightmare; it’s been shown visually. To some extent, we see Liz’s back story and realize she’s still feeling the effects of the war. Remember, this comic was done only 3 years after the Gulf War, and when you consider recent events – where two killers within the past week were found to be former Gulf War vets, you realize the effects of war lingers. And not just in fiction.

I’m happy with what I’ve got so far, but the story is still moving too slowly. A•X was created to be a Hong Kong action film on paper – before HK films were well known here. This is pre John Woo and Jackie Chan in America. I’d been a huge fan of both, and others, and used to go to the Chinese movie theaters in order to see their stuff. Needless to say, H-K films were not available on videotape back then. In Monterey Park, outside Los Angeles, there is a large Chinese population. They had a great theater there and I and my friends would go to every so often. They also had a laser disc store that carried only Hong Kong laser discs. This is how I saw the films before they became popular here. One of the things I loved, about John Woo’s H-K movies (especially “The Killer” and “Bullet In The Head”) is that he made you care about these characters. He did not spend lots of time explaining them with dialogue. It was all done in story set-up and pacing. I found this a completely refreshing approach to story telling, especially action story telling, and I wanted to see if I could incorporate some of those ideas within an American style super-hero/action story. I wanted to do a completely high octane character-driven series, but I wanted to do it organically and not feel the need to explain my characters with lots of words, which had been my hallmark till then in both Tomb of Dracula and The New Teen Titans, among others..

Anyway, The Man Called A•X was to be an experiment. I was trying to push myself as a writer. Yet, because for me story has to deal with people first (I didn’t want this to be an Image comic of the time which was all action and no character) I had to find a way to convey all the characterization and emotion in how the story was shown rather than in how I wrote fancy dialogue.

Next week I go back and add a new number 1 – again – and show how each number is broken into smaller parts, and how those parts are divided up yet again.

See you in seven.
-Marv Wolfman

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