Friday, January 28, 2011

Why comics and e-books have me questioning story structure

It is sometimes commented upon that until the internet happened, writers did not have so much feedback from their fans.

However, that was not true in the comics industry. Comics (at least, in this part of the world) have most commonly been told in short, chapter form with a letters column in the back, encouraging their fans to bitch and moan about the latest issue, or write tomes of effusive praise, or point out that Nightcrawler's hand had five fingers on page 15, panel 3, or whatevs. There is something else about comics, too: They were not expected to end. Ever. Can you imagine Superman ending and that's it? They don't end, they just get canceled if they aren't selling. A little like TV, but even more neverending, and without the structure of a "season" to hang that year's plot on.

There is something else different about comics too. Self-publishing is perfectly acceptable in the comics world. Many excellent comics began as self-published works, and some of them were picked up by a larger publisher from there, and some didn't. Although the comics industry is still dominated by superheroes, scratch the surface and the level of experimentation of not just art, but storytelling, in the comics world, IMO, is astonishing. And one thing I think is very fascinating is that comic creators can choose whether they want to tell one story with a beginning and an end, like a novel, or whether they want to tell an ongoing tale that can either be passed on to other creators, or end when the artist/writer simply gets burnout, or dies.

In writing, we don't really have that option. Sure, there are a few never-ending series, like in the mystery genre for example, but even then there are few examples outside of a fairly formulaic "every book solves a mystery" or "urban fantasy story where uh-oh, there's a NEW sexy vampire in town." There are comics that simply follow the slice-of-life dramas of a groups of characters. There are comics that combine slice-of-life relationship dramas with save-the-world traditional fantasy elements like Elfquest and Thieves and Kings (which also has prose sections within the comic). There might be story arcs, but there is no common rule dictating that the story should be a trilogy and then end...a level of freedom that FEW novels (I'm not saying none) manage. Of course, I'm sure the self-publishing element is part of it, and for every good comic there is a slew of bad ones, don't get me wrong.

Also, obviously there are things you can do in visual storytelling that just DO NOT WORK in novels. I bump up against the frustration of these limits all the time, as someone who once wanted to be a comic artist (but realized she doesn't have the patience with art that she does for writing). But I don't see why a serial story of short "episodes" in prose form couldn't work.

A friend of mine had a story on her blog some years back called MARZ Saga (she knows who she is ) that I won't attempt to summarize here, but it was basically, a very creative little character drama that went on for years, in the form of short slice-of-life "episodes" that fed into a larger plot of character development and human growth. (Okay, see why I don't summarize things? That sounds totally boring.) But anyway, the characters felt VERY real to me, and their interactions felt very true to life, and she was very good at getting in the heads of people of wildly different backgrounds and throwing them together. It was good stuff. I can't ever see it as a novel. It worked as episodes. It was not a novel-type plot arc at all. It also lacked an ending. I didn't care. I doubt Thieves and Kings will ever end either, but it's still my favorite comic, and you know, I'm not sure I WANT stories like that to end. Life rarely has neat and tidy endings, and some types of stories don't have to, in my opinion.

That isn't to say I don't adore the traditional idea of what makes a "good novel": the hero's journey, the tension of every page, the ending that delivers, three-act structures and defined character arcs and all that stuff. It makes for wonderful stories. Obviously, they are the kind I write and love and hope to continue to write for a long time.

But I also am cautiously excited about the idea that e-books could allow for some variations in structure, since authors have the ability to write shorter works at cheaper price points and get them to readers quickly. For example, after Magic Under Stone, I'm sure some of you will still want to know what happens to Nimira and Erris. Maybe, if there was enough demand, I could even get a third book out of them. But their whole lives just aren't going to book-worthy, unless I keep concocting rather tedious disasters for them to contend with. There is a point, however, where one might scale back. Cover a smaller, more intimate drama in their lives, maybe over the course of a few short stories that readers who are desperate to know their fate after the book ends could purchase for 99 cents, or things like that. We're already seeing a little of this, of course. This could go for the end of any book. Writers who keep thinking about their characters after the book is done could keep sharing the thoughts without spinning out an entire book from it. Or someone like me who draws all the characters throughout their development could share my sketchbooks with readers in ebook form.

There is the potential for some pretty cool stuff. And frankly, although even the suggestion that there could be a demise of print sends me into absolute DESPAIR, as I love having and holding tangible books, that is the sort of thing that gets me very excited about ebooks.

I have a feeling there is a post inside of this post, a post I didn't write, that gets my thoughts across in a less muddled way...but, there you have it for now.


  1. I love this post! I think it gets your thoughts across just fine. I often muse about the various pleasures inherent in these different forms of storytelling. Today my daughter isn't feeling well and we re-watched a lot of Avatar the Last Airbender and I was wishing that a novel could pay as much end-of-story attention to the minor characters during the climax. Or maybe I should say I was wondering if there are novels that do so.

    And I'm intrigued by your e-books idea. Although if all authors do it, it might put fanfic writers out of biz. ;)

  2. This excites me, too. In fact, I already have a whole bunch of tidbits written for when I'm super-duper famous and people are all, "Tell us more about your characters! We want to know what happens next, even if there's not a whole novel in it!" I'd planned to just put them up on my (eventual) website for my (hopefully legions of, or at least couple of) fans, but I love the idea of publishing them as e-books.

    (Which, I know, is getting ahead of myself. First I've got to get my query package all shiny and irresistible so I can find an agent, then an editor, then an audience. But someday...)

    I've heard of one author who runs a subscription service, too. Every month, she sends subscribers new bits of fiction--I believe in the same vein as what you're suggesting, rather than the sort of short fiction that gets into the magazines and anthologies. I wish I could remember who it is.

  3. I have been thinking about something along these lines all week, after a symposium I went to on Tuesday about (Russian lit theorist) Mikhail Bakhtin, who had STRONG opinions about the absolute perfection of novels as an art form, for the very REASON that they are, inherently, "unfinalized." His opinion is that characters in novels are neither dead nor fictional, and the the complexities of a novel's form actually create a space in which a story is never finished, and which a reader can always live in – and, by extension, be immortal, as an eternal participant in the story.

    I wrote about it on my blog earlier in the week – – using Jellicoe Road as a good example of how this plays out in today's YA fiction scene. I also think that this very "unfinalization" of good novels, especially good YA novels, is a great part of why young people are such a strong group of readers, because they are still in the middle of their own stories, and really identify with characters and worlds that live on well past a book's last page.