As I mentioned in Sunday’s post, I really like rounding up lessons learned when I finish projects. Since yesterday’s page of Uncounted was officially the end of the webcomic story, I feel like it’s time to do the same hindsight work.
Prior to writing Uncounted, I’d never tried to tell a story in the webcomic medium. I’ve been writing my Maaneshin comic for a while, and will be applying a number of these lessons learned to it – even though it’s technically meant to be a print comic, not a webcomic.
Lesson #1 Pace-Per-Page
The similarities between the media forms are obvious – they are both visual storytelling. They use a lot of the same tricks and symbols. The differences between them are a bit more nuanced, from the storyteller’s point of view.
The webcomic has the limitation of screen / page size. Generally, you can achieve about half of the action you’d expect on a print comic page per webcomic page. That means that even if you have a fairly good sense of pagebreaks in print, you really have to shift that down by half. That’s harder than you think. In novel-length works, writers care mostly about chapter stops and starts. In print comics, that rise and fall of action – the continuation of motion and interest – is usually condensed to a single 2 page spread. In webcomics, it’s basically got to happen in one page of action. *gulp*
If you re-read Uncounted from start to finish, you’ll see that I learned the lesson of pace-per-page as we went along. Carlo, the artist and my collaborator, has been doing webcomics for years, and he contributed quite a lot to teaching me about this pacing. I would say in terms of my own writing, I didn’t really learn this lesson fully until around page 12.
Lesson #2 Readers’ Tolerance for Confusion
Generally speaking, as readers, we expect a build up of action to something interesting when we read or watch anything. We understand that we will be sort of confused, and we trust the writer / director / creator to satisfy our curiosity and get rid of our confusion. Confusion is uncomfortable. The twisty, entertaining or interesting clarity that brings all of the parts together is satisfying. That’s what makes a good ending.
With Uncounted, we had one page each week to move the story forward. We didn’t want what was essentially a short story to drag on forever. (The other collaborators on the End of Times comic generally only get 4 pages!) That means, that necessarily, there have to be some skipped steps that require the reader to make logical leaps. Page 8 was one of those. It took us out of the Doctor’s narrative, and introduced a Corpsman, John Mistral. That was the page when all of the readers who provided feedback along the way said a quick “Wha-huh?”
I think that some of the visual signals that detailed those leaps – the day counter showing passage of time, or the colors of the background walls to show change in setting – some of those were perhaps too subtle for a comic that readers aren’t reading from the beginning every week. The numbers don’t stick in our minds as important, and they don’t seem to be part of the story.
I learned then, that we needed to slow down the action and be a little more clear from week to week at that point.
Lesson #3 Time = weight and importance
One of my biggest take-aways from working with Carlo was his advice to spend screen time on important characters. We gave extra pages to Sophie and Mistral along the way, that weren’t necessarily 100% about moving the action forward. A good example of that one is page 7.
This actually translates well into all of my other writing work. People and places that have emotional weight for the reader require more description. This helped guide my hand in rewrites of Salvaged, and in all of my other writing since then.
Lesson #4 Communication from Words to Art
This was a lesson I’d set out to learn with this project. As I write Maaneshin, I realize that I don’t know my artist. I don’t have a clear understanding of their strengths or weaknesses, their preferences or style. I’m having to draw it in my head as I write it, and over-describe everything.
During this project, I was able to collaborate and talk with Carlo about the pages as we figured each one out, moving the action forward, building emotional impact, and so on. It was useful, because he could suggest things I’d never think of in terms of layout or movement. And he knew the limitations of drawing something for eight or so hours on an iPad.
To me, the process behind making the pages was far more magical than that. Oooh, a sketch! Then Ooooh a completed page! All of the alakazam was in Carlo’s time and dedication to the project, for which I’m grateful.
We grew into a sort of shorthand as we talked about the comic over the past 22 weeks and five script drafts. The translation of ideas and words into art has been really amazing to watch. I think, like #3, the work makes me a better writer overall.
Final Lesson: What do people think?
Readers stuck with it, and I really hope there’s a payoff in the end.
I think it probably requires a start-to-finish reread to understand all of what’s going on, and to connect all of the dots.
I hope that with re-reading, you might discover a secret or two about this world, about these characters. Why is our misanthropic Doctor taking in strays? Why does the Corps care about people who refuse to join the Count and get their vaccines?
There are deliberately a few questions left unanswered, I’ll admit. Many of those are actually satisfied in my novel Salvaged. But I hope you have a clearer understanding of what the Doctor is doing, who he is, and how he was “created” by his world. That was the story I set out to tell, at least.
What do you think? Did we succeed?