This essay is an excerpt from the transcript of Jim Shooter's
seminar on how to create comics that he taught all over
the country in the mid to late 90's. This is part of the three hour seminar, just
the writing section.
Jim Shooter's "How to Write Comics"
Okay. Why am I doing this? I think because of my unique history
it is incumbent upon me to pass along what I learned from my mentors
so that it isn't lost, because a lot of people want to make comics
a career and they lack this fundamental knowledge; because a lot
of people would like to just make their own comics and this knowledge
will come in handy; and because a lot of you would just like to
understand them better and they might enjoy knowing some of this
We have just entered our second century. In a way that's the real
point of this. We are now celebrating 100 years of comics, the
100th anniversary of our medium. What better way to celebrate
a hundred years of creativity than by encouraging and enabling
it? So what I'm trying to do here is to provide some tools of
knowledge to help you express whatever you've got that you want
to express. These lectures were designed for professionals. I'm
going to go very fast. I'm doing it conversationally, the way
I did for them. I hope you can follow it all. I'll take questions
later. We've got to do weeks of stuff in three hours. Again, this
is not my style I'm preaching here. These are the fundamentals. We're going
to start with writing. That is a typewriter. [slide] It's an ancient
writing tool. [laughter] I never learned to type so I put my feet
up on my desk and have a legal pad in my lap and I write with
a pencil. Don't do that. First thing-writers learn to type. First
of all, I assume we're writing in English, and I assume that we're
telling stories. That's not as self-evident as you might think
because there are a lot of things you could write. You could write
poems, you could write essays, you could write laundry lists,
you could write psycho-babble. A lot of people do that stuff and
earn a living at it. You've read some comics like that, right?
You feel like you're reading someone's grocery list, or it's just
like kind of psycho-babble. You say, "Gee, this guy makes money,
maybe this is what I'm supposed to do." Well maybe. Maybe you
could do that and get lucky and make a million dollars a year.
I can't teach you that. I can, however, teach you something that always works. You don't
have to get lucky.
First we're going to talk about story. Story is probably the most
fundamental and important element of entertainment in the world.
It's a basic building block. It comes into play in virtually every
creative medium. Storytelling is the oldest profession. Don't believe what you've heard. [laughter]
People were telling lies long before any other business was invented.
We're in the same business as Homer was. This business has been
around for a long time. I think it's going to be around for a
long time. It's going to be here forever because it's something
that's built into us that we really like. Okay, so what is a story?
I've told you how important it is, but what is it? Well, in the
simplest possible terms what a story is: what the situation was,
what happened, how'd it come out. That's: What it was, what changed
it, how'd it come out. Now a lot of people have probably been
to seminars and read books that say, well there's Act I, Act II,
Act III. Ignore those people, they don't have a clue what they're
talking about. You may have heard that a story has to have a beginning,
a middle, and an end. Well, no kidding! What does that mean? How
does that give you any tool by which to judge whether or not you've
done it right? So forget those people. Anything those people ever
said to you, put it out of your mind, they have not a clue what they're talking about. It's what it was, what happened, how'd it come out. Is that a formula? No. It's a definition. If it isn't that,
it's not a story. It might be cool. It might be something else.
It might be visual poetry. I don't know, but it's not a story.
That's a definition. Sentences have definitions. A sentence is
a complete thought. Shakespeare used sentences, so did the writers
of Laverne and Shirley. Didn't limit either of them. It's just
a tool. It's just a building block. You've got to know what it
is, then you can manipulate it, then you can play with it.
Think of it as a unit of language. Let me tell you a little bit
about our language. The smallest unit of our language is a letter.
The next unit up if called a morpheme. That's the smallest group
of letters that adds meaning, that holds meaning. For instance
the `s' on the end of a word that makes it plural, that's a morpheme,
or `ing', that's a morpheme. Then of course there's words, clauses,
phrases, sentences, paragraphs, and you build from there. Story
is just a bigger unit. Are there bigger units than story? Of course
there are. We'll talk about those later. Just understand what
we're talking about here is just a piece of language. We're talking
about the construction of language. I'm not talking about Jim's
opinion of what a story is. We're talking about the fact. That's
the story. It should not limit you. It is simply a building block.
Why is that a story? Because somebody woke up one day and said,
"That will be what a story is. We're going to write this in Webster's."
No. That's a story because it's built into our language. I'm not
a linguist so forgive me for my layman's understanding of this
stuff. Let me explain a little bit about language. Our language,
all Western languages, start with little abstract symbols that
don't mean anything, and then you gather them into bigger and
bigger groups that convey more and more meaning. The reason that
the little abstract symbols mean something when you get them in
a big group is because of how they're organized. They're organized
in a logical fashion. That's why you have to have building blocks
as opposed to Eastern languages. I used to say all Eastern languages,
and I know some linguist is going to jump up and say, "You're
wrong," but anyway, most Eastern languages are built upon concrete
images. They're pictograph languages. When the ancient Chinese
wanted to write house, they drew a house. They wanted to say happy
house, they drew a house, a husband and wife, three kids, a dog,
a cow and a duck. They started with concrete images. All Eastern
languages therefore are very image oriented. Let's go back to
Western language now. Syntax. What is syntax? Syntax is the logic
that governs tha organization of our language. It goes something
like this: you have a major premise, you have a condition, and
then you have a minor premise. The major premise, is what it was. The condition is something happened to it. Minor premise is how it came out. It's built into the language. You cannot avoid what a story
is. If someone tells you a story and it doesn't have one of the
pieces, you may not know what it is, technically, but you know
it's not right.
After this is over, we'll all go out and have a root beer someplace.
We'll go into a bar, all of us, and then there'll be a big guy
sitting at the end of the bar, a big, huge guy and you know the
guy played football. So we'll walk up to him and we'll say, "Bronco,
tell us about your biggest game." He'll say, "Well, it was the
state championship, it's late in the fourth quarter and we're
down by six points and we're marching down the field. I'm the
running back and we're doing great. I've got this great quarterback
handing off to me and we've got a terrific defensive back, who's
been shutting them down most of the game. On the other side there's
the biggest linebacker in the world, but so far we're getting
around him, we're marching down the field, and then all of a sudden
this monster linebacker hits me, I fumble and they got the ball.
Now, the cheerleader promised me she'd go out with me if we won
but, I fumble, and things look bad. The coach takes me out and
he's yelling at me and stuff. The time's running out but our great
defensive back intercepts a pass on our own six yard line, and
there's a few seconds left. I say, `Coach put me in. I got to
get in there.'" So Coach Rolinski puts him in and then they hand
Bronco the ball and he breaks through the line, through the secondary,
he's running toward the goal line, and then the BIGGEST LINEBACKER
IN THE UNIVERSE is standing at the goal line. Time has expired
on the clock. He dives for the goal line, and the linebacker dives
at him and... [long pause] You're all wondering whether or not
he scored...and whether or not he scored. [laughter] You can't help yourselves. Another thing you can't
help is when you ask Bronco to tell you a story he will tell you
the situation, what happened to disrupt it, and then he'll tell
you how it came out. If he doesn't you'll be really upset. It's
built into the language. You and Bronco will automatically tell
a story in the correct order if you just let yourself. Keep that
in mind. When you tell a story you're telling what the situation
was, what happened to change that situation, and how it came out.
Eastern stories, you'll find, tend to not be as goal oriented.
If you read a Japanese story, even "Akira" which has a lot of
plot in it, you'll find it kind of meanders and it's sort of a
parade with really cool images. It sort of builds into a montage
of meaning rather than having that kind of goal oriented `I've
got to find out how this comes out.' Nothing wrong with imagery.
I'm not putting that down. I'm just telling you the difference
between the languages.
All right, so you've got this concept that's built into our language
and therefore built into our brains. That's why there is a definition
of story. So why can't everybody just sit down and be a writer?
Well you can. Just let yourself. There's a little more to it than
that, which I'll tell you all in a minute, but basically I think
most of us our problem is when we sit down to be a writer we get
this big capital `W' in front of that word and we think we have
to be Hemingway. Probably you'd all be better off if you would
just stand there, tell the story to yourself in a mirror or to
someone small enough that you can force them to listen. [laughter]
If you just told them the story, and then kind of remembered what
you said and wrote it down, it would probably come out better
than if you sat there with a ream of paper and the delusion you
were talented and tried to write it. What it was, what happened, how'd it come out. Remember that. Forget this beginning, middle and end. Forget
this Act I, Act II, Act III stuff. It doesn't mean anything.
So we have a definition here of unit of language. Artists, pay
attention to this because a lot of this stuff's going to come
up later. Don't go to sleep on me. Also, writers, when we get
to the art part you have to listen to that because this is a visual
and verbal medium. If it isn't all together it doesn't work. Let's
expand our definition a little bit writers. We know what the basic
unit is, now let's expand that definition. What it was. When I say what it was, what I mean is who or what are we talking
about, and what is their situation. What is their status quo?
Where are they? What are they doing? What's normal? What's going
on here if nothing else happened? What happened is something occurs to disrupt that normal status quo. I used
to say a problem comes up, and sometimes I used to say a conflict,
and then I said, "No, it's not always that. Sometimes it's an
opportunity." Something happens, though, to rock the boat. So
what effects does it have? What develops? What issues are raised?
What is at stake? What conflicts arise? What forces are in opposition?
That's all part of that second piece-what happened. I'll give
you a memory device for this in a minute. How did it come out
includes what decides the things that are at stake, the conflicts
and so forth. How did that resolve? Once it does resolve, what
is the new situation that's different from the original status
quo? And if it isn't, you haven't gone anywhere so it's not a
story. Let me give you the expanded definition more simply. A
story, and we're assuming characters here, I mean it could be
about a car or something but for ease of discussing this let's
assume they're characters, a story is the following pieces: you
introduce your characters, you establish the status quo, you introduce
something which disrupts that status quo-a disruptive element,
you develop conflicts, you build suspense, you reach a climax
in which one of the forces in opposition wins, and then you have
a resolution, that is, you explain the new status quo.
Okay, how are you going to remember all of that stuff? I'll tell
you what, it's all in a little poem called Little Miss Muffet.
Little Miss Muffet sat on a tuffet, eating her curds and whey;
along came a spider, who sat down beside her and scared poor Miss
Muffet away. It's all there. It's a story. Introduce the characters-Little Miss Muffet. Establish a status quo-sat on a tuffet eating her curds and whey. She's having lunch.
Introduce the element which disrupts that-along came a spider. Build suspense-sat down beside her. Now look this thing could be poisonous,
you don't know. It might bite her. Scared poor Miss Muffet--wow,
that's the moment where the situation you've created have reached
that climax where something's going to happen now. Scared poor Miss Muffet
away. She gets away. That's the resolution. If you can remember Little Miss Muffet,
you can remember everything you need to know about the basic unit
of entertainment which is a story. Little Miss Muffet sat on a
tuffet, eating her curds and whey; along came a spider, who sat
down beside her and scared Miss Muffet away. Little Miss Muffet-introduce the character. Sat on a tuffet eating her curds and whey-establish the status quo. Along came a spider-introduce the disruptive element. Sat down beside her-build suspense. Scared poor Miss Muffet-climax. Away-resolution. Now you know the basic building block of entertainment. Is that
all you need? No. Little Miss Muffet is a story, it fits the basic
building block, it is, however, a lousy story. [laughter] You
don't know anything about this girl, you don't know anything about
the spider. It gets old pretty quick. But we can make it better.
I'm going to show you how to make it better and then we'll discuss
some of the craft of being a writer. It's more than just knowing
the building blocks.
How can we make it better? We could add some character. Wouldn't
it be interesting to get to know this little girl? All right,
let's do that. Let's say Little Miss Muffet is a very lonely girl.
She eats lunch alone every day. So she's all alone, she's sitting
on her tuffet, she's miserable and she's a very lonely girl. We
can infer from the story that she's probably afraid of spiders.
So all of a sudden Little Miss Muffet starts coming alive to us-she's
a lonely little girl who's scared of spiders. So she's having
another lonely lunch, and then along comes the spider. Now the
spider happens to be lonely too. The guy is ugly. He's a spider.
He can't get a date. So he sees Little Miss Muffet and he approaches
her. Now every instinct in the spider's body is saying take a
chunk out of this babe's leg, and yet he's lonely. He'd like to
have a friend. On the other hand this is a high-risk operation,
what if she steps on him? Little Miss Muffet is thinking, "Gee,
he's ugly. But, Gee, I'm really lonely and he seems nice." She
waffles around about it for a while and then finally she screams
and runs away, proving that Little Miss Muffet is more afraid
of spiders than she is afraid of being lonely. It's a better story.
You learn something about her, you learn something about the spider.
It's already better. Well there's more you can do to a story.
You can add jokes, and bits of business, interesting little events
that happen. You can build more suspense. You could actually have
the spider creeping a little closer to her on her tuffet. You
could do a lot of things. You could add a car chase. Better still,
you could make it relate to your audience. Let's face it, that's
the kind of stories we like to read when you can say, "Yeah, I
felt that way." You could try to figure out something that means
something to whomever is reading it. Try to get that across. So
you could take that basic building block and that's where you
start being creative. You know the basic building block, now you're
going to throw your creativity at this and come up with something
A good example of a story that someone did bring insight to is
"Huckleberry Finn". Is anyone familiar with that? Twain is one
of my big heroes, the guy was good. Ask your average person on
the street what "Huckleberry Finn" was about and they'll tell
you it was about two guys floating down the river on a raft. Wrong.
It's about the dignity of man. Yes, there are two men floating
down the river on a raft, but think about the point. I like Mark
Twain. He's good. What do I mean he has something to say? Stuff happens to them,
they have adventures. But think about it. What Twain set up there
was that here's this guy Huck who has been taught since birth
that certain people, like the slave, Jim, are property, they have
no human value, and if you help one of them run away or you let
one of them escape it's wrong. You're going to hell because it's
evil. So we know the problem. We know the element that sends this
stuff into motion, but the conflicts that it raises in Huck is
really what makes this story interesting, and really what relates
it to us, and it brings us that insight that makes this story
live forever. If you think about "Huckleberry Finn", all the way
down the river, everything that they encounter brings that problem
into focus. The evidence of his eyes tells him that this guy Jim
is the best man he ever met, he's like a father to him. Everything
he was taught says the guy is property and should be turned in. So down the
river a ways they run into the Duke and the Dauphin. Now they
didn't run into a rodeo cowboy and a hooker, they ran into the
Duke and the Dauphin-two guys who were ostensibly superior beings
to even Huck. They're royalty. And we have a whole adventure with
the Duke and the Dauphin. We find out that they aren't superior
at all- these guys are phonies, driving home the point to Huck
to forget what you've been told about people, there is a dignity
in man that transcends the stations that we assign to them. Remember
what happens to the Duke and the Dauphin? They get tarred, turned
Huck and Jim get down to New Orleans and Huck finally has to decide
what to do because there's a problem. Jim is heading for a place
that will get him away. I think a boat will take him away and
Huck knows that if he doesn't yell to that cop, "Get this guy,"
that he's going to hell. Do you know what the climax of the story
is? The climax of the story is three words. He has a little narrative
speech with himself and he says "If I let this guy go, I'm going
to hell." He has that moment and he says, "So be it." That's the
climax, folks. The resolution is, Jim gets away, just like Little
Miss Muffet and Huck has done the enlightened thing. So you could
add all kinds of stuff to a story to make it better. If you have
some insight, if you really have what Mark Twain had and you can
bring some insight to the world, then it makes it a great story.
"Huckleberry Finn" will live forever and bring home that point
to people for thousands of years. That's where we're trying to
go if we're writers. That's what you want to do. I've been trying
to find something worth saying for 29 years. I'm no Mark Twain
and I haven't done it yet, but that's what we should all strive
for. If you aim high you might hit it. Think about that for a
minute. So what am I saying? I'm saying that once you know what
a story is, don't fail to make it a story. Once it's a story,
see what you can add to it to make it entertaining. Once it's
entertaining see if you have anything to say about the subject.
If you say "This is about courage", what do you have to say about
courage? If you could ever bring anything to it, then it could
really be outstanding and have a real significance. Don't laugh.
This is a comic book lecture, but don't laugh. I remember comics
that I read by Stan Lee when I was a kid. I still remember little
bits and pieces of it that affected me when I was a kid, maybe
not the way "Huckleberry Finn" affected me, but still... Don't
think we're trying to talk formula here, don't think we're aiming
low because it's comics.
I'm just trying to give you the tools of language. Try to have
a point. Try to communicate. Try to have something to say. That's
what it's all about-having something to say and the ability to
say it. We're communicators.
Let me tell you a little bit about other structural things that
you may need to know. You heard me say, "Introduce your characters"
a couple of times. What does that mean? What I mean by that is
whenever you are trying to establish your status quo, Little Miss
Muffet sat on a tuffet, you have the same duty as a newspaper
reporter-who, what, when, where, why, how give the readers a clue about what that status quo is , so they
can understand how it's disrupted. That means also understanding
who these characters are. When you bring your character on stage
(on the figurative stage) you want to let the reader know enough
about this character so he's got a handle on him. Now you never
stop letting the reader know about the guy. Introducing interesting
characters doesn't just end, you keep doing it. When I say introduce
the characters what I mean is give the reader a clue. If you go
to any professional performance let's say, a Broadway play, a
movie, watch a TV show, or read a good book, usually the first
time you see a character the author takes great pains to give
you a handle on that character. If the guy in a Broadway play
is a tailor, almost certainly the first time you see him he'll
have a tape, he'll have pins in his mouth, a pair of pants over
his arm, a soap marker in his hands, it will tell you he's a tailor.
Sometimes they won't. Sometimes there's a scene where he's in
a tuxedo and he's going to the opera, but the reason they're doing
that is because they are saving it as a surprise - one of the
actor's costume splits, "Is there a tailor in the house?" "I'm
a tailor!" That's the kind of thing - saving the introduction
to make a point, or work a bit of business. But basically what
I'm telling you here, I'm not going to go through all of that
in great detail. I'm going to tell you this, use your eyes. You
guys watch TV. You see movies all the time. You read books all
the time. Stop just sitting there watching it and start seeing
it. Watch movies twice - once for fun and once with a note pad
in your lap, and the pause button in your hand. Start looking
at what the writer did, try to figure out why'd he do that. You'll
find that what I'm saying is true. With any professional piece
of work the characters are brought on stage, they're introduced.
You get to know them enough so that you can now understand what
they are, who they are, so that when the disruption comes you
can see it. You'll also see writers doing all kinds of tricks,
literary devices to get their points across. Remember that's what
we're doing. We're communicating. If you don't communicate, what's the difference if you have
a great story? You'll see them foreshadow things. You'll see them do parallel construction to make points. You'll see them do juxtaposition of scenes to try to drive home a point or create contrast. You'll see them
use irony, or contrast, or mood, or imagery. Now I'm not equipped to stand here and have the
time to go through all that and try to explain how's it done,
and in truth in a collaborative medium like comics it really is
much better for me to get on and to show you the artwork, and
then you'll start seeing how some of these things interplay. Go
to the library, but use your eyes. Start examining what you're
looking at, the movie you're seeing, examining it, and finding
out what the guy's doing and why. Try to figure out what was in
the writer's head. You'll find in "Star Wars" the first time you
see Luke Skywalker, they tell you who he is. And I don't mean
they just say, "Hey, here's Luke." They show him doing something
that is germane to his character. The same with every other character.
As I say, they don't stop giving you information, and every once
in a while they'll change up on you, they'll show you something
contrary so that they can reveal later that the guy is a tailor,
but basically you should look for that.
I'm going to walk you quickly through a movie called "Rocky".
Has anybody seen "Rocky"? I'll just touch on a few scenes from
"Rocky" that basically will illustrate some of what I'm talking
about in terms of building these things into the story. Rocky's
not high art but is impeccably constructed. It's like level two.
It's a story, it's a good story. It's very well constructed. It's
not great. I think Stallone did make a stab at trying to say something,
but he ain't no Mark Twain. What's the first scene in "Rocky"?
Rocky's in the ring. He's not in a tux. He's not at the opera.
He's in a ring. The guy's a fighter. The event that happens in
the ring is a little taste of what the whole thing is about. In
a way you can think of it as a comic book. It's a splash page.
Hi, here's who I am. Rocky's in the ring and he's fighting, and
the manager's screaming at him because he should win this but
he's losing. He just doesn't have the killer instinct. However,
when the other guy cheats and then it sort of offends Rocky's
sense of justice, fair play, and manhood, then he knocks the guy
out. In the first 20 minutes of Rocky, what happens? You meet
the manager and you understand what his deal is. You meet Rocky
and see that he's an unsuccessful leg breaker for the mob because
that's the only way he can make a living. He's too soft hearted
to go and break any body's thumb, but that's the only job he can
get. The mobster who uses him is always disappointed because Rocky
failed to break the guy's leg. You meet the girl in the pet shop.
You meet her brother. You see the kids in the street. You see
that Rocky lives in a poor neighborhood. You see the gym, it's
a grungy place-a little tiny place where old guys with cigars
come to watch pugs fight. You see the locker room. Rocky has a
locker. You see that if a fighter is on his way out they get their
stuff put in a bag. Okay so we see all that and it's Little Miss
Muffet sat on her tuffet, eating her curds and whey. Fine, I understand
this guy. He's an aging pug. Okay, why am I here? Why am I watching?
About 20 minutes into this movie something happens-an opportunity,
in fact. The aging pug is given a shot at the champ. That's not
a problem. That's not a conflict. That's an opportunity. They
tell him "Go into the ring, get hit in the head, fall down, collect
a million dollars, go home." I'd do it. [laughter] That is the
element that disrupts the status quo. If it wasn't for that, we'd
just kind of watch Rocky get older, I suppose, and eventually
drink himself to death or something. But anyway he gets a shot
at the champ. All that stuff that they showed in the first 20
minutes comes into play. All of a sudden his relationship changes
with the manager, his relationship changes with the pet shop girl,
because he's not just a pug anymore, he's a contender. His relationship
changes with the brother-in-law. His relationship changes with
the mobster. He's not just a failed leg breaker. He's a contender.
The guy gives him money. "Here you need some money to train."
He takes the cigarette out of his mouth and says, "You're in training.
You're the Italian Stallion, man. You're our hope." A lot of stuff
changes. You meet the champ, you see Rocky's interaction with
the champ. Watch "Rocky" sometime. Rent "Rocky", I don't care
if you've seen it. Watch it with a note pad in your lap. Try to
pick apart every scene and figure out why it's there. It will
be an incredible lesson in terms of how to get points across.
For instance, parallel construction-the first time you see Rocky
jogging to try to get in shape, he runs to the top of the stairs,
he's exhausted. Later after the "getting stronger" theme is in
place, he runs to the top of those stairs and he feels great.
So what Stallone has done is, he said "See he couldn't before,
but he can now." He didn't have him run to the top of a different
hill because then you wouldn't understand the point. It has to
be the same hill--parallel construction. Everything that was introduced
in the first 20 minutes of that movie is used. I happen to know
that Rocky goes to the library on Saturdays and reads Dr. Seuss
books. You didn't know that, did you? It's not in the movie. Why?
It's not relevant so they cut it out. You see my point. Everything
there is used. Even the kids on the street. There's another instance
of parallel construction. Rocky's in a bar, sees the champ on
TV and the champ looks great. He's surrounded by reporters, and
he's walking through an airport and a reporter says, "Champ you
got any words for the children of America?" The champ says, "Yes,
stay in school. Become doctors and lawyers. Don't be a fighter
like me. It's much too tough." Rocky in the bar is moved. It's
like when I was watching Stan Lee. It was wow! So Rocky goes out,
remember those kids out in the street? Well, he takes this one
little girl and he says "You shouldn't be hanging around on the
street." He drags her home and he's giving her a lecture. He's
trying to do what the champ did. He's trying to give a message
to the children of America. He takes her home and she turns and
says, "Rocky..." He says, "What kid?" and she gives him the finger.
Parallel construction. The champ does it and gets respect. Rocky
does it and he gets disrespect. It sends you a message. It's there for a reason. He's making
a point. Every scene should be there for a reason, it should be
making a point, or get rid of it. It doesn't belong. It doesn't
matter how clever you think it is. You'll use it in the next story.
So use your eyes. Go see a whole bunch of movies. Watch them with
a note pad in your lap, take them apart, think about it, and remember
the basic building block. What it was, what happened, how does
it come out, but don't aim low, aim high, aim for Mark Twain.
It's also good to see bad movies, too. Go see some bad movies
and then you'll start saying, "Hey wait a minute. He didn't introduce
that character. I don't know who that is." And you'll start realizing
"Hey I've done that, too. I better stop." That's what you should
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