You have a stack of character reference sheets, lots of motivation, and five finished cans of generic diet cola sitting on your desk. The problem is you’re stuck and don’t know how to start your story, much less end it. Sound familiar? Then let’s talk outlines!
*insert semi-enthusiastic trumpets here*
WHAT IS AN OUTLINE?
The dictionary defines an outline as “A general description covering the main points of a subject.” What does this mean? It means that you aren’t writing the full story, only the bullet points that cover what happens in your comic.
WHY WRITE AN OUTLINE?
Let’s say you’re creating a six-issue comic where plot points must carry over from one issue to the next. Let’s also assume that you don’t outline the key elements necessary for the full story arc to succeed. What happens if you’re printing each issue as you go? You’re effectively burning the bridge behind you. By issue six you’ll more than likely find yourself unable to resolve key points brought up in an earlier issue — plot points that are vital to the story’s ending. What will you do when that happens? Cry in a corner, that’s what.
Not only is it critical to write an outline for each individual issue from cover to cover, you also need one that plots how each issue connects to the next (or to the next five). You may run the risk of looking like an amateur if your story stops making sense and never resolves itself by the end. (I’m looking at you, writers of Lost.)
HOW TO WRITE AN OUTLINE FOR YOUR COMIC
This may seem like a daunting task, but laying down your foundation early will make things go more smoothly later. Remember that this is an outline and not a full script, so even if you don’t know what’s going to happen four issues from now, the important thing is to write one-sentence ideas outlining what needs to happen to carry the story forward. It could be as simple as the following, whether you’re writing a webcomic or a full-length graphic novel:
Can’t think beyond the first issue? That’s fine – you have to start somewhere. Working on the first issue will help ideas flow for future issues. You’ll be fine as long as you make sure that these ideas make sense in the grand story arc. The scope of your outline depends on your comic. A joke-a-day comic doesn’t need much outlining because, generally, the episodes are separate entities from one another. A multi-issue comic will need and outline that is more cohesive and fluid from start to finish.
Even though my comic, Frik’in Hell, was presented as single-page episodes, I created an outline spanning each volume so I would know exactly how many episodes a particular scene would need to be in order to fill the book. Not only did I connect all the episodes together in a grand story arc, but I also made sure that each episode delivered a comedic element (since the comic was primarily a comedy). It was vital for me to make each episode funny in and of itself. (That was the intent, at least. If you don’t find my comic funny, well… I’m sorry, but you appear to lack humor. Dull = You.)
I highly recommend reading How to Use 3-Act Story Structure in Comic Strips by Tim Stout. The structure that Stout suggests is used in comics, movies, novels, and anything that involves storytelling. It doesn’t matter if your comic is three panels or twelve full issues. The three-act structure will help you to plan your outline in smaller chunks so that you know exactly when key elements of your story should take place.
Thank you for reading!
How To Write An Outline For Your Comic by Todd Tevlin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License