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Saturday, January 5, 2008

Making Your Story Stick

Every year, thousands of stories flood the marketplace, but only a few will stand out, only a few will be talked about, and only a few will be remembered down the line. Creating a story that's "made to stick" can help generate powerful word-of-mouth and leave a lasting impression, as well as translate to long-term sales.

But what is a story that's "made to stick?"

Chip and Dan Heath's amazing book, Made To Stick, defines six key qualities for an idea to successfully linger in the minds of people. Though the hardcover volume is a business book, the six key qualities can serve as a criteria set for comics creators in developing their stories.

Let's go through them one by one:

1) Simplicity. While circuitous plot lines, complex concepts, and in-depth research can add a lot of flavor, stripping your story to its core not only helps you keep your narrative in focus, it helps your readers focus as well, ensnaring their senses from the first page to the last. I remember that Sandra Bullock "psycho-thriller" flick Premonition, one that was highly engaging for the most part until the "duh" moment at the end. Not that I dislike religious-themed movies, but where's the consistency? I also heard that the ending of Steven Spielberg's A.I. was a let-down as well. The point is, if you promise your audience a roller coaster ride, give it to them lock, stock and barrel. Never let the roller coaster suddenly morph into a ferris wheel.

Applying simplicity: Describe your whole story in one to two sentences, the way screenwriters do their loglines. Then do a one-page plot summary, defining the main character, the overall conflict, and the denouement. This results of the exercise will help you define exactly what your story is about, as well as be your beacon when you are tempted midway to make a detour.

2) Unexpectedness. Everyone likes a story surprise. One that stops the heart for a few seconds, leaving you breathless for what's going to happen next. One moment that stuck to my mind was an X-Men issue, where Hank McCoy discovers the shattered body of Emma Frost. Another moment happened in a Civil War issue, where during the climactic battle Captain America suddenly realizes "We're no longer fighting for what we believe in. We're just fighting." Or something to that effect. In film, M. Night Shyamalan wielded that magic, though it didn't last very long. And how about that moment in Independence Day when aliens blew up the White House?

The key to capturing and holding an audience's attention is to subject them to ever increasing complexity. When you move from one scene to the next, one encounter to the next, you need to sprinkle in some intensity, a twist, a discovery, a revelation...anything that will prompt the audience to ask, "How is the lead character going to solve all this?" And the complications can run the gamut from physical to emotional to spiritual extremes, depending on the nature of your story. The great thing about being unexpected is that you're forced to flex more creative muscles, especially when you have to tie them all up neatly in the end.

Applying Unexpectedness: The surprises in a story usually happen at the end of the first act (when the main conflict is introduced), at key points of the second act (to escalate the intensity of the story), and the climax. They sometimes happen in the denouement as well. There are small surprises and big surprises, each to be revealed at major points in your story. The objective, again, is for your story to gain momentum until the climax. You would want to avoid clumping a lot of small surprises together--this can build impatience. Ditto for clumping big surprises together--you don't want to exhaust your audience.

3) Concreteness. This is similar to "simplicity," but focuses more on solidifying concepts and abstractions to aid audience comprehension. Chris Claremont did this in almost every issue of his X-Men run--defining what mutants are, who the X-Men are, what they're fighting for--wherever he got the chance. In superhero comics, heroes would more often explain what their powers can and can't do. This practice has been done excessively, but it helps people know and remember why certain things happen in a story.

Applying concreteness: While it's always good to "show, not tell" in comics, you may have to do some telling when the showing isn't enough, especially if you're introducing a high concept. When your story is set in an alien world with an alien culture, it's best to tell your audience what's going on instead of trying to coax them into figuring things out for themselves. Likewise for a new technology or philosophy. Because many people don't want to get too bogged down mentally when all they're looking for is entertainment. You'd want your reader to stick with your story, not your concept.

In my next post, I'll go through the last three qualities: credibility, emotional, and stories.

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