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Outside-in, or inside-out.

Every once in a while, I come across a website or forum post that makes me wonder if I'm doing things the right way. Many fantasy writers make a point of more or less completely developing a fantasy world before starting on the stories themselves. They create species, a history, a technology and changes to the laws of nature before putting individual characters and plots in their world. Reading the post linked above, it's easy for me to see why: with all that background already done, it becomes easier to come up with new story ideas, and the world itself will seem consistent and real right from the start.
I, on the other hand, have always been an indisciplined writer. I've always made up the worlds of Clwyd-Rhan and the Gnomian Republic up as I went along, letting them emerge from the existing story material. I have kept some records, and even have some background material that is almost, nearly, not quite ready for publication as an appendix or guide to the most recent storyline, but that is only created after the fact. The advantage, I suppose, is that it makes the story a journey of discovery for me as well of the characters. Or that's what I tell myself along with that classic excuse "the real world made itself up as it went along too".
Still, I'm not so sure. I'm convinced that as a result of my scattershot approach, there are major inconsistencies waiting to be revealed by a keen-eyed reader, and that the story might not have spun out of control so much if I'd planned more in advance.
There are quite a few writers reading this, and I'd love to hear your thoughts on the matter.

Comments (6)

Well ..... you're just baiting me aren't you. Don't deny it, you almost admitted it on IRC! And now I'm forced to make a long postlike thing using a little window as small like this! Damn you Reinder, Damn you to ..Er .. I'm drifting offtopic

Anyway, in short my opinion is that it's a good idea to have your world and general story worked out before you begin writing. Not only to avoid inconsistencies but this allows you to do things that are not otherwise possible, for instance details that are completely irrelevant when you use them, but become clear later on ... nice for people rereading your comic, they'll find a new depth to the story that before they simply could not have noticed. Without adequate planning you cannot add these details however. Is there stuff like that in my comic? Ya bet! ;P
That being said I should probably point out that this is not really how I work for chasing the sunset (er, most people don't know me so introductions: I'm the incompetent brat that writes the script and story for Chasing the Sunset: http://www.fantasycomic.com).
I'd also would like to point out I'm just writing this stuff without having thought in advance about what I would write and how. If you find this text incoherent and lacking in structure, there's what you can blame. Course, that in itself proves my point (yay) (okay I cheated and went back a bit in the end to add the following title).

The story

Now, there's many ways to write a story but before I go into those, let's take a look at (my opinion of) how a comic story works, because I have noticed it's quite different from 'normal' stories.

Comics are modular.
A comic is an ongoing story that is subdivided in storylines (chapters, subchapters, whambats, whatever you wanne call them). A storyline is any part of your comic that has a noticable beginning and end. It is a module, a part of your comic that can maybe not stand on itself, but will still have meaning when it does. It is, in effect, a substory. At teh same time however a storyline fits in flawlessly with the bigger story. It is quite obvious these critters nest.
Digging down, every storyline is made up of individual - and this is an important point, they ARE individual - strips (panels, comics, whatever). One strip again has to be able to stand by itself. It must make _some_ sense to people who only see that (how else will we get new visitors) and you have to format your story so that it does. There should be some sort (however minimal) begin and end to every strip, even if in the end it is just deciding where to cut a long discussion in two. This is needed because readers have to wait hours/days/weeks for the next installment. Boundaries are important and a comic has many.
Now because of this modularity you have to be very careful or the rhytm and structure of your story will be affected by either too many storylines, too long storylines or storylines that go the wrong direction. A danger of not planning ahead lies not only in this (a lesser effect if you just write script per script) but also that your comic might turn into just a collection of storylines, with little to bind it. This will make it harder for people to be absorbed by the story, and to bind with your characters.

Let's take a look at the structure of a comic:




Take away the and what binds the storylines?

An important side-effect of comother important point of comics is that it's an ongoing medium. And as such, you CANNOT GO BACK TO CHANGE ANYTHING. No matter how much you want to. You are stuck with what you have. This can be very frustrating and is a strong point in favor of at least having some planning.

This does not mean you should have everything worked out from the start. Far from it. It would be foolish.
If you do you are likely going to miss out on a lot of things:
- Nobody has all their good ideas at the same time
- As you write the story, your bond with the character will grow and you'll be more able to write for them. Characters evolve, and it is not uncommon for them to evolve into something else than you had planned.
- Because I say so

So how do I do it?
FOr chasing the sunset I have the main story worked out. But only the large points. I know that "X will eventually do Y, Z will eventually go to C and there find D which will lead to G" etc. Let's call these pivots. There's a set of pivots and that is the story. The long run. Over time I may add pivots or alter them, but this has not happened much yet (maybe once or twice).
The rest of Chasing the Sunset is governed by ideas files (that I forget to update). The ideas files create lesser (movable) pivots, storylines etc. It fills in the details left by the main planning.
As the story evolves (and it does evolve) gradually blanks are filled. Here's an ascii art representation

||||||||||||| || ||| | || | | | |
Written Shortterm Midterm Pivots

The closer to "now" we go, the denser the story becomes. The more filled ... and also the more rigid.

This is one way of keeping both the coherence of a worked out storyline, as the flexibility and freshness of thinking up stuff as you go along.

The world

So how filled should your world be? I think it should be about the same as with the story. FOr chasing the sunset I know the basic layout of the world, what are the prevelant species everywhere. I have a rough magic system, a mythology and creature groups (who refuse to accept they are mythological). However teh details of a place are only filled in as we get there. The map is a puzzle of blanks. There be dragons here. And they eat nitpickers. Hrr!

A more important part of the "world" however is what is happening. If barbarians are invading the northern realms when you get there, it's likely you'd have heard rumours of it before. You don't just stumble upon a war. Now few people will notice maybe, but it is one of those things that I mentioned earlier: it's fun for people who reread the archives when you're running into barbarians to find that a rumour about it was part of a background discussion somewhere earlier.

This is usually called the Metastory: it is the story that you aren't telling, but that is happening beyond your story, and which both directly as indirectly affects your own tale. Metastories are important, they define a world and an atmosphere, and so some thought should (in my opinion) be given to them before you write too much. It is probably good practice to keep a seperate file with this metastory and to update this as you go along. A metastory usually moves more slowly than the real story, because only important things happen in it.

In the end what we get is:




(add levels as needed).

To sumarize it is my opinion that you should always have a layer worked out before continuing to a lower layer. Hence you should know the story before doing the longterm stories, should know the longterm storyline before doing the midterm ones, etc. At teh same time the farther you go away from the inner level (the quantum unit of one strip) the less detail you need to know. Also before you start writing a comic in storyline #15 you do NOT need to know what happens in storyline #25, etc.

This boring drible of ramblings and rants brought to you by Mithandir.

Bah, it stole my XML structure examples and some spaces, here are they again:

The first:
[Strip] (*8)
[strip] (*5)
[strip] (*5)

The second:
[longterm storyline]
[Strip] (*8)
[strip] (*5)
[strip] (*5)
[/longterm storyline]

I make it on the go too. It's just more fun. Often, people who go to build everything before writing a story tend to fall into two traps. The first is that they spend so much time doing it that they never actually get to writing the story. The second is that they're tied up by their own ideas.

Worlds and rules are created better on the go. That way you have freedom to change your mind later. You only have to be able to keep track.



Bah, make it up as you go along, I say.

Fantasy worlds bore me with their Here Be Dragons and Here Be The Ancient Dwarven Caverns With a Funny-Sounding Name.

I think the people are ten zillion times more interesting. You can start with them, and grow the world once the characters start to move about.

I think I get stuck if I try to invent the world first. Ideas for new storylines come out of things the characters say or do in earlier storylines.


It's great to have an idea of what your world is like, but the key is not to let yourself get tied down by it. Heck, I was a big fan of Doctor Who, which probably racked up more continuity errors than any other series in history.

If you end up with an inconsistency as you go along, just remember Walt Whitman: "Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes."

Adam Cuerden:

I seem to be about a chapter ahead of Jeroen in script. So plenty of time to go back and revise whatever needs revised, methinks =)


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