When you’re playing in someone else’s sandbox, writing takes on a whole new challenge. The creator’s vision has to be properly conveyed and interpreted long before pen touches paper. And if that part goes wrong then everything else falls out of place. Fortunately, I’ve never worked with a creator that was quite as particular as “Jed”, but Women of Darby Pop writer, Adrian Reynolds’s, misadventures have plenty of lessons to teach for writers and creators alike.
Until next time,
Recently, I came across a guy looking for a writer to script a webcomic. The solicitation suggested there might well be a whole bunch of other opportunities to be realized from the success of his concept. Well, who doesn’t like ambition? And I, in fact, might be able to help shape this idea into something appealing to people in animation or elsewhere; I’ve made inroads on that journey already, acquiring TV credits and other experience along the way. So, I know it’s possible.
Though I’m relatively new to creating comics, it’s a world I have some understanding of. Online currently there are 100 or so pages of Dadtown, the science fiction comic I hatched with artist Raben White and colorist Jess Parry (which will be collected in a print edition when the story finishes in a few months). I also found the artists and paired them with writers for Dawn Of The Unread, an online anthology with contributors including Eddie Campbell (From Hell), Gary Erskine (various DC), and Hunt Emerson (brilliant British humor cartoonist). And I’ve ghost-scripted the comics adaptation of an original screenplay – a project that’s received worldwide attention.
Having said that, one thing I’ve learned from all of this is to pay attention to my intuition. And I noticed distress flares pretty early with the potential client I mentioned above — whom I’ll call “Jed.” Jed said he’d already blown $4,000 in pursuit of his vision, and now just wanted to get the story out there. Being able to waste money like that suggests a casual attitude toward getting things done; that’s alien to me. Jed started sending his thoughts for an epic century-spanning tale, starting as history with a supernatural twist, and becoming something more like a thriller with a science fiction edge. A bit too operatic for my tastes, but I figured I could give it a go – and the exposure might be worthwhile. Plus, there would be payment involved, and the sound of (any) money is a freelancer’s favourite tune.
I started to work out ways that I could tell the story Jed wanted told, in a style that would work for me. But, the more detail he sent, the more confused I became. What I needed to know was the outcome of this twisting and turning tale. Once I knew that, I was confident, I could find a way to convey it to an audience. Saga is the model I had in mind – a huge story with alien races in conflict, some tech-based and some sorcerous, which works because the writing and art feel fresh and light. And, at its heart, Saga is about family.
Game over. Jed either didn’t have an ending or wasn’t willing to share. How could I help someone tell their story in a way that an audience could relate to if he wouldn’t be transparent with me?
There was another issue related to the story that eluded Jed. In his mind, there was centuries worth of conflict between different factions, but to what end? In other words, what was the story actually about? I thought I’d caught glimpses of a theme, but as time went on it became clear that there really wasn’t one; stuff happened because it happened, and some of it – Jed assured – would look cool.
Stories are at their best when they’re about something. Doesn’t really matter what, but it helps if the creators have a clear intent in mind when they’re developing and/or writing. Otherwise, you end up with what Jed had – endless reams of… information. And that’s fine – Jed isn’t a writer in any real sense of the word; he’s a guy with ideas that are riffs on other stories he’s enjoyed over the years. And Jed had enough disposable income to pay others to help bring his concepts into the world.
Unfortunately, Jed felt that he didn’t need to hone in on a way to engage an audience with his story – which is important because Jed’s desire was to cook up something that could one day be a movie franchise. Not that movie franchises are necessarily great examples of high-quality storytelling, but there’s a reason Marvel hired Joss Whedon to helm The Avengers.
Story without theme is mere incident. And it was becoming increasingly clear that Jed couldn’t make the distinction. Particularly when I received an email from him stating that he was getting the heebie-jeebies about my suggestion that I work-up a treatment: “Bottom line, this is a soap opera not a graphic novel or motion picture (at least not yet).”
Oh, Jed. You can’t add the quality stuff at a later point. It has to be baked into the story from the earliest stages. People fighting isn’t a story. Even when some of those people are monsters, it’s only a passing diversion unless audiences have some connection to their conflict, and those participating in it. Go back to the earliest days of Fantastic Four where Jack Kirby and Stan Lee had the sense to create characters who weren’t just super-powered, they were a family of sorts – a dysfunctional one.
Stories need to be about something. Jaws has a shark, but what it’s about is how savagery lurks under the surface of civilization. Howard the Duck, at least as written by Steve Gerber, is about how the world looks to an outsider who happens to take the form of a homesick mallard. Jed’s story… wasn’t a story. It looked like one at first glance, and it may yet become one. But…
So. I told Jed I wouldn’t be working with him. He’d kind of realized that was probably going to be the case. He shared that he’d had similar problems with the artists he recruited. Which suggests that money alone isn’t enough to get creatives on-board. The more certain anyone feels that his/her work is about something, the easier it becomes to feel connected to it.
About the Author
Adrian Reynolds has written medical drama for TV, helped develop games that haven’t reached the launch stage, and had a play premiere at a women’s prison. He’s a recovering copywriter, unduly proud of the obscene strapline he developed for a company importing Fast & Furious-style car accessories to the UK. Check out his online comic http://dadtown.net, @writeradrian, and www.adrianinspires.com.