Came across an old blog about bad storytelling habits, dusted it off, and gave it a read through. The title was “Seven Bad Storytelling Habits that We All Learned from Superhero Comics” and it cited Action Scenes, Ornamental Dialogue, Angsty Characters, Illusion of Change, Origin Stories, Reboots, and Retcons as bad storytelling habits.
It's no secret that I love superhero comics, so I felt the need to give a counter argument on the positive ways superhero comics have affected my storytelling. Especially since I would not be as avid a reader, storyteller, or creator without them.
Descriptions: Every story is visual. Yeah, comics and movies get to literally be visual, but that doesn’t let you off the hook if you are writing prose. Since you can’t show your reader the picture on the page or the screen, it’s your job to illustrate the image directly into their brain.
“You want me to draw what, where?”
Slow down. I simply mean, you need to describe your scenes and action in a way that the reader can build a mental picture. Comics helped train me to do this, by showing what is important in a scene and what all can be left out without hurting the story.
Character development: One of the big things I gleaned from comic books was that every character, no matter how powerful, needed limitations and flaws. Superman with no kryptonite would be too strong, making it difficult for him to experience a true challenge and (*vague spoiler alert) without Starlord’s flaws, we probably wouldn’t get another Avengers: Infinity War movie. Often, it’s the hero’s flaws that allow us non-super-powered folk the opportunity to relate to those characters.
Sound & Senses: In comics, as in writing, you can’t hear what the characters hear. Because of this, the storytellers rely on the use of onamonapia (words that imitate sound) to enhance the reader’s experience. For example, when someone is getting an electric shock, you may see the word “ZAPT” drawn with jagged edges and colored with a yellow or blue gradient. Knowing how interesting those sound effects were for me in comics, it’s always in the front of my mind to let the reader know how things sound or smell every chance I get. Using sensory descriptions is a great way to make the reader feel connected to the scenes in your stories and it was comic books that really drove that idea home for me.
Pacing: While it is true that superhero comics get to throw action scenes out like candy from a parade float, the use of action in them helped me realize that keeping your reader interested in the story has a lot to do with pacing. If you’re going to have two characters spend 10 pages of your story talking in a coffee shop, something needs to come from that conversation. Something big. I’m not saying Doctor Octopus needs to show up and throw a car through the front of the building, but the story should always be moving forward and every scene should be there for a reason.
Love: Finally, Superhero comics ignited in me the love of storytelling. I wasn't a great reader in my youth, but comics allowed me to gobble up multiple stories every week while simultaneously building my vocabulary, comprehension, and storytelling skills.
Recently Alex Dueben interviewed novelist and comics writer, Mat Johnson (See link below for full interview). Mr. Johnson was asked if he experienced a big learning curve when switching from novels to comics, he responded:
“It wasn’t a big learning curve. Denis Leary had a standup bit where he talks about how his dad was a smoker and he didn’t care what brand, he would just smoke anything. He would smoke a branch off a tree. I feel that way with storytelling. There’s not as big a difference as people tend to think.”
Mr. Johnson went on to say how writing comics helped him become a better storyteller:
“In graphic form, you cannot hide. You can’t have beautiful prose or lovely character profiles and hide the fact that you can’t tell a story.”
This is one of the biggest reasons writing and reading comics helped my storytelling. It taught me to put story first. That’s why I'm often caught saying, “I’m a storyteller, NOT a writer.”
That’s probably a little misguided though, since I do in fact write stories. Not only do I write prose stories, but I also enjoy creating stories for comics, film, games, roleplaying adventures, and when someone will give me the opening, I’ll even recite a tale over a frosty root beer.
Perhaps I should just say that I’m a story-spinner. Or a creator.
Or, hell, maybe I am a writer.
How did reading comics help your storytelling? Feel free to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll give you a shout-out on our Facebook page!
(*See more of Alex Dueben’s interview of Mat Johnson here: https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/comics-and-storytelling-a-conversation-with-mat-johnson)