Advice from a Comics Artist #1: How to tell a Story

Here's something that I love: storytelling!

Since I was young, I've always wanted to tell an inspiring story that touched the lives of as many people as possible. I would go through tons on notebooks with my story ideas, and I would draw my characters all the time at school and at home. During college, I came up with lots of stories, both short ones and much longer ones, and I still am working with those stories today. I would say writing/storytelling is second to creating art in terms of my passions in life.

I've learned a lot both on my own and in college on how to cultivate a compelling story and choosing what format to tell that story in. While all of my stories are still works in progress, I'd like to share with you some pieces of advice I have when it comes to storytelling. I made a post on the whole step-by-step process of comic-making back when I was working my comic "Jazz". But this post will focus on the storytelling aspect, and cover it in a more broad topic.

Here we go!

If you're a lover of novels, comics, TV shows, movies, and video games with really good stories like I am, and are inspired to create your own story, or if you're just curious in what makes for a good story, allow me to share my observations and tips!

Here are some things I like in a narrative:

1: Motivated characters with a healthy plot

What I love in any story is when the main character takes initiative to move the plot forward. Sometimes a story can feel like it's awkward or dragging when stuff seems to happen to the character rather than the character doing things to advance the narrative. If you're looking to further your plot, consider what actions the main characters can do versus what happens to them. This can make your character feel less passive.

2: Characters that are either likable OR one to root for

I really don't like main characters that are unlikable. I noticed when movies are not well received they usually have an unlikable main character, meaning the character may be mean, untrustworthy, or even annoying. It's important for your audience to like your character. Even if your character is playing the bad guy, or the anti-hero. You need to make sure that character has something for your audience to root for. The opposite applies too. If your character is too perfect, it can make the story boring.

3: A satisfying ending

Nothing hurts my soul like when an amazing, promising series ends badly. "Game of Thrones", anyone? I don't know the intricacies that go into making shows for television, but in general, writing your story to have a good ending can seem very challenging. Where do you end the story? Do you leave unanswered questions? How does the outcome of the narrative affect your characters and the setting?

I look to most of the Studio Ghibli movies and the show "Avatar: The Last Airbender" for good endings. Not to spoil anything, but the ending of "ATLA" was perfect in every way. Each main character had a satisfying end, there were unanswered questions that left the audience able to interpret as they wanted, and our main character Aang got his happily ever after in the most beautiful way. In my opinion anyways.

I love the way "Spirited Away" ended as well. Again, no spoilers, but our main character Chihiro grew tremendously as a character, and we left that mysterious spirit world with a new perspective. There were still unanswered questions in the end, but I thought it was a beautiful story.

So. What can you do to tell a wonderful, compelling story? Here are a couple pieces of advice:

1: What do your characters WANT?

I think the most important thing to know about your main character(s) is what do they want? What motivates them to do the things they do in the narrative? In Disney's "Mulan", (the animated version) along with helping to keep her father alive, Mulan risks her life to join the army to prove that she can make something of herself, not just for her family, but for her own growing confidence. She WANTS to make something of herself, and it makes for a compelling story.

In my upcoming webcomic "Molly's Ranch Story", while it's very slice of life by nature, my main character Molly wants to live a life in the country and own a ranch. She's a young adult, fresh out of college, and has a desire to leave the nest.

Going back to your story ideas, think again about the motivations of your characters. It's helpful to know what your character looks like, how they dress, how they like their breakfast in the morning, but it's more important to know what their motivations are, and why they do the things they do.

2: What important message(s) or themes do you want to convey?

Do you have a personal experience that you want your story to tell? Do you have a magic system or a fictional world you want your characters to explore? Do you have marginalized characters, LGBT characters, disabled characters that you want to uplift? Or do you have a beautiful love story in mind that you want to tell? There are so many themes to tackle when coming up with a compelling story. Let's take a look at "Harry Potter". There are lots of themes of death, love, and coming-of-age themes in all seven Harry Potter books; the idea that Lily Evans used the power of love to protect her only son, and that Voldemort never truly knew about love. Even watching out main characters go from silly eleven-year old's entering this new world of magic, and coming out of a war as mature, strong young adults. One theme you can take away is that "love conquers all". It's used a lot in media, but it's still a strong theme that you can use for your stories.

A similar theme is "the power of friendship" like seen in "Sailor Moon" and other magical girl series.

Sometimes as you're writing the outline of your story, a theme will make itself known to you. Let yourself get lost in that first draft and you may find a way to add an important theme that your readers can take away, even above the plot.

3: Conflict rules.

If your story has no conflict, them why are you telling the story? Stories need to have conflicts, issues, a dilemma, otherwise there's no substance. Even in the most easy-going slice of life stories, there is some kind of conflict, even if its as simple as a character forgetting to tie their shoe. If you have trouble coming up with a conflict for your narrative, think about the different types of conflicts your character can have: internal conflict, external conflict, environmental conflict, and supernatural conflict. Maybe your character is struggling with their own beliefs/morals and wondering if what they need to do for the world is the right thing for themselves (think "ATLA" and Aang's struggles with the firelord).

Is there another character who bullies the other and the two become rivals vying for the top spot in their class? (think "My Hero Academia" with the characters Bakugo and Midoriya). No matter how your story's plot unfolds, the conflict is what makes your characters grow and mature.

Don't be afraid to put your characters through hell. When writing my novel "Tetarra", I want my characters to really go through it on their journey. I want my characters to go through losing close ones, facing off against terrible foes, and more hardships that will completely change them at the end of the story.

Even with my webcomic "Molly's Ranch Story", there will be both internal as well as external conflicts that each of my characters will go through. An example being one character struggling with their feelings for two characters, one being a new friend in their life that they suddenly caught feelings for, and an old flame that is looking to rekindle what they had. It's a good ol' love triangle situation, and I'm looking at all three characters and the kinds of internal conflicts they can go through in the story, and I am structuring the plot around this triangle. I'm hoping the climax and resolution of this conflict is satisfying for both the reader as well as myself.

I don't want to give anything away though!

4: World building. Where do you start?

Even if your story takes place in present day, there is still a little bit of world building to do. But if your story takes place in a completely different place, like my story "Tetarra", where do you even start? Take these small tips:

-Pick a theme, a genre for your world. Medieval, post-apocalyptic, or magical faerie world?

-Come up with rules and laws for your world. Is it a fully governed world with laws and regulations, or a wild west type of world?

-What's the weather/environment like? Is it a overgrown world that was once a technologically advanced utopia? Is it a mountainous, snowy medieval world with Jarls and dragons? (hello, "Skyrim")

-What's the culture like? Do the inhabitants believe in a god or gods? Is it based on a real world culture like Native American or old world Japan? What is customary and what is taboo in this world?

-Give your world a history, or a timeline of events as far back as you want to. You can go as far back as creation if you want. Was there a war that wiped out an entire race? Did the 3 goddesses create the world and leave a sacred piece behind for a royal family to protect against evil beings? (hello, Avatar and Legend of Zelda)

-Have fun with your worldbuilding, but try not to get too hung up on the small details. There's still a story waiting to be told, and worrying about the small stuff can take away from writing your great story. Take pieces from you plot and add details where you need it. Maybe your character does something normal, like a hand gesture, to a foreign character that sees it as extremely rude, and conflict ensues. This is where the details of cultural worldbuilding can come in handy.

I hope these storytelling tips helped you in your quest to write the best story ever! I would like to make some more advice posts in the future, so please look forward to it! I'd love to go over how I how I organize my notes for my novel "Tetarra".

See you in the next post!


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