Today’s ramble does actually more or less fit in the whole how to theme we Mad Geniuses are running. Of course, it’s a Kate-fit, which means I haven’t found the damn box yet.
It’s kind of fitting that the title comes straight from Girl Genius because if you want to look at carrying a plot over a long and apparently disconnected series of short pieces, the better web comics are a good place to look, and Girl Genius is one of them.
As always the medium dictates the best way to impart the message, and shapes the message to some extent: I don’t know the writer who could describe the expressions in the good web comics, and it would be a really bad idea to try. That’s not where the payoff is in a book.
So, a few quick Kate-finitions (like definitions only weirder). The payoff is what, in a web comic has a reader coming back regularly to check for new content and buying the merchandise and so forth. In a book, it’s what keeps the reader turning the pages and brings them back when they have to put the book down. And convinces them to buy the next book by that author. It’s the delivery of enough pleasure mixed with anticipation and suffering to tease the reader into coming back for more.
The medium is a bit simpler: it’s the way the story is told. Web comics are a mix of visual and verbal. Books are verbal. Art works are visual. Theater is aural and visual. And so forth.
The message is even simpler: it’s the story (not to be confused with Message which is something preached at the poor reader from an authorial soap-box and should not be forced into anything. If you feel strongly enough about a topic it will find its way into your stories – but it will feel natural there because it will slide in as part of what one of your characters believes). Some stories work better in an all-verbal medium. Others do better in a mixed medium.
Web comics (the good ones) have an added advantage: the best ones have been running for years with an ongoing plot line, characters who change and grow, and payoffs if not every strip then most of them. It’s kind of like writing a novel a couple of hundred words at a time, with a mini-story each episode, and doing this for years. I’m not joking about years, either – Sluggy Freelance has been running since August, 1997. Schlock Mercenary since June, 2000. Freefall started in March, 1998. Like Girl Genius – which started in November, 2002 – they all have a payoff in most strips, plot arcs that can seem disconnected, but ultimately get woven into the main storyline, and on top of that you can see the way the authors/artists grow over the course of the stories. I’d personally rank Sluggy as the weakest of the collection – it’s the one most prone to fillers that don’t link in to anything and the quality of the different story arcs can be weak. The good ones can go from laughing to tears remarkably quickly.
It’s worth taking the archive dive if you haven’t already and reading through all of these (yes, that’s a lot of reading – and these are only the four I consider the best of the ones I follow. There is a reason the act of hooking a person on a new web comic is an act of rat bastardy extraordinaire (and why the person who does the hooking smirks when the hookee gives the traditional acclamation of, “You rat bastard! I didn’t need another web comic habit.”) If you’re remotely a pantser you’ll absorb a metric shit-ton of good storytelling in the process (not to be confused with the regular US shit-ton, which isn’t as large or as odoriferous).
I should mention that good storytelling isn’t necessarily the same thing as good plotting. A good storyteller can make a paper-thin plot compelling (but you don’t want to do that). The art lies in doling out the payoffs just often enough to keep the reader following with tongue hanging out, like Eliot leaving the M&M trail for E.T. Too far apart, and the reader gives up and stops chasing. Too close together and the reader doesn’t see a need to bother looking for more. Get the mixture right, and they’re yours for as long as you keep trickling out those payoffs.
Oh, and the volcanoes? Save them for the big confrontation near the end, where they’ll have the most impact. Never unleash the volcanoes too early.