Last week, podcast Writing Excuses reached story structure in their year long writing course. The exercise for this episode was:
Take a favorite piece of media (but not something YOU created,) and reverse engineer an outline from it.
I’m not going to do this one in huge depth. It’s an exercise you could potentially keep working at indefinitely, and I’m a bit strapped for time. So I’m going to have a look at what’s happening, and what’s being promised, in the first few pages of one of my all time favourite comics – issue 6 of Waren Ellis and Darrick Robertson’s science fiction series Transmetropolitan, a story called ‘God Riding Shotgun’.
Page 1 – Bring on the Crazy
The first page is a splash page – a single large image of journalist Spider Jerusalem typing a rant about religion while dressed in a fake beard, a tin foil halo and a robe made from a stolen bedsheet.
The promise it’s setting up is obvious – in this issue we’re going to see Spider’s take on religion. And because Spider can’t write about anything without getting in people’s faces, that means he’s going to end up fighting, verbally or physically, with priests.
But there’s something else as well. The story Spider is writing involves a taser-wielding priest of the Official Siberian Church of Tesla. This indicates that religion has got pretty weird in Spider’s city, and sets up the expectation of more weirdness to come.
Page 2: Subplot Time
Page two sees Spider waking up his assistant Channon, who isn’t happy at the disturbance. The religious angle is temporarily set aside to set up another plot thread – developments in the relationship between Spider and Channon.
This issue sees a turning point, in which the usually abrasive Spider breaks down his assistant’s defensives and is then forced to admit that he’s been acting like a jerk. This page sets that up by showing the status quo we’ll be moving away from – Spider being a jerk and Channon accepting it.
Pages 3 and 4: Pick a Fight, Any Fight
On page three, Channon realises that Spider, high as a kite, has woken her up at 5:30 in the morning. It’s a way of throwing in a conflict early on to keep things exciting, giving the issue’s main plot time to develop more slowly, and promises future friction between these two characters.
It also moves along the sub-plot about their relationship – the status quo is disrupted by Channon arguing back.
The end result, for now, is Channon questioning how much longer Spider’s body can take the abuse he’s giving it with drugs and lack of sleep. In terms of the series, this is foreshadowing a problem further down the line by pointing out to the reader that their might be a downside to Spider’s wild lifestyle.
Page 5: And Now The Main Action…
Page 5’s central point is a conversation about the huge number of new religions springing up in the city, and ends with Spider demanding that Channon find him churches. The conflict with religious representatives promised on page one is now about to turn into action. The drug-addled journalist is going to go out into the world and find, or make, a religious story. It’s the turn that leads us into the plot proper.
Understanding What Other Writers Do
This exercise made a change from the previous ones, in which I got to be creative. Even just doing it briefly, it helped me to understand what Ellis was doing structurally in building this story, and so to think about how I could use similar tricks. The early conflict in the sub-plot to buy time for the main plot was a particularly neat touch.
If I have time later I might come back and analyse the rest of this issue, because this was interesting and I love reading Transmetropolitan, in all its foul mouthed and angry grandeur.
Anyone else had a go at this exercise, or feel like giving it a try now? Just have a think about the chapter you’re reading or the program you’re watching and see if you can work out what’s going on structurally. Let me know how you get on – share your results or a link to them below. It’ll be interesting for me to see what others got from this.