Short Notes On Long Comics: 10 Great Examples of Story Structure in Comics reviewed by Ian Burns

Posted by on July 20th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Tim Stout; 60 pp.;

Tim Stout suggests, in his introduction to Short Notes on Long Comics, “…storytellers that utilize the strengths of three-act story structure—whether they realize it or not—have produced amazing graphic novels…this book will show you how three-act story structure is used in 10 of the most popular graphic novels on the market. From their example, you can learn how to structure your own story when you feel like you’ve lost your way”: nothing egregious here. Surely comics writers and cartoonists utilize three-act structure in various ways. But strangely, to illustrate his point, Stout uses a screenwriting template, and makes no mention of the difference between structure in comics and structure in film.

The book’s examples (Batman: Year One, Maus, Blankets, American Born Chinese, It Rhymes With Lust, Hellboy: Seed of Destruction, Stitches, Three Shadows, Night Fisher and Amulet Book One: The Stone Keeper) are collected from Tim Stout’s blog, and each is broken down using a template from a screenwriting book by Blake Snyder called Save the Cat! Snyder’s template contains 15 “beats” that can be applied to a three-act story. Stout considers the beats a road map that “helps you [the cartoonist] (and later, your reader) reach your destination: THE END.”

It’s safe to assume that Snyder (screenwriter of Blank Check and Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot) wrote Save the Cat! for the film medium specifically. Snyder may also, to some extent, have considered the film business, in which mostly formulaic versions of the three-act structure are sold and produced. The problem with using this template to analyze comics is that story structure is inexorably connected not only to format and distribution but to the physical and visual elements of comics and storytelling: the page, the panel, iconography, etc….

In film, a screenplay is transformed into a stream of narrative without breaks. The screenwriter must write with those basic characteristics in mind. On the other hand, let’s assume for arguments sake a script is written for an artist. Not only does the writer need to adhere to the aforementioned physical elements, but also the audience for a comic script is quite small, literally one person (depending on what part of the industry a writer works in, again, for arguments sake): the artist. And that artist, then, has a whole other set of graphic considerations: appropriate panel size, layout, quality of line, color…all which, in visual narrative, contribute to the story. This basically holds true if the writer is a cartoonist, and writing the script for his or her own benefit.

And what about the advantages of deviating or tweaking the three-act structure? Certainly a cartoonist can use three-act structure to strengthen their work, but considering how eclectic are “10 of the most popular graphic novels on the market,” a cartoonist might find the differences between the structure of an adventurous superhero romp and the structure of a graphic memoir very valuable.

Perhaps if Short Notes on Long Comics were a collection of analysis, the strangeness of Stout’s choice would be less glaring. After all, Stout can, if any one of his examples is evidence, analyze how a story is put together in general. But he clearly states that this book is meant as a helpful tool for the cartoonist. The question is, considering the model Stout uses to describe structure in graphic novels: is Short Notes on Long Comics helpful or misleading?

Batman Year One images ©2005 DC Comics, written by Frank Miller and drawn by David Mazzucchelli

Stitches image ©2009 David Small

Be Sociable, Share!

Tags: , , , ,

One Response to “Short Notes On Long Comics: 10 Great Examples of Story Structure in Comics reviewed by Ian Burns”

  1. timstout says:

    Dear Ian,

    Thank you for reviewing my booklet Short Notes on Long Comics. You brought up a number of interesting points and asked some great questions. I look forward to addressing them in my next publication.

    – Tim Stout