If you missed my opening salvo “How to Tell Stories the Pixar Way and #FaustReturns!,” please check this out.
Emma Coats tweeted 22 pithy Rules of Story based on her experience in the Pixar storyboard trenches; to digest this, I’m taking on Faust: Love of the Damnedthrough Emma’s POV.
#6: What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
Beautiful, one of my favorite rules of drama, along with “Play the Opposite.” I think of this all the time watching movies with my six-year-old daughter, who gets swept away, screaming, “Ohhhhh noooooo! LOOK OUT, PIKACHU!”
That’s how she deals.
I tell my daughter the movie wouldn’t be satisfying if the characters were always comfortable. Make them as flesh-caught-in-a-zipper uncomfortable as they can possibly be, you got real live primal campfire storytelling.
And I keep it in mind in my stories: in Faust, our man on the street, the journalist Balfour, gets challenged to the extreme when his greatest strength, his considerable intellect, is useless against primal magic. Nothing he knows will save him, and the souls of millions that have been accidentally left to his shepherding. His only hope in the end will be what he can believe and the guts to follow through on that. To say nothing of our tragic protagonist, John Jaspers, who gains inhuman power, but loses his life, soul and sanity. (But he does get to do a bad ass Godfather of Soul…)
#7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.
Another smart suggestion and an approach I trust, too. Tim Vigil and I knew the core of our story ending long ago, though I’d be lying if I said we knew exactly what long, strange plot path we would take to get there. The original big-bang ending was written in 1996, but that final chapter, then called Faust Act 12, grew exponentially to be published as Acts 12-15. Tim drew the original version of the tale’s ultimate page decades, but the scenes/images/dialogue leading up to that were some of the last changes we worked through, both encouraging each other to make the story, both words and pictures, earn its own conclusion, with all the diverse characters and conflicts coming to the right resolution. That’s where the storyteller’s work resides, most times, and why so many plots that begin well drag a bit, sometimes even getting completely lost, between the middle and…
#8: Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.
Did I tell you Tim Vigil and I are working on a children’s book?
We also have lots of Faustian sorts of ideas, sure, we’ll get to those, too, but WTF, see Rule #6, who dares, wins.
#9: When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.
Now you tell me, Pixar.
Actually this is good. I don’t think I ever got “stuck” on Faust. Don’t think my partner did either.
I think we broke through stuck organically and unconsciously in our many plot conversations, via phone, in NY, in California, at Comic Con breakfasts, even getting lost in the Black Forest in Germany on that signing tour. We might both hear each other’s ideas and say, yes, okay, but what if… and then throw each other in new directions. This is the advantage of working very closely, owning something together, no editor, and doing it yourself.
I’m thinking that Emma’s rules are stronger on “what makes a good story” than process. But let’s press on.
#10: Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.
Writers — and illustrators — instinctively rip apart stories to reverse engineer their own. So the first half of this is a gimme, Emma. More process.
It’s the second part is more interesting. So, without veering into total self-indulgence (stop laughing, I mean it) what part of me did I learn from the Love of the Damned series, two different film productions, and a handful of spinoffs?
I learn that I live where genres blend, something I also could have learned, later, from The Littlest Bitch, A Not for Children Children’s Book(TM) and Nightvision, A Goth/Sexual mini-series. I live where genres collide, crash, co-mingle and mutate.
As for Faust, it’s obviously a horror comic. And it has ll the visual tropes and a good deal of the pacing and diction of a super-hero comic. But the cops in the story act like its a crime drama. And Dr. Jade DeCamp sees it all as a psychological thriller, rich with twisted sexual repression, extreme denial and the violence that stems from it, primal awakenings. And then if you’re M, well, you see it as the oldest story at mankind’s campfire — about a man with the hubris to sell his soul to a devil, then try to win it back.
I can use that.
#11: Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.
Right. I sometimes don’t let myself speak a word about a project until I have started to get it into the computer. Even if you ask me for a three minute verbal pitch or a one page treatment, I’m going to spend some time with my ass in the writing chair, even if no one but me reads what I write. It’s almost like my instinct is to put the energy into the writing… as if talking might burn it, producing nothing but air. Which is about as useful as Emma’s “never sharing it with anyone.”
Even a miss of an idea can in turn inspire a dead hit.
With a collaborator I really trust, I’ll throw out spontaneous ideas in conference, like musical improvisation. But they are all rooted in work that was done in the chair, the scales and chords. I don’t seem to get tired of the jazz metaphor and I’ve gone through several chairs.
#12: Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.
I always defied self-censorship, even in my earliest play writing, as inauthentic, as pandering, as a lie. I sometimes surprised myself by how far from self-censoring I was able to go to ensure Faust was true to Faust.
And I like people to like me as much as you do, maybe even more than you do. And it’s a lonely kind of victory when a girl you really want to be with won’t talk to you because you won’t change what you write — but don’t feel sorry for me, I met a much better girl who gets it.
Not sure this is what Emma was talking about, here. She may have been thinking more about characters, plot points, etc. Yeah, it’s good advice there, too.
#13: Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.
If Pixar movies don’t suck it’s because of cultural wisdom like this, and the ability of its talent to put it to work. And just as no one ever accused us of failing to reach for over the top, all our characters are verbal about opinions. I let our Mephistophelian father figure laugh at our tragic protagonist’s righteousness, saying, “When man makes holy war, the devil wins.”
And on that note, it’s time to change time zones again.
Hey, plan to be at Comic Con on Friday, July 13? Meet me here:
1:00-2:00 Horror on the Paneled Page— Some of comics’ biggest horror creators share their most frightening nightmares, talk about lines that even they won’t cross, and comment on the current horror trends in comics and other media in this in-depth discussion lead by AICN Comics/AICN Horror editor Mark L. Miller (The Jungle Book). Joshua Hale Fialkov (I, Vampire), Alan Robert (Wire Hangers), Brandon Seifert (Witch Doctor), David Quinn (Faust), Matt Pizzolo (Godkiller), and some surprise guests talk about what does and doesn’t work in horror comic books. (Room 24ABC)
It’s the Unholy 25th Anniversary of Faust; like the Facebook page for the news, thanks.