Complete List of Writing Offenses & Webcomic Clichés (TL;DR)
This is a very long article; for a shorter version of it, click here.
What makes for a good webcomic? I don’t know what exactly, but I think I have a good idea. This is a small list (with explanations and exceptions) of all the different things that, as a writer and artist, I would hate myself for doing. In fact, if these things were on fire, I wouldn’t even piss on them to put it out. I just think that all these concepts are either worn out, overused, or just plain shitty. They are things that contradict what I believe to be the fundamental tenants of “good writing”; that is to say, if I want to consider myself or anyone else to be a “good writer”, they would not do anything on this list.
This list is always changing, mostly because I’m continually learning new things about writing and what I like and dislike about my techniques. Furthermore, I’m not claiming that I’m not being a hypocrite for any of what I dislike, because I’m sure I commit my own set of irrational writing offenses. Like I said, I’m still learning about all this. Anyways, here the list. I will also, as time goes on, populate this list with examples that I’ve stumbled upon the internet of what NOT to do relative to the suggestions of this page.
The TOO LONG; DIDN’T READ Summary
- • STALE IDEAS – Stop using ideas that have been used so much that they’ve lost pretty much all of their original importance.
- • USING OTHER PEOPLE’S STYLES – You’ll just waste more time trying to perfect a stolen style versus actually writing a good story.
- • GAG COMICS – Gags are atrocious; you get them by combining the above two offenses.
- • POP-CULTURE REFERENCES AND IN-JOKES – Avoid this shit unless you’re writing for a small set of readers and/or enjoy alienating every other reader.
- • MARY SUE – A one-dimensional character is like a broken pencil: pointless.
- • TOKEN CHARACTERS – Using race for the sake of using race is racist and unnecessary.
- • DIMENSIONALITY OF CHARACTERS – Try to write three dimensional characters.
- • SELF-CENSORSHIP – Pulling your punches just shows how much of a poser you truly are.
- • OVER-ELABORATE TAGLINES – Using them will only show off how much you fail at trying to be witty.
- • WRITTEN EXPLANATIONS – Why write when you can draw?
- • ENDLESS LOOP WRITING – Don’t write a “XXXX” story, write a story titled “XXXX”.
• BUT FIRST, A DISCLAIMER
Regardless of what I say here, it is not my intention to prevent you from doing what you want to do with your comic. Although I believe that ignoring the suggestions I’ve made in this page will lead you to fail with your story, you have every right to go out and prove me wrong. These suggestions exist in the hopes that someone out there follows my advice. And seeing as I count as “someone”, me following my own suggestions is good enough for me.
Honestly though, all I want to do with this list is to get you to question why you would want to put into your story any of these elements that I consider to be a Writing Offense and/or a Webcomic Cliche. Maybe I’ll convince you to throw out that bad idea. Or maybe I’ll convince you to actually keep it because you found a good reason to do so. Either way, so long as you’re informed and not just mindlessly obeying suggestions, then supercool.
• STALE IDEAS
This is probably the most severe writing offense anyone can commit, so much so that I want to cover it first. Basically, don’t do shit that has already been done. Seriously. Don’t do it.
There are some pretty important reasons why you should NOT use any ideas that have been used way too many times:
• It’ll make you just look like a copycat or even a thief, and the chances of you being recognized for your “original” work grows ever slimmer.
• The original impact of using such an idea has been long since watered down by other pricks who’ve helped contribute to its over use… if your work didn’t already do that on its own. Thanks a lot, jerk.
Alright, alright… technically everything has already done. I mean, look at me: Moose River is not the first real life drama/comedy series out there, and certainly won’t be the last. But there is a difference between something that has already been done and something that has been overdone. Do you realize how many Patriotic American Super Hero comics exist? If you add one more to the heap, will anyone notice? Conversely, how many webcomics have non-stereotypical heroin-addicted folk as their main characters? I can’t think of a single one.
Now if your goal is to be part of the crowd and write a series that has been played out a million times, by all means and do it. Otherwise, just try to write something that hasn’t been done a lot already. And no, stories that place superheroes in real life situations dealing with transgalactic-homosexuality or AIDS-from-Dimension-X is not a good start. Neither is the whole “high school is tough, but it’s even tougher when you’re a teenage necromancer!” thing. Seriously, it’s not hard to come up with something that few people have touched; the comics world is much smaller than you realize, there is so much open territory left to write about!
Are you worried about a lack of hits and popularity because you’re originality will go unnoticed? Please. Worrying about how your hot zombie webcomic didn’t get 500 hits last weekend is moot, and maybe even a total waste of your time. I would imagine that if you’re REALLY worried about the popularity of your comic, you would put more weight on whether or not your work will actually be remembered for years to come. People remember books like Nineteen Eighty-Four and The Grapes of Wrath… will anyone even remember your fucking zombie webcomic in fifty years? Now Moose River gets an average of 400 hits a week, more or less. I would rather take those 400 hits writing an original story versus 40,000 hits a week writing the most unoriginal and ununique piece of fail.
This is my small list of bullshit that has been overdone to the point of nausea. I guess if you start your webcomic by not using anything on this list, you’ll be miles ahead of the rest of the pack. I might have more to say about a particular entry…
* anything that emulates the anime/manga style (Sidenote: if you’re not Japanese, then you have no right to call your work a “manga”. Conversely, if you ARE Japanese, then that’s enough of an exception to use the manga style.) (&&)
* anything that has to do with gaming
* comics that use video game sprites
* “insanity“, “crazy“, etc (**)
* a “Very Special” story-arc
* teen pregnancy (just recently added; Juno pretty much made all future teen pregnancy movies cliche)
* quests to retrieve the mystical object which is to be used to SAVE THE WORLD
* zombies, pirates, ninjas, pirate ninjas, cowboys, pEnGuInS oF dOoOoOoOoMmM, monkeys, hobos (unless you’re John Hodgman), or any combination thereof. (***)
* extremely abnormal creatures in commonplace settings (****)
* a skeptic “sees the light” ($$)
* the light side versus the dark side (%%)
* calling the internet anything beside “the internet” (ie interweb)
* doing a comic that’s unoriginal, realizing it’s unoriginal, joking about its unoriginality in taglines… but still doing it regardless
NOTES TO THE ABOVE:
(&&) So what’s so wrong about using the anime style? It all boils down to legitimacy. Yes yes, artists will emulate the styles of those who inspire them. I will admit that my own style is more of a mix between that of Jeffrey Brown and Yukito Kishiro. However, there is a difference between emulating a style to learn the basics of comicking to then use a foundation to creating your own, unique style, and
emulating stealing a style wholesale for the purposes of trying to be part of a popular crowd. While I dislike the anime style, its not because of the style itself, but what using it outside of Japan represents. People who steal the anime style seem less interested in it for its artistic merits and more because they want to be hip and cool for attempting to be part of the Japanese culture. But in the end, most of them just come off as being nothing more than cookie cutter fanboys, poseurs trying to adopt someone else’s culture to make up for the culture they don’t feel they have. YOU CAN BE SEEN AS A GREAT ARTIST WITHOUT STEALING SOMEONE ELSE’S STYLE! I believe that if anyone truly wishes to be seen as unique and original, they have to avoid the anime style at all costs and work to develop their own style that can’t be pegged to any one source of inspiration.
ADDITIONAL: I’ll work this material into the list, but I’ve sort of refined my reasons for disliking the anime/manga style, but also opened myself up a bit more in accepting it. Read this post (the OMEGA part).
ADDITIONAL ADDITIONAL: Although I can accept Westerners using the anime/manga style for its artistic merits in-of-themselves, I still won’t accept them calling their style “anime/manga” by name. This is simply a semantics issue. Non-Japanese comic artists can’t call their work “anime/manga” anymore than a manga artist can call their work a “comic”, simply by definition. And simply by definition, a person born in the United States isn’t “Martian”, or is the work done by a Modernism artist called “Cubism”.
(**) I searched OnlineComics.net and got 81 hits for “insan*” (either insanity or insane) and 160 for “craz*” (either crazy, craziness, or crazed) versus 49 for “peace” and 52 for “friendship”. Anyone who uses “insanity,” “wackiness,” “craziness,” or any other such word anywhere in their comic, either in the title, tagline or description, needs to be shot. Seriously, your pre-college conception of “insanity” is just you acting like dork as a result of your caffeine addiction. Caffeine. Oh boy, man, you are so wacky you just blew my mind!!!!! … Seriously though, if you really want to pen a story about insanity, write a book about Charles Manson. Or better yet, drop some acid, do some shroom or smoke some weed (maybe all three?) and you’ll REALLY see what a touch of losing your mind could really be like. Take it from me, THAT’S pretty fun.
(***) If you REALLY need to use a period character, try one that hasn’t been overused in modern works. May I suggest:
— a fop (there are zero fop-related comics according to OnlineComics.net)
— Joseon Dynasty Korean Royal Court Guard (zero related comics)
— Somalian Warlord (zero related comics)
These are all pretty cool characters, don’t you think? I mean, I’m sure “Who will win, Pirate or Somalian Warlord” debates will soon be all the rage on message boards. Give it some time…
(****) By this I mean, for example:
— Sentient robots built out of spare console/computer parts
— Demonic/magical beings as pets/friends
— Computer AI who takes the form of a beautiful girl who follows the main character to school and other various WACKY adventures
— The same as above, except that it involves an alien girl, and she wants to learn more about this Earth thing called “kissing”
Frankly I just described the plots about 90% of all fantasy-based comic series. You people seriously need to stop doing this kind of shit. You’re only proving how fucking formulaic you can be.
($$) It almost seems to be slightly presumptuous on the part of the writer to believe that a die-in-the-wool believer-of-something is gonna switch their views at a drop of a hat. These following stories should not be written, if only because they’ve been written about a million times over:
— Ghosts don’t exist! …or do they? Tom doesn’t believe in ghosts, but after something big happens to change his mind.
— Bigfoot doesn’t exist! …or do they? Tom doesn’t believe in Bigfoot, but something big happens to change his mind.
— Aliens don’t exist! …or do they? Tom doesn’t believe in aliens, but something big happens to change his mind.
— God doesn’t exist! …or does He? Tom doesn’t believe in God, but something big happens to change his mind.
If you want to write one of these stories, just take someone else’s story, type up a copy of it changing just what it’s about and slap your name on the cover. No one will notice.
(%%) Black-and-white truths don’t exist. Even the concept of yin-and-yang dictates that within both yin and yang is another yin-and-yang; if cold is yin and hot is yang, within hot is warm and boiling, and within cold is cool and freezing. If you keep this up you’re left with a lot of gray area between both extremes. With that in mind, writing a story that pits absolute good and evil together, or has a showdown between the light side of the force and the dark side is absolutely unrealistic. Unfortunately too many writers like writing these dumbass extremism stories… but at least this’ll give you the opportunity to distance yourself from those fuckers by writing something that ISN’T a good versus bad cliche story.
• USING OTHER PEOPLE’S STYLES
A high quality of writing and originality of material are important concepts for me as a writer. I am very interested in NOT coming off like I’m blatantly copying someone else. For me, using someone else’s style is a major offense for two very big reasons:
1. Obviously using someone else’s style just makes your work seem less original. You become less “you” and more “such-and-such’s clone”, or worse, part of an army of clones.
2. You spend more time on worrying about whether or not you’ve got the style down versus spending that time on actually writing a good story. It’s like, you’ll spend a shitload of cash on buying “How To Draw Anime!” guide books, waste a lot of time learning the rules and shit… and for what? If your story is shit, then no amount of “if I make it more anime-looking” will save your story.
Honestly, it’s not THAT hard to come up with a style that is wholly yours. Now I’m not saying that you should be without inspirations or that you shouldn’t pick up a drawing technique that helps you out. But there is the difference between adding to your personal style and copying an entire style.
EXCEPTIONS?: If you’re working on a parody, tribute or any other project where emulation of a style is an integral part of it, then you get a pass.
• GAG COMICS
A lot of comics revolve around the execution of a specific type of comedy: the gag. This is reason enough to not do use it (for unoriginality reasons). Gag comics are particularly formulaic, and at this point in the timeline of comics, present nothing new. In fact, if I wanted to make a “new” gag comic series, all I need to do is take Garfield, change Garfield into a talking bison and Jon into a park ranger, and tadah!, new comic!
The gag comic formula is simple. In X number of frames:
Frame 1: Introduction
Frames 2, 3, … X-1: Build up
Frame X: HI-LARIOUS punchline!
Unfortunately the whole nature of newspaper comic strips really restrict the artist from doing much of anything else. However, that doesn’t mean that everyone else needs to do it the newspaper strip way. Much too many webcomics stick with this formula and it bugs the fuck out of me. I personally try to avoid formulaic writing. And even if I do subconsciously write in a formulaic manner, I’d like to believe that I at least created my own formula and not co-opted someone else’s.
On top of all this, all the memorable comedies are rarely gag based. The best “gag movie” I can think of is Airplane!, The Naked Gun series and Kentucky Fried Movie, but that’s three movies versus every other non-gag-based comedy movie out there. OK yeah, I’m sure The Big Lebowski and Kingpin had one or two gags in there, but the movie wasn’t written to revolve around gags.
EXCEPTIONS?: If your comic IS a newspaper comic strip to where you really can’t not write a gag comic.
• POP-CULTURE REFERENCES AND IN-JOKES
In the quest to write an original story, I believe that everything in the story should be stuff the (targeted?) reader is going to know and associate with. For example, in a film course I took, the teacher asked the class if they’ve seen The Wizard of Oz. Most of the class rose their hand, but there was a sizable amount of students who didn’t. Now it’s not like anyone is supposed to seen it, and I believe that it is very presumptuous for anyone to think that people have to see it. To write a story thinking this way is equally presumptuous; you’re assuming that everyone who is gonna read your story shares your knowledge.
Consider this as well; how many Western Anime fans would enjoy an anime series that consisted of nothing but Japanese pop-culture references? If all the jokes revolved around Yu Miyake, Yuri Misumi and Dokaka, would you know what the hell is going on? Probably not.
Now I’m not 100% against pop-culture references in movies, books and whatever. I’m guilty of making some some myself; for example, the “Professor Houses” are named after Pokemon Professors. The thing is though, I try not to have the story rely on these pop-culture references; if you didn’t know the names of the Pokemon Professors, then “Oak House” and “Elm House” would just be regular names, but it still wouldn’t affect your understanding of the story.
I threw in “(targeted?)” above because… well, I do realize that it’s impossible to write for everyone in the world, so you are kinda forced to limit your readership range. I mean, I don’t expect that Namibian bushmen will understand Moose River, and I’m also not really writing for them either. With that in mind, there really isn’t anything wrong for limiting your readership to a specific set of people. If you want your comic to be read and enjoyed by just the teeming masses of Star Wars fans, then go for it. But I suppose that if you’re interested in writing a fairly accessible story, then I think it’s counterproductive to throw in a TOO specific of a reference and expect the reader to understand. I also think that avoiding pop-culture references will make your work more original and seem less like a collage of other people’s work.
Anyways, the point is: in order to make your story accessible to the most number of readers, avoid using in-jokes and pop culture references, and simply write your story in order to allow the reader to understand it without having to rely on details outside of the realm of your story. I’ve tried my best to make Moose River accessible to all readers by not having the story rely on too specific of details that the reader may or may not know. Everyone understands what a movie is, but maybe they’ve never seen Requiem For A Dream. Everyone understands what a supermarket is, but maybe they’ve never set foot inside a Petrini’s or a Lunardi’s. And as long as I avoid using culture-specific references and base events and details on concepts that are pretty universal, then readers will be able to understand what’s going on without having to go to Wikipedia to find out what I’m talking about.
EXCEPTIONS?: Romance novel writers, etc.
• MARY SUE
If you haven’t heard the term before, a Mary Sue is a character that has almost no flaws what-so-ever. And what flaws a Mary Sue DOES have are completely superficial, like they doesn’t own a BMW or has to wear glasses. The best example of a Mary Sue in the comics world is Superman: he’s super strong, he’s invincible, he can fly, and his only weakness is kryptonite, a substance almost no one on Earth has access too.
Now Mary Sues come from two sets of writers: ones who believe they are smarter than everyone else, and those who are simply are afraid to hurt their characters in any way. Mary Sueists of the first kind create know-it-all smartass who “wittingly” points out all of the world’s flaws and dispatches them using either mindless violence or x-treme sarcasm. I hate reading comics starring these fuckers simply because their comic is used as a soap-box for their ass-backward views which offer almost no platform for intelligent dialogue. Mary Sues of this first kind also include Messiah-like characters who have super-duper powers and are on the quest to save their people or whatever. I’m looking at you, Neo of The Matrix and V from the movie version of V for Vendetta. (No wait, I’m actually looking at YOU, Wachowski Brothers.)
Mary Sueists of the second kind have good intentions, but end up creating characters which are largely unrealistic. They maybe throw their characters into fucked up situations, but the core personality of those characters themselves are largely untainted and unrealistically pure. Now if you’re dealing with unrealism to begin with (like writing Care Bears fanfiction or something) then this isn’t much of an issue. But chances are you’re gonna be dealing with humans (or human personalities), so it’s not really convincing to create characters who aren’t at least morally ambiguous. (Unless the point of your story is to point out the flaws of one-dimensional characters.)
Either way, Mary Sues are to be avoided. So how can you avoid using them? There really isn’t a technique, as it really involves a major change in your own personal mindset. Avoiding Mary Sues of the first kind can only come after you’ve hit a point in your life where you finally know that you don’t know anything. When I was 17-18, I thought I had shit totally worked out; I was on my way out of high school and I was absolutely convinced that some web design company will pick me up straight out of school despite no real professional experience. This went on for a few years (particularly while I was working on The Book of Huzzah starring my own personal Mary Sue, Nick15). Of course, reality eventually kicked in and proved to me that I don’t know shit about shit. This in turn has certainly affected my writing; I now try to write characters who are largely morally ambiguous and certainly not at all perfect. Frankly I feel a bit worried for writers who continue to write Mary Sues of this first kind.
Mary Sues of the second kind can be avoided simply by not being afraid to fuck up your characters. Beat up your characters, make them not really good human beings (but without making them “evil”), let them do things that are socially frowned upon, have them break the rules whenever it suits their needs. There’s a lot of ways to give your characters anti-Mary Sue characters… they minute you make the good guys more like your bad guys (and vice versa), the more you make them more human! Failure IS an option when it comes to character development.
EXCEPTIONS?: None. Unless you’re writing a parody story, one not unlike the story from which the name Mary Sue was coined in.
• TOKEN CHARACTERS
In my opinion, if you are using race to:
* claim superiority over someone else
* show how diverse and open minded you are
* beat the shit out of someone
* claim that you are especially entitled to something
* add weight to what you’re talking about
…then you are committing some form of racist action. Why? I believe that race should never be used to strong-arm others into getting what you want. Race should never be used as a means to some end in any way. And as an Asian-American minority, my words mean a lot more than that of the White majority. ;3 But seriously, this doesn’t mean you aren’t allowed to discuss race and to trade stories about the lives of different peoples. It’s just that there’s a difference between saying “I am an authority of Asian-American culture because I know their stories, have a lot of friend and relatives who make up the culture” and saying “I am an authority of Asian-American culture because I am Asian-American”.
When it comes to writing, there has to be a reason to include race in your work. Adding a character of a specific race just to prove how racially diverse you are is not a good reason. Especially if you have little experience with people of that race… ’cause all you’ll do is create a character who is, for example, black on the outside but still white on the inside. Adding a character of a specific race because there’s something specific about what that character adds to the story is a better reason.
The best thing to do, in my opinion, is to just make everyone racially ambiguous. Think of things this way: if a movie were to be made of your story, write things so that it doesn’t matter if the actor/actress they get for your characters can be anyone of any race and it won’t affect the story. For me, well it is kinda important that Emo Kim be “Asian”, but at least the actor doesn’t have to be Korean, for all I care he could Japanese or Laosian. Shea in particular can be white or black or anywhere in between; even though she’s supposed to be “Native American”, she can really look like anything. The rest of the cast are totally up in the air, for all we know Avery could be white or Native American. I have no intention of stating his race, because him being white or anything else doesn’t change the fact that he’s a Bro.
The same goes for LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual) characters. Just don’t use race if race isn’t needed, and generally it’s never needed.
• DIMENSIONALITY OF CHARACTERS
While Mary Sues and Token Characters are a class or style of characters to avoid writing about, the Dimensionality of Characters is more about the depth of your character’s history and personality. That is to say, while you can control whether or not a character is a Mary Sue or Token Character, you can’t remove the fact that your characters will have a Dimensionality; this is much in the same way you can’t remove the fact that a story has a plot, even if the plot is “totally random and nonsensical”.
A character’s Dimensionality comes in three flavors: one, two and three dimensions. Both one and two dimensional characters are robots; one dimensional characters have less details than a two dimensional character, but both are still limited by they’re “programmed” to do. A three dimensional character is a true human being, with an essentially infinite depth to their history and personality. Obviously to write a good story, you would want to strive towards writing three dimensional characters.
More specifically, a…
…one dimensional character:
* is essentially a robot; they have a single purpose and are very predictable. They merely emulate human behavior, as opposed to actually live as a human. There is a clear distinction between those two.
* is a character where, if you got into a conversation with them, you wouldn’t get much out of them beyond information of their single purpose.
* isn’t an actual character, but more like a being meant to fulfill a specific role. That is to say, the character’s only identifier is that of their role.
* possesses an inability to learn anything new and/or an inability to break out of their role. If they lose that single purpose or fall out of their role, then they become lost, almost useless.
* is nothing more than what is revealed at face value. They have no secrets or private lives (apart from superficial ones) and have done nothing that has not been observed by the public. They might even possess an unwillingness to do something if no one is looking.
* loves their creator.
—- Superman, Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi are probably the best known one dimensional character. Superman’s sole purpose is “to get Lex Luthor and save the world!”. Luke Skywalker’s role is that of “the hero”. Obi-Wan Kenobi is likewise “the old mentor”. These characters were created and written to fit a single goal in mind: to be a tool. They are not humans, but creatures with a very finite set of goals, ideas and belief.
…two dimensional character:
* is really just a one dimensional character with a much fuller, yet still finite, set of beliefs and goals.
—- A writer can take a one dimensional character and just pad up their back story to make a two dimensional character. But the flaws of the one dimensional character are still apparent with the two dimensional character. They may have more than one purpose, but they are still limited to them. They may have multiple roles, but are still bounded by them. Should that character be placed outside if their large-yet-still-finite realm, they become just as lost and useless as the one dimensional character in the same situation. And maybe a two dimensional character has a secret that a one dimensional character doesn’t, but that secret is tied into their role and serves no purpose beyond that (for example, a murderer who is in hiding).
…three dimensional character:
* will always has something new to say. Even if you get inside their head, there is never a drought of information.
* has no role. They don’t even play the role of themselves much, as they can break out of it and try something new. Their identifier is not their job or the clicheic roles of “the hero”, “the mentor” or even “a character in this story”; three dimensional characters are their own identifier. If the character does in fact play a role, the character themselves chose to be it, and it wasn’t something that was unwittingly imposed upon them.
* are not at all predictable. The writer might not know how the character will react. Maybe even the character themself won’t know how they’ll react.
* do not become lost or useless when outside of their realm. Maybe even the best of the character comes out in these situations. It’s the exact opposite of what happens to one and two dimensional characters.
* possess secrets and are more than they reveal to the public, in private, or even to themselves.
* possess the ability to question the purpose the writer gives them, and maybe even chooses to break free from that purpose to seek out something new.
* questions, even hates their creator.
—- I think the best writers create these three dimensional characters. I can name very few stories that have a cast of three dimensional characters. I can name even less web comics which has three dimensional characters.
The dimensionality of characters can also be applied to stories as well. One dimensional stories are like one dimensional characters: the story is predictable, serves only one purpose and doesn’t expand upon much outside its boundaries. A three dimensional story is like a three dimensional character: it has multiple purposes or even lacks a role for it to fulfill and is not at all predictable. Sometimes too we can have X dimensional characters in a Y dimensional story. The movie Dark City is a great example of a once-one/two dimensional character breaking out of his role and becomes a third dimensional character while the entire town is still stuck in their one/two dimensional roles. Creating three dimensional characters within a three dimensional story is something I’m striving for as a writer. Admittedly a lot of my characters in Moose River may seem more two dimensional than three dimension, but I’m working on that.
Flat characters and flat stories are perfect for tales and fables, if the purpose of it is to teach the reader/listener a lesson or moral. I wouldn’t want a three dimensional “Aesop’s Fables” or “Goldielocks and the Three Bears” because it would really add an unnecessary level of detail for such a simple purpose that story requires. Kids shows usually follow suit for the same reasons, though it’s always refreshing to see a kid’s show that ups the dimensionality a bit; one kid’s cartoon, Authur, is actually pretty good since the writing isn’t so flat, and they even snuck in a few jokes for the non-kids in there as well.
“Self-censorship”, as I define it, doesn’t mean writing a story that simply doesn’t have any swearing or naughty bits in it. That’s just writing a story for your targeted audience (read “POP-CULTURE REFERENCES AND IN-JOKES” above).
“Self-censorship” instead means writing a story that DOES have swearing and/or naughty bits in it, but you censor it up. Instead of saying “fucK”, you say “feck” or “f**k” (even if they are tribute words), and you also have black bars covering up all the naughty bits.
For me there is no grey area when it comes to this; I say either throw your punches or sit pretty, but don’t ever pull your punches. The basis for this is legitimacy. If you choose to swear or not swear, at least you’re being genuine about decisions. Playing this “f**k” bullshit makes you look like a fucking poseur in my book; it not only lacks any sort of authenticity, but it also takes away from your legitimacy.
Seriously, there are plenty of ways to writing a story without having to resort to using “f**k” or even “fucK”. If I was to adapt Moose River for television, I would just take out all the swear words and replace them with appropriate yet clean terms. Instead of “fucK off”, I would stick with “go to hell!” or even “get lost!” The point is expressed without having to resort to any form of swearing, fake or legitimate. I would sooner just keep it clean instead of using bleeping that shit out, just cause bleeping it out would seem more pathetic and lame than not using it to begin with.
Swearing on the site your comics are hosted on is a slightly different issue… it’s been explained to me that if you wish to look professional, it’s generally a good idea to refrain from using profanity on your site. For example: Quentin Tarantino has all sorts of blood, gore, action and profanity in his movies, but when he gives interviews on TV or in public, he doesn’t use profanity or talk about stuff that would be inappropriate. This also explains why there is a sort of absence of profanity on this site (but not in the comic), or why certain bomb words have been replaced with safe words… I chose to remove the profanity (for the moment) in order to look a little bit more professional.
• OVER-ELABORATE TAGLINES
For me, taglines need to be functional and describe your work simply and precisely. In the case of Moose River, I use “A dramedy about real life” and “A story about life, love, drugs, friendship and failure.” Anything past this and the writer’s failed attempt at being witty begins to show. A small list of bullshit taglines include:
* A story about ordinary ______ in a not so ordinary ______.
* A story about ______, and their quest to SAVE THE WORLD!
* ______ insanity ______
* All ______ must come to an end.
* She was the _______ in high school, but now _________… life changes.
* In a world where ______, one [person] stands to ______.
* A story about ______, ______, and pancakes.
* Women who are nursing, pregnant, or may become pregnant are advised not to read this comic.
* ______ is hard. [Some supernatural/amazing feat] is harder.
What’s wrong with these? Like with anything else that writers can suck big time at, these taglines are rife with cliche. They don’t describe the work it’s attached to as much as show how unoriginal the writer is. The idea that the writer would believe that they would get MORE attention by using these prefabricated taglines instead of writing up something new sickens me even more.
The only way around this is to just write a tagline that is lacking in bullshit and just goes straight to the point. Moose River is “a dramedy about real life” and not “Anne and her WACKY friends go out and have a ton of fun!! It’s fun! It’s insane! It’s Moose River!!”
• WRITTEN EXPLANATIONS
It is a real pet peeve of mine to see a writer explaining a scene in a visual medium instead of, oh I dunno, SHOWING what is actually happening. What’s the point of using a visual medium if you’re just going to have text explaining what is going on? Is it a dark and stormy night in New York City? Don’t write “It was a dark and stormy night in New York”, SHOW the rain falling upon the Empire State Building. If you’re an artist and writer worth your weight in salt, you should be able to flesh our your story with as little written explanation as possible.
And although, yes, I’m a fast firm defender of artist intent, I still believe that if you’re gonna do a comic, there should be more art than there should be writing. If a page of your comic is nothing but text, then you’re not writing a comic, but a regular ol’ novel with illustrations. In that case, you’re not in much of a position to defend calling your work a “comic”, are you?
This also includes having your character explain everything that’s going on outside of what’s realistic. If some guy is being zapped with a death ray, he’s not gonna say “Oh no! A death ray! That’s my one weakness!”. Instead, he’s say something more like “…..!” because he’s like FUCKING DYING and he can’t talk. I just cringe every time I read a comic where a character unnecessarily explains the current situation. Hopefully this is an obvious enough faux pas without having to explain it further.
EXCEPTIONS?: You get a pass if:
* the story requires the redundant explanation (like in a film noir)… but even then you’re walking a razor thin line between making your text work for you versus overloading the reader with words.
* a character is providing a narration in, say, a flashback, and that it’s just the characters interacting with each other and not the writer writing to the reader (if that makes sense)
* you’re working on a documentary; an explanation of the scene is really the only way those things work
• ENDLESS LOOP WRITING
Don’t write a “XXXX” story, write a story titled “XXXX”. How zen is that?
Once upon a time there was an animated television program which used a dysfunctional family–complete with a deadbeat dad, a worrisome homemaker mother, a trouble-maker son, his studious younger sister, and a newborn baby–as a means of social commentary of American living in the early 1990′s. That television show was called The Simpsons. But at some point in life of the The Simpsons television series, the show became less about a commentary on American life and more about “The Simpsons”. I mean, compare the first few Seasons of The Simpsons with the current Season 3563 and you’ll notice that all of the cliches and inside jokes prevalent within Season 6742 of The Simpsons do not exist within the first few seasons. You’ll also notice that the quality of the writing has also decreased over the years. I feel this is because the writers of Season 14986 of The Simpsons are focused on–nay, tied down to–writing a “The Simpsons” story and not a story about which used a dysfunctional family as social commentary. In being focused on trying to write a “The Simpsons” story, they spend all their time trying to match the criteria and characterizations of a typical “The Simpsons” story and none of their time trying to write anything resembling quality. Therefore, my advice to the writers of The Simpsons would be: “Don’t write a ‘The Simpsons’ story, write a story titled ‘The Simpsons.’” Get my drift?
The thing is, too many TV, movie, comic or whatever-else series that have been around for a considerable amount of time end up writing themselves for the sake of writing themselves and no longer for any other reason. The movie Shawn of the Dead was merely a romantic comedy movie about zombies. But if they decided to make a sequel, that sequel would instead be a movie about “Shawn of the Dead”. I believe that once a series gets to the point where they’re no longer writing a story according to some original intent and instead are just writing a “That Series” story, they’re on the path to basically chucking out originality and uniqueness out the window. And given my preference for originality, chucking it out would be a very bad thing.
So what’s so bad about this? I mean, who doesn’t like to get as much of a favorite series as possible? Well, the problem really is inbreeding. That is to say, at the beginning of any particular series, there is no real strict criteria of what is expected of that series, other than perhaps “be entertaining”. And since nothing much is expected of the series, no one would complain if the writers decided to take the series where ever they want to take it; the writers have the freedom to pull material from anywhere they see fit. But as the series progresses, more and more people expect certain things out of it. So while the series does become easier to write because they writers and fans are slowly building a list of requirements for each story within the series, it also restricts the writing from moving beyond that list of criteria. The writers are less free to pull ideas from anywhere and are more inclined to stick with ideas that are within their series; their ideas are simply more inbred than before. Eventually it’ll get to the point where each story/episode becomes a carbon copy of each other, complete with inside jokes, running gags and catch-phrases… and when it reach that point, the series simply stagnates because there is nowhere else left for it to go. Obviously by this time the writers are no longer writing a story called “XXXX” and are instead writing a “XXXX” story.
The only way to avoid this from happening is to never lose sight of the reason why you started writing your story to begin with. I’m writing Moose River to share my observations of my own experiences and the experiences of those around me. Although Moose River does have a sort of criteria that I seem to unconsciously adhere to, I do consciously try not to fall into writing a “Moose River” story. Moose River is not so much about the characters Anne or Shea, but is instead a story about life and friendship which uses characters like Anne and Shea as a means to that end. If other writers allow themselves to maintain this kind of freedom of writing… by not trapping themselves into writing a “XXXX” story, then their story will continue to flourish and stay fresh.
Well, if your original intention for your story WAS to write a “XXXX” story, then fine… you get a pass. It’s just there are too many series’ out there–which I’m sure undoubtedly promoted originality at one point–that have lost sight of their goals and became unoriginal simply because the writers are now more interested in telling a typical story within the “XXXX” world.
I suppose if you manage to write a story that avoids all this bad mojo, you’ll be a good writer in my book… and I suspect many other people’s books as well.
Of course, as Kurt Vonnegut mentioned, some of the best writers don’t follow any of these rules. But keep in mind that just because you “don’t follow these rules,” it doesn’t make you a “great writer”. Frankly most bad writers don’t follow any of these rules, and that’s why I wrote up this page. It’s the opposite that ends up being more true; some writers are so fucking good that they can still write good shit without having to follow the rules. I guess in that sense, my quest is to become such an entertaining and great writer that I can eventually break the rules… but I can’t break the rules until I know what they are. Maybe the work I’ll finally be remembered by will be the anti-Moose River?
Speaking of Kurt Vonnegut, he did write up a list of eight rules for writing a short story which did, in a small way, influence my own list. Here’s how I feel I stack up to his list:
- Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted. – I think I’m doing an OK job of this, am I? What do you think? This is a rule that I don’t think needs to be broken, necessarily, mostly just for the sake that, as a writer, I don’t want to write something no one wants to read.
- Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for. – The intention for my characters is to simply exist. If you guys root for them or not, well, that’s up to you. There certainly isn’t anyone in the story that I want you guys to support above anyone else.
- Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water. – I’m not really going out of my way to do this, but I don’t deny that maybe the invisible hand that guides my writing is allowing this to happen… ’cause now that I think about it, each of the five main characters does want something. Even the minor characters are looking for something (for example, Metrois wants non-watery beer while his groopie chicks want to agree with him).
- Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action. – Ditto with the invisible hand thing. I think every frame within the comic does that. Using a random page for evidence… F1: advances action (invokes flashback). F2: reveals character (reveals more about Betty and Jorge’s “relationship”). F3: reveals character (Betty is uninterested in drawing attention to Jorge). F4: reveals character (Jorge’s been working at his job “ever since”). F5: reveals character (Betty possibly feigns interest in Jorge’s acomplishments). F6: advances action and reveals character (Betty avoids talking about her past by getting Jorge to pay the bill). … Now this was all stuff done unconsciously, I just did what felt natural, and it seems to have followed this rule fairly well!
- Start as close to the end as possible. – Seeing as this is a literal slice of these people’s lives, there is no end, especially no end for me so start close to.
- Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of. – I think I do this a lot, but mostly for the sake of being a sadist. I guess the invisible hand writes how my characters react to me being a sadist. The worst has yet to come, though.
- Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia. – I don’t know how to explain it, but in every conceivable angle (both in following and breaking this rule), I don’t think I’m fulfilling things properly. Maybe it’ll work out in the end. I know I’m writing to please myself. And if I don’t count, I’m hoping that the person I’m writing this for is pleased by it at least.
- Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages. – Well this is a slice-of-life story, so there is no suspense outside of what real life offers.
Yeah, that’s it.