Alan Moore's Incredibly Underrated Writing Guide
Writing Down The Bones, Bird By Bird, The Elements of Style, and On Writing: the Mount Rushmore of “How to write books.”
Alan Moore’s Writing For Comics isn’t up there. Why? Is it because he's English?
Writing For Comics belongs up there with the greats. It’s thoughtful, it’s a quick read, and holy shit, it’ll save you a ton of time and heartache as a beginning writer. The advice is practical and it's easy to apply yourself.
Oh, and here's the big one: It's not just for writers of comics. It's for storytellers of any kind.
Let's do a few highlights below, see if we can't convince a couple of you to read it for yourself.
Plots and Ideas
The idea is what the story is about; not the plot of the story, or the unfolding of events within that story, but what the story is essentially about.
Lots of writers, especially starting out, don’t know the difference between the idea and the plot, and they usually forget one or the other.
I’ll make it super brief:
If I ask you to tell me about the movie Prey, and you tell me about a series of events, usually with the phrase “and then, and then…” then you’ve probably told me the plot, the forward-moving events. If you told me, “Prey is about how someone who is physically outmatched can use other skills to overcome a problem,” you’ve told me what it’s about.
Good stories need both, a thing they're about and a plot that spools it out.
If a transition is handled incorrectly, what is does is bring the reader up short against the fact that he or she is reading a story.
There’s an entire section in Writing For Comics on transitions that’s packed with concrete advice, all of it backed on this premise: when you do a sucky job writing your story, people are aware they’re reading a story, and that defeats the point.
A lot of us blow it in the transitions. Alan Moore can help you fix that.
The most obvious way to do this is to explain the rudiments of your world to your readers by way of caption boxes or expository dialogue, but this is also to my mind the most unnatural method and in many ways the least effective. It just happens to be the easiest, which is why it’s used so often.
Please, damn, if you’re building a world, build it and then tease it out for us. Don’t just shit it out onto one page in an exposition dump or in an awkward explanation between two characters that makes no sense.
If I want a realistic-sounding name for an ordinary citizen of Louisiana I look in my Houma telephone directory until I come across one which strikes me as having a nice ring to it: Hattie Duplantis is a nice name. So is Jody Hebert.
Kids, you probably won’t have access to a phone book, but that’s okay, I have an alternative:
Use findagrave.com. Plug in the location of your story, plug in a good date of birth for your character, and pick out some names.
Names are always hard, but they don't have to be.
I'm telling you, this book is packed with little tidbits that'll change your work for the better.
When Moore was writing a story that featured Etrigan, The Demon, he looked at the artwork for the character and did an act-out:
I imagined the immense weight of my body, which was now much smaller, and saw that this would give the movements of the body a sort of terrible momentum. In keeping with the feral nature suggested by the front teeth I tried out the sensation of hunching myself up like Quasimodo and squatting slightly as I walked...I tried the voice, thrusting my upper teeth out and curling my upper lip until it became difficult to talk clearly. Making any sort of sense at all seemed to necessitate talking very slowly, which suggested a sort of slowed-down gramophone quality to the voice, very deep and guttural.
Doing something like this with your characters will help you get into their mind, and more importantly, their bodies.
Deep description of a character is better when you don't just tell me the character has an overbite. Tell me how it's hard for him to eat certain foods. Tell me about words your character avoids because he has a hard time saying them. Put yourself in the body of your character, and you'll be able to put the reader there, too.
On Challenging Yourself
Attempt things that you are not sure you can accomplish: if you’re certain that you can do a thing, this means that there is little to no point in actually doing it. The reason you’re sure you can do it is that you or someone else has done it already.
I always have a place on my to-read list for an interesting failure. A boring, paint-by-numbers plot that we've seen a dozen times already, done competently? Pass.
Reputation is a trap that will turn you into a lifeless marble bust of yourself before you’re even dead.
How is this not quoted everywhere, all the time?
Finally, if you want to be a truly great writer, it is perhaps worth remembering that even in this, it is more important to be a good human being than it is to be a good writer.
Truth is, I know why Writing For Comics doesn't make the Mount Rushmore of great how-to-write books. It's that "comics" word. Most people see that, and say, "I don't want to write comics."
But I'm telling you, this is some of the best, most compact, cleanest and clearest writing advice I've ever read, and almost all of it applies to any kind of storytelling.
It WILL make you a better storyteller.
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