Outlining My Thoughts on Writing Outlines

I never wrote outlines before I started making comics. My memory was sharp back before I began to be treated for anxiety, and I could organize things well enough in my head. If I wanted to make certain to remember something I’d just jot a note, which I would inevitably find years later when I’d no longer recall the context. It was an inefficient system but one that was low-cost in terms of time and effort.

When, fresh out of college, I got serious about the craft of writing comics I developed a system of writing one sentence to describe the action of every page. The theory was that this would ensure that each page would thereby feel like a contained unit. Further, pacing could be controlled by simply devoting more or fewer sentences to each plot point.

In practice I ignored the fact that the collection of sentences failed to present a coherent story, but it did actually produce cohesive individual pages. Before I could get much further in the development of a solid way to outline comics, financial issues combined with social anxiety and depression to drive me out of the writing business altogether.

But I never lost my affection for comics, and as companies began releasing collections of pre-code horror and crime comics I gleefully bought all of them I could find. Fortunately, the days of financial stress had passed by that point. I got on medication and began working on behavioral modification to learn to combat periods of hopelessness and lethargy. And I started this blog as a way to start writing again.

Now I feel that it’s all coming together again. I’ve published a comic with my previous collaborator Rafer Roberts, and he’s had me script two more short pieces for inclusion in other works. I have a semi-regular gig writing an advice column for mad scientists. I’ve had a story published in an e-book, and another is coming out in an anthology this year. And my outline process has evolved.

For the shorter scripts it’s pretty much the same, except that the page descriptions have become brief paragraphs. This allows the outline to serve double duty as a synopsis to send for buy-in and approval. For full scripts and prose stories, I’m essentially writing a story. There’s not a great deal of detail or characterization in it, and the language is nothing that’s trying to be compelling, but the story-form outline gets the main thoughts on “paper”, as it were. It’s a sort of idea test.

The genesis of this approach is a peculiar thing I noticed in a lot of the old anthology comics. Among the short comics would be one or two very prose pieces. Any reader of reprinted EC comics has probably seen these, but the practice was widespread throughout the industry.

Bear in mind that I have done no actual research into why they did this.

Whatever the truth of the matter, I decided that it was an artifact of the scripting process. The editors would write short stories and hand them out to artists. The captions and dialog would largely come from the prose script, but the artist would determine layout and panel breakdowns. Any extra scripts would be used as page filler.

Who knows, really? I mean except for the few pros still with us from those days or anybody who’s actually bothered to do any research on the subject whatsoever.

At any rate, that’s my new approach. It allows me to get ideas written down without worrying about pesky details like final dialog, pacing, or characterization. It’s working well for the idea I’m writing up for a weekly web comic, and it even helped me to bull my way through the first draft of the story coming out this summer.

I should probably start applying that approach to the story I’m working on now…


2 thoughts on “Outlining My Thoughts on Writing Outlines

  1. As I recall, the text pieces were there to secure a better postage rate for mail subscriptions. They were just enough to qualify the books as literature.

    • That feels right enough for me to totally buy. They did a lot of things to get around postal rate rules and fees.

      “Yes, this is issue 17 of this magazine! We’ve just changed the title and content four times, that’s all.”

      I just like the thought of editors churning out terrible short stories and handing them to artists. “Six pages, Wally! Tomorrow!”

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