What makes a story work pt 1 – how do we know it does work?

I wanted to write a post looking at what makes a story work, but first it seems sensible to consider how we can tell that a story has worked at all – or not, of course. It seems to me that there are some general principles we can reasonably consider when thinking about stories in the titles under discussion – Jinty/Misty/Tammy in particular. (I should add a caveat that here I am particularly considering stories which have a beginning, middle, and end, rather than gag strips or humour stories that tend to consist of indivudal self-contained episodes.)

What evidence do we have that it worked at the time?

Looking at evidence from the past, we can clearly say that people at the time judged some stories to have worked better than others.

  • Some stories are known to have been particularly popular; we may have information from editors (we know that “Stefa’s Heart of Stone” was very popular). The publishers certainly canvassed readers for indicators of the most and the least popular stories, either through the invitation to specify your faves when writing a letter to the editor, or more rarely through initiatives such as “Pam’s Poll“.
  • Reprinting of stories is likely to indicate a positive judgement on how well they worked – why waste space on a story you didn’t think was worth it? At the same time, some reprints are hard to see as being particularly strong – “Angela Angel-Face” being a case in point. Sometimes, therefore, the fact that a story has been reprinted might just be a recognition of its ready availability as a cheap space-filler.
  • Translation of stories is surely a stronger indication of success; a third party has selected the story (in some way – it would be good to know more about how this happened), paid for it, and put work into producing a translated edition, possibly with new cover artwork or more colouring.
  • And then sometimes we have seen the translation go on to further usage – collection in an album format (the Dutch Tina Topstrips), and then perhaps further translations derived from those earlier selections (the Indonesian Nina reprints that drew heavily on the Tina Topstrip editions). “The Spell of the Spinning Wheel” is an example of a story that scores particularly highly, having been translated into Dutch and Indonesian in just this way.
  • Story length may be another indicator. “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” ran for 36 episodes and “Fran of the Floods” ran for 35 episodes, where a story was more usually some 15 episodes long. The obvious reason for this extraordinary length is that as the story was popular, the writer will have been asked to make it carry on for longer, or at any rate not stopped from continuing. (This may have turned out as a double-edged sword: we understand that for instance Dutch Tina didn’t reprint stories past a certain length because of format constraints, so a very long story of this sort was actually less likely to be translated and reprinted elsewhere.)
  • (edited to add) Promotional and editorial decisions may also give some pointers. The editorial office decides about which story to feature on the cover, and to what extent – for instance when dramatically using a panel from the interior art to create a striking cover. They also decide which stories to feature in prime positions in the publication: the first and last stories are key positions, but the centre pages can also be an important focus for the reader. Some pages are in colour and again this will reflect a specific editorial decision to add something extra (requiring more work) to that story compared to others. Finally, some titles will be highlighted in adverts published in other titles.

As you can see, though, none of these indicators are foolproof. The most reliable indicator would be evidence direct from the editorial office to confirm that a story was popular, and even then of course you can quibble about whether popularity necessarily relies on the story being strong… though what you could certainly say in that case is that the most important critics, the readers, had voted in favour to say that it had worked for them.

What can we say about whether it works now?

And coming to stories that we read now, what tools can we use to think about whether a story works? (For instance we may come across a new story that we didn’t read at the time, or re-read a story in a new light.)

It is entirely legitimate to consider our own uncritical reaction as readers: “I love this sort of thing”, or “it’s not my cup of tea”, or “I know it’s very generic but I have a soft spot for this story”. Perhaps when you read the story initially, you hadn’t ever come across that particular cliché, and even though you recognize how hackneyed it is you still like it. Or perhaps there is some detail of script or art that just gives it something extra in your eyes. We can say “this story works for me”, acknowledging that others may read it and judge it more harshly; we may need to be aware of the limitations of our judgment, while at the same time still seeing those judgments as valid in themselves.

Likewise if we re-read a fondly remembered story now as adult readers, we may find that it is just as exciting as those memories had it as; or we may find that since then we have brought a lot more experience (and perhaps cynicism) to bear as readers, and the story just doesn’t work any more. Maybe events have overtaken it entirely (a story featuring casual racism or a now-known sex predator would be seen quite differently now than at the time). So the story might not work for us as individuals, or more generally, and we can make judgements accordingly.

Finally, there are a whole range of elements we can analyse to see what can make a story work, coming from the contribution of the artist and of the writer and even of the editorial office. Looking through these elements, as I want to do in my next post, we may find that we see more in the story than at first glance, and that it works more effectively than we’d given it credit for initially. I am finding this can happen for me when reading Mistyfan’s posts on stories, as we (naturally) have some differences in reading taste – for instance, reading her post on “Go On, Hate Me!” gave me a different view on how and why the story worked, although this is a story I might otherwise have dismissed as only moderately interesting. Using more analytical tools we are therefore able to say that a story works well or less well as a narrative of its kind, on its own merits, regardless of its reception at the time or by us as individuals.

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29 thoughts on “What makes a story work pt 1 – how do we know it does work?

  1. There are also stories that undergo reappraisal. One case in point is “Mouse” from Tammy in 1979, where a girl is abducted by her father and taken to Sicily, where her grandmother is arranging a forced marriage for her in order to get a vineyard. At the time this story did not appeal to me much, though others must have liked it.

    But now I appreciate how far ahead of its time it was in anticipating custody disputes, child abduction, girls being sold into forced marriage and even a hint of domestic violence (the boy who seems to be the groom looks like he will make a cruel husband). Such things are more relevant now with cases like “Not without My Daughter” and “Sold”.

    1. Yes, indeed. Similarly I enjoyed Waves of Fear at the time but the appreciation of how that too was ahead of its time in its treatment of mental illness gives it a further depth on re-read.

  2. There are stories that stick with you, and you want to track them down and read again. One case a while back was on comics forum, where a newcomer was trying to track down a story that stuck with her. She only had vague memories but wanted it again. Fortunately she remembered enough for me to identify it without trouble. Recently she made another comment that she had now tracked it down, and it sounds like she was very happy to have it again.

    By the way, what did you think of Waves of Fear the first time you read it? And did you guess what was wrong with Clare?

    1. I’m afraid I can’t remember the details of my reaction at the time. I know Golden Dolly Death Dust stuck with me very strongly as did When Statues Walk, but with other stories I mostly remember my reaction as an adult reader.

  3. According to what I read in a Tammy annual, it was not unusual for a story to start badly but get more popular as it developed. This information comes from a quiz, where one question asked readers to imagine themselves the Tammy editor and what they would do if they received lots of letters moaning about a particular serial.

    The only example I know of this specifically was Battle’s “Terror behind the Bamboo Curtain”. This story got off to a bad start and poor reception, but it sounds like readers liked it better as it progressed. However, it did not recover fully from its initially poor reception and folded after 12 episodes.

    I sure would like to know what serials in girls’ comics did start out badly but get more popular. Why did they get off to a bad start, for one thing?

    And what about letter columns? What can we glean from them about what made stories work – or didn’t?

  4. Very interesting. I’m already looking forward to part 2!
    One story, of which I don’t understand why it was so popular, is Bella from Tammy. Perhaps it’s my taste in stories, or perhaps this was one of those stories that only appealed to girls, and not to boys like me. Also I think the artwork of John Armstrong was, in my opinion, not very strong, even sloppy.
    Artwork helps a lot to like a story. For instance, ‘Secret of the skulls’, also from Tammy, promises a lot with its title, but is actually a rather weak story. But the beautiful art of Mario Capaldi, who, I think, delivers some of his best work ever, makes it all quite bearable.

    1. Thank you! Interesting what you say about John Armstrong. His style is certainly very distinctive and very fluid – there’s a reason why he’s used for stories with gymnasts and so on. Pat Mills thinks very highly of John’s art, as you may have seen elsewhere. But at the same time I think in being so distinctive it can be quite divisive, it has to be to your taste – the lines of his artwork are quite thin and scratchy and the faces are often almost ugly, even of his main characters.

      1. Yes, often his main charachters look ugly, or even simple minded. And a charachter can look like someone completely different than in the drawing before. Perhaps he thought working for girls’ comics was below him, and once in a while he made the charachters look ugly, to mock the genre. When you look at his work for Misty’s ‘Moonchild’, it’s obvious he knows how to make good artwork. But his work for Bella and some other stories looks completely different.
        Yes, I read that Pat Mills thinks very highly of John. But in the same article Pat also critisises Eduardo Feito, who’s art is much better and more realistic than John Armstrong’s. At least, that’s my opinion.

        1. I have met John Armstrong and he is a very modest and meek sort; I think is very unlikely that ever he thought working for girls’ comics was below him, or that he drew characters ugly on purpose to make mock. I’m pretty sure he uses a lot of references to draw from, either photo reference or drawing from life. I suspect that sometimes the drawings in different panels may come from different people or pictures.

    2. Yes, artwork can make a huge difference to the appeal of a story. For instance, Jinty’s Snobby Shirl the Shoeshine Girl has one of the more silly premises that can stretch the willing suspension of disbelief. But the artwork of Jose Casanovas makes it more tolerable. I have not met anyone who did not like Casanovas’ art. “The Perfect Princess” is another Jinty story that has been regarded as one of her weaker offerings. But it was drawn by another popular Jinty artist, Trini Tinture, which would have made it more appealing to some.

      Why was Bella so popular? Good question. Bella was born out of the Cinderella genre that helped to make the early Tammy popular. That fact alone would be enough to sell her story, but there was something about Bella that set her apart from the others. As soon as her story finished, there was a huge demand to bring her back.

      In fact, in 1979 Tammy herself asked readers why they liked Bella so much. The results were published in the Christmas issue of that year. “We All Love Bella Because…” I think I have the issue somewhere.

  5. Most of the letter columns (at least the ones I looked at in DCT) seemed to focus on funny stories that happened to the reader or their pets etc. rather than any real discussion of the stories. Occasionally stories might be mentioned or a list of readers top picks would be printed. Polls were definitely a good indicator of what was popular, an interesting poll in Bunty asked reader to pick their favourite Comp teacher!

    Totally agree with a lot of your points, there are stories I read with nostalgia goggles, whereas I may be more harsher on a similar story that I haven’t read before!

    As for the decisions of what was to be reprinted or cut short; an interesting case I’ve found is “No Boys for Brenda!”. This story originally concluded in issue Judy #1447, a few months later 6 more episodes with the tagline “All-New Stories” were published with the following explanation in the summary box “No Boys for Brenda was so popular that we’re printing some previously unpublished stories from the last series.” This raises some questions, if there was extra episodes already produced why weren’t they printed originally if it was a popular strip? Perhaps they had to make room for other new stories, but makes me wonder if more stories have missing episodes floating around that were never published.

    1. I suppose it’s possible that some stories might have unpublished episodes floating around but to be honest I read that editorial explanation not as having dug up some completed pages of artwork, as suddenly realizing how popular something was and getting the artist to draw a bit more… and maybe the original writer to write a bit more or maybe getting another writer to fill in. (We know from the Tammy credits that it wasn’t always the same writer on an individual story, if it was episodic.)

      1. I wonder if those unfinished stories from Tammy when she disappeared still have unpublished episodes around too?

  6. Bella was not one of my favourites, but I couldn’t get enough of the way John Armstrong drew those gymnastics. The anatomy that went into it had me hungering for more. IMO, nobody in girls’ comics has ever surpassed Armstrong for drawing gymnastics.

    Armstrong himself lacked confidence in his art and felt he “just sketches”. Maybe it is reflected in the occasional sloppiness.

    I like Douglas Perry too, though I must admit it looks sloppy and slapdash at times too.

  7. Sometimes in letter columns readers did comment on what stories they liked best. There were also letters published requesting a character or story return and the editor sometimes added a comment asking readers what they thought. Occasionally there were comments on what readers hated. For example, Tammy printed letters from one hating Steffi in the Swim, another hating Connie’s Curio Shop, and others saying they thought a particular story was silly. But most often there were comments to get rid of Molly Mills because readers thought she was boring or the cruelty unrealistic.

  8. This could make one thread in itself at comics UK. It might be worthwhile revisiting the 100 best strips in girls’ comics too, as that can also glean ideas on what made stories work for people. Phoenix was one who commented on what made stories work for him.

    1. Good idea, I agree! I do have a long list of ‘what makes a story work’ to cover in the next post, but I’ll try to get cracking on it asap.

  9. Some stories would definitely not work today because times have changed too much. Take the 1967 Bunty story “Sister of the Bride” for example. The heroine keeps sabotaging her sister’s career because she believes marriage is what will make her sister happy. The story may have been acceptable in the 1960s – I don’t know. Perhaps more so with the girl getting her comeuppance for interfering like that. Or maybe succeeding in her plans or the sister just getting married anyway. I don’t know how the story ended so I can’t judge there. And I don’t how conventional that type of plotting was at the time either. Nor do I know how popular it was or what reception it received.

    In any case the story would not work today because no modern girl would think like that and the story itself would be un-PC. And I doubt that Bunty, if she was still around, would reprint it.

  10. Some stories fall down because the ending is disappointing. In one annual I read, in a story called “Jumping Jo”, Jo wants to be an athlete but her father is pushing her into being an airline stewardess. Jo becomes a champion and wins lots of medals – but in the end she bows to her father’s wishes. I was saddened there. Not the happy ending I thought it would be.

    Another was “Slaves of the Hot Stove” in Tammy, where Madam Mange kidnaps top chefs and forces them to work in her restaurant in an underground kitchen. They escape by scaring her into releasing them – by making a giant Yorkshire pudding and threatening to smother her with it. This has to be one of the most ridiculous endings ever in girls’ comics. Surely Yorkshire puddings can’t grow to the size of a room, even with tons of flour and water. To make it worse, Madam Mange escapes and we are told the world will hear from her again. But if Tammy was planning a sequel, it did not eventuate.

    The ending was the reason “Foul Play”, also from Tammy, failed as a story. The big reveal on who was conducting a vendetta against a hockey team and why gives the clear impression that the writer did not think the story through properly.

    The only quibble I have with the ending to “Waves of Fear” was that we see no punishment for the spiteful Jean Marlowe for what she did to get Clare expelled. We only see her furious to see Clare reinstated and her popularity restored. Other than that, the conclusion was satisfying. But insufficient punishment or the antagonist getting off too lightly is a common occurrence that can make endings less satisfying or credible than they should be.

    1. yes in looking at what makes a story work it is helpful to see what doesn’t make a story work too. I’d agree that a poor ending can bring down a potentially good story. While stories may have some unrealistic elements the ending should be believable.

      I would say consistency is important too. Balloon of Doom is still a good story but could have been a lot better if it wasn’t for the complete shift in tone half-ways through the story and a weak ending.

      Well developed characters also helps a story along, particularly for soap-like stories like The Comp, Penny’s Place, Luv, Lisa and Nightingales as we can see the characters grow,change and deal with whatever life is throwing at them.

      1. Thanks for all the comments! I was quite well advanced with my post already but these comments are really helpful, we’re thinking along a lot of the same lines.

    2. Thanks for all the comments! I was quite well advanced with my post already but these comments are really helpful, we’re thinking along a lot of the same lines. I nearly separated ‘endings’ out as a specific element after reading this but ended up keeping it within the overall discussion of ‘plot’ – rightly or wrongly.

    3. The ending can really change the feeling about a story from something you would like to read again, to something you’ll read only once. Sometimes the end seems to be tacked on, just like the writer didn’t know how to finish it. What can be unsatisfying too, is when a dramatic or mysterious story ends with some kind of corny joke in the last frame. If there has been a sense of humor thoughout the story it’s ok to end with a joke, or something that is supposed to be a joke. But otherwise it is most of the time a rather silly way to end the story.

      1. Sometimes the resolution can turn an average story into something a bit different, such as Bunty’s “Sharing with Sonia”. Karen is trying to get rid of her cousin Sonia because she does not want to share their aunt. Yes, you’ve seen this type of thing zillions of times in DCT. But what makes it different is that Sonia realises what is happening and starts fighting fire with fire by playing the same tricks on Karen! I have never seen that before or since with that type of story, and I like the story for that.

  11. Some stories had hardly any cover spots despite indication of popularity. “Children of Edenford”, for example, didn’t even have one cover spot throughout its run while “Waves of Fear” only had one cover spot, which was the issue it started in. Could the disturbing story content in both stories have downplayed their exposure on the cover? Or did the Editor give preference to other stories showing extreme popularity, such as “Combing Her Golden Hair” and “Almost Human”?

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