What makes a story work, pt 2?

Following on from my earlier post on how we can sensibly say that a story works (or doesn’t), I want to look at the elements that can add to, or detract from, how well a story works. These are elements that are mostly down to decisions made by the writer or the artist (or both), though editorial decisions can also be relevant. For each of the elements, therefore, I will consider what the balance of responsibilities tends to be, as well as discussing the nature of each of them.

  • Plot. What actually happens? How well tied-together are the events of the story, and how naturally or consistently do they flow from earlier ones? Is it a very run-of-the-mill plot or does it have innovative elements? Is the plot simple or convoluted, full of sidelines or straightforward? In particular, does the ending follow well from the main part of the action or does it undercut the earlier events, for instance through by use of a deus ex machina to wrap everything up neatly and too-quickly?
    • This lies mostly in the writer’s corner, though the editorial department may make suggestions.
    • Stronger: “Concrete Surfer” is a tightly-plotted story where everything that happens drives the action forwards to the skate-off between rivals and the subsequent denouement. Not a moment of action is wasted and it all hangs together.
    • Weaker: in “Fran of the Floods” lots of things happen, but in a quite meandering structure with sub-plots that you can get lost in. The later happenings are not very tightly tied into the earlier events, though there is a wrap-up at the end of the story. This is a danger for road-trip sort of stories.
  • Title. Is the title overly-explanatory or does it promise without revealing too much? Is it ho-hum or unusual?
    • As far as we know, coming up with the story’s title seems to have been part of the writer’s tasks. Sometimes it might have been changed by the editorial department either before publication or on reprint / translation.
    • Stronger: There are lots of really evocative story titles in Jinty. Examples like “Girl The World Forgot” or “Golden Dolly, Death Dust!” are suggestive without giving the whole game away.
    • Weaker: the formula girl’s name + descriptive reference was over-used in girls’ comics generally and feels hackneyed as a result. “Badgered Belinda”, “Angela Angel-Face”, “Diving Belle” are examples in Jinty, but looking at a single issue of Lindy the ratio of such titles seemed considerably higher so things could have been much worse!
  • Theme. Is the theme a well-trodden one such as the Slave or Cinderella themes? Is it an intrinsically unlikely one such as the Exploited Amnesiac? In either case it probably needs something extra to make it stand out.
    • Again as far as we know the story theme was mostly under the control of the writer, though the editorial office would, according to Pat Mills, aim to have specific themes represented such as the two mentioned above. Some writers would focus preferentially on certain themes, so we know that Alison Christie wrote a number of heart-tugging stories with Runaways or Guilt Complexes. The art style (discussed in the next post) was probably chosen to match the theme as far as possible, though of course it is entirely possible that the availability of an artist was used to inspire a writer on occasion.
    • Stronger: I wouldn’t say it is that clear that one theme is stronger than another but there is a lot of personal preference that will govern whether a story works for an individual reader or not.
    • Weaker: as mentioned above, some themes such as the Exploited Amnesiac are so intrinsically unlikely and indeed rather melodramatic and silly that it means that the story is battling against something of a headwind.
  • Pacing. Girls (and boys) comics of this era typically feature fast-paced stories, with cliff-hangers at the end of each episode. The conventions of this sort of story are rather different from Japanese manga, where the action tends to take place over a far greater number of pages. If a story is compressed more than usual for this genre it would feel confusing, or if it was too slow-paced likewise it could throw readers off.
    • This lies solidly in the remit of the writer, though the page layout and composition could have some effect too.
    • Stronger: “Concrete Surfer” has some of the best pacing I can immediately think of: it builds evenly and the momentum never stops. Every panel and page builds on the last.
    • Weaker: the pacing on “Freda’s Fortune” makes it an odd read, with much of the plot line of a normal horse & rival story compressed into two 6-page episodes.
  • Tone. Is the story light and frothy, silly, adventurous, realistic, tear-jerking, hard, gritty, subversive, or even sadistic? The dialogue is a big part of what sets the tone so I am including it in this element, though others might prefer to separate it out.
    • The style set by the comic overall is very linked to the tone of the individual stories inside; whether this is mostly to do with editorial choices as to which stories to publish or writers to commission, clearly the editorial focus has a part to play. Pat Mills reckons that there is a big divide between working class comics (Tammy, Misty, Jinty, Pink, and most of Bunty) and middle-class, ‘safe’ comics, and that this divide was purposeful, to try to move past the ‘old hat’ style of the past. The individual writer is the prime mover of the tone of the story but the artist also has an important role to play as the writing and art must of course match. Additionally, the artist is in a position to add a lot of background detail in their art, to really bring things to life (John Armstrong draws graffiti in the background of “Moonchild”, and Jim Baikie draws details from the London Underground of the 70s or earlier in his recreation of the futuristic world of “The Forbidden Garden”.)
    • Stronger: Of course one tone is not in itself ‘better’ than another, but some are more unusual or more consistently applied throughout. “Knight and Day” is the epitome of a gritty and realistic story of physical and emotional abuse within a family, played seriously and with enough emotional effect to convince the reader.
    • Weaker: In the link above, Pat Mills says that light and frothy stories are ‘safe’ and boring to the reader. This is arguable, but certainly a light and frothy story such as “The Perfect Princess” is by its nature one that is easier to dismiss the more emotional or tear-jerking tales. Perhaps more fatal to a story is a sudden shift in tone, such as Lorrbot mentions having happened in “Balloon of Doom” in her comment on the last post.
  • Resonance. I’m stretching a bit things here in using this term in this way. What I mean is whether the story has a certain mythic resonance, a re-use (in a purposeful way) of cultural material. Mermaids, spinning wheels, magic mirrors, wicked and cruel women: these all have resonance as they have been used in countless stories to tell us how to behave or what to be careful of. Re-use of a current successful story from a different medium also gives the comics narrative a chance to grab some resonance from elsewhere.
    • I am assuming this is mostly in the care of the writer, though of course the artist will be able to add in many visual elements that will strengthen the references.
    • Stronger: “Who’s That In My Mirror?” combines ideas of vanity, moral peril, and the idea that a mirror can hold a reflection of a kind of truth. It has echoes of “The Picture of Dorian Grey” and of the Andersen tale “The Shadow” – and its denouement is as spooky as anything in comics.
    • Weaker: There are so damned many stories of haunted mirrors that it’s very easy for the shine to wear off! For me, “The Venetian Looking-Glass” was just another one of many: the element of resonance had become repetition.
  • Audacity. This is sort of the flip side of Resonance, and again I am stretching things a bit in using this term in this way. By this I mean the ‘WTF’ element where you can’t quite believe that anyone dared to put that on the page! It is the element of surprise and of novelty, but it is quite a delicate balancing act.
    • The written story bears a lot of the responsibility for this element but the art is key in making sure that the reader’s suspension of disbelief doesn’t flag. The editorial and publishing teams are the ones who would be on the bosses’ carpet if it all goes horribly wrong (as it did for boys’ comic Action after questions were asked in parliament), so they are part of the mix too.
    • Stronger: “Worlds Apart” is one of the most audacious stories in girls’ comics, with each protagonist having to die in grotesque and excessive ways in order for them to progress to the next scenario. “Children of Edenford” is also outrageous but a bit more quietly so as it criticises the shibboleth of social mobility ahead of the tide of Thatcherism and yuppiedom to come.
    • Weaker: When audacity tips the scales of suspension of disbelief, the wheels come off. For me, the cruelties at the end of “Slave of the Swan” and “The Slave of Form 3B” push it a step too far.

To follow in the next post, discussions on:

  • Art quality
  • Art style
  • Character design
  • Page layout / composition
  • Art incidental details
  • Design / font / lettering
  • Format / edition

20 thoughts on “What makes a story work, pt 2?

  1. Gender is another factor in what makes a story work. According to Pat Mills, there is a difference between what appeals to boys and girls in British comics. Boys like action, adventure and power figures while girls like emotional stories. Pat cited a couple of stories that he feel failed, not because they were bad stories but because they were attempts to transpose elements of girls’ comics into boys’ that did not appeal to boys.

    1. Well, y’see, I think that’s a different point. If true (really it should be cross-checked and not just taken at Pat’s word) then that doesn’t mean that the stories work or not, it means that the markets are or at least were different. Commercial success is one measure of whether a story works, but it’s not fool-proof.

      1. Yes, it is Pat’s opinion; that’s why I said he felt failed, not because they did fail. Pat thought Terror Behind the Bamboo Curtain failed because boys hated mystery. Funny that – don’t boys like Sherlock Holmes?

        It must be said that the girls’ comics did have a covert boy readership. I even saw a few brave letters in the columns from boys saying they loved to read Jinty, Misty or whatever, or their sisters saying their brothers liked to read them.

        1. I agree with both of your points in disputing Pat’s opinion! In any case what I am trying to do here is to look at structural things about the story that make it work or not work, and gender is not something about the story, it’s about the reader. It therefore could add into the ‘not for me’ judgement rather than an ‘objectively doesn’t work’ judgment.

      2. Maybe the reception to Bamboo Curtain was poor because it was audacious, but the risk didn’t come off. It tried the slave story theme in a boys’ comic and had a mystery element, but the boys didn’t take to it. One online account of Bamboo Curtain indicates the writer did find it different in terms of audacity and breaking the convention of POW camp stories in boys’ comics. He liked the story for that reason, but maybe he was in the minority.

        Perhaps if Pat had tried it again in Battle but give it some tweaking (having more action for example), the boys might have come to like it better. As it was, it sounds like he gave a bit too easily after the disappointment of Bamboo Curtain; he said he only tried it once and they hated it, so it was not tried again.

        “The Running Man” (in Action, I think) was another attempt to transpose the elements of girls’ comics that received a poor reception. Readers liked the man who was chasing the fugitive in the story rather than the hero because he was the sort of character they liked – a power character who was tough and violent. But the story was unpopular and presumably didn’t last long.

  2. I see you’re going to discuss art quality soon. One thing that always annoyed me was badly drawn ballet stories. Badly drawn because either the artist did not know how to draw ballet correctly and you got awful, angular and incorrect ballet poses that would horrify real dancers, or the artistic style was not suited to the elegance and grace that ballet demanded. Or it would be both.

    Of course there were artists who could draw fabulous ballet such as Phil Townsend or John Armstrong and those who do a fair job such as Douglas Perry.

      1. Another story with a poorly-conceived ending that I remember was “Donna Must Dance” from Bunty. Donna is being harassed by an unknown enemy who keeps sabotaging her ballet gear and such. It turns out to be her own ballet teacher. I myself guessed that right from the beginning – the clue was Donna dancing the role the teacher missed out on years ago. But I thought it was because the teacher was jealous at Donna for this. But in fact the teacher was doing it to toughen Donna up – give her a rough time to make her stronger and more determined to pursue ballet. Really! I thought my jealousy idea worked better.

  3. Some stories fail because what should make the story work doesn’t. One example is The Bow Street Runner. The prophecy is what should make the story work, but it doesn’t because the prophecy is poorly conceived and it sticks out a mile that the girl has got it wrong. The right effect with a prophecy was achieved in Cursed to be a Coward, so the story worked there.

    1. Hmm, yes. I think I probably should have created a separate point about endings actually. They do fit in under Plot but there is enough to discuss under Endings that it should be separate really.

    2. Ah well,as far as I know both Cursed to be a Coward and The Bow Street runner were popular enough at the time- I wrote both of them so I guess I’m prejudiced.And re artists having anything input in the idea or plot line of the many stories I wrote, they did not, not for my stories, anyway. I scripted what they should draw.

      1. Hi Alison! Thanks for confirming about the artist not having input (in your stories) to the idea or plot line – I was not really expecting that this would happen much in the case of Jinty/Misty/Tammy though I wouldn’t have thought it was totally impossible.

  4. I wonder if some stories are not meant to be realistic or taken seriously. Take the Tammy story “Dumbbells Academy” for example. This story was written because a reader wrote in requesting a story about a school that is run by the most incompetent staff you can imagine. And in the story the staff are complete idiots and spend their time goofing off instead of teaching. The heroine in the story, a new girl, wants an education and is determined to wring it out of these goofballs if it kills her – and nearly does. This story has no bearing on real life. In fact it’s so far removed from it you could either consider it a turkey or a piece of escapism.

  5. I see character design is going to follow soon. One thing I have noticed is that the characters often seem to wear the same clothes all the time, throughout the strip. Okay, so some of them have limited wardrobes like Bella Barlow, but this is hardly the excuse for most characters. In fact, in “Father’s Footsteps” from Tammy, the two heroines and their two enemies who are always causing trouble are always wearing school uniform, even outside school.

    1. Good point, I didn’t mention that. Sometimes clothes are specifically thought about: KT5 the robot’s tracksuit is mentioned in The Robot Who Cried. And in Concrete Surfer, Jean wears t-shirt and shorts whenever she can, and Carol wears pretty dresses. This aspect is often not addressed that well though, I agree.

      1. I was reading a story recently and it made me think dialogue is an important point as well. Sometimes dialogue can be over the top, cheesy or over expository, I think some stories can get away with a bit of that, but sometimes it goes too far and just sounds unnatural. Like this particular story (Toni’s Two Dads) where Toni gets home from school and her mum’s not there her thought bubble says something like “Mum’s never late, what if someething has happened to her, I don’t have a dad so if I lose her I’ll have no one” this is obviously a clunky way of letting the reader know that Toni’s dad hasn’t been in the picture for a while and what teenager would start thinking her mum is dead the minute she’s not at home.

        1. I agree with the importance of dialogue – that does sound a bit clumsily done, there should have been other ways to get that across.

          1. Yes, I have read some really awful pieces of dialogue in girls’ comics. One of the worst offenders I have found was in the last episode of “I’ll Take Care of Tina!” from Mandy. Elaine Warnock is pretending to be friendly with Tina Marsden while she is in fact trying to get Tina expelled. It is all a conspiracy between Elaine and her father for him to land Mr Marsden’s job. At the end of the story, Tina finds Elaine out and then succeeds in exposing her to the headmistress. And then she says to Elaine:

            “It’a all over, Elaine. I’m sorry – I really mean that. I did so want us to be friends.”

            Oh, really. Is that what you would say to someone whom you thought was your friend was in fact your enemy?

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