WRITING THE PLOT PART ONE

A few house-keeping points before we go into this week’s column. 1: I’m still looking for some good questions from you guys, letters to comment on, etc. So get busy and start writing to me at (Jason, add in my silver bullets email address). 2: There hasn’t been much activity on the “What The Hey!” message boards. So get busy there, too. And finally, 3: C’mon over to my site at www.marvwolfman.com. There’s always something new to see.

From time to time over the past 38 weeks we’ve talked about writing. We discussed working up your concepts into a coherent story. We’ve discussed theme vs. plot. We’re now ready for some nuts and bolts. Below you will see some pages from my plot for The New Titans #109. I wish I had lots of my old Titans plots around, but, unfortunately, they don’t exist on any computer disk I can access and once a story is in print I don’t keep any paper copy of the plot.

I’d been building a story for several months that dealt with Starfire trying to come to grips with all the changes in her life. Bill Jaska (more on him below) and I talked about John Campbell’s ideas concerning The Heroes Journey and I wanted to have Starfire go through that journey by literally being locked in a cave, as Campbell talked about, until she worked out her problems. The story was about her and nobody else. Kory needed to grow up.

I want to thank Paul Levitz and Terri Cunningham at DC for giving me permission to print some of the plot pages here. The Titans plot and all the characters is © 2003 by DC Comics, all rights reserved.

Here we go. First, as is my custom, I usually write a short note to the artist. Sometimes it’s just to keep a dialogue going between us, sometimes it’s to impart information. This plot was intended for artist Bill Jaska who had just taken over the Titans. I’d worked with Bill previously on “Sable” over at First Comics. Bill was a controversial choice but I wanted to work with an artist who was 360¾ from George Perez because I felt many of the artists who followed George were put into the uncomfortable position of trying to emulate his style, which was unfair to them. George is the best George Perez you’ll ever find. The other artists needed to come out from under his shadow and bring a new interpretation to the Titans. When I saw Bill’s pencils I was blown away. His story-telling was wonderful. The characters were definitely the Titans but re-interpreted just the way I wanted. Unfortunately, the inks hurt the pencils and the book never looked as good as when I saw the originals. Still, Bill’s work was truly excellent and I’d work with him again in a heart beat. The man tells a great, emotional story.

Anyway, my short note to the artist:

THE NEW TITANS #109

Bill, I’m really excited by the talks we’ve been having. By your enthusiasm and asking for it, you’re bringing in a wonderful feeling of complexity and depth of character that we’ve needed. I just wanted to say thanks. Now, on with the first draft of this story. Let’s talk about this one, unless, of course, it’s, ahem, perfect as is. Yeah. Right.

Second note--occasionally, on some pages, you will see a / mark. That is for me to gauge how many panels are on the page and to give you an idea what I think the panel breakdown may be--you don’t have to follow it. It’s just there so I know I’m not putting 92 panels on a page that looks heavy. Break the pages down as you wish, just keep the intent alive.

That sets the stage. George and I lived within a few blocks of each other and were able to talk about each story before we began it. Bill lived in a different State and we could only talk ver the phone which is not the most personal way of doing things.

We now go to page one. My plots tend to say exactly what I envision which comes, I think, from my art background. I see every panel and page as a piece of art and I can imagine exactly how it should look. Were I a better artist, or even a competent one, I’d do the layouts or draw the thing myself. I’m not and I can’t, so I try to explain what I want and yet make it so the artist feels I’m leaving enough room for him to interpret the ideas as best he can. It’s important, vital actually, that writer and artist be a team. That’s what I, and every writer I know, strives for.

The plot continues:

1: Please note the splash will be at the END OF THE ISSUE, NOT THE BEGINNING. Let’s keep the panels STRAIGHT UP AND DOWN FOR THIS STORY--to make them feel claustrophobic to ‘echo’ the cave situation. It will open up at the end when Kory achieves her freedom again. Multiple panel first page. Begin with complete darkness. Then we see a hand lights up, Kory’s hand. Then a starbolt hits a rock somewhere on the cavern floor and the rock shines faintly, casting a subdued, warm glow luminescence throughout the cavern. Essentially ,Kory has heated up the rocks so they glow like coals. Still weak, she looks at her hand as the light surrounding it fades. The faint glow on her face indicates she is resigned to what is happening...she is losing her power here in the absolute dark, so deep in the earth and away from the sun. She won’t talk, but captions will talk for her conveying what doesn’t come out through the art.
Right from the beginning I’m trying to set up mood. The subtle mood is the vertical panels which, as I say, should give a claustrophobic feel to the story. I also wanted to use Kory’s powers to affect her environment; the cave is pitch black but she has solar powers and can use them, if only for awhile. This page clearly shows what she can do and yet also shows her limitations. She is away from the sun that powers her and because of that she is becoming weaker and weaker throughout the story.

We now have a brief flashback to an issue from a few months before and then we move on.

2: There is a single picture of Raven ‘kissing’ her, planting the Trigon seed within her--the evil is within her, captions will say. Planted by the dark side of what had once been a friend. But the friend is dead, leaving only the dark soul of an otherworldly demon. / She holds out her hand and a single finger glows. Then, aiming her finger at her face, she fires a thin line of starbolt power and she draws a line down, the mini-starbolt cuts into her cheek, blood comes down. / She does the same to the other side. Blood is the life-fluid. To purge all darkness she must freely let. / She holds up her hair in one hand, and with her starbolt shears off most of it. Not all, but most, so it’s short cropped and jagged...she’s firing bolts, not barber shears. Make the scene of her holding her miles-long hair very dramatic.
The above is the core of Kory’s problem, but is only PART of what the story is truly about. We’ll come to that later: Right now Kory believes there is an evil inside her and it is part of the reason she is putting herself through this Tamaranian ritual of self-discovery. Tamaranians live through their emotions. Logic rarely plays into their lives, so it makes sense to strip her down to her base emotions, turning her into a barbarian in order to build her up again. But note we do this visually. Kory doesn’t talk about what she’s doing; she just does it. If I have a problem with today’s comics it’s that it’s all talk, talk, talk. Comics is a visual medium. The rule of thumb should be show, don’t tell. We go on:

3: She uses her finger now without the starbolt to wipe the blood into a mask around her eyes. A caption will say if she survives Kynasf’rr and re-enters the sun, the wounds will heal. If she is not, she will die so nothing else matters. / She now holds out her hands a foot or so from her face, palms out, with her fingers splayed, and her hands begin to glow. Her hand crackles. / Kory’s face looks frightened. Is she ready for this, she wonders? What if she does this wrong? Kory never did Kynasf’rr when she grew up. She only knows this through instinct. She was never taught it because she was sold into slavery before she reached the correct age. / Her hands glow brighter, sparks flying off them. She looks afraid, very scared now, she wants to purge the evil of Raven and understand what happened, but she could kill herself. / Close on Kory, sitting lotus style in the middle of the cave for a last panel--and if she dies, the evil that is within her will escape. Raven’s seed will be unleashed. It will not die with Kory because her essence will be covered by a chrysalis where it will germinate and erupt fully grown. Her hand sparks then fades. She is too afraid to continue, she thinks, lowering her hands. Not yet, she thinks. Soon. She will do it, even if she is afraid.

This story is about a character who is facing her greatest fear. I like to test my characters; always have. Heroes show us how to be better because they face, no matter how hard it may be, their worst fears. We go on:

4: Her face looks tired as she sits cross-legged in the center of the cavern, by the glowing coals, and wearily thinks about Kynasf’rr, the Tamaranian ritual of self-understanding, a starvation and sensory depravation ritual. She closes her eyes, her head lowers, and she goes to sleep, allowing her strength to drain out from her. During all this captions will explain what is happening, how she is preparing for a total cessation of all powers, complete sensory depravation and starvation. / Her head lowers. She sleeps. The coals over this page are dimming. / The third panel is black. / The coals re-ignite by a single strand of starbolt. / It is two days later although even Kory has no way of knowing how long has passed. Kory looks very weak here, her hair matted. It falls in her face. / Her face is still masked by her blood, her hand feels her stomach...she is very hungry. Her eyes indicate how tired she is. The coals are dimming. Captions will talk about what one must do to prepare for Kynasf’rr. She is no devoid of all solar power. She is tired. Hungry. She knows she has to try again.
We have our hero act as any of us would. Kory hesitates putting herself through this ritual, but now there is no doubt that she will. This is a story that both limits the visual possibilities of comics and yet plays to them. Kory doesn’t move much throughout the issue; she’s trapped herself in a dark cave. Yet we can play with the ability of comics to create and suspend time by the positioning of panels, by the use of repetitive panels to show an action. You’ll see more of that next week at the end of the story.

But now let’s skip a few pages which shows Kory going through a flashback of her life, as it relates to the current events. With the important information given, we return to the present:

8: She’s lying unconscious in the cave. / Suddenly an astral image of her rises from where she was lying, her real, corporeal body still on the ground. The room is stark white. Nightwing is in front of her now where he wasn’t before. / He says he loves her, he needs her, he’s reaching out for her to take his hand. He will show her the way. He will guide her. / Kory reaches out when Komand’r, behind her, calls out, “NO!” / Kory turns to her sister. Komand’r punches her down with a massive blow. Kory falls back in pain. / Komand’r kicks Kory who is trying to back away on the ground. And all the while Komand’r says do that and you will be enslaved.

We now come to the crux of the real story we’re telling here. Our plot is supposedly about Kory trying to purge herself from the Trigon seed, but the story beneath the surface is really about Kory facing her own emotions and especially those concerning herself and how she’s dealt with the man she loves. Since the book premiered in 1980, Kory had been in love with Dick Grayson. However, Kory is a Princess on her planet and must follow the dictates of her father, the King. Dad sold her into slavery once in order to assure peace on Tamaran. Kory went willingly with her Gordanian slavers. Later, Pops insisted she marry the Prince of Tamaran’s Southern hemisphere in order to unite their world. This was not a problem for Kory because on Tamaran love and sex can be separated, and this was considered a marriage of State and not of heart. The Prince and Kory would mate only once to put a seal on the marriage, but both intended to return to their true loves. Unfortunately, this proved to be a major problem for Dick who could not get his head around such concepts. If the girl he loved was married to another, there was no way he could be with her. His human upbringing would never allow for this, to him, very alien idea. Since Kory’s marriage, her relationship with the man she loved had fallen apart.

Although the readers hated that storyline because, I guess, it somehow violated comic book romance laws, I believed in it. It absolutely put two characters who truly loved each other at odds with each other. Not because of some silly comic book plot point, but because of basic human emotion. Both characters acted 100% in character and by being themselves they created their own problems. To me this was more real than almost anything else I had ever written. Despite the universal protest on this plot point, I’d do it again, but I’d probably set it up differently to let the readers see where I was going, to pave the way so they’d be ready for it, and then to offer hope of a better resolution somewhere down the road. But I’d still do the story. We go on:

9: Dick says he loves her. He needs her. She needs him. She has since she arrived on Earth and kissed him and instantly learned their language. On Kory’s other side, the confused Kory who wants to go to Dick but holds back hears Komand’r say that Komand’r has always been her enemy. I am your dark side, yet listen to me. / Go to him and you become like our father. You become weak. You give up the warrior within you that is what Tamaran is all about. Dick seems smaller now, more in the distance--he calls to her. / Go to him, Komand’r repeats, and you surrender everything. Komand’r reaches out and says you cannot conquer the evil within you if you are weak. You may hate me, but I am your strength. I am what Tamaran was. Dark, cold, barbaric. / Look at you--you’ve become like our father. / Kory shouts--Father was good. He saved our world from being destroyed. / Komand’r says Father was weak. He sold us into slavery. And slavery is worse than death. Surrender to Dick and you become what Tamaran is, weak and civilized. Only the strong can remain unshackled and free. / Last panel Kory looks, but Dick is gone...nothing stands before her, nothing answers to her calls.
Remember, this is all in Kory’s mind which makes the revelation all the more amazing. Kory has turned her sister, someone she has fought with on a regular basis, someone who had tried to kill her as well as conquer her world, into her conscience. Her personal Jimminy Cricket. Komand’r, not Dick, not even Kory herself, is reminding her what it is to be Tamaranian. This means that Kory knows deep down that she has strayed from her roots. That, to be with Dick, she has forsaken who she is. For a good relationship to work both parties must accept the other for what they are. Kory, allowing her emotions to overwhelm her, tried to submerge the person she is to become the person she thought Dick would accept. Obviously this could never work because neither party is being truthful to the other. Without even understanding why, Kory subconsciously recognized what she had done to herself and was using this ritual to force her unconscious conscious. Again, stories are not about plot. The plot is the device one uses to tell the story. Stories are about and will always be about people.

We will continue this next week. See you in seven.
-Marv Wolfman

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