22 Pages, mark this number down my friend, the bane of every writer who has a monthly gig – the industry standard story page count of a monthly issue of a comic book.
Filling up the said 22 pages is the subject of much head scratching, heartache and frustration – especially when the mind goes blank and the deadline comes a-knocking at the writer’s door.
My first gig was writing a series of one-shots for Virgin Comics called INDIA AUTHENTIC. IA told the myths and legends of the Indian pantheon and since there was no continuity from one story to the next, it was not the hardest thing in the world to write. Sure, given the number of versions of each myth and the fact that I wanted the stories to be a bit more than dry biographies, I put in a significant amount of work into treating the stories as sort of a secret origins kinda gig – every story tried to capture the theme that defines the dramatis personae for the world at large. So once I locked down the story, I’d just sit down and hammer out 22 pages.
Now the very next gig I got was an ongoing monthly – DEVI. Herein, o reader, my troubles began. A monthly comic book title (especially an ongoing one) is like a TV series. Each issue has to be reasonably enjoyable on a stand alone basis (at least that’s how my editor Ron Marz, quite astutely, wished it to be) and also forward the greater arc narrative. We also decided off the bat that we should not be too steeped in continuity to ward off new readers irrespective of the index of the issue they picked up as their first.
Oy Vey! It was very exhausting, but I like to think we (Ron and I) did manage to pull that off in the run we had on DEVI. Right off the bat we were so far behind deadlines (due to factors out of our control – I was moving back stateside after a year long sabbatical in India, Ron was taking over as Editor from Mackenzie Cadenhead etc. etc.). We had a couple of weeks to go from story to pencils and we didn’t have the plot. So during brainstorming session at Ron’s house, I floated the idea of starting off with a collection of three short stories about the main characters in the series – sort of explain their motivations and background. Ron, who taught me a lot during my run on DEVI and SADHU, instantly caught on to the idea and also suggested that we use framing pages at the beginning and end of the issue and in between the stories to sort of provide a narrative. Being a veteran of comic books, he understood the 22 page structure and how to navigate through them. So 3 stories, six pages each and 4 framing splash images. We had our 22 pages. We did some back and forth on the plot of the short stories and needless to say made our deadline.
Later as I started writing full 22 page stories, I had issues (pun not intended) with how much can fit into that. Again here Ron’s experience saved me from a lot of blunders. My first treatment for DEVI #12 had seven scene changes, so on an average every third page the narrative would shift to a different scene. I knew the story I wanted to tell from #12-#15 and was setting up a lot of the stuff here. But going over Ron’s redline I realized that, when read as a standalone issue, it was pretty confusing. So we talked and later came up with sort of a format for telling a 22 page story.
But before I get to that, I must touch upon another mistake most first timers are likely to make. When I submitted the second draft of the treatment, it was too decompressed. Ron’s note said something to the effect – “Now it’s dragging, every single item is getting a visual. The pacing was too much like Manga.” So as in everything else in life, the answer is in the Golden Mean.
So coming back to the format – a safe format for the 22 pages (Your mileage may vary, but this worked for me).
ACT I (Pages 1-4)
First 4 pages are ACT I. I usually either began with a splash or had 2-3 as a two page spread. This was setup. It was something I came back to later in the issue. For an arc beginning, I would use this page for a sequence that would serve as a springboard for the entire plot. For middle issues, this was where the dramatic kaboom sequence would go in to start things off with a bang.
ACT II (Pages 5-16)
ACT II was the next dozen or so pages or so (up to page 16-17). Page 5 cut from the opening action to the thick of the story and for 3-4 pages we set up the first obstacle of the story. So most probably on page 9 or 10 we’ll get the first glimpse of what really will our protagonist(s) be up against (we might’ve hinted at this in ACT I). Then on Page 9/10, I used to cut to something that was a continuation of the opening pages and for the next three pages use that to move the story forward. That takes us to Page #14. Page 15,16,17 then serve as the setup pages which bring the thread started in act I and the sequence that introduced ACT II together and positions everyone and everything for the finale / ACT III. If I planned on ending with a big fight scene, it usually would’ve started by page 15, so that the 16-17 double spread would be used up to show a great widescreen shot.
ACT III (Pages 17-22)
For ACT III, Page 18 and 19 usually were used to show the protagonist bouncing back and kicking some righteous ass. For more story driven issues 20 and 21 introduced / foreshadowed the next issues story and 22 splash was used as a cliffhanger.
It’s a simple structure, but I felt comfortable working with it. It meant I didn’t have to worry about pacing so much, since I knew where my act braks and plot points would be. Of course it is not a rigid formula nor is it a paint by numbers kind of thing. I used this as a rough guide and hope something like this helps you write a better 22 page story.
Till next time.
This is a repost from my “Nine Panel Grid” column at Comics Waiting Room. You can find other Nine Panel Grid columns here