(If anyone is interested, the full comic in this picture can be found here)
If you’re writing and drawing a “newspaper comic”-style webcomic, then it can be fun to add the occasional story arc to your comic. You’ve probably seen these in syndicated newspaper comics every once in a while – for example where the characters visit a new location or try a new activity.
Story arcs tend to differ from running jokes in that they often have a beginning and an ending rather than being something that turns up every now and then throughout the entire comic.
There are several reasons for including these in your webcomic every once in a while. Firstly, starting a story arc can be a good way to avoid writer’s block if you know where your next few comic strips will take place and what the general theme of them will be.
Secondly, starting a story arc can be a good way to add a bit of variety to your comic if you feel that it is getting stale. Thirdly, story arcs can be a good way to add a small amount of characterisation to your webcomic too. Fourthly, they’re just good fun to write.
Anyway, if you’ve never written/drawn a story arc before, here are three basic which might be useful:
1) Length: Generally, story arcs in daily syndicated comics tend to last for about five or six comic strips at the most. The main reason for this is that it covers about a week’s worth of newspapers (since the Sunday edition of the newspaper may have a different comic, may not include comics or may include a larger comic).
Although webcomics don’t really have this restriction, it can still be useful to keep your story arcs relatively short. The main reason for this is that, if all of your comics have to take place in a particular location or stick with a particular theme, you might find yourself running out of good ideas after a few comic strips.
Likewise, a story arc is meant to be an amusing novelty and/or something slightly different for your readers. If you keep your story arc going for too long, then the novelty value will probably start to wear off after a while. Keep it going for long enough and you’ll either have a new webcomic or a spin-off on your hands instead of a story arc.
Not to mention that, if your story arc revolves around an event that would only last for a few hours or a couple of days in real life, then devoting more than a few daily comic strips to it might seem slightly unrealistic.
2) Every comic strip still has to be self-contained: Since people don’t always buy a newspaper literally every day, having a story arc with an “ordinary” continuous story meant that someone who only bought a newspaper during the middle of the story arc might have been confused by the comic strip in it.
Before the internet, people had no easy way of looking at previous newspaper comic strips, so it was pretty much an unwritten rule that every comic strip in a story arc had to be able to be understood and enjoyed on it’s own.
This also meant that story arcs in syndicated comic strips didn’t have to be published “in order”. It also meant that newspapers could leave a comic out if they wanted to, without ruining the entire story arc.
Even though people can easily look at the archives of your webcomic, you should still follow this rule. This is because if people are confused by the very first comic strip that they see, then they are less likely to go back through the archives and read the whole of the story arc. Likewise, if people haven’t read your comic for a while, then they might not have the time to catch up on previous comic strips just to understand your most recent one.
Don’t worry, this is fairly simple to do. Either just add a short note at the beginning of each comic explaining the premise of your story arc (for example, during one story arc in “Damania“, every comic started with the words “Meanwhile in America…”) or make sure that the premise of the story arc is briefly mentioned in the dialogue of each comic strip (eg: “So, you’re a window cleaner?”).
You can also make the premise of a story arc clear to new readers through the settings, character designs and background details if you don’t have space to include a note or add a description to the dialogue.
In addition to this, jokes in your story arc can’t rely on the fact that people have read the previous parts of the story arc in order to work. If you have to include the events of a previous comic strip in order to make a joke work, then at least add a short explanation in the dialogue.
3) Locations, vocations and vacations: Because of the other two things I’ve mentioned in this article, it’s usually a good idea to come up with a fairly “open” idea for your story arc which can accommodate several self-contained comics easily.
Generally, this tends to mean that story arcs often tend to revolve around three things – namely locations, vocations and vacations (annoyingly, the word “holidays” doesn’t rhyme well in this context). In other words, your story arc can take place in another location, it can involve a character briefly finding their calling in life (or trying out a new hobby or job or whatever) or it can involve everyone going on holiday somewhere.
Obviously, story arcs can involve other things too (eg: current events etc…), but if it is your first story arc, then you’re probably best sticking to the three things I mentioned earlier until you get a sense of what does and doesn’t work as a story arc.
Sorry that this article was so short/basic, but I hope it was useful 🙂