Why Making A Comic “Unfriendly” To Readers Can Work Sometimes – A Ramble

Well, I thought that I’d take a break from talking about webcomics and talk about narrative comics instead. This is mostly because, whilst sorting through some of the stuff in my room, I stumbled across a rather cool graphic novel that I’d forgotten that I owned.

It’s a graphic novel from 2005 called “Silent Hill: Paint It Black” by Scott Ciencin and Shaun Thomas which tells a self-contained story that is based on the disturbing fictional world of the old “Silent Hill” videogames. This article may contain some mild SPOILERS though.

Suddenly discovering this graphic novel was both a cool… and mildly ominous… experience at the same time.

Anyway, one of the most interesting things about this comic is that it is very deliberately designed to be “reader-unfriendly”. In other words, this isn’t the kind of comic that can be read mindlessly in five minutes. And, surprisingly, it’s actually a better comic because it isn’t designed to be easily read.

This decision to make the comic “unfriendly” to readers mostly works because of the context. It wasn’t just a random decision that was made in order to appear “edgy” or “avant-garde”. So, the main lesson here is that context matters a lot when it comes to deciding how ‘reader friendly’ to make your comic. But, let’s look at some of the reasons why it works in the context of this comic.

Firstly, this is a horror comic based on a series of disturbing horror games. As such, the story needs to evoke a feeling of unease in the audience. So, making a comic that can be easily and quickly read without thinking about it too much wouldn’t really work in this comic. By including things like disturbing artwork, an unusual main character, a slightly bizarre storyline etc.. the comic is deliberately designed not to be relaxing.

Secondly, the occasionally bewildering story of the comic works well because it is a brilliant fit with the comic’s main character. The comic follows a homeless artist who ends up travelling to the haunted town of Silent Hill and living there. After a while, it quickly become apparent that he is more comfortable when surrounded by evil monsters than by people.

As such, some of the story’s more confusing and outlandish plot elements (eg: such as the arrival of a bus filled with cheerleaders at one point in the story) work because they make us question whether we’re seeing the “real” world or merely the main character’s anxieties, memories and nightmares. This is also heightened through the use of bizarre visual symbolism too – for example, any visitors to the town of Silent Hill that the main character sees appear as indistinct mannequin-like figures who are dressed in yellow overcoats.

All of this means that the reader also sometimes has to pause for a second to work out what exactly is going on. This approach to narrative is designed to make the reader feel like they’ve been dropped into a strange and dangerous place. If the story was a bit more logical or straightforward, or if the comic explained some of the symbolism a bit more, then this effect would be lost.

Finally, a lot of the art in the comic deliberately looks slightly “unfinished” too (eg: with visible sketching etc..). Not only does this reflect the fact that the main character is an artist but, in a stroke of genius, this “unfinished” art style is also combined with some rather slick-looking digital artwork. This visually-jarring blend of art styles helps to heighten the disturbing atmosphere of the comic surprisingly well.

This is a detail from “Silent Hill: Paint It Black” (2005) which shows how the artist has blended an “unfinished” sketch-like style (eg: the man’s hands and trousers) with more advanced digital effects (eg: the lights in the background)

Yes, the comic could have probably heightened this effect even more by using a more unique style of lettering than the “standard” type of lettering that appears in virtually every print comic. But, this small concession to readability actually sort of works since it focuses the reader’s attention on the events of the story. Even so, a more erratic and/or scrawled style of lettering would have also worked really well.

But, yes, sometimes making a comic “reader unfriendly” can actually work. However, it requires a lot of careful thought in order to get right. Not only do you have to take the context of your comic’s story into account, but you also have to make sure that you have a good reason for every reader-unfriendly thing you include in your comic.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

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Make Your Filler Comics Fun (To Make) – A Ramble

Well, at the time of writing, I’m busy making this month’s webcomic mini series. However, due to being busy with lots of other stuff, I had to work out a way to make a series of comics quickly and with relatively little effort. In other words, if I wanted to avoid an annoying webcomic hiatus, I needed to make some filler comics.

After thinking about making a series of studies of historical paintings (but with the characters from my long-running webcomic in them), I eventually settled on the idea of making a somewhat non-canonical series of large digitally-edited monochrome single-panel cartoons featuring my webcomic’s characters.

Once I thought of this idea, I suddenly planned out the first five comics (of a planned six-comic mini series) within the space of about fifteen minutes. Here’s a detail from the first comic update:

The complete comic update will be posted here on the 21st August.

The one thing that surprised me the most was just how much fun this comic update was to make. Initially, I was worried that the much more limited format would result in a disappointing comic update. A piece of obvious filler content that was barely better than posting no comics at all. Fortunately, I was wrong.

Since I didn’t have to worry about lots of complex digital editing (since digital editing is much simpler with monochrome art) and since I could make comics quickly, I suddenly found that I felt some of the spontaneity that I used to feel when I made much more primitive comic updates back in 2012/13. Knowing that I could make a comic update within the space of less than an hour felt liberating – and this had some positive effects on the comic.

For starters, the fact that I’d switched to a single-panel format meant that I had to rely a lot more on character-based humour. Since I couldn’t rely on longer set-ups for each joke, I had to focus more on the characters’ eccentricities when planning the comics. This gave these planned comics a lot more personality than many of my 4-8 panel comics from the past 2-3 years have had.

In addition to this, the single-panel format also meant that I had to focus more on things like visual storytelling and implied storytelling. Although this seemed like it would add extra complexity (and time) to the comics, it actually allowed me to do things like include different types of jokes and to come up with slightly sillier premises for each comic. This silliness also reminded me a lot of the comic’s earlier days too, and the joyous spontaneity and randomness that the comic had back then.

So, what was the point of all of this? Well, the best way to come up with good filler content for your webcomic is to go for whatever feels fun. If you can find a way to make your filler comics fun to make, then this will result in better comics.

Even if your filler content is somewhat “lazy”, then this won’t matter as much as you might think if it is fun to make. This is a bit difficult to describe, but fun can be an infectious quality. If your filler comic has badly-drawn art, but the humour and personality that comes from just relaxing and having fun, then the audience is more likely to overlook any visual downgrades you might apply to the art.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three Reasons Why Stories Can Have Alternative Endings

Although I’m not sure if I’ve talked about this before, I thought that I’d look at the topic of alternative endings today.

This is mostly because the webcomic mini series that is appearing here at the moment will have a somewhat different ending to the one that I’d originally planned for it (basically, the last five and a half panels of the mini series will be different to my original plans).

So, I thought that I’d look at a few of the many reasons why stories can have “alternative endings”:

1) Placeholders and backups: When you are planning a story, actually finishing the plan is often the most important part. So, having a mediocre “placeholder” ending that you can change later is better than having nothing.

Having an ending, even a crappy one, planned out in advance means that you don’t have to worry about writer’s block. It also means that, if you feel a bit more inspired, you can change it to something a bit better. In other words, it’s a backup in case you can’t think of a better idea. It takes some of the pressure off of you.

So, sometimes an “alternative ending” can just be a placeholder ending that is there to ensure that writer’s block isn’t an issue. Or it can be the result of feeling more inspired about halfway through telling the story.

2) Characters, tone and contrivance: Although I don’t want to spoil the ending of my mini series, I should point out that something didn’t quite feel right about my original planned ending. At the time, I couldn’t quite work out what it was – but something felt slightly “off” about my original plans.

A while later, I realised that it was because this ending wasn’t in keeping with the emotional tone of my webcomic. Although it seemed “clever” and “cynically humourous” on paper, it evoked exactly the opposite of the emotions that I’d been aiming to evoke in my comic.

In addition to this, I also realised that I’d tried to think of a “clever” ending at the expense of my characters. So much of the original planned ending felt like I was trying to shoehorn my characters into a story that they didn’t really fit into. In other words, it felt less like the story was emerging from the characters and more like I was barking orders at them and ignoring who they actually are. In other words, it felt extremely contrived.

Getting to know whether an ending fits in with your characters can take a bit of experience but, if something feels “off” about your planned ending then this can sometimes be a sign that it’s an ending which ignores how your characters would actually act, react, think or feel. And, if your planned ending feels like this, then it’s usually worth coming up with an ending that doesn’t.

3) Plot holes: Sometimes an ending needs to be changed because you’ve spotted a giant plot hole in your plans. If there’s some obvious reason why the original ending wouldn’t make logical sense or if it relies on an element of the story that falls apart if you think about it too much, then changing the ending can be a way to limit the damage caused by this.

Patching a plot hole by deliberately exposing it and then working around it can be a great way to add a more satisfying, amusing, dramatic etc… ending to a story than just ignoring the plot hole and hoping that your audience won’t notice it. It’s a way to respect the audience’s intelligence.

So, sometimes, a story can have multiple endings because a new ending needed to be created in order to patch a plot hole.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Four Very Basic Tips For Adding Foreshadowing To Detective Comics

Well, at the time of writing, I’m busy making a comedic detective-themed webcomic mini series that will appear here later this month. Here’s a preview of one panel from it:

The full comic update will be posted here on the 21st July. The mini series starts on the 20th.

Although the comic isn’t really a “serious” detective story, I thought that I’d talk about how to add “clues” to your detective comic. After all, one of the basic features of the detective genre is that there should be at least a couple of small hints about who did it before the criminal’s identity is revealed. This technically gives the audience a chance to solve the case before the detective does. But, when done well, these clues are often only really noticed on a second reading.

So, how do you foreshadow the ending of your detective comic? Here are four very basic tips:

1) Plan it first: This is obvious, but be sure to plan out the entire story before you start making the comic. The main reason for this is that, if you know how the story will end, then you can go back and add a few subtle clues to your comic plan before you start making any comics.

For example, after planning out the ending of my upcoming webcomic mini series, I suddenly realised that I could add a clue to an early part of the comic purely by changing one tiny visual detail. This was the sort of thing that probably won’t be noticeable until you know how the comic ends, but it seemed like a cool little detail.

So, yes, if you plan your comic first, then it’s a lot easier to add subtle foreshadowing to your comic.

2) Think procedurally: Simply put, the easiest way to add subtle clues to your detective comic is simply to think about the events of your story in practical terms.

Think about what would have changed about either the criminal or the surrounding area after the crime had been committed, but before the detective discovers the culprit. Then just subtly show this without giving an explanation (until later in the comic).

A good way to learn how to come up with things like this is to read some of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Sherlock Holmes” stories. Since these stories focus a lot on physical evidence and logical deductions, reading a few of them will make you think about the subtle knock-on effects of any actions that the criminal characters have taken.

3) Red herrings: Red herrings are “clues” that are either totally unrelated to the case or which have some other innocent explanation.

Often, the best way to hide a real clue is amongst several false ones – the real clue is technically still there, but it is up to the reader to work out which clues are real and which ones aren’t. And, since they’re still learning about the events of the story, this reduces the chances of the reader guessing the solution before the story finishes.

So, just add a few subtle visual details which look like they could be clues – but which are actually just random background details, easter eggs etc… This will distract the readers from the actual clues that you’ve also added.

4) Background details: One of the great things about comics being a visual medium is that it’s a lot easier to hide stuff in the background. Because comics tend to be read quickly on a first reading and because your audience’s attention will probably be focused on either the dialogue and/or the events of the story, this means that it’s very easy to hide subtle visual clues in the background that will only be noticed when your comic is re-read slightly more slowly.

In other words, be sure to use misdirection. If something dramatic, funny or interesting is happening in one panel of your comic – then this is the perfect place to hide a subtle clue in the background. After all, your audience will be too busy reading the dialogue, laughing at the joke and/or wanting to know what happens next to really pay attention to small background details.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Four Reasons Why (Even Fairly Good) Modern Print Comics Can Seem A Little Bit “Generic”

A few hours before I prepared this article, I ended up reading an actual honest-to-god paper comic (since it was included with a music magazine as a free gift). Not a trade paperback or a manga paperback or a webcomic, but an actual comic book (issue one of “Legacy Of The Beast” to be precise).

The surprising thing was that, although the premise of the comic is really really cool (it’s a comic from 2017 featuring Iron Maiden‘s mascot Eddie), my first thought was something along the lines of “this is a standard modern comic“. Since Iron Maiden are my favourite heavy metal band, I really, really wanted to love the comic but my reaction was just a muted “this is a good, but standard, comic“.

Yes, some elements of the comic’s premise were absolutely brilliant (eg: the hilariously subversive decision to make the comic’s devil-like villain use bland, conservative mainstream conformity as a weapon), there are some cool song references and some of the art looks really cool. But, so much of the comic just seemed… well… generic.

This is something that I’ve noticed often in what few modern print comics (from the past 15 years or so) I’ve read. So, I thought that I’d look at a few of the reasons why modern print comics can sometimes be a little bit on the generic side of things.

1) Lettering: This is a really small thing, but it makes a big difference. Simply put, it often seems like lettering in modern comics is a little bit too “perfect” – almost like it has been done using a computer font rather than by hand.

With lettering, the handwritten imperfections are what really gives it character. The occasional illegibility or “non-standard” characteristics of “imperfect” handwritten lettering show the audience that someone actually wrote the dialogue.

To show you what I mean, here’s a comparison of the “imperfect” lettering from a ‘Tank Girl‘ trade paperback from 1996 and the lettering in part of the “Legacy Of The Beast” comic I mentioned earlier.

[CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE] A comparison of the lettering in Hewlett & Martin’s “Tank Girl” with the lettering in “Legacy Of The Beast” by Leon (et al).

When lettering is too good, it often just looks like it has been typed quickly on a computer rather than written by hand. Yes, it’s possible that the lettering has been painstakingly written by someone who has spent years honing their craft, but lettering that is too good will often look like a standard computer font of some kind.

2) Humour/Attitude: What few modern comics I’ve read seem to have a fairly similar “attitude” to them. It’s kind of like they’re trying to be “cool” or “edgy”, but not too much. It’s like a sort of “PG-13” edginess. It adds a bit of attitude to the comics, but it often means that the emotional tone of many comics is at least mildly similar.

I understand why mainstream western comics do this. They need to be suitable for a general audience, not to mention that the legacy of the American comics code probably also plays a role too. Likewise, as similar as the sarcastic humour can often be, it does at least stop the comics from becoming too “grim” or “depressing” or anything like that.

But, at the same time, it also means that mainstream episodic print comics don’t really get as much of a chance to express their own personality in the way that things like webcomics do.

For example, take a look at a webcomic like Winston Rowntree’s “Subnormality“. The writing style and emotional tone of this comic are fairly unique – Rowntree writes dialogue in a way that seems both realistic and novelistic at the same time, with the dialogue often being slightly more slow-paced and conversational than the average mainstream comic:

This is a panel from “muZeM” by Winston Rowntree (2015) which contains slower-paced and more realistic dialogue.

The comic’s emotional tone is also a strange mixture of serious introspective drama, quirky eccentricity and occasionally hilariously subversive rapid-fire sarcasm.

Even a more “PG-13” version of Rowntree’s narrative style would still stand out from the crowd. Just because a comic has to be suitable for a general audience without being blandly inoffensive doesn’t mean that personality has to go out of the window too!

3) Tools and style: First of all, there’s nothing wrong with digital art. It’s an art form like any other. I mean, most of my own art includes digital elements. Digital tools are quick, versatile and practical. There is nothing wrong with digital art.

But, if it isn’t combined with a highly distinctive and unique art style, digital art can look a little bit too “perfect”. A lot of what makes traditional art so distinctive and unique are the small imperfections inherent in things like paints, inks etc..

When comics feature digital art that doesn’t really contain imperfections, then this has to be compensated for by adding uniqueness and personality in other ways.

This brings me on to the fact that a lot of the (relatively few) modern mainstream comics I’ve seen often use a vaguely similar “realistic” art style.

Yes, this allows for movie-style “immersion” and it allows for visual consistency in comics that may feature several artists. But, one of the things that really makes a comic stand out from the crowd is a more unique (and stylised and/or “unrealistic”) art style.

4) Heroic characters: I think that one of the reasons why I had a somewhat lukewarm reaction to the Iron Maiden comic was because it was basically a superhero comic in disguise. Yes, the comic contained a lot of fantasy elements and a few mild horror elements…. but it was still a comic about one powerful character fighting villains.

This style of story is popular because it’s relatively easy to write. Likewise, if you buy a comic in this genre, then you know what you’re going to see. So, there’s a certain level of reassuring standardisation. But, at the same time, this gets boring.

Many of the best comics I’ve read aren’t about one powerful hero saving the world or anything like that. For example, Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” comics may revolve around seven ancient deities – but they’re often background characters who appear in more novelistic stories about an assortment of other characters. Warren Ellis’ “Transmetropolitan” comics may focus on one character (and his assistants) trying to stop a corrupt politician, but he’s a hilarious drug-addled cyberpunk gonzo journalist who is at least slightly more likely to use words, gadgets or ingenuity than generic mindless violence to solve problems.

So, yes “heroic character fights the bad guys” storylines are probably one reason why many modern comics can seem a little bit generic.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three Basic Tips For Coming Up With Good Settings In The Horror Genre

Well, I thought that I’d talk about storytelling, settings and the horror genre today. This is mostly because I happened to re-watch an absolutely amazing horror movie recently, where a large proportion of the film’s scares come from the location that the film is set in. This reminded me of how important settings and locations can be in the horror genre.

So, I thought that I’d offer some basic tips for coming up with good settings for your horror novel, comic etc….

1) Isolation: I’ll start with the really obvious one. One easy way to make the settings in a horror story even scarier is to ensure that the main characters are cut off from the world, and therefore have to rely on their own wits to survive.

When setting horror stories in the present day, it’s also usually obligatory to point out that the setting in question has no mobile phone reception (in fact, this has been done in horror movies for almost two decades. See the 1999 remake of “House On Haunted Hill” for an older example).

By setting your horror story somewhere isolated, you not only increase the level of danger that the characters face but you also give your story an instant sense of direction and suspense too, since the characters have to find a way to either summon help or escape the location in question.

And, yes, the horror genre is one of the few genres where running away from danger is actually realistically presented as a sensible and heroic thing to do.

2) Symbolism and/or history: The best and most memorable settings in the horror genre are not only eerily mysterious (so that the characters, and audience, don’t know what to expect) but they will often reflect a deeper symbolic and/or historical horror in some way or another.

For example, the classic horror videogame “Silent Hill 2” (major plot SPOILERS ahead!) is set in an abandoned, fog-covered town that is filled with monsters. Every now and then, an air raid siren will sound and then the town will transform itself into a much creepier version of itself – with rusty walls, gloomier lighting and even creepier monsters. These monsters include things like a giant executioner-like character called “Pyramid Head” and creepy undead nurses.

In addition to this, there are lots of other creepy, but meaningful, details scattered throughout the town – such as an abandoned shop that contains creepy graffiti on the inside of the papered-up windows (which changes, depending on when you read it) or a mannequin that is dressed like the main character’s late wife.

All of these details might initially seem like they are just there to scare the audience, but they hold a deeper meaning for the game’s main character – they are all symbolic reflections of his own feelings of guilt about ending the life of his terminally-ill wife. For example, the undead nurses symbolise (amongst other things) hospitals and illness, Pyramid Head’s executioner-like appearance symbolises the main character’s judgment of himself, the evil version of the world represents the main character’s tormented psyche etc…

But, even if the setting of a horror story isn’t a direct reflection of the main characters, it is still important to include some kind of deeper horror too. Going back to the 1999 remake of “House On Haunted Hill”, a lot of the film’s horror comes from the fact that the film takes place in a derelict mental hospital that was run by a cruel doctor during the 1930s.

So, the additional horrors inherent in this setting include things like torture, outdated attitudes, psychological suffering etc…. Which are reflected in many of the locations within the hospital (eg: rooms containing scary-looking medical equipment that has been left to rust etc..).

The easiest way to add a deeper horror to the settings in a horror story is simply to give the location in question a creepy history. However, this alone isn’t enough. The design, style and notable features of the location must also be some kind of symbolic reflection (the more subtle, the better) of this horrifying history.

3) Unreliable locations: Another way to come up with terrifying locations for horror stories is simply to make the location itself a creepily unpredictable thing. If the main characters don’t know what to expect, or cannot even trust reality itself – then this will make the audience feel even more nervous.

The classic horror movie example of this is in “A Nightmare On Elm Street“, where almost all of the film’s horrific events take place within the main characters’ dreams. Not only does this setting give the horror a sense of chilling inevitability (since no-one can stay awake forever), but the focus on dream-like settings also means that the audience never quite knows what to expect. After all, literally anything can happen in a dream….

Likewise, a good comics-based example of this is Raven Gregory’s “Return To Wonderland”. This is an extremely disturbing (and grisly) horror comic that is based on ‘Alice In Wonderland’ (and is even creepier than a classic computer game with a vaguely similar premise called “American McGee’s Alice).

Since the main character in “Return To Wonderland” is plonked into an evil version of a familiar fictional location (Wonderland) – this comic’s setting also plays on the reader’s expectations too. Because the readers think that they know what to expect, they soon discover that can’t even trust their own memories of ‘Alice In Wonderland’ when horrific things start happening. So, the story is a lot less predictable, and a lot scarier, as a result.

So, the less predictable a location is, the creepier it will be. If the main characters cannot even trust the world around them, then your story or comic will be a lot scarier.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Two Basic Tips To Avoid Making “Bloated” Creative Works

Although this is an article about making art, making comics and writing fiction, I’m going to have to start by talking about computer games briefly. As usual, there’s a (vaguely) good reason for this that I hope becomes obvious later.

The day before I wrote this article, I ended up buying a modern re-release of a classic computer game (Quake), since it contained a couple of extra level packs that I didn’t own. But, I was genuinely shocked at how much larger the system requirements and file sizes were when compared to the original mid-1990s version of “Quake”. Although there are probably good reasons for this, when compared to the lean system requirements and file size of the original game, the modern re-release just seemed bloated.

This then made me think about how to avoid the same type of problem when it comes to making things like art, comics and writing. So, here are two basic tips:

1) File formats: One way to save memory, reduce loading times etc.. is simply to do some research into file formats. When saving digital copies of your work, choose the file format that works best for the practical purposes that you want to use it for.

For example, if you’re an artist or a photographer, then saving your images in a file format that includes less compression is probably only useful if you plan to make professional prints of them, or use them in professional settings. Likewise, if you’re making digital art, then keeping a higher-quality copy (since you don’t have a physical original) can also be very useful too.

But, if you’re just posting them on your website, posting them on social media, attaching them to an e-mail etc… then making a copy of the images that uses a more compressed file format (such as “.jpg”) will probably be much better. Yes, there will be a very slight loss in image quality (which will probably only be noticeable if you look very closely at the image), but the smaller file sizes are much more suitable for these practical purposes.

Likewise, some image editing programs – such as an open-source one called “GIMP” – even let you control the level of image compression when you save a file as a “.jpg”. But, MAKE A BACKUP COPY before you start experimenting with things like this. I cannot emphasise this enough!

These are the JPEG compression options in “GIMP 2.6” that appear when you save a file as a “.jpg”. You can change the level of compression by moving the “quality” slider.

As for writing – when writing drafts of these daily articles, I always save them as “.rtf” files. Since they don’t really include any seriously fancy formatting, this simpler file format keeps the file sizes a bit smaller and also means that, if I ever decide to use a different text editor, then all of my drafts will be compatible with it (since “.rtf” seems to be compatible with almost everything – unlike, say, formats like “.docx”).

So, do some research into file formats and choose one that works well for the practical purposes you’ll be using it for.

2) Planning and limitations: One of the best ways to stop art and comic from gobbling up too much time and effort when you are actually making them is simply to either plan it in advance or set yourself some limitations when you are actually making it.

For example, when I’m making my daily paintings, I almost always make sure that the paintings are the same size (18 x 18 cm, if anyone is curious). This small size means that, regardless of how detailed my art happens to be on a particular day, it’ll only take me 1-3 hours to fill an area of that size with art.

Likewise, when I’m making webcomics, I almost always try to plan them out in advance. I also usually set myself an informal limit for how long each comic will be (eg: most of my current webcomic mini series tend to be six comic updates in length). This stops my comic projects turning into bloated, unfocused open-ended things. The additional planning also allows me to refine the dialogue, panel layouts etc.. at an early stage, whilst also ensuring that I won’t be troubled by writer’s block when I’m actually making the comics too.

With prose fiction, the best way to reduce bloatedness is – of course- editing your fiction after you’ve written it. But, setting yourself an informal word limit or making some basic plans when you’re writing short stories etc.. can sometimes be a good way to keep the narrative focused in your first drafts.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂