I’ve been thinking lately about the amount of time and preparation it takes to formulate a story, big or small, long or short. Regardless, I’ve found that no matter how in-depth the work is, some kind of foundation (or theme) has to be laid down if the story is going to be taken seriously.
By taken seriously, I mean that regardless of the genre or end goal, the effort and time is still being invested in it. It’s almost like making food. No matter how intricate or ingredient heavy the dish is, you’re still putting the time in to cook that dish.
So, with that in mind, I’d like to open the floor for discussion. How important is foundation laying to you? Is it your first or your last thought? Do you have to have that set foundation before starting, or does it develop as your story develops? What aspects of story writing are the most important to you, and why do you find them important?
(PS: You can either answer the questions or diverge to your liking. Just plz don’t go too far off topic!)
The most important ingredient, to me, is genuinely caring about what you're creating. I'm not even sure my story HAS a theme or foundation. But I care about my characters - I want to show their true emotions as they go through whatever they go through. I want to make their reactions believable, so that they start to feel like real people that readers can connect with.
Once you manage that, I don't think it matters what the actual story and subject matter is. Harry Potter, for example, isn't about the magic, it's about characters who feel genuine enough that you start to emphatize with them. And then, the more time you spend with them, the more they start to feel like actual friends and family. Though it can also apply to short stories, where characters go on little journeys that change the way they think, and those "feels" have a solid impact on you.
It may seem "sad" to connect with fictional characters as though they are real people, but I dunno man, that's the stuff that keeps me coming back to the stories I love most.
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For me, a strong foundation is a must. I won't start writing a story without knowing exactly where it's going and why. Writing without purpose is a story-telling faux pas. It can work in some contexts, like in TV shows where the status quo is restored between episodes, but to tell a coherent story, you need the components that make it consistent.
Since much of my work is derivative, the stories I choose to tell have something about them that I feel makes them worth telling. My current comic is probably the best example of this; Spelunky is a game that only loosely has a story. The game's style is more arcade-like and it doesn't have any real narrative. Applying a storyline to its elements is what inspired me to write it. If I didn't have a story in mind, I never would have bothered, and it wouldn't be as good as it is.
It's not to say you can't start off something willy-nilly. Writing like that tends to be very character-driven, which is good because letting the characters control the action feels natural and avoids illogical plot concessions. But you may eventually reach a time where the reader wonders what the point of the whole thing is, and that leaves you with a conundrum: do you try to tie it all together, or just stay the course? Doing the former may cause earlier events and arcs to appear as fluff. Doing the latter may cause readers to lose interest as it becomes clear that the story has no real direction. It's tough, but it is good practice, at least.
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If you want to write a story and not a gag-a-day comic, then yeah, you need a foundation and a plan for that story. Writing can be hard and it requires a lot of planning: main events, how you get to these events, the outcome and the timeline of these events. They need to happen in a logical order. Sometimes you have to drop a few of them.
Characters all need to have a backstory to them and sometimes you have to help the reader tell why they act the way they do, by hinting here and there.
All good stories have a depth to them. Pulling them off is even harder.
Logically, you want to have some theme in mind. You want to build up the world and at LEAST the major characters' backstories, and establish why we're reading the story (Is it a coming of age story? What are the challenges being overcome? Is it a villain? and if so, why is the villain villaining?) It keeps your plot consistent and less like people blindly bumping into walls. It also gives you the opportunity to plan more "foreshadowing" details earlier on.
Yet at the same time, I feel like some of my favorite parts came from completely improvising a story based on what "felt right" for the characters and the current situation... They never felt forced and sometimes even surprised me! Plus, I get bored when I plan too much. Drawing feels more like a job, then.
But it's terribly risky and also creates so many possible plot-holes and inconsistencies and blarg. They sometimes came off as immature and the plot would jerk around a bit. Surely there is a perfect balance in-between??? Like creating an idea with key scenes, then improvising in-between???
I like to have a rough idea of what the point of the current arc is, where the next week or two of episodes is going, and what story beats I want to hit in the current episode, before writing. Anything more than that, and I tend to fall into the trap of procrastinating through overplanning. Any less, and I can easily end up with an episode is uninteresting, has bad pacing, or in the worst case pushes the story in an awful direction.
I'm actually fixing a major mistake from my original run right now that resulted from bad planning, where what I thought would be a cute sidestory to keep one character busy resulted in a major uncomfortable tone shift, which I quickly realized I had to cut short a couple episodes in. Thank goodness I have a chance to edit things this time around, but it's still proving a little tricky to pull off. It's writing equivalent of surgically removing a malignant tumour, after all.
With whatever I write, I need to have at least the basic layout planned out first. I tend to get very lost and stuck without throrough planning, which is why all my other projects before Beyond fizzled out. Right now, I have every future page of the comic loosly planned, and I feel very comfortable. I like knowing where things are going!
It's a balance, especially with comics.
On one hand, comics are a visual media, so they do need somewhat comprehensive and understandable visuals elements. On the other, story is just as important. These two things balance each other out.
To OP's analogy to cooking, a lot of really good dishes are made simply and have simple ingredients. It's very easy to ruin a simple dish by something as simple as too much salt or too much pepper, by substituting a key ingredient with a lesser quality ingredient or something else altogether. That's not to say that more complicated things aren't good or enjoyable, gumbo is delicious, all the ingredients blend together very well but it's still very easy to mess up. But let's say you're making chicken noodle soup, but instead of using chicken or vegetable stock, you make the soup broth using pork bones. The taste will be completely different, and it won't be chicken noodle soup.
Now, relating that to stories, think of all the stories that have very similar themes but are classics or memorable. At the very base, they can generally be summed up very simply, but may have very complex themes and subplots.
Going back to cooking, you can make a very simple chicken noodle soup, with minimal ingredients and it can be enjoyable and a hearty meal. However, if you add additional ingredients and they work, you can make a complex, but still enjoyable chicken noodle soup, possibly an even better meal.
In writing, these ingredients can be summed up as simply as: characters, setting, themes, plot, conflict, climax, resolution. Most stories have these ingredients, and gradually add on (moral, tone, point of view, etc.). Some additions work, some additions don't work. Some additions would work better if they were added or handled differently.
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I know the major points of the plot to my story to the end. It didn't take that long to conjure up, a couple months, but it helps that this story takes place after a story that I have been working on for more than a decade. Despite this I don't think you need to work that long to get started on a story. Especially in terms of every meticulous detail of the characters and the more trivial components of the world. In fact, I think a lot of comic book artists and authors in general work this way. The guy who created Jojo's Bizarre Adventure said he had the loose idea for the story in mind, but every chapter was basically improvised. He let the story unfold naturally and it came out fantastic.
The more stories I make, the more I realize that I NEVER seem to have enough of the foundation laid before I actually start creating it. Or maybe it's that I DO have a good foundation, but then suddenly come across a PERFECT spice that makes the story sooooo much better, so now I have to use different spices later on in the story, instead of what was originally planned. I have a 'recipe', if you will, of major events that will happen, and an end goal, but those can taste quite differently from what I first imagined once I finally get there! That's actually sort of how I make actual food... Now I'm really hungry.
To be honest, I really haven’t done much prep work other than the Comic description inside the Comic Profile section. I have a basic idea in my head what my characters will do. I normally don’t write any big elaborate scripts. Sometimes some modicum of research is required but, that usually has more to do with what I draw than the story that I tell.
Other than that, I feel that I’ve been blessed with the story just, sort of flowing out as I go. Someday, I know, that I’ll be doomed with writers block, but so far, that hasn’t happened. (knock on wood.)
Perhaps, because of that, my characters are rather shallow. Maybe more of the character will come out in future comics and no big catharsis is necessary.
Although I do foundation work, like drawing maps and making character sketches, I do not decide a story's theme ahead of time. If I do that, I have the tendency to try and force events, dialogue, etc, to go the way I want it to go, to reinforce the theme, rather than letting these things go the way they ought to go. So I let the theme arise out of the story rather than trying to develop a story based on a theme.