Digging Your Grave One Shovel At A Time

” … brought me in to fine-tune the plan. I’m a details man – figuring angles, covering bases – that’s what I do. [… ] I’m pretty damn good at it.”

That’s how McCrae, called Digger, protagonist of Gravedigger, one of my favorite webcomics, describes himself. It’s an accurate description of the two creators as well: They are details men, and pretty damn good at it.

Me, I’m a details man at the receiving end. Movie, novel, TV show, or webcomic: Gimme the small but significant details!

Digger also asserts he is “one stylish son-of-a-bitch”, and again this can be said of each of the two creators as well.

Here ends the similarity: Digger wants his plans to go straight, smooth and steady; the creators want the plot as twisted as it gets, very tense, and fast-paced. Guess who wins!

This post will focus on what impresses me the most with Gravedigger, the diligence on details.

As I told you in Cooking Success With The Ingredients Of Failure, that’s the same thing I like the most in the novel The Silence Of The Lambs, so I’ll include examples from it as well.

But first, here’s another example (Minor Spoiler ahead) from Opportunities In Space:

  • On this page, we see a couple of ladies standing by a pool discussing where to have a party.
  • The most prominent feature of the page is the open panel in the middle right with a closer look on Sara Emmett saying:
    • “I know for a fact that Ben will not mind.”
    • This line is a subtle reminder that Ben has already met his fate, ahem, I mean there was a family emergency, and that Sara is only posing as his secretary, but really belongs to some group of (alleged?) terrorists.
  • Visual details support and enhance this line of dialog with wonderful effect:
    • That she breaks out of frame into the other panels emphasizes that she is the most important person on the whole page.
    • The washed-out red background alludes to her being an accomplice to murder.
    • In contrast, the positioning of her body in the frame draws attention to the fact that she’s wearing, well, let’s say, pool attire, proudly presenting her fine figure.
    • In one sentence, we see a dangerous evil that is well hidden behind a desirable body, a pretty face, and a friendly smile.
  • What’s more to wish for?

More to come, talking about Opportunities In Space, in futures posts.

Before I continue, I encourage you to check out the archive from Gravedigger. It contains two stories, The Scavengers and The Predators, of 28 respectively 48 pages.

Also, you may want to brush up on The Silence Of The Lambs.

Now, if you are back, or don’t mind the SPOILERS AHEAD, click for more, read on, and discuss.

Both Gravedigger stories, The Scavengers and The Predators, have well-crafted plots. They both start with a Cold Open, The Scavengers with Foreshadowing of the end, The Predators with an In Medias Res juxtaposed with the narrated set-up of the story. Both stories have plot twists galore, but where The Scavengers is fast-but-steady paced with continuously rising tension, The Predators races at breakneck speed from one action-packed scene to the next, more often joined by cliffhangers than by respites.

The Predators is, apart from flashbacks, one crazy series of actions of Digger fighting to escape his pursuers, first trying to flee from them, then, after getting caught, trying to break out and avoid the dire fate prescribed for him. It has not only great rhythm from page to page, but also a good structure that establishes a wonderful flow:

  • The first seven pages are the action-packed dramatic teaser. (Cold Open)
  • The next seven pages flash back; Digger explains how he got into that predicament.
  • Two more pages take things up where the teaser left. And how is this, mayhem and destruction, for an Act One Climax?
  • On the following nine pages Digger shakes off his pursuers, helped by a mysterious woman. The only time in the story he finds respite, and in her arms – and bed – at that. Alas
  • Another hide-and-seek game, until the Second Act closes with a daring escape that fails.
  • On the way to his atrocious end as alligator feed, he is bound both by rope and by superior numbers. He cuts through the former with a blade he’s been hiding, and cleaves apart the latter with persuasiveness and, of all things, truthfulness.
  • This paves the way to the final, climactic fight man against man.

It is fascinating how Digger manages to lose one after another of his pursuers, but with the number ever shrinking, the danger never does, until the very end.

Lets look into the details that are so carefully crafted:

In the first story, The Scavengers, we find

You will find other equally interesting details on your own.

The Predators, in addition to its masterfully crafted plot, has also many interesting details

Once again, you will find other equally interesting details on your own.

How are details used in a novel, more specifically in a thriller?

Thrillers (novels) are books that are, to use the full beauty and bravado of the English language, unputdownable. They come in two flavors:

    • Those that you race through in a hurry, always eager to know what comes next, but when you are done, you put them away to gather dust on your bookshelf or in your e-book reader.
    • Those that you will go back to again and again, rereading the whole or parts of it to appreciate the many subtle details hidden behind the fast-paced plot.

The best example for the latter category, in my opinion, is the novel The Silence Of The Lambs.

In the first chapter, Crawford tells Clarice:”Push Berry’s stuff off that chair and sit down.” In one of the last chapters, after she has killed Buffalo Bill and is back in Quantico, He dumped some reports out of a chair for her, before they start the debriefing. This shows very subtly how Clarice standing has changed over the course of the chase.

That she is able to shoot down Buffalo Bill is not just dumb luck or sheer willpower; she is the best in her gunnery instruction class. Indeed, the gun is mentioned again and again:

  • Brigham, her gunnery instructor, tells her to practice drawing her gun and make herself familiar with it.
  • Dr. Lecter gives Clarice advice about how to do alterations to her blazer to better hide the gun holster.
  • Her temporarily issued gun also makes her last talk with Dr. Lecter possible, because DOJ brasshole Kreidler can’t take away the ID she needs to take her gun aboard the plane, enabling her to bluff her way to the cage.

What happens immediately after she shot Buffalo Bill is described in astonishing detail:

“Starling on the floor, flashblind, ears ringing, deafened by the blast of the guns. She worked in the dark while neither could hear, dump the empties, tip it, feel to see they’re all out, in with the speedloader, feel it, tip it down, twist, drop it, close the cylinder. She’d fired four. […] She found the two good cartridges she’d dumped. Put them where? In the speedloader pouch. She lay still. Move before he can hear? The sound of a revolver being cocked is like no other. She’d fired at the sound, seen nothing past the great muzzle flashes of the guns.   […]  Careful, don’t get dust, don’t sneeze.  [..]  Starling’s cheek stung. She didn’t touch it, if it was bleeding she didn’t want her hands slick.”

Rather early on, the full dimension of Dr. Lectors inhumanity is demonstrated with one of the best lines of any thriller ever:“The doctors managed to save one of her eyes”,  from Dr. Chilton after he shows Clarice a photo of the nurse Lector almost killed. This simple sentence put the task of creating the incredible horror into the imagination of the reader.

And the deep dramatic core of the story, the psychological duel between Clarice and Dr. Lecter, is described in the novel as an intellectual chessgame that involves not only wit, which Dr. Lector barely acknowledges as valuable, but the whole spectrum of Clarice’s intelligence and determination. She recognizes that she cannot cope with his classical education, but she shows diligence, observation and deep insight into the problems that Dr. Lector discusses with her.

Asked whether she believes the offical assessment that he’s a pure sociopath, she answers: “I’m still waiting for the shallowness of affect.” He tells her “Buffalo Bill’s not a sadist, because … the bodies had ligature marks on the wrists, but not the ankles … [and] recreational flayings are always conducted with the victim inverted, so that … the subject remains conscious.”

He is so impressed by their discussion that he makes her a hidden compliment. “I sometimes forget that your generation doesn’t read,” meaning “You are so smart that I have to remind myself how intellectually superior I am”, the highest praise he could ever give.

The finer details in the novel also explain what screams Plothole the loudest in the movie: The escape of Dr. Lecter from the temporary imprisonment in Tennessee.

  • His makeshift handcuff key the result of many month of careful, clandestine preparations.
  • The astonishing relapse of the security in the Tennessee prison is the result of understandable human faults.
    • The officers of the correction facility are trained to evaluate the danger coming from a prisoner based on aggressiveness, state of agitation, resistance and unwillingness to comply with procedures.
    • Since Dr. Lecter is calm, polite, easygoing, and obliging, they cannot detect the danger that comes from the deep bottom of his soul.
    • Barney, the chief warden from Baltimore, is not there, because Dr. Chilton is confident that he can instruct the officers himself, but he does that in a very condescending manner.
    • The officers consider Dr. Chilton a troublemaker and decide to rely on their own judgement.
  • The consequences are horrible.

Back to webcomics:

All good ones are full of small but important details. I could go through my whole list of Wonderful Webcomics and identify examples. What examples can you come up with?

After several articles focused mostly on plotting, it’s time to look into visual mechanisms that make webcomic storytelling so compelling.

The next three weeks I will talk about different visual techniques that I find interesting and enjoyable, starting with next weeks Framing Fancy, Focused, Fast, And Furious, where I will use several webcomics as examples: Next Town Over, Trekker, Space Mullet, Lady Sabre & The Ineffable Aether, and also revisit Deep Dive Daredevils and Opportunities In Space.

You may use the time to catch up on those to be prepared.

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