Plotting

Opportunities You Should Not Miss

After mucking around with (imaginary) TV shows, I’m overdue to write about webcomics again.

When Chapter 8 begun, when the pacing accelerated and the plot started to pay off promises made in earlier chapters, I noticed that in many posts about the Opportunities webcomic I have written about individual pages, panels, or specific techniques, but never given a broad overview.

It’s time to present the large-scale picture and praise the excellent storytelling of Opportunities.

tl;dr -> Opportunities is a great comic: Go read it now!

If you haven’t read the comic yet, nor any of my previous posts, here’s a summary:

Opportunities, created by sincerely and Elliwiny, is about a posse of professional assassins posing as proper businesspeople negotiating with alien spacefarers, because they want to extort a means of space travel to leave Earth behind for good, and about those who stand against them. (See the blurb!)

Be aware that this post contains some SPOILERS; Yet another reason to read the comic right now.

Evolution

Like many webcomics, Opportunities is being created over the course of several years (even if the story itself takes places in just five days). It is no wonder that writing and art improve over time.

That said, since the story has been written – or at least drafted – in its entirety beforehand, from the very beginning the plot is rock-solid, the pacing is great, the character voices are distinctive, and the dialog is snappy and poignant. Everything goes from very good to truly excellent.

The way the story unfolds and is presented is strongly reminiscent of TV shows. This leads to another kind of improvement, as the story builds up a stronger foundation and gathers steam with each chapter, like the episodes of an excellent serial show. (It also means that if you are into great TV drama, you should really have a look at Opportunities.)

One improvement that is more marked than these is the way Opportunities handles exposition. The first two chapters contain quite a bit of expository dialog that feels slightly artificial, but in the later chapters dialog that performs similar function works seamlessly and sounds natural.

Similar to the writing, the art improves over time, but it is very good from the start. The artistic expression becomes even more versatile, even more powerful, and even more intense.

Art

Disclaimer: I’m not an artist or art expert, which means I’m talking out off my a** here.

The art of Opportunities is really good. Compared to the intense black-and-white, gray-scale, or limited palette look of noir detective or dark sci-fi comics, it has a rather laid-back quality, and compared to gloriously colorful fantasy comics, it is a lot more accessible. It is also easy on the eyes in the usual as well as in the strictly literal sense; Places look like places you’d like to be in, people look like people you’d like to be with (in case you’d like to be with ruthless criminals).

The faces and figures of both humans and aliens all look great, believable, adorable, and distinct.

The art quality is very consistent, and the art is always there to serve the story.

On some special occasions the art is unusually fancy and breaks out of the story to highlight character moments and to give the reader something extra to think about.

Page & Panel Layout

Most of the pages have standard rectangular panels arranged in a regular grid. Panel size and grid layout are varied deliberately to emphasize particular story elements and to support rhythm and pacing. Sometimes a layout with many small panels is used for dramatic interpersonal moments, which works well, makes the drama intense, and gives the distinct feeling of an excellent TV show. Often, there are inserts or overlays showing a character’s face in close-up or some important small detail. Sometimes important objects are placed on top of the panel layout.

World Building

The world-building is consistent and supports the story very well.

Since the story takes place in a world that looks a lot like today’s, with a couple of aliens and a few spaceships added, it doesn’t need to be extraordinarily extensive or mind-blowing.

Make no mistake, the focus on the mundane, if lush, business environment is a feature, not a bug; it creates the perfect stage for the amazing characters to act.

Characters & Characterization

The best feature of Opportunities is, without question, its incredible cast.

(You may remember that I dedicated an entire blog post to finding real-life actors that would play Opportunities’ cast in a hypothetical TV adaptation.)

There’s the bunch of human assassins:

  • Sara Emmet is one of my favorite femme fatales in any medium, and one of my favorite female character in general. Headstrong, ruthless, irascible, charming, manipulating, luxurious, and drop-dead (in a figurative and a literal way) sexy: You name any quality you can admire in a woman (who is one ocean and one continent away from you), she has it.
  • Jack Frost sees himself as the cornerstone of the team. He’s still very much infatuated with Sara, even since it’s been a long time since they were lovers, and she’s clearly moved on, long ago, and multiple times. But he still believes that deep in her heart she still loves him. Nobody else shares these beliefs, so you might call him delusional. He’s a loose cannon, but his unpredictability can give him a great tactical advantage. If you ever need an excellent action hero with a big heart and a violent mind, call Jack!
  • Dr. Stone is the evil mastermind. He’s good a reading people, analyzing situations, planning and directing, leading a team, and solving technical as well as interpersonal problems. In what’s truly extraordinary storytelling, none of these qualities is an Informed Ability, rather, every single one is actually shown in action. I’m not sure I’ve seen anything comparable since Gus Frings and Mike Ehrmantraut in Breaking Bad.
  • Baron is the most mysterious character. He knows how to prick on people to get them where he wants them, and to put people in places they’d rather not be, and he can kill swiftly and without remorse, all of which is as highly commendable in a fictional character as it would be deplorable in a real person. But he enjoys doing so to a degree that can compromise his professionalism. Dr. Stone says they can rely on him; So there’s that.
  • Atticus is an alien who serves as the tech guy for the team. The great thing about him is that he combines the typical hacker working habits with an uneven team player attitude and an adorable nerdiness.

Then there are the alien security officers who they have to fight against:

  • Kyan is the leader of the security team. She is well characterized as the most professionally competent protagonist, but she is also the most conflicted, which makes for great drama. It is a testament for the author’s storytelling prowess that her conflicts doesn’t come from psycho-rabble-babble, but from the serious problems inflicted on her due to political requirements for keeping up peaceful appearance that are at odds with security concerns.
  • Rex is her subordinate, who loves to make fun of Kyan’s seriousness. He has a rather laid-back attitude when it comes to security, and prefers to check out the women at the pool instead. Of all things, his peculiar interest in Sara’s fine feminine figure makes him realize that there is some deep deception going on.
  • Nathan is pretty much Rex’ buddy, classically different in attitude and temper.

Two supporting characters have an important function and interaction with those two groups:

  • Marco Santiago aka Cortez is an employee of Pursuit International, the organisation the assassins want to infiltrate. He’s well characterized as an incredibly suave hispanic gentleman (not my words, mind you, but certainly accurate) and becomes Sara’s lover, smokescreen, and manipulation target. The relationship is well depicted, and we get to love him enough to become severely impacted when his interaction with the assassins will get him in harm’s way.
  • Vigi is an alien of a unique species in the comic. She has a history with Kyan, which made them deadly enemies. She tries to expose the Pursuit business deal as fraud with corruption, and gets in the crossfire of the fight between the assassins and the alien security force. She is funny, sometimes almost a comic relief character, but she is characterized seriously, has agency, and if her actions betray more enthusiasm than professional tradecraft, that is her problem, not the author’s fault.

Finally we have a supporting cast of excellent characters who give additional richness to the story. (Remember how much Breaking Bad profited from its great supporting cast?)

Action, Drama & Comedy

Opportunities has an excellent mix of action, drama, and comedy.

After the flash forward at the start which shows us that there will be murder, mayhem, and explosions later on, we see only occasional action until chapter 8, but when we see it, it’s well choreographed and depicted. Opportunities’ focus is rather on drama, and it’s the kind of drama that comes with slow build-up. There’s constantly increasing tension as the plot gets more complex and intertwined, and the reader gets sucked into the story more and more.

There’s great humor mixed into action and drama: Some slapstick, some wordplay, some dramatic irony, but mostly character humor of the finest variety. It is always well-placed, and never undercuts the drama, but more often than not supports and strengthens it.

Plotting & Pacing

Plotting has been done with great skill and dedication: The plot thickens continuously, there are multiple plot strands interwoven and feeding into each other, things get a lot more complex in a very natural way, but the plot always makes sense, and the reader can develop complete trust into the writer’s ability to keep up.

The are numerous twists and surprises, even though the reader is let in on most of the protagonists’ secrets early on; there are only a couple of mysteries, but there is plenty of intrigue. You don’t see this done so well very often.

Pacing is always difficult with webcomics, and so it takes some effort to get into the groove with Opportunities. Once this effort has been expended, the reader will notice that the pacing is really good, there is a rhythm that flows very naturally, and the switch between fast moments, tense moments, and quiet moments is always smooth.

Dialog & Depiction

The dialog is well-written. Each character speaks in their own way, there’s lively back-and-forth in conversations and discussions, emotional state and thinking process are revealed, the aliens speak in a different ways depending on the degree of alien-ness, and everything is done subtly or markedly, with or without exaggeration, whatever style works best.

The art enhances the dialog in the most beautiful way. Facial expression and body language always fit incredibly well. Page composition and panel layout support the dialog wonderfully: They set the stage, establish the tone, keep or switch focus as required, and provide the feel of movement that serves best to engage the reader with every conversation, or even monologue.

If the characters and their interaction are the best features of Opportunities (and they are), the dialog scenes are the perfect presentation of both.

Details & The Big Picture

Another outstanding feature of Opportunities is the diligence on details, and the way small details are used to create an incredible depth for the big picture:

There are many more examples where the eye for detail shows, both in the writing and the art, and the story is so much netter for it.

To say it once again: Opportunities is a great comic: Go read it!

What do YOU think about Opportunities? Tell us in the comments!

Advertisements

Storytelling Scrutiny Squared: Story Structure Models

This is the latest installment of the Storytelling Scrutiny Squared feature, where I link to other folks who are interested in storytelling and provide information and insight, and demonstrate appreciation, attitude, or amusement.

Normally, i focus on one person or website or podcast or whatever, but once a month I will talk about a storytelling theme instead, link to multiple sources, and give you my own thoughts.

Today I talk about Story Structure, and the models (theories) and methods that I find particularly interesting and helpful for understanding (scrutinizing) how superb storytelling works.

Note that I’m interested in understanding story structure for two reasons: It helps me to better appreciate great storytelling in novels, movies, TV shows, and of course comics, and it also helps me with my own writing projects (none of which is far beyond the preparation steps yet). You may have either reason, both, or another completely different one, to be interested in story structure, but no matter what, if you are interested, you will probably find the following hints useful.

My first contact with Story Structure, like with everything else concerning taking Storytelling seriously (meaning, writing it with a capital S), was when I started listening to the Writing Excuses podcast. Those knowlegdeable folks often talk about hot to achieve good structure, either by Outlining or through Discovery Writing. If you check out the episodes under each tag, you’ll find that tehre is a lot of overlap, because they discuss the pro and cons of either method, and also explain how the techniques are not mutually exclusive, and they fall on a spectrum. Outlining means planning the structure in advance, Discovery Writing means figuring it out on the go, but many people mix-n-match these approaches. Myself, I tend to switch back and forth between planning and experimenting, each step informing the next one.

As to the actual structure one can use, Writing Excuses mentions the Three Act Structure as a formal method, but focus rather more on the general idea that any story makes promises in the beginning, and those have to be fulfilled, often in unexpected ways, in the end, to avoid leaving the audience unsatisfied. I concur absolutely; I have talked before about how important it is to Terminate With Extreme Prejudice.

One of the podcasters, Dan Wells, also talked about a more complex Story Structure Model, the Seven Point System. He taught a session about this, a video of which, plus the Powerpoint presentation, can be found on his website under the tag How To Build A Story.

I was very impressed by his presentation, even though I almost immediately abandoned the actual Seven Point System model. This is because I consider his lessons about the interweaving of multiple plot strands really outstanding. He explains it using The Matrix as an example.

To understand – or create – the overall structure of a story, I prefer the model that Alexandra Sokoloff explains on her Screenwriting Tricks for Authors website, where she has many articles that explore and explain Story Structure.

Her key idea is the Three Act Eight Sequence Structure, which is kind of a standard in movie script writing, but also extremely useful for any othe rkind of – long form – storytelling.

But at the end of the day, these models are only tools to understand Story Structure, and they are very helpful, but when the story is more complex, and possibly also more fluid, as tends to happen in webcomics, these models can inform the actual structure, but should not constrain it. If I look at all of my favorite webcomics, I can see that they vary greatly, from more regular chapter structure to almost none. And I don’t find any correlation between the regularity and the entertainment they provide. As long as the creator(s) know what they are doing, or at least make believe they do, the story rocks, no matter what.

Now I ask you: What method or model do you use to understand story structure? Tell us in the comments!

Kingsman – More Badass Than Bond?

Note: This is another post where I don’t mention webcomics, but talk about a movie; but at least, it’s a movie based on a graphic novel: Kingsman.

Of course, I’m not writing a review in the classical sense. If the word praise doesn’t betray my reluctance to highlight flaws and problems, and the word provocative doesn’t betray my unwillingness to restrain myself from deriving lessons about storytelling in general rather than focusing on the item under review, then the word scrutinizing should make it clear that I will discuss the movie in depth without regard to spoilers, and with the expectation that the reader has watched the movie to know what I’m talking about.

Anyway, I went to see the movie last Friday, expecting it, informed by the trailer, to be dramatic, violent, actionesque (I just made that word up, I believe), irreverent, and amusing. Without doubt, it is all of this.

I was skeptical, however, about the claim that it is more badass than Bond. In my humble opinion, it really delivers on that promise.

I didn’t expect it to become an object of my most diligent scrutiny. Turns out, it is an example for superb storytelling.

All of this doesn’t mean that Kingsman is indisputably an exceptionally good movie, or in fact better than Bond. What superb storytelling really means that the story as given was carefully constructed and very well executed, and everybody involved did a great job.

In other words, I don’t claim that it is an extremely good story. What I’m trying to convey here is that the story, whatever its merit, was told exceptionally well.

Now, you could certainly argue that the fight choreography (and maybe even some dialog) was artificial, the violence gratuitous, and villain’s plan overblown, and the whole premise unrealistic. Just like you could argue that Swan Lake is artificial, Hamlet is full of gratuitous violence, the world-building of The Pirates Of either Penceance or The Caribbean is overblown, and Mozart was an idiot because it is totally unrealistic that a man would start singing a duet with his rival who just pronounced the supposed infidelity of his lover.

I seek to understand any story on its own terms, within the form it’s been molded in, and to look for cohesion, for internal consistency, rather than chasing after the flimsiness of realism or verisimilitude. Let’s see what we will find out.

As always, you are invited to chime in with your thoughts on the matter in the comments.

But since the most important issues cannot be discussed without MAJOR SPOILERS, you may want to go see the movie first, or steel yourself to bear them with composure, before you continue … (Also, make sure you are okay with a candid discussion of violence in fiction, because …)

(more…)