Story Structure

Drive: Pushing The Limits Of Space Opera

Today I’m talking about the webcomic Drive, created by Dave Kellett, which is a story that’s Pushing The Limits Of Space Opera. I already mentioned Drive in several blog posts.

Space Operas are awesome!

In movies, the coolest Space Opera lately was Guardians Of The Galaxy. Facilitated by technological progress, it sported amazing visuals. The combination of Space Opera and Superhero Movie was done very well.

Guardians Of The Galaxy even profited from the fact that it came late to join a long history of Space Opera movies: Non-human characters as part of an ensemble cast are no longer something that stands out too much, which enabled the film-makers to integrate all these genetically enhanced/modified/created characters so seamlessly that they could perform any imaginable movie character function. Paradoxically, by adding a raccoon and a tree to the cast, Guardians Of The Galaxy manged to make both the Superhero and the Space Opera genre appear more human.

Space Opera Webcomics are eve more awesome

I have no considered opinion what the latest, greatest Space Opera is on TV, in novels, or in printed comics, but I do have an opinion about webcomics:

Since Space Operas as stories are awesome, and webcomics as a storytelling medium are awesome, it come to no surprise that Space Opera Webcomics are super awesome.

Ever since the great webcomic Space Trawler by Christopher Baldwin (which will be the topic of another blog post here, some day in the future) came to its brutal conclusion, which was most fulfilling, if also very sad, there can no longer be any question that the webcomic Drive, created by Dave Kellett, is the current apex of Space Opera in webcomics.

What do I mean with: Pushing The Limits Of Space Opera? The possibilities to enlarge the size and scope of space operas in a numerical sense are endless: Adding more planets (or even galaxies), more races, more weapons, more magic, greater time spans; you name it, someone has done it. And this approach isn’t necessarily bad, as evidenced by a couple of great works which do this, for example one of my favorite webcomics, Schlock Mercenary. (Just to be clear, Schlock Mercenary does a lot of other cool things as well.)

Also, science fiction stories or space operas that do not push the limit as described in this post can still be totally awesome: Space Mullet (see also these posts), Trekker (see also those posts), Opportunities (see also those other posts), and Space Junk Arlia are fine examples.

Drive: Beware The SPOILERS!

Now I will have to back up this bold claim with hard facts, but to do so requires countless SPOILERS, so I encourage you to check up on Drive first.

It’s about 200 pages in, so reading it all will take some time, but it will be totally worth it: You will you avoid SPOILERS, and it will also be one of the best stories you have read in a long time.

Now, if you have read Drive, or are not afraid of SPOILERS anyway, you can proceed.

Drive: The Promises

Drive is very upfront and open with its promises to the reader:

  • By the end of the prologue, at page three, we know the main premise of the world-building, namely the Ring Drive and the Second Spanish Empire build from it. Tone and style are already being established.
  • About two dozen pages later, we know the main characters, but one, and also much more about the world-building, and most of the premise for the story. We have also seen a couple of amazing backmatter pages from the Enciclopedia Xenobiologia.
  • When the last addition to the main ensemble cast is introduced, it takes little more than a dozen pages till it is revealed that Orla keeps some secrets from the rest of the crew.
  • When the Filipods are introduced, it is made clear that they are poets whose loquaciousness can bore people to death, but also super awesome scientists and engineers.
  • Further into the story, we are presented with a map of the galactic powers that tells us about every place we will ever encounter.
  • When their home planet is cracked in half, the Filipods, because of their unique evolutionary development, are kept alive, and not thrown into the air like every Tesskan who lives on the same planet.
  • We also see, quite early on, an organisational chart that hints at a super-secret unit called Jinyiwei, headed by the Puno Gris.

Drive: The Surprises

But despite being so upfront, and never playing hide-and-seek or smoke-and-mirrors, Drive manages to surprise the reader, again and again, and on so many different levels:

There are many, many more. Which one are your favorites? Tell us in the comments!

Drive: The Big Payoffs

What makes Drive truly extraordinary is how the different surprising developments interact with each other and form a fabric of world-building that has few equals with regard to complexity, creativity, cohesion and clarity.

There is no hokus-pokus, mumbo-jumbo, yadda-yadda bullsh*t going on; everything in this story is mind-blowing exactly because it all makes sense, it all comes together.

Here are the examples for payoffs that fulfill the promises, surprise the reader, pull story elements together, and also intrigue us by promising even more fantastic story developments:

Just to make it clear, there are a couple more important developments that could be listed here as well, time and space permitting. This is a blog post, and not an epic!

Drive: The Future

The best thing about Drive is that we are just a little into the second act now, which means that the best is still to come. I’m really excited about the future of Drive and so should you; go check it out!

Now, what do you think? Please tell us in the comments!

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!