Robot 6

Unbound: Why is this dog exploding?

from Gulch

from Gulch

For four years, before I started writing about comics, I was a reporter for a local newspaper.

I didn’t have much journalistic training, and at first, every time I filed a story, I would get an exasperated call from my editor demanding, “What is this story supposed to be about?

After a few months, I learned a simple lesson: Orient your readers to the story right away. It’s a lesson that webcomics creators should take to heart as well.

I call this the Zuda Test, because I formulated it while reviewing the comics at Zuda.com, DC’s webcomics competition site. Each month, I and my Digital Strips colleagues Steve Shinney and Jason Sigler read all ten of the comics at Zuda and discuss the pros and cons of each one.

Month after month, I found myself making the same complaint: After eight pages, I had no idea what was going on.

Eight pages should be enough space to establish the setting, introduce one or more characters that are worth caring about, give some sense of what the comic is about, and get the story rolling. This is obviously most critical for longer stories, but gag-a-day creators would do well to establish their premise and characters clearly as well.

A surprising number of stories flunked this test. Many jumped right into the action, often starting off with a complicated fight (Zuda creators love a good fight) between utterly unknown characters, leaving me unsure who to root for.

Each Zuda page includes a space for a text-only synopsis, and that is where I would often find finely crafted, intricately thought out backstories and alternate universes.

Unfortunately, that’s not where they belong. They belong in the comic.

It’s easy to see how this can happen, especially when a writer has been thinking about a story for a while and is already mentally living in that world. Things that seem natural or self-evident to the writer may simply puzzle the reader, and the wise writer will anticipate that and answer questions before they become distracting. (Having an outsider read the comic with fresh eyes is an excellent way to anticipate this.)

It’s not necessary to clutter the story with text boxes or clumsy expository dialogue. (“Bill, don’t forget that you’re my brother!” “That’s right, Sue! And Dad sent us here to the Planet Zorgov to retrieve our family’s uranium stash before it disappears in the coming apocalyptic explosion.”) It’s OK to introduce a complicated premise a little at a time or to start the reader out in the center of the action and then pull back a bit. But after eight pages the reader should have a sense of where the story is going and who the good guys and the bad guys are.

Interestingly, this clarity doesn’t necessarily correlate with success on Zuda. Take last August’s competition, for instance. I thought Matt and Gabe White’s Gulch failed the Zuda test miserably. A woman walks into a boutique and hands the manager her dog. The dog explodes, and chaos results. The problem is, I had no clue as to who she was or why this was happening. I couldn’t even figure out whether she expected the dog to explode or not. The synopsis revealed a detailed story that was not at all evident in the comic. But something about this one—the action, the promise of a plot, the hot babe—made the readers vote it number one, allowing the creators to expand their story. Now that it’s up to 37 pages, the plot is a lot clearer and I’m enjoying it more.

The comic that I would have picked that month, though, was Shock Effect, by John Lang and Ian Daffern. That comic also started off with plenty of action, the but the creators took the time to put it into context. I knew right away that the girl I was looking at was a sympathetic character. I knew that society was breaking down in the face of an alien invasion. More details could be supplied later, but I had the tools I needed to follow the story.

Looking at a lot of eight-page comics helped crystallize this principle in my mind, but it applies elsewhere as well. Here’s a non-Zuda example that I’m enjoying right now: the romantic comedy Dovecote Crest. In just seven pages, the creators give us the setting, introduce the main character and get us to like her a bit, and hint at what is to come. They do it cleverly, too. By page eight, I knew I wanted to keep reading.

A comic with a slow build can turn out to be pretty good in the end, but the Zuda test is a good constraint for a creator to keep in mind. Eight screens is about as much as any reader will devote to a story that makes him or her feel disoriented. As my editor used to say, “It doesn’t matter if you write the greatest story in the world. If they don’t know what it’s about, no one is going to read it.”

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Comments

33 Comments

Wow, great article. This is the first I’ve heard about the 8 page rule and it makes perfect sense. Like a lot of rules like this, I think it’s one that, as a storyteller, you either inherently get or you don’t. You can probably drive yourself into creative paralysis trying to make sure your story follows it.

Look forward to more articles like this, Brigid.

Brigid:

Glad to see you bringing your webcomics insights to an even bigger audience! A great start to what’s sure to be a must-read column!

Cheers, Kate

RobotRevolution

June 3, 2009 at 5:56 am

Interesting theory! Especially since Dark Horse requires only the first eight pages of a script for their submissions. Somebody else is on the same page as you!

Awesome article, please write more! This is also my first real look around Robot 6, great variety, bookmarked!

You forgot the other Zuda test though: “Does it have zombies?”

That’s how you can tell the good comics from the bad ones, have I taught you nothing this last year?

This is a great article! It seems like things I already should have known and maybe I even did, but the way you’ve laid it all out gives me a sudden feeling of clarity. I can tell this is going to be a must-read column.

Chris Schweizer

June 3, 2009 at 7:30 pm

Excellent article. Thanks.

Well summarized.
*golf clap*

nice article. I believe I listened to a podcast you were a part of that kinda ripped us a new one last august. My mom was mad at you. :) I was pleased to read that you’re starting to enjoy the comic more.

that said, I don’t know if I FULLY agree with the premise of the piece. I think trying to fit a lot of explanation into 8 pages isn’t necessarily easy or possible, or won’t necessarily fit into your story structure — Don’t hamstring your flow to cater to the 8 page format. I think it’s probably just as good to show something to entice, titilate, provoke, evoke — whatever — Just to get attention.

The merits or demerits of Gulch’s beginnings notwithstanding, of course. We’re very green comic makers and have come a long way even just since August and would do many things differently.

if you’ll permit me a quick privilege — the last dozen or so pages are a couple steps above everything up to them, btw, so I hope you check back periodically.

Brigid Alverson

June 4, 2009 at 9:12 am

Hi Matt,

Sorry about your mom! :( Yes, that was me on the podcast (I was the “nice sounding young woman”—thanks!), but I hope I wasn’t entirely negative. At least we agreed on the bra thing.

I agree the 8 pages isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. It’s more of a guideline, and I suspect the genre of comics a person reads affects their tolerance not being fully oriented right away. Anyway, you kept enough readers to win the contest so… you win! And yes, I agree that the quality has improved in the more recent pages. Once the story was fleshed out a bit I started enjoying it.

Plus the exploding dog made for a good headline—thanks for that!

(Note: No dogs were harmed or killed in the making of this blog post.)

Agreed. Any comic and/or webcomic should be able to hook the reader within 8-pages sans ancillary materials. I’m looking fwd to your future webcomix thoughts and reviews, Brigid.

ACT-I-VATE boasts many great webcomix: http://www.act-i-vate.com/

Plus, there’s my very own Zuda webcomic: STREET CODE: http://www.zudacomics.com/street_code

Enjoy!

–Dino

well, that is to say, the last dozen pages of the entire chapter (which aren’t published yet). :) they’re RIVETING!

hi dean!

This is a great article. I see your point…but sometimes I think not knowing what’s going on is half the fun. It makes the reader go….”dammit I wanna know why that dog exploded so I’m gonna vote!” Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.

I also see these 8 pages adopting The Corpse Carries a Gun idea…and making it more of a trailer of sorts for their book. A kind of Issue #0 where you just get a few glimpses of what’s to come.

If you’re interested…I have a trailer and some promotional materials for my sci fi comic, GOLDILOCK up if you wanna take a look. :D

http://thegoldilockszone.blogspot.com/

It bothers me that this stuff gets through the filter each month.

Good article!

I agree with you, I tried my best to keep the build up interesting for my KOGOSHII (up now! please vote!) The other test is the flash viewer. There are a lot of things that would look interesting, but in the confines of that viewer it can look messy. I learned the hard way about half-tones. But I have seen some people with a lot of action on their first 8 pages and it looks daunting to try and read.

Some folks don’t bother to toggle the zooms and whatnots so you have to factor that in as well. Gigi made the text larger when we sent the high rez files to Nika, in case people didn’t zoom in, you can still read it perfectly clear in windowed mode.

I’m finding that this litmus also applies very well to comics for mobile devices. I had to take a few of my comics pages and run them out of sequence to clarify things that were much easier to see in a web comic. With, say, the Iphone, you must (usually) show one panel at a time, and it almost makes a new pacing.

I read this very interesting article, saw the truth in it, then rushed to reread the first eight pages of my Iphone comic… and thankfully they work according to the 8 pages rule! :) Now I’m going to make sure to never forget that new rule.
Thanks!

I don’t know… I mean… the first 8 pages of a comic are just the first 8 pages. think of it like the opening scene of a movie. you often have no idea what’s going on. you don’t HAVE to, it’s all about setting a rythm and trying to get interest. You can’t explain the whole thing in 8 pages, nor can a movie explain itself in a pre-title opening scene — nor should they.

I dont think you should think of it as explaining the plot within 8 pages, Matt, but in establishing the premise. The first 8 pages may only give the reader a small piece of what you’ve planned for the overall story but it should set up some sort of direction for what’s to come and give the reader a reason to keep reading. At least, that’s how I see it.

I sorta disagree, Brigid. I think the way most people are introduced to webcomics are in medias res. The hook is really a story that happens in the middle, and then they’ll later backfill the story by returning to the beginning. The Zuda format is unique in that it forces the reader to start at page one, but most webcomics aren’t structured that way.

I don’t want to take up too much real estate in these comment boards explaining my position, so I sorta dumped it on my blog:

http://webcomicoverlook.com/2009/06/05/responding-to-brigid-alversons-8-page-rule/

We’ve been saying this exact thing for a year and we never got this kind of discourse going.

Matt, you cannot compare a web comic to a movie in this regard. Normally I would say don’t compare any medium with any other one, because they each have their own rules/advantages/problems, but I’ll just deal with movies here because they’re so different.

A movie is a different beast for a couple reasons. First, if I’m sitting down in a movie theater to watch a show, I’ve already paid my $8. I’m fully vested. I’m more willing to sit through a little confusion. I’m willing to site through a lot of crap if I’ve already paid for it (case in point: The original Hulk movie). A comic on the Internet is free. I have no reason to keep going it I don’t like it.

Plus in a movie, if the beginning of movie is bad enough that I do want to leave, $8 be damned, I still have to stand up, squeeze out of the row, risk rubbing my butt against the heads of people in the row and then walk all the way to my car. I don’t want to do that, so I give the movie another chance. With a web comic, I have to click on my link to check to see if Order of the Stick has updated yet.

This is what Brigid is talking about, with each and every comic, you have to make the reader want to keep reading. Ideally each page will make me want to go to/ wait for the next one. You can’t expect people to keep reading out of habit. Inertia like that is hard to earn and easy to lose.

Brigid Alverson

June 5, 2009 at 2:39 pm

Well, as I commented over at El Santo’s blog, it may have to do with what you are used to. I’m a big reader of manga and graphic novels, so I’m used to very linear storytelling, and I always start reading a webcomic on the first page—otherwise I think I’m missing something. Superhero fans may have a greater tolerance for nonlinear, overlapping stories.

Rich, you get it exactly—it’s not so much having to know everything about the story as knowing what to focus on. Here’s a counterexample: Law and Order. Usually I assume that when a TV show opens with the camera following a character, they are going to be important to the story. In Law and Order, the people in the opening scene have one function only—they discover the corpse and then disappear. L&O has me trained to expect that, but if a comics artist did it, I’d spend the next dozen pages wondering what happened to the yuppie couple from page 1.

Obviously 8 pages is the Zuda format, but it’s hardly a universal maxim.

A print comic has the whole first issue to hook the reader. It is (and should be) paced accordingly. Similar format webcomics have a similar pacing – a one issue introduction. Episodic webcomics, have only a couple of pages before a new reader loses interest.

This article seems to assume that comprehension is a necessary part of interest – it’s not. As Brigid pointed out, the winning Zuda comic was one where a dog inexplicably exploded. Not comprehensible at all, but an interesting enough hook that the reader wanted to keep reading.

We’ve been trained by TV. Hook us with an interesting enough teaser and we’re willing to wait for the explanations.

I’m sort of up in the air on this. I think it’s good to keep the Zuda Test in mind, but I don’t know that not explaining things and not making your story clear is necessarily a bad thing. It depends, like any other rule about creative stuff, on knowing when and how to break the rules.

I do know that the two Zuda entries I’ve had in the contest, Junk and Rumors of War*, both fail the test. Junk is a self contained eight pages that’s fairly explicit about the setting and what’s going on, but the main character isn’t the main character of the series. Rumors of War wasn’t self contained, didn’t name the main character or explain a damn thing about the setting.

Whether they worked is debatable, but they did okay in the contest (Rumors, especially). I did notice that it’s pretty well impossible to satisfy everyone, though. Some people liked stuff explained, some don’t. Some people like open ended, some don’t. So I dunno.

What it definitely needs to be is compelling. If you’re not going to give people the answers, then you need to work hard to give them interesting questions. I think Gulch did (and Gulch beat one of my entries) and I think most of the winning entries do. How you make it compelling is a lot more flexible.

One part I pretty sure I don’t agree with is about the synopsis. It’s there on every page, and since the Zuda pages can’t really be embedded elsewhere, it’s going to be a fairly omnipresent device, and I think any creator who doesn’t try to use that for maximum effect is doing themselves a disservice.

*Which made it onto the Digital Strips Best of 08 List. Yay!

Hey there, I wrote Shock Effect, the Zuda comic that you used in your example, and I was really thrilled to read this. I also came from journalism, and one thing that transferred over was exactly what you said; the need to make characters people can relate to and to provide the context to understand where a story is leading.

In the 8 pages of Shock Effect we wanted to set the reader up in the right direction, to know what they were in for, and most of all, to care what happened next. To be fair, 8 pages doesn’t have to be the universal, it just happened to be what the first installment of Zuda was; I’d expect the same amount of set up from the first issue of a comic book: just look at Y the Last Man #1. Even so, a year later, it is fantastic to hear from a critic, and everyone else who has written in on the forum here that story is still important for comic readers. I know it’s the number one thing for me.

If you want to see what I’m writing NOW you can check out my weekly workplace horror-comedy
series Freelance Blues, starting up again at the end of the month!
http://www.freelanceblues.com/digitalbooks/one/oldschool.php

Good read. I’m literally sat at my PC right now writing the first five pages of my comic concept as I type and reading this has sharpened my brain on to that key question: do I have your attention yet?

*gets back to work*

Rory McConville

June 7, 2009 at 3:01 pm

Hey folks. Yet another Zuda writer chiming in. I write Extracurricular Activities (http://www.zudacomics.com/extracurricular_activities) ,which I distinctly remember getting shredded by the Digital Strips crew (but at least you guys took the time to review it ;-) ).

Interesting article, not sure I really agree with it, but at least it gets people talking,

Hi!
Great article – apart from obvious critic values it gives surprisingly a lot in terms of guidelines for us- creators. Besides – I’m quite curious how would You rate our webcomic. I won’t present the web address here, as it would be a shameful self-promotion, but if you’re interested, drop me a note on my e-mail (I’ve written it in “secret” part of login ;) ), and I will send You further details.
Thanx again for a good artice!
Mikolaj

Anyone interested in just how much story can be presented in eight pages should check out some of Eisner’s Spirit stories. Establishing the who, what, where, and why in the first eight pages shoudn’t be too difficult if the artist uses a disciplined approach to his craft. The problem is too many new creators are heavily influenced by the relativly recent trend of decompressed storytelling that plagues most modern comics.

No love for Vic Boone?!?!?

We did exactly what your “test” required. You guys sung it’s praises on the podcast. We’ll two of you did.

Ha. ha.

oops!! that should be sang not sung. Where’s my coffee?

Nice article. You reflected many of my feelings regarding what makes a successful and unsuccessful Zuda submission…and comic book in general. As a once (and hopefully future) Zuda competitor, I hoped I’ve learned from both what succeeds and what fails in terms of what to do with those precious 8 pages.

Keep up the good work, and I enjoy your podcast.

Great article!

I have yet to ever read a Zuda comic based largely on critiques like this.

After all, if you can’t tell a good “introduction story” in eight pages, well… you’re not trying hard enough.

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