Golden Advice on Writing from a Comic Book Legend

MicronautsAs some of you know, Ed and I had a table at Philly Comic Con a few weeks ago. All in all it was a great experience and a wonderful event, more like a community than a convention. Plus we got to meet some amazingly create artists, as well as talk to some of our readers.

It was a delight being able to answer readers’ questions about The Kronos Interference, plus offer some (hopefully) sound advice and encouragement to a handful of young aspiring writers as well.

It was a day for sharing and a day for learning. I attended an excellent storytelling workshop given by Michael Golden. For those unfamiliar with his work, Michael Golden has been a noted comic book artist and storyteller for over four decades. He co-created the Rogue character (from X-Men), and was noted for his work on the Micronauts series, Dr. Strange, The ‘Nam series, DC comics, and others.

During his Q&A session, here were some of the nuggets of advice he had to offer (I’m paraphrasing):

  • On cliffhangers: Always end your story, even if you allude to the fact that there’s more to come afterward. If you do have a cliffhanger, foreshadow it so they can see it coming and it won’t feel like it came from nowhere.
  • Exposition: While writers always try to avoid exposition, sometimes it’s unavoidable. But you do need to find creative ways to incorporate it. For instance, if you need to share something about an event in the past, consider having your character voicing in his head what he was thinking or feeling at the time — so it’s not just an information dump.
  • Moving a story forward: Always keep moving the story forward. This is best done visually and through action, behavior, and dialogue. You shouldn’t need a lot of explanation (there’s truth to the old axiom, “show, don’t tell”). Character interaction is the best way to cover the who, what, when, where, and how. In a visual medium, emphasize visuals more than anything.
  • Details Matter:  To add a greater sense of reality, include small details. There’s a fine line between providing small details for realism and having so much that you inhibit story movement. But overall, detail gives a story texture and life. Director Ridley Scott is noted for including detailed visuals that elevate the sense of realism. This is an art more than a science.
  • Context is Important: A lot or writers and artists make the mistake of assuming their readers understand everything that’s in the writer’s head. Don’t assume people know what you know. They’re not psychic.  Show an establishing shot to give a sense of where you’re at (or describe it if it’s a non-visual form). Don’t talk down to the reader but give them some context so they don’t get lost. Also, find a good objective editor and test reader and see if they can follow it. Getting an objective view is important.
  • Listen to Advice: There are people who love nothing better than to sharply criticize everything they read or see on the internet. As a creative professional, you need to read between the lines and understand what it is they’re really trying to say. Don’t take everything at face value, but don’t ignore it either.
  • Dealing with Complex Plots:  Don’t get overwhelmed by the enormity of it all. Have little stories that lead to the much bigger one. Think smaller. Move little chunks forward. Don’t think of the full epic at once. Find out what your building blocks are, and throw them at the reader piecemeal. Watch Pulp Fiction as a a good example of this. (I would add to also read or watch Game of Thrones!)
  • Reintroducing Characters in a Sequel: In most cases you can introduce them the exact same way as the previous book, but with a different variation or in a different context. (This made me think of  Q or M or Moneypenny in the James Bond films. You don’t need to see all the previous Bond films to get a sense of what their role is or what their personality is).
  • Developing Characters: Pay attention to everyone and everything around you. Quentin Tarantino has written essays on this subject alone. Conversations can really illuminate characters in colorful ways. Many times you can listen to real conversations and get ideas and magnify them. Moms can make great villains! Inspiration comes from everywhere. Songs, experiences, other stories, observing people talking,watching people. Observe how they behave, act, talk, etc.
  • Names and Titles Matter:  Character names and titles are important, and are part of the artistic statement you’re making. Simple and pronounceable is best; ideally something that will stick in the reader’s mind. But also try to make it unique and distinctive. Most importantly, it should be evocative and say something about the the story (or the character, in the case of character names).

I’m sure he could have gone on longer, but the session was only 45 minutes. If you make it to a Comic Con and Michael Golden is giving a workshop, I highly recommend it. In general, I think all writers and artists should attend workshops and read lots of books on the craft. When you think about it, no matter how much experience we have, we’re all lifelong apprentices.