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If You're Planning a Heist, You Better Know How It Ends: 'Silver' by Stephan Franck
Stephan Franck writes:
As I am wrapping up — and funding on Kickstarter — the 4th and final volume of my graphic novel series Silver, some of the questions I get asked the most are whether I knew that Vol. 4 would be the last, if I knew how it was going to end, or if I stopped because I was running out of ideas. The short answers are "yes", "yes," and "no," but it all boils down to one basic question: did I conceive of Silver as a finished story from the get go, or was I improvising my way through it?
Silver is a complex heist story, and it is all set-ups and pay-offs. Some of the set-ups that come early in the story aren't even revealed to be set-ups until the very end, and as in any good con story, there is also a lot of misdirection. In fact, you could say that the story itself is a con perpetrated on the reader, and just like Finn wouldn't venture into a castle full of vampires without a plan, I wouldn't start drawing a 463-page story built on ruse and deception without a solid plan.
My method entailed starting with a script for the complete story, initially written in movie-script form (the format I'm the most comfortable with). Movie scripts are usually structured in four equal parts — act 1, 2a, 2b, and 3, so that gave me a natural way to divide the series in four volumes, each one having good internal pacing and a compelling act break between each volume. It also gave me a chance to end the series with a grand finale that pays off in a satisfying manner.
But beyond coherence and tidiness, there is more to a complete and satisfying story than plot structure. A story is a character journey. It has a beginning that lets you fall in love and root for a character, a middle that has you on the edge of your seat as they get in over their head with something, and an ending that shows a definitive and irrevocable change in that character.
I relate this idea to story in a broader sense, and about the moment we find ourselves in as an industry and a storytelling culture. I think there are obvious reasons why complete stories are very appealing to readers right now, and why I knew how Silver would end, more or less, from the beginning.
On one hand, new readers may be discouraged to jump into a long-running series if they feel that the train has left the station without them a long time ago. And people's entertainment dollars are solicited in so many different directions these days, so that the prospect of having a satisfying story within the manageable confines of a nice box-set is very appealing — and yes, in case you're wondering, I'm plugging the Silver box set, because it is awesome.
But another question that people very often ask at conventions, once they find themselves intrigued with the prospect of getting involved with a new fictional universe, is when and where the story will be completed. They literally make me promise that I won't leave them high and dry by having them get invested in characters whose journey will never come to a satisfying resolution.
So endings are important. But so are beginnings, and I will be so bold as to say that good beginnings are what's mostly missing in our current landscape. If you remember, in the early days of the modern comic-book era movie, back when these movies were made by people who had never read a comic book in their life, every movie was an origin story. They felt a mainstream audience had to be led gently by the hand to these exotic concepts — which of course was bullshit; people were totally ready for it. But after a while, it became clear that people were sick of origins stories, and it was OK to jump right in, which in many cases, created the opposite problem: stories that felt like episode #X in a series, and lacked the time-honored tradition of a story beginning that invites you in. While the first approach to beginnings doesn't give its audience enough credit, the second one takes it for granted.
That's why I love The Dark Knight Returns. Even if you had never read a Batman story in your life, or even weren't familiar with the concept of Batman at all, you would understand and enjoy it, because the storytelling gives you a proper first act that introduces everything you need to know, and does so in dramatic fashion. That's why the first volume of Silver is all about introducing the characters — Volume One is Act 1. Of course, that only works if you are able to introduce your characters dramatically, and make their introductions as much a part of the story as anything else, and not a collection of backstories — but that's a topic for a different time.
I believe that we desperately want stories with beginnings, middles, and ends. Why? Because that's how we would want life to be. We want redemption stories to be permanent. That's why I think the tragic loss of someone like Anthony Bourdain struck such a deep chord with so many. He was an amazingly charismatic and empathetic human who made us all feel better about ourselves and the world we live in, and so the thought that the battles he had won could be un-won is just too much to bear.
So beginnings, middles, ends: that's powerful stuff, man. That's what we, as storytellers, want to be talking about. It's that tension between the straight linearity and finality of story and the endless treadmill of life. I mean, who would have thought that measles and nazis would be coming back, but guess what? They fucking are.
That's why I call a story a straight circle. I think of it as the ramp in a parking structure. It definitely and measurably brings you from one floor to the next, and that's a story, but another loop around the ramp will lead you to yet a whole other floor and another story.
That is my approach to story in general, and to the Silver universe in particular. You can already see it with Rosalynd, which is an illustrated novella that presents itself as Rosalynd "Sledge" Van Helsing's childhood diary. Just like Silver, it is a fully completed story that can be read independently, but it adds another, radically different point of view to that character's story. No retreads of the same formula, no endless story, no reboots — the only thing that is the same is that it's different every time.
We'll be racing forward in a straight circle — not a bad way to live.