With Saga – Volume One I wanted to look at stories that follow primarily a global story arch that is spread over multiple volumes. Most of all this article is about how to create a pilot story to hook your readers.
»From my very first day, I was pursued by men. All of them tried to hurt me, but only one managed to break my heart.« (Saga, Volume One, page 25)
What can we learn as writers from Saga?
In the comic books of SAGA, we follow one continuous story that spreads over multiple volumes of this comic book series. That means the main story is the one that's told. It's not episodic with little mini-stories or plots that have their own beginning and ending in one volume like in Hellboy, Daredevil or what you mostly know from crime TV-series where the characters solve a different crime in each episode. Those stories have an overarching global story as well, but they focus on telling self-contained stories while they also feature a global overarching story that's more in the background of the storytelling.
But what if your primary focus is telling a global story that is not built out of different subplots and smaller stories?
How do you pull it off as a writer so that your first Volume does not let the readers end up unhappy because they feel like they’ve missed something? Of course, there will and should be a cliffhanger. You want your readers to buy the next volume to find out more. That’s totally legit. But how do you present your big global story that will be spread over multiple volumes and still make each volume feel like another step towards the big ending payoff?
So let's focus on how to hook the reader with your pilot volume first. How do you start with your story? What should you set up and already pay off in the first volume? What expectations do you want to create?
As an example, we use the first volume of the fantasy science-fiction thriller Saga.
What is Saga about?
When two soldiers from opposite sides of a never-ending galactic war fall in love, they risk everything to bring a fragile new life into a dangerous old universe. From New York Times bestselling writer Brian K. Vaughan (Y: The Last Man, Ex Machina) and critically acclaimed artist Fiona Staples (Mystery Society, North 40), Saga is the sweeping tale of one young family fighting to find their place in the worlds. Fantasy and science fiction are wed like never before in this sexy, subversive drama for adults.
1. What’s the global genre of Saga?
If you write a story you should make sure that you establish the genre as soon as possible. Your first chapter, even your first scene, contributes to the readers' expectations. So if you start with an action scene and then only write about a couple’s love set in Regency England, your readers would feel cheated. They thought it’s gonna be an action story and then all the action is missing because there are only society problems of different classes and two people in love. If that happens, you did not deliver what you promised the reader in the beginning: an action story.
So make sure that your first chapter makes a promise to the reader of what he can expect from your story. And you should deliver it!
If we look at Saga – Volume One, the first scene clearly establishes the core value of this story: Life to Death right to the fate that’s worse than Death: Damnation.
The story starts with the birth of the girl Hazel (Life = positive). The scene changes from life to being threatened with the arrival of the two opposing forces that are out to get to Alana and Marko (Threat = negative), and moves right to Death (negative) as the two teams get killed. There’s even damnation hinted at because the monkey-like creature saved the family to make up for a debt he owned Marko. Saving them was his last possible effort to redeem himself. It’s the highest moral act someone can do: sacrificing themselves for someone else.
Now with that value change (Life to Death to Damnation) right in the first scene, this story promises the reader to be more than a mere action story. If not only life and death is at stake, but even the fate worse than death, then you got yourself a thriller or a horror story.
Those are the two genres that turn around those core values of life, death, and damnation.
But Saga is not a horror story. There is no monster who can’t be reasoned with. The antagonist makes the family their victim because he follows his own agenda.
To sum it up, I’d say that Saga by Brian K. Vaughan is a fantasy science fiction thriller story with a plot of Child in Jeopardy (= thriller subgenre). It’s a long-form story following an arch plot.
2. What is the narrative device and point of view?
The narrative device is letting a child tell the story of its own birth and how its parents tried to save it. The child’s voice is the narrator. So we somehow know that this child is looking back on different events that led to the moment of her telling her story to someone. But we don’t know how old that girl Hazel is when she’s looking back, nor do we know where she is or if she’s safe. All we know is that she has a reason to let other people know of what happened to her and her parents. It’s a proof of love somehow because the child honors the memory of her parents by making them become alive again through her story.
Even though the child is the narrator of the story and comments on certain events, most of the telling is done by a third person external narrator. He/She is outside of the world of the characters and through that external perspective, it’s an authorial narrative situation. We, as the reader, do not have access to the thoughts or feelings of the characters in a scene. The only access we are granted is to the girl’s narrative comments she’s providing us with.
The narrative drive is created through a combination of all three forms: mystery, suspense, and dramatic irony.
There’s a mystery because we don’t know what the characters are thinking or feeling. That’s why we never know what they are about to do or which secrets they carry. (If you like this form of narrative drive I highly recommend reading The Umbrella Academy – Apocalypse Suite because those characters carry a lot of secrets around too. Very well done in form of moving the plot forward through mystery).
There’s suspense especially when we look at the situation of Alana and Marko. How are they going to get to the rocketship forest? They don’t know, neither do we. So we want to go on reading to find out how they manage it.
And there’s dramatic irony because we as the reader know what’s happening around them. We know who hires the freelancers tasked to kill the parents and get the baby. And we get to know them – at least The Will. Some monsters are worse than others.
In Saga Volume One we have many different point of view (POV) characters. Here’s a list of them:
- Prince Robot IV
- The Will
- The Stalk
- Special Agent Gale, Secret Intelligence
- Lance Corporal McHenry, 372nd Company
Having all those different point of view characters gives the story a movie like feel because there's a lot of switching between places and characters.
3. What are the objects of desire?
Above mentioned you can see that we have multiple point of view characters. Each one of them has their own conscious want. Some are obvious, some might follow a secret agenda we’re not fully aware of yet.
Remember: The WANT is the external, conscious object of desire and the NEED is the internal, unconscious object of desire.
External objects of desire for some of the main POV characters:
Marko & Alana WANT to save their child and live in peace. In order to accomplish that Want, their primary goal for Volume One is to reach the rocketship forest to leave the planet Cleave.
Prince Robot IV WANTS to start a family and be left in peace by his father, the king. But as long as he hasn't proven his worth, he has to deal with the situation of Alana and Marko before words get out that those two people (of two different races that are at war) have a child together.
The Will WANTS to do his job and collect his completion payment. This goal changes as The Stalk is killed by the robot forces. After that incident, the Will wants to hunt down Prince Robot IV to revenge The Stalk.
Internal objects of desire for some of the main POV characters:
The NEED is always harder to find out. Often the character is unaware of what he/she unconsciously desires and discovers what he/she needs along the way of the story.
The NEED of a POV character establishes how he/she will change through the hardships faced in the story. The change can be defined by the internal genre choice.
Internal genres like worldview, morality, and status may get squishy to decide on. They depend on what the reader values the most by having a character that changes.
For Saga, it’s hard to say what the characters might need because so far we have only got a glimpse of who they are.
And like I said in the beginning, Volume One is only like a pilot episode for a TV series. It’s okay to leave certain questions unanswered and to not pack everything you have planned for your entire story into the first chapters. Like with falling in love, you rather find out about the other one than to hear their life’s story on the first date. Secrets are a wonderful thing to keep the interest up.
So what kind of internal arch could we expect for some of the POV characters?
Judged by the first Volume, not by the entire series. It’s still all about expectations:
Alana: She is a very strong woman who seems very sophisticated. I can see that a Status-Admiration arch could be possible for her.
Marko: We know he’s a killing machine who does not want to fight anymore. And we know the global genre is a thriller. So maybe the threat of damnation worries him which might put him on a morality redemption plot.
Prince Robot IV: Some kind of worldview revelation or disillusionment plot because he might learn something that will either be a shocking truth which will change his actions for the better or he will experience a loss or trial that forces him to realize the darker truth which might leave him disillusioned.
The Will: I imagine there’s some form of morality testing plot for the Will, a freelancer hired for killing people. Will he be able to look away from doing his job only for the sake of the money and be capable of saving someone? Maybe even by sacrificing himself? I hope he’d do something good for the family.
4. What are the beginning hook, middle build and ending payoff?
I was wondering how to sum up the story. But to do that, I need to know first, who the main protagonist of the story is. Is it Alana? Marko? Their baby?
So I thought about Friedman's Framework for Identifying Internal Genres.
And the very first question you should know the answer to when analyzing a story is: Who is the protagonist?
The protagonist is the character who undergoes the major change in the story, the one whose welfare is the reader’s chief focus and interest, the one whom all else in the plot revolves.
Yes, the story revolves around the baby. But so far the baby can’t make any decisions. So it’s her parents' role to look out for its own best interests.
So is Alana or Marko the main protagonist?
I think it’s Alana. She’s the mother of the child. And the connection between mother and child is always deeper than with father and child. It’s the mother who carried that little wonder into the world and gave birth to it. It’s a deeply personal and intimate connection a man can hardly ever understand.
And if we look at the major crisis questions in this story, it was Alana who had to make the best bad choice.
So here’s what I’ve come up with for beginning hook, middle build and ending payoff for Saga – Volume One.
For fun, just check how all the 5 commandments turn on the value of Life and Death. Because those 15 core scenes of your story should always turn on your global genre's core value. If they do not, either you picked the wrong moments or your story’s global genre needs some strengthening.
Saga – Volume One consists of 6 chapters (150 pages).
Chapter One – 40 pages
Chapter Two, Three, Four, Five, Six – 22 pages
Beginning Hook – Chapter 1 & 2 (62 pages = 41%)
Inciting Incident: When a private first class of Landfall has a baby with a man of her planet’s opposing force, a man from the moon Wreath ...
Progressive Complications Turning Point:... and a freelancer killer is out to get her baby ...
Crisis: ... she has to decide whether to kill her own child with a heartbreaker gun or to give it to the spider woman to who knows what end.
Climax: The mother loads the weapon pointing it at her child’s forehead ...
Resolution: ... and the ›Horrors‹ are coming to her aid chasing The Stalk woman away.
Middle Build – Chapter 3 & 4 (36 pages = 24%)
Inciting Incident: When the father of the baby is about to die ...
Progressive Complications Turning Point: ... and can only be saved by a healing spell that requires snow ...
Crisis: ... the mother has to decide if she lets a ghost bond with her newborn baby to save the father or if she keeps the soul of her baby untouched but loses the father and her only way of possibly escaping that planet.
Climax: The mother decides to let the ghost Izabel bond with her baby ...
Resolution: ...and Marko survives.
Ending Payoff – Chapter 4 – 6 (52 pages = 35%)
Inciting Incident: When the mother and her family are attacked by a heavy company from the planet Landfall ...
Progressive Complications Turning Point:... and Marko turns into a killing machine ...
Crisis: ... the mother has to decide whether to let Marko kill every last one of them, even the wounded, or if she stops him by shooting him with the heartbreaker gun.
Climax: The mother shoots the father ...
Resolution: ... and reminds him that escaping a war means laying down arms which leads him to offer his weapon to get into the rocketship that brings them away from the planet.
How to do a pilot volume for your big global comic book story?
1. Establish the genre
The genre is the biggest promise you can give to your reader. So when you create the first chapter or first couple of scenes of your new comic book, make sure that you start the story right away with what’s gonna be primarily at stake throughout your global story.
Is it gonna be justice like in Daredevil? Is it gonna be Life & Death like in I hate Fairyland? Is it Success or Failure like in the status story of The Quitter? What’s it gonna be? Is it love? Is it freedom? Is it altruism or selfishness?
Establishing your primary genre and keeping that promise to the reader is the most important thing you should pay attention to.
When you already know that your big climax scene will be a proof of love scene, then you do not start the first volume/chapter with an action story. Look at the core event of your global story. What’s the climax you really want to write? Use that to know what your primary genre will be.
Here are the core event scenes of the 12 content genres:
- Action/Thriller: Hero at the Mercy of the Villain
- Horror: Victim at the Mercy of the Monster
- Crime: Exposing the criminal
- War: Big battle scene
- Western: Big Showdown
- Love: Proof of Love
- Performance: the big performance
- Society: Revolution
- Status: Climactic Moment when the protagonist decides to do what’s necessary to attain success or reject the world they strived to join
- Worldview: Climactic Moment when the protagonist chooses to accept the truth or not
- Morality: Climactic Moment when the protagonist chooses to sacrifice or not
Furthermore, look at what core emotion your reader shall feel while reading your story. Is it excitement? Then you might write an action or thriller story. Is it a romance? Or might it be hope, satisfaction, loss or pity?
More information about the core emotion you’ll find in a PDF I’ll send you if you sign up for my newsletter (you'll find the sign-up form under the comments section). It’s a little guide to identifying your genre.
Know your genre and you know what readers will expect from your story.
2. Obligatory Scenes and Conventions
Now, maybe you have noticed that I haven’t listed the obligatory scenes and conventions of the global genre of Saga.
I haven’t done it because Volume One is just one part of a larger story. That’s why some obligatory scenes and conventions haven’t appeared yet.
So far we’ve seen the Inciting Crime Indicative of a Master Villain (obligatory scene): The villain (Prince Robot IV) has hired two freelance killers to find Marko and Alana, kill them, and bring their child to him. The first encounter of The Spark with the little family is the first inciting crime. Of course, there’s also the fact that Marko and Alana are hunted because they have deserted their military company and betrayed their homeland by fraternizing with the enemy. But the child is what makes their case so urgent.
Furthermore, we can expect to read the following obligatory scenes in the next volumes:
- A Speech in Praise of the Villain
- The Hero/Protagonist Becomes the Victim
- Hero at the Mercy of the Villain Scene
- False Ending
Okay, so we know that a comic book volume that is just part of a larger story doesn’t necessarily need to include all the obligatory scenes of the global story. But nevertheless, the reader should feel the threat of what’s about to come. You reach that by looking at the conventions of your global genre.
Conventions are needed to prepare for the obligatory scenes of your chosen genre. So even if Volume One is your introduction / your pilot chapter to your global story there should be a hint at the following conventions (thiller):
- MacGuffin: What’s villain’s object of desire? What does he want?
- Investigative Red Herrings: There should be some false clues given. They are a setup for a future pay off.
- Making it Personal: The Villain needs the Hero to get the MacGuffin and thus must victimize the Hero to get what he/she wants. The victimizing doesn’t necessarily need to happen in the pilot episode, but we should suspect that the antagonist and hero will clash and that the antagonist will be out to get something from the hero.
- Clock: there is a limited time for the Hero to act.
3. Controlling Idea / Theme
If you have decided on your primary genre which will arch over your entire global story, think about the controlling idea of your story.
Use the character’s motivating force to come up with the premise. Every good premise is composed of three parts: Character, Conflict, and Resolution.
For a thriller like Saga the general controlling idea goes either:
Life is preserved when the Protagonist unleashes their special gift. (Positive)
OR: Death or damnation triumphs when the Protagonist fails to unleash their special gift. (Negative ending)
In your story you must know where the motivating force of your character comes from. Ask why your main protagonist has become who he/she is. If you know how your main character changes, you know how to portray him in the beginning to show his character development.
And remember: A premise is no good if you do not prove it in the story.
4. Point of view & Narrator
Know your voice. Know your narrator.
Who’s the best narrator to tell your story? Should you use your protagonist to comment on certain events in the story? Should you use an authorial narrative that keeps the reader out of the character’s thoughts and feelings but allows the reader to see other events as they unfold?
Should you use the voice of someone who looks back on the story and comments on it (like in Saga)?
Establish your main point of view characters by giving them enough space to appear in your story. Even though Saga – Volume One had seven different POV characters, the most important ones are Alana, Marko, Prince Robot IV, and The Will.
As a reader, we get the feeling that the characters, who appear the most, will also be the most important ones in the story. Just look at the comic book series of Umbrella Academy. With each volume, it’s getting more and more obvious that Number Five is gonna be the most important role in that story’s universe. Volume 2 – Dallas was devoted entirely to Number Five’s past and his present morality problems.
You can argue if a story is character- or plot-driven.
I say that character creates a story and the driving force that adds to the plot are the crisis questions they have to face.
If we face a best bad choice situation or have to decide between two irreconcilable goods, then what we choose tells the reader who we are. And a crisis always follows a turning point. A turning point is most important ingredient that you need to have in every scene, chapter, sequence, or even your entire global story.
So when you think about character- or plot-driven, just think about the crisis moments and the decisions your character makes. Those climax decisions will move your story forward because they will have consequences.
If we think about our first chapters of our comic book or the first volume, we want to show the reader who our main protagonist(s) is/are. Therefore we let them face dilemmas that force them to act. And if you know your controlling idea you know how the character needs to change in order to underline your theme/premise, also to establish who your character is at the beginning and, most importantly, what his conscious object of desire is.
In Saga, it’s obvious. The family wants to get to the rocketship. But most of all they want to save their child. If a character does not want anything, then why should the reader be interested in them? We do not feel engaged by people who have nothing they're after. How can we root for them if we don’t even know what they are fighting for?
Those are just a couple of things you should pay attention to when creating the first chapters of a story. If you want to add some thoughts, use the comment form below. Thank you!
Now that you have made it all the way to the end of my blog post, it'd be really great if you could spend two more minutes and let me know your thoughts.
Did the story work for you? What did you like the most about Saga – Volume One? What didn't you like?
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