Responding to Brigid Alverson’s 8-page rule

Brigid Alverson’s article at Robot 6 on concise writing seems to be all the rage today. Here’s an excerpt:

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.

Notably, both Brad Guigar and Heidi MacDonald agree with her. However, as much as I respect Ms. Alverson and as much as I agree with several of her points, I cannot agree that the first 8 pages are the most important pages of a webcomic.

I agree that Ms. Alverson’s philosophy works for Zuda contestants, where the Zuda format forces writers in a linear progression. That is, comics MUST start at page 1 and the readers must follow the story page by page. The Flash format forbids anyone from skipping ahead to later chapters. In that case, yes, the standard rules of literature apply, and the hook must be established from page 1.

But most webcomics aren’t limited by Zuda’s hard-coded (and unwieldy) Flash-based Zuda browser. Hence, more often than not readers are introduced to elements that happen further on down the story. I personally was introduced to my favorites, — Gunnerkrigg Court, Scary Go Round, and Octopus Piein medias res. Later chapters were posted by enthusiasts, I was hooked onto the worlds and characters, and then later I would skip back to the early, more primitive chapters. In a sense, the hook itself didn’t need to be at the beginning.

Establishing the hook far better applies to, say, book stores and comic book shops. We naturally skim through the first pages to see if that’s what we want to read, and then, in those short moments, decide whether or not we want to go forward. But is that the case with long-form webcomics? With the browser environment, we are far more at liberty to jump around to see if the story gets any better in later chapters.

Granted, there are plenty of comics out there that could greatly benefit by fixing their first 8 pages. There are some comics I can name that probably aren’t getting the audience they deserve because the intros are so weak. However, I think they can just as easily make up for it by generating buzz for a much talked-about story in later installments as they would be re-writing the beginnings.

The 8-page rule, by the way, kinda falls apart with print comics, too. X-Men is one of the most popular titles out there. But did its success, spurred in the mid-’70s, have more to do with the team fighting a living island (in Giant Sized X-Men #1) or with the Dark Phoenix Saga and Days of the Future Past in later issues?

I think the problem may be, rather, with the Zuda format than with the storytelling abilities of webcomic writers.

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About El Santo

Somehow ended up reading and reviewing almost 300 different webcomics. Life is funny, huh? Despite owning two masks, is not actually a luchador.

Posted on June 5, 2009, in The Webcomic Overlook, webcomics. Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. That’s an interesting take. Maybe it has to do with the way people read and process information. When I discover a new webcomic, I look at whatever is up that day, and if it interests me, I go straight to the first page. In fact, I have had conversations with webcomics creators who prefer that I link to the first page of their comic rather than the main page.

    As I mentioned in comments at Robot 6, this may have to do with the type of comic we are used to reading. My preference for print comics is manga and graphic novels, which are pretty linear—they start on page 1 and the story arc usually continues to the end of the book. Sometimes manga have a second story arc, but that’s it. Superhero comics, on the other hand, are all over the place. When I was a kid (long ago!) you got two or three complete stories in a single comic; now you get a small fragment of a much larger saga, and I find it disorienting.

    I quit reading superheroes in the mid-80s, after a stereotypically bad experience with my local comics store, and I never went back, so I have never learned to read comics that way. I’m a linear sort of a girl, I guess.

  2. Like Brigid, even if I wander across a new web comic in media res, I immediately go back to the start and read it linearly. Presumably start-to-finish is the order in which it’ll make most sense – that’s why almost all webcomics have a ‘<< First' button. However, access to the archive does mean that readers can DISCOVER a quality webcomic in media res (or via word of mouth) and jump on board at any time. So it's a lot easier for a webcomic to become a 'sleeper hit' than it is for a print comic (which is probably axed by issue 2 if no-one's buying it).

    To hook a new reader, it's probably best if a webcomic is INTERESTING within the first 8 pages – probably more like 1-3 given the vast amount of competition. Even Brigid admitted that Gulch won Zuda despite violating the "8 page rule" – presumably because people went "An exploding dog?! I need to see where this is going…". ie. it was interesting.

    Honestly, I think the amount of slack a reader will give a webcomic depends on its format. "Gag-a-day" style comics generally need to deliver their premise up-front very quickly. The natural unit for Zuda is 8 pages, because 8 pages is the length of a Zuda installment. In print comics, readers expect it to take the end of issue #1 before they know what's going on, and I figure they generally give issue-format web comics the same slack.

    Of course that means that webcomic authors with issue-style comics would probably do best to 'hit the ground running' by posting the entire first issue at launch time.

  3. Huh, I’ve always felt that webcomics actually need to be MORE conscious of that 8 page rule then print ones.

    Yeah, if you first start reading a web-comic sometime mid-run when they already have 80 pages you can skip around. But remember, at some point those first 8 pages were the only ones on the site.

    It seems to me most webcomics artists post a page at a time, and it could take anywhere from 2 weeks to 2 months to get 8 pages up.

    If your comic goes for weeks or months without story development or anything at all to pull readers in, something has gone wrong. And, really, it’s just as bad if you do it in the middle of the run. If I’m dying to see whether the space alien got Marcy pregnant, I don’t want to have to wait a damn month to find out while the author screws around with manga-esque establishing shots.

  4. The Zuda format is despicable (I’ve never managed to get into any Zuda comic for that reason) but I think that Alverson makes an important point. Many webcomics, on Zuda and otherwise, rely too much on the concept of “plunging the reader into the world.” This approach has been popular as long as SF has been around, but it’s not always the best approach. It’s hard to keep reading something that makes no sense at all, and the carrot at the end of the stick, the thought that eventually it will make sense if you read enough, is not always a strong enough motivator.

    While I partially agree with Alverson that explanatory content should be incorporated into the comic, I think that supplementary materials are an acceptable tool as well. A typical webcomic has its “New Readers” reference pages, and they can and should contain a few passages of explanatory material. If you must jump right into your story, at least put a helpful guide somewhere on the site. That goes for Zuda and others.

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