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 Pie — in 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.