Webcomics Tutorial – Ideas part 2: 12 Ways To Keep Updating

In the last tutorial I covered how to come up with a new comic idea. This tutorial covers 12 techniques for keeping the ideas flowing with your regular updates. When the story doesn’t write itself, there are tricks to getting past these blocks and to prevent you from getting blocked to begin with. As I said last time, “Where do you get your ideas?” is one of the most common questions creators are asked because we aren’t usually taught how to ideate. Here are 12 ways to help you keep updating your webcomic and avoid creative dry spells.

1. Buffer/Time Management

Hopefully you are working a few weeks ahead (at least) with your comic. I am usually at least a month ahead of schedule and it is no coincidence my TX Comics are the only ones to never miss an update. To make this time for youreslf, which is sooo important for good generating more good ideas and working half baked ones into fully cooked ones, you need a buffer. Try making 2-3 months worth of updates before you put your comic online. This accomplishes a bunch of things. 1) It proves to yourself that you can do this comic. If you can’t do a bunch of pages of your comic without feedback from visitors, you aren’t doing the right comic. You should be working on a comic you are compelled to do whether or not you are sharing it. 2) This is how professionals work. If you wanted to do a daily strip for newspapers you would have to draw months and months worth of samples before any syndicate would shop it around. If you were doing a new comic book (especially as an unproven creator) an editor wants to see a lot of finished pages before they’d be able to make a decision on whether they wanted to carry it or not. If you are doing this more than just a lark, try emulating the professional standard. 3) You have 2-3 months to plot out and draw your next batch of comics. My personal schedule is to find the time to write several updates. Let them gestate for a week at least. Come back and tweak them and sketch them up in pencil. Then go back and ink them. Then find another block of time to colour them. Then another block of time to upload them. Working on the same task for hours at a time allows you to get into a groove.

2. Write It Down

Perhaps the most important piece of advice I can give is to physically make notes. Write things down on paper or type them up on your computer, iPhone, or whatever. You may be struck with an idea while riding your bike, having dinner, waking up from a dream, anywhere. Our memories are only so good. Get in the habit of taking a break from what you are doing and making a note of any kernels of ideas you come up with. Then later, sort them in a way that you can have easy access to them. I have a a few different repositories for ideas. One for Princess Planet gag ideas, one for more adult humour, one for general story ideas etc.

It’s also important to make time to sit down and just think of ideas. When you do this, making notes is a good way to keep things going. Your mind can only hold so many ideas at the forefront. You may be trying to come up with a romantic scene for your comic and you’re thinking “Flowers, serenades, poem, chocolates, valentines, hearts, sunset, park, gazeebo… etc” and you have already forgotten the first thing you thought of . Then when you think of paper folding 30 seconds later you don’t end up combining it with flowers in a great scene of the boyfriend folding 100s of origami flowers for his sweetheart. Personally, I have a really good memory. In my circle of friends and family, I’m often the go-to source for filling in half-remembered recollections. Yet even I write things down when coming up with ideas because it’s so little work for so many more elements to play with.

3. Brainstorming

We’ve all done brainstorming in school but this is a bit different. (For one, in school you brainstorm as a group, and I believe the best way to brainstorm is on your own and then bring your best ideas to the group so you’ve already sorted through the chaff). You should set up your brainstorming structurally. When I go to write my gags for The Princess Planet or Alex & Charlie, I pick something to brainstorm about. It can be something I want to draw (pirates, winter, candy), something I think my characters would get involved in (running a race, cheating on a test, first day of school), a storyline I want to adapt the characters into (Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella) or anything else that interests me. Then I write down a few different categories to help my brain along: Living Things, Stuff, Events, Verbs, Phrases and Places. I try to have at least 4 for each category but way more is way better. Then I also include opposites of these things. Before the page is filled I’ve usually got a bunch of different connections I had never thought to make before.

Which results in a slew of Gorgon comics like this one:

If you’re more of a visual thinker, you can also do this with drawings. Fill a page with little iconic images and notice where any of them seem to have a connection or spark an idea.

Which resulsts in Christmas Cards like this:

4. Lists

Brainstorming is basically listing off ideas, but it’s also a good idea to have lists of things that can help you “plug and play” into your stories. Are you doing an action story? Come up with a list of things that would look awesome if they exploded or got broken in a fight scene. Are you doing a comedy? Come up with a list of funny sounding food (Food’s always funny, check any Weird Al album). A mystery? Come up with a list of motives like the ones listed here:

Anger Hunger Dare
Power Intoxicated Humour
Love Sex Boredom
Art Experience Spite
Revenge Prevenge Fear
Unknowingly Mind-controlled Blackmailed
Threatened Initiation Test
Compassion As a favour Peer pressure
Hate Instinct Inherited motive

Once you have lists you can overlay them with other lists. Like make up a list of events that might happen in a city. Combine that with your list of city locations. Does that help? Is an alleyway during Mardis Gras better than a regular alley? Is the school more interesting on the day the janitor throws the balls of the roof? Does Halloween give your setting more colour?

5. The Magic If

The Stanislavski Method is taught to actors to help them explore their characters and become more at home in their roles. Since a comic creator is not only writer, set designer and director, but also responsible for the acting, you can learn a lot from his techniques. The most important for generating story ideas is “The Magic If”. What would your characters do if you they were in certain situations? This can help you understand the differences between your characters and give you interesting situations to place your characters into.

You can start by making a list of weird situations, especially ones with moral questions to them. Big ones like “What if this person saw a murder?” “What if this person won the lottery?” or simple ones like “What if this person went to a zoo?” or “What if this person bumped into their old school teacher”. Pick some situations from your life, some from your daydreams, some from the headlines and some from from fiction. Here’s a bunch of different characters who encounter a lost wallet.

Now imagine what happens when two of your characters are in the same situation. How do things change? If they found a wallet with their friend there is there an argument over what to do with it? Does one character try to hide some of their actions from the other? If they both agree to do the same thing it might be a way to show bonding, but if there’s no conflict it might be better to skip that and come up with a new situation to throw your characters into.

6. All Ears

Another great way to get ideas is to overhear things. You might hear a snippet of a conversation on a bus or street corner or mall that you can extrapolate. Who are these people, and what is the context for this weird conversation?

Even better for writing comedy is mis-hearing (or mis-reading) things. I misheard someone say Camouflage as Camel Floss and that led to this gag. It comes back to the idea of writing things down and making notes.

You need to be all ears metaphorically too, open to new ideas whenever they might appear. How many times have you been playing a video game, watching a movie or reading a comic and thought “It would have been better if this had happened” or “I hope this happens next!” and then it doesn’t happen. You can write that story yourself. It even makes your Hollywood pitch easier. “It’s like Silence of the Lambs but instead of using the criminal’s expertise to solve a crime spree, the detective is secretly using it to commit a crime spree!”

7. Music

Karl Kerschl, of The Abominable Charles Christopher likes to listen to soundtracks to inspire new scenes in his head. It works best with soundtracks to movies he hasn’t seen, or hasn’t seen frequently, so there isn’t already a strong association with a visual. Most soundtracks are great because they are full of mood, impact and no lyrics. You can set your mind up by thinking of your characters in certain scenarios or settings and then letting them go to the cues of the music.

8. Asking For Help

It’s hard to think in a vacuum, so it’s often good to ask someone else for their assistance. This in itself can be a tricky problem. You need to ask the right people the right questions. I have a friend Steve who has a similar sense of humour to me, and who I know will help me craft a joke in a style similar to my own. But if I want help with a super hero story, my friend J. is better to consult. And my wife, who is patient with and supportive of me, has a very different approach to storytelling and jokes than I do. So I know asking her for help usually forces me to completely rethink the way I’m approaching something, which is not so good if I feel it just needs a few tweaks but fantastic if it is fundamentally broken.

(an example of a comic my wife helped me write)

Surrounding yourself with people who also make comics or art will help you connect with people who can sympathize and offer well suited advice. If you don’t have friends from your schooling, the net is full of communities of creative people who are looking to share, critique and grow. Feel free to check out the TX Comics forums where you might find someone to lend a hand.

Of course you don’t want to rely too much on other people for ideas. If you go to that well too often, the person may get tied of helping you out. You need to ask when you’re really stuck or when you have a partner in crime who really enjoys bandying ideas about with you. In either case you need to make sure you’re asking the right questions. Sometimes you can have a half finished apple and someone will tell you how to make an orange. So spend some time coming up with what it is exactly you are having problems with. Why isn’t your comic working? Is it the punchline or the set up? Is it the setting or the action? You should be able to explain to your helper in only a few minutes or paragraphs what your problem is. For instance, “Yo bud. I need to think of a sick place for a fight scene – got any ideas?” is not giving your helper much information. Show them that you’ve been thinking about the problem and inform them of your hunches, missteps and requirements. Otherwise it can be a waste of time. If the question is so open it’s likely they will either ignore it or give you something you can’t use. Try something more like:

“Hey J, I know I want to have a fight between my super hero and my villain’s #1 henchmen somewhere with lots of extra fun danger but I can’t think of where the robbery is taking place. I already used a museum in Act1 and an art gallery seems too similar. The good guys are based out of the university labs so I don’t want to use that either. Where could they steal the next part of the precious artifact within a big city’s limits? The final fight against the main boss is going to be in his lair at the zoo, so that’s out too. Anything spring to mind?”

That’s way more specific and shows the other person that you’ve done work on this problem. You’re not just relying on someone else to help you like a crutch.

9. Clichés

Clichés are ideas that a lot of people have latched onto and used because they seem to work. Being aware of the over-used story elements in your chosen genre can help you come up with new ideas. You can start a scene that’s cliché and then go in a direction with it that no else ever has. For instance, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is based on reversing the horror staple of a pretty blonde girl in a dark alleyway being stalked by a nasty monster. In Buffy, the girl isn’t the helpless one – it’s the vampire. The show keeps using that technique and has many scenes that start the expected way and then takes a sharp turn to the left. You can do that too if you make a list of what other people have done before. For example, cliché elements from cop movies include

  • handing in a badge and gun
  • a renegade cop who doesn’t play by the rules teamed up with a by-the-book police officer
  • a blustery sergeant who yells at the protagonist that he’s in big trouble again over his latest stunt
  • commandeering a citizen’s vehicle for a car chase
  • a cop who’s only days away from retirement dying in the first scene of the movie
  • someone who can tell by tasting a wet-pinky-worth of cocaine that the drug is pure
  • a cop bound by his own handcuffs in an industrial space wired to explode

You might come up with a new spin on one of these, like commandeering a car from someone who’s driving a pregnant woman to the hospital and needs to be dropped off along the way. Or a cop who’s only a couple of days away from retirement who kills someone for the first time and what it’s like to deal with that for someone who’s getting into the golden years and won’t have access to the police psychologist. Or something way better.

If you want to go beyond what you and your friends can think of, the website TV Tropes is a fantastic resource for a funny look at all sorts of recurring themes and elements from popular culture.

10. Hitting A Brick Wall

It can be a real pain in the butt when you are chugging along with your comic and then you come to a scene you just can’t figure out. How would this character break the bad news? How do I get the characters from the airport to the the hideout safely? I don’t think I can draw any more pages with the character in this overly-complicated costume!

If it’s an important scene (like “How would this character break the bad news?”) it’s worth really applying as many brainstorming techniques as you can and working through it. Most writers have lots of half finished scripts that they’ll come back to when they finally figure out the missing piece of the puzzle. If you’re doing it in a regular webcomic you might not have that luxury. You might have to come up with a solution sooner rather than later. So, what can you do?

You don’t include that scene. You can jump to another character at another location for a few weeks to buy you time. If that doesn’t work, you can then jump ahead in time and come back in after the big scene has taken place. It may be easier to write people’s reaction to the scene instead of the scene itself. Whether the news breaker or the news receiver is your protagonist, you can focus on how they react the next day, and share with someone else (in brief snippets) what happened off screen. It can become more mysterious if other people have to guess why the character is acting so differently than the day before. Or it can become more personal for that character because the scene becomes about the character’s reaction to the big event, instead of it being about the big event itself.

Time passes in your comic as you want it to.

If it’s a mechanical question (like How do I get the characters from the airport to the the hideout safely?) you also solve it by cutting it out. If people are invested in your comic they will go along for the ride with you, even if there are a couple of query comments on that day’s update. It might be that what seems like a major roadblock in your head doesn’t register on the radar of most readers. You can just have “At the hideout” as a caption and the readers don’t care if the heroes ran, drove, cycled, hitch-hiked or crawled to the hideout. You’re telling the reader “The story of how they got there is not important. What happens at the hideout is.” Other than the occasional inquisitive mind, they’ll believe you and roll with it.

If your problem is an art one (like I don’t think I can draw any more pages with the character in this overly-complicated costume!) it’s the same thing. As soon as you can, cut from that scene to where the background and costumes change. It’s okay to cut a scene short and move to an inevitable conclusion. If it’s an action scene you can just cut to the scene where the protagonist is waking up in the enemy’s jail stripped of their costume. Or if it’s a romantic comedy dinner you can cut to the second date, or the morning after. You can even pick up the conversation where you left it off, as if they’ve been discussing it for a long time. Or they are replaying the conversation, summing up what happened for someone who wasn’t there.

Remember you can always sum up things with a line or two of dialogue. “…and then we beat up the rest of the goons and returned the lost artifacts to the museum. Now, let’s see if the mayor is safe”. These are all cheats, and all writers and artists use cheats to get through difficult patches of work. Things are different for webcomics because you’re posting the story as it goes. Very few people have their whole story written before they put it up online. It’s usually a write-as-you-go thing, staying only a few weeks or months ahead of the update deadline. So, as long as you aren’t going to that well too often you probably aren’t going to be “caught” cheating.

A Note On Hand Waving

While I have encouraged stuck writers to simply skip over a problem in the story, it is weak story telling to set up a mystery or big problem for the protagonist that is solved by hand waving. Big puzzles that you have set to your readers as well as your characters, deserve solutions. Please plan your big problems out in advance. That way, the fun the readers have guessing the answer to your enigma isn’t rendered pointless.

There is a willingness in your audience that usually accepts your made up premises, like a corpse made from other corpses brought to life by lightning. Mary Shelley used this setup to ponder what would happen if men could give birth, not just women. Like her, you can use wildly speculative science, magic or religion to explore an idea. If you use wildly speculative forces to resolve an antagonism you are cheating your reader. When you have the cops discover who the killer is by finding something on the magic box that is the internet, that’s lazy writing. When you have the big problem with the spaceship suddenly fixed when the chief engineers reverses the polarity on the flux capacitors, that’s lazy writing. When you have the hand of god come down and smite your villain on behalf of the hero, that’s lazy writing. So plan ahead.

11. Angry as a Rattlesnake

Anger might seem like a negative emotion but it’s great at spurring us to do things. Sometimes we don’t have the power to change the things that anger us but we can channel that anger into a piece of art (like a webcomic) that will allow you to connect with others. It can be something trivial like the annoyance of people who don’t bother to stand right/walk left on escalators. Or it can be something heavy like a political viewpoint. There’s a danger in working from anger that you can become ranty or preachy. Once you’ve used anger to find the passion that will sustain your project or at least one update, there are a couple of ways to temper your anger and make it more palatable.

One way is with humour. A well placed word or thought can change a screed into something you whisper cattily to your best friend. “Those fat cats on Wall Street ripped us off!” is a rant. “It looks like those fat cats have confused Wall Street with Easy Street” becomes a joke and still gets across the same point. It will probably become easier for the reader to retell your viewpoint as a joke, thus getting your viewpoint out to more people.

Here’s a comic I made out of my frustration over the appropriation of death imagery by the mainstream:

You can also disguise your elements by using a metaphor. If you say “This story is about touchy subject X” people want to know “Is it pro-X or anti-X” because they’ve usually already made up their mind on the subject. The best Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror writing has always tricked us with window dressings. You get halfway through the story, or maybe even to the ending before you realize the whole thing’s an allegory that can show us some differing, in-depth viewpoints. Want to have a serious talk about both sides of the abortion issue? Use the idea of AI developing in a robot. Do you have an opinion of the two party system? Maybe it works as two rival kingdoms in medieval fantasy? Or can you turn your personal bugaboo into a horror monster in the way vampires can represent societal parasites, zombies can be mindless citizens and Frankenstein monsters serve as science run amok?

12. Change Your Space

If you’re writing a chase scene sitting a desk it can be hard. Go to the location you have in mind and look around. Where could someone hide? Where would you go if you had to get a better lay of the land? What might be picked up as a weapon? What might be knocked over as an obstacle for the pursuers? All of these questions will pop to mind as you walk around a space. As a bonus you can bring along a digital camera and take some reference shots for when you want to draw it. You’ll probably want to bring something to take notes with too, so you can add to your lists from earlier. One trip may give you enough material for many, many updates.

Of course this only works if you’re writing something set in a world similar to the one you have physical access to but even just getting out of the house and writing in a new location you may find is enough of a change of headspace that it gets you thinking fresh. Also, don’t forget Google Maps Street View can give you a feel for another city’s layout. You’ve been to Paris and have set a section of your comic there but don’t know what sort of view the romantic restaurant will have? Zoom around online!

The key to success with coming up with ideas is to keep at it. Use any or all of the methods, switching from one to another if one’s becoming stale or being unhelpful. Unlike switching from pen to brush or watercolour to computer colour, switching from one way to brainstorm to another won’t be noticed by your readers. Good luck!

If you enjoyed this tutorial, you may want to check out my book



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3 Responses to Webcomics Tutorial – Ideas part 2: 12 Ways To Keep Updating

  1. Pingback: Sequential | Canadian Comics News & Culture

  2. Mark Stokes says:

    Wow,
    Just came across this article. You really did your homework! Lots of great little gems in here. Might be one of the best I’ve read on generating strip ideas. Thanks for taking time to put this together…

  3. PaMdora says:

    Great article, lots of good brain-storming advice that could apply to variety of art forms. Thanks!

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