Jovial John Ostrander (SUICIDE SQUAD, THE SPECTRE) stopped by the Recondite Pictures lot to hold court and let us a peek into the mind of the seasoned writer of long runs for ultra-powerful superheroes and endearing villains.
Here's what he said:
RP: What is the trick to writing a good villain?
JO: Same as writing any other character. You need to know what drives the character, what they want, and you have to identify with them or the reader won’t. Villains generally don’t think of themselves as villains; they believe they have every right to do as they’re doing. There is something they want and you have to know what it is.
RP: How do you structure your stories?
JO: According to the need of the book. Am I doing a single issue or an arc? If a single issue, is it a fill-in, a one-off? There are basics that you need to get out there – who, what, where, why, when, and how? What’s at stake? Who wants what and how far are they willing to go to get it? What’s REALLY at stake? Each scene should follow from the previous in such a way as it makes good narrative sense and leads to a natural climax. You don’t want the reader to see the seams or the structure; that takes them out of the story.
RP: How long does it take you to write a single issue? Take us through the process.
JO: It depends. I HAVE done a fill-in story over a week-end from concept to finished script but generally it will take a week to ten days. You start with the pitch – the general idea of the story. You and your editor agree to what it is. This is about a paragraph long. What’s the concept, the basic situation, and what’s at stake. If you don’t interest the editor you won’t interest the reader (mainly because they’ll never see it.) Some editors want a one sentence pitch.
From there, you go to synopsis or outline. All the elements of the story are in it – plot, character, theme and so on. For a single issue, this can be about three pages. Some editors want a single page. For an arc, it’ll be longer, indicating where each issue ends, and the final resolution. Mine generally are about 5-10 pages depending on how much I put in. This is the backbone of the story – if it doesn’t work here, it won’t work in print.
Once this is approved, it either goes to full script or to the artist. Plot first means the artist draws it from the plot and I dialogue it afterwards. I generally like to do at least a page breakdown and, if possible, a page/panel breakdown. One clear action per panel. Full script is just that – everything is in it before the artist sees it. Panel description, caption boxes, word and thought balloons and sound effects. If it’s full script, I may not see the art before it’s published.
RP: Who are some of your writing heroes?
JO: Denny O’Neil, Stan Lee. Shakespeare (not kidding and not just the language; look at how he melds theme and plot). Peter O’Donnell (Modesty Blaise). Will Eisner. Samuel Beckett. Charles Dickens. So many many more.
RP: What is the most important thing a newer writer needs to keep in mind?
JO: Know more than you show. You have to know lots about the character, concepts, setting, et al but you don’t reveal it all. Show, don’t tell. Action defines character and dialogue is action.
RP: What aspect of writing is hardest for you?
JO: Plotting. Like I said, it’s the backbone. It has to work or the story won’t.
RP: Are there any common writing mistakes you notice in today's books that bugs you? How can it be fixed?
JO: “Cleverness”. Solution: just focus on telling a good story. That said, there’s a LOT of good writing out there today.
RP: What are the best scene transitions?
JO: I’m not concerned with transitions. However, I do have favorite tricks. A voice-over caption box at the start of one scene that complete a line from the last panel of the previous scene and can help link things but, generally, just make sure the flow works from one scene to the next. You’re trying to lead up to a climax.
RP: Why are stories important?
JO: They’re how we make sense of the chaos of the world around us. It’s how we share feelings, experiences, ideas – everything that makes us human.
RP: What do you do to keep an ongoing series fresh and on the right track?
JO: Look to the essence of the character, of the concept. In an effort to stay fresh, you can wander away from that. Scrape off the barnacles and get back to the essentials.
RP: What comics of yours should readers seek out in the back issue bins?