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Friday, May 4, 2007

Alan Moore on Idea vs Plot

Comic book writer Alan Moore explains the difference between idea and plot in his essay Writing for Comics from 1985. This distinction is not limited to comic books, but covers the whole creative process. Alan writes:

[W]e may as well get the more intangible and abstract element out of the way first before processing to the finer and more precise aspects of the craft. A good starting point would perhaps be the aspect that lies at the very heart of any creative process: the idea.

The idea is what the story is about; not the plot of the story, or the unfolding of events within that story, but what the story is essentially about. As an example from my own work (not because it’s a particularly good example but because I can speak with more authority about it than I can about the work of other people) I would cite issue #40 of Swamp Thing, “The Curse.” This story was about the difficulties endured by women in masculine societies, using the common taboo of menstruation as the central motif. This was not the plot of the story – the plot concerned a young married woman moving into a new home built upon the site of an old Indian lodge and finding herself possessed by the dominating spirit that still resided there, turning her into a form of werewolf. I hope the distinction here is clear between idea and plot, because it’s an important one and one ignored by too many writers. Most comic book stories have plots in which the sole concern is the struggle between two or more antagonists. The resolution of the struggle, usually involving some deus ex machina display of a superpower, is the resolution of the plot as well. Beyond the most vague and pointless banality like “Good will always triumph over evil” there is no real central idea in the majority of comics, other than the iea of conflict as interesting in itself.

Naturally, the idea needn’t always be a deep, meaningful and significant one. There are lots of different kinds of ideas, ranging from the “What if...?" ideas that lie behind most science-fiction writing to the idea of everyday life as seen in the work of Harvey Pekar or Eddie Campbell. “What if..." ideas are the basis for most short science-fiction stories of the “future shock” variety, examples from my own work being short five-pge items like “The Reversible Man” (What if people perceived time as running the opposite way?), “A Place in the Sun” (What if it were possible for human beings to live on the sun?”) or “Grawks Bearing Gifts” (What if a group of coarse and vulgar aliens did to our society what our society did to the Red Indians and other aboriginal tribes?). The nature of the idea isn’t really important, what is important is simply that there is an idea in there somewhere. It can be silly and frivolous, perhaps just a single gag idea, or it can be complex and profound. The only thing that the idea should definitely be is interesting on some level or another – whether as a brief entertainment designed to hold the attention for five minutes or a lengthier and more thoughtful work intended to engage the mind long after the comic has been put down.

Alan goes on to describe where ideas come from (they “germinate at a point of cross-fertilization between one’s artistic influences and one’s own experience”), and to elaborate on why you don’t need to always start with an idea, but that you may be able to introduce it a later point. The whole essay is definitely worth a read, if not for the very specific discussions of the comic book craft, which feels a bit dated – Alan admits as much in a new afterword – but for the general concepts like above, which tell you much about the creative process as well as the kind of thinking that goes into the work of a very creative person.

[Photo of Alan Moore Creative Commons-licensed by Rachel 2006.]


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