The mission statement

If you read genre comics, you know who Mark Waid is – one of the industry’s most respected writers, a thirty-year veteran of commercial superhero comics (and more than a few in other genres). He’s written almost every major character for both Marvel and DC, from his run on The Flash (close to the high water mark of ’90s supers) to his current Eisner-gobbling run on Daredevil.

(Also, I met him once when he was in Australia in the 90s – really, really nice guy.)

Anyway, over at Comics Alliance (a website about comics, but you probably already figured that out) he talks with Chris Sims (another guy whose work I like) about his upcoming run on The Hulk, which is emerging from his work for the last year or so on Indestructible Hulk – and the very first question-and-answer in that interview is something worth discussing:

Comics Alliance: The thing I liked about Indestructible Hulk, and this is something that comes up in a lot of your work, is that you’re a guy who’s big on mission statements and explicitly laying out your direction in a comic. You had that very simple phrase you repeated throughout the book, which was that Hulk destroys and Banner builds.

Mark Waid: I think it’s really important to hit that note. You don’t want to hit readers over the head like they’re completely incapable of picking up on subtlety. At the same time, when you do a first issue, the art and craft of the first issue, something that’s gotten really badly lost in my time in comics, and I’m not saying I’m a master of it either, I’m just very cognizant of it when I sit down to write a first issue of anything, is that the requirement is that it lays out the mission statement. Like the pilot of a TV show, like the first book in a long trilogy, whatever, any sort of serialized entertainment, I want to know what I’m supposed to be getting out of this. It doesn’t mean that you have to know everything, it doesn’t mean there aren’t surprises or twists, but I should know what I’m buying at that point so I know if I should come back.

The rest of the interview is here, and you should read it if you have any interest in the craft of writing comics, or indeed any interest in the Hulk.

Anyway, this idea of a mission statement – the willingness to communicate to your audience just what your story is going to be about, and to do it at the start of your narrative – is a bloody fantastic idea and one that more writers need to embrace.

The most important thing your story has going for it is your personal and unique voice – no doubt about that. But unless your prose style is so distinctive that readers immediately get drawn in by it – unless you’re Nabokov, more or less – then you need to get and keep their attention long enough to get into your voice, rather than stop reading and pick up some other book. That’s particularly the case in genre fiction – no matter how good your fantasy novel, there are lots of other novels out there that seem to be covering the same ground. So you have to make it clear what you’re doing that’s different.

And a great way to do that is by communicating your mission statement – by frontloading your premise (or your theme, if that’s your approach) within the first discrete chunk of your work. For a book, that’s probably your first chapter, or maybe your prologue (and if your prologue doesn’t communicate the point of your book, DELETE DELETE DELETE). For a serial work like a comic or TV show, it’s your first instalment – there’s a reason the concept of the pilot is so strongly entrenched in the TV scriptwriting industry. For a movie, it’s, um, maybe the first ten minutes, or maybe the trailer; for a short story it’s perhaps the first page, maybe even the first paragraph for a flash piece. That’s the point where the rubber hits the road; where you make a case to the reader for sticking with it long enough to fall in love with it rather than changing channel.

(I practice what I preach here, or at least I try to. The first chapter of Raven’s Blood tells you that there’s magic and shenanigans and men in masks, and introduces the main character. The first chapter of The Obituarist tells you what Kendall Barber does for a living, shows you that he’s in trouble and makes some promises about his narrative voice. And the first chapter/instalment of Hotel Flamingo didn’t fuck about with displaying the weirdness. They’re not the greatest books ever written, sure, but you know what you’re getting into early on.)

I get wanting the slow burn, the appeal of carefully developing a world and its texture; I get wanting to take your time. Well, I get it as a writer. As a reader? GET TO THE FUCKING MONKEY. Start off with the mission statement in mind and give me at least the initial outline of it – tell me at least as much of what the story’s going to hold as the blurb does.

Because the slow burn just leaves smoke and ashes; you want to kick off with the fire.

This week I’m talking beginnings; next week I’m talking endings.

Talk to me somewhere in the middle. I’m so lonely.

3 thoughts on “The mission statement

  1. I’m finally closing in on the ending of my manuscript, so I’ll be watching out for next week’s bit.

    All the way through I’ve been casting an askance eye at my opening chapter. I think it’s pretty strong – the lead character shines though, there’s a nice contrast between the everyday and the supernatural, and the events propel the protagonist into action…

    BUT…

    I have this nagging feeling that it’s a great opening chapter for a different book. It’s making thematic promises that the rest of the book doesn’t follow up on. It’s frustrating, because I need the events in it to take place. Even so, I suspect a full rewrite will be in order. Dammit.

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