How to Format and Submit Graphic Novels

Are you an agent or publisher accepting graphic novel submissions? Get the best work in your slush by giving clear submission guidelines like these

Pop Quiz

Question 1: What do you need to get your graphic novel published? (Choose all that apply)

  • A writer
  • An artist
  • A colorist
  • A penciller
  • An inker
  • A letterer
  • Thousands of fans
  • A pitch or proposal
  • An artist portfolio
  • A dummy (sketched mock-up of finished work)
  • A complete manuscript
  • A complete script in comics format
  • A completely finished, inked/colored work

Question 2: Once you’ve got everything ready, how do you get your graphic novel published?

A: Self-publish online or digitally.

B: Crowdfund and then publish using a print-on-demand company.

C: Send a query letter to an agent, who will represent you in finding a publisher.

D: Send a proposal to a comics publisher.

E: Send a proposal to a literary publisher.

Answers: Any of the above have worked in the past. It all depends. But don’t worry, I’ll do my best to demystify the best solution for your goals.

formatgnbanner

Contents

How are graphic novels published?

Graphic novels, I tell you. They’re published by comics publishers and literary publishers. They’re self-published, they’re crowdfunded, they’re submitted through agents, they’re submitted without agents. Though the medium of graphic novels has been in the literary world for decades now, writers, agents, and acquisitions editors still have no universally standard format or submission policy.

As a freelance editor for comics and graphic novels, I wanted to be able to provide these clients with a resource like the Formatting a Novel Manuscript post I made for my fiction clients. Through my research and correspondence with agents, editors, and comic creators, I’ve found a variety of submission possibilities to share with you.

Illustrated and hybrid novels

Illustrated novels are prose novels with occasional (or multiple) illustrations, like Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children and dozens of chapter books. Their pages will look more like prose manuscripts. It’s more precise to call these “illustrated novels” in your query letter. Link to images you’re providing, or include brief illustration notes in brackets.

[Illustration: Like this]

Hybrid or multimedia novels include sections of concrete poetry, imagery or ephemera which are not supplemental, but integral. The visual aspects are meant to be read or analyzed along with the text, like IlluminaeHouse of Leaves, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Closeor Ship of Theseus. A hybrid novel might be part comic panels, part sketches, part handwritten notes, part typed prose, part photographs. If you are creating the graphic aspects of your novel, then also consider yourself the “illustrator” below.

What’s your destination?

To figure out which route you should take to get a graphic novel published, you need to understand your goal.

  • Do you want to work for a well-known comics publisher (like Marvel, DC, Image, or Dark Horse)?
  • Do you want to assemble your own team of artists, writers, colorists, and letterers?
  • Do you want to write and illustrate a graphic novel to be published with traditional literary publishers?
  • Do you just want to make the art for graphic novels?
  • Do you just want to write graphic novels?

Recommended routes for each:

If you want to work for a well-known comics publisher, you can try to get an internship, but the best way to become part of the comics world is to create an amazing portfolio of either illustration or writing samples, network with creators, and self-publish a short comic or zine by yourself or with a team of creators (see next paragraph). You can pitch your work at comic cons, recruiters can find your comics online and hire you that way, or you can join a comics community like Comics Experience, which includes a workshop and has options for publishing with IDW. Skip to the Comic Format section below to see how to format your comic scripts.

If you want to assemble your own team of creators, your first step is likely to be self-publishing. If you don’t care about being paid and just need the experience or exposure or portfolio, create a webcomic. Tapastic and Tumblr are both popular venues for webcomics, but if you have a big enough fan base, you can publish on your own website, like The Dreamer or XKCD. Some successful webcomics get book deals. Nimona, my favorite graphic novel of 2015, started as a webcomic and was published by Harper (a literary publisher—Stevenson has a literary agent). The Dreamer turned into three graphic novel volumes of comics, published by IDW (a comics publisher—Innes entered the agreement with IDW as an independent creator). Hark, a Vagrant! has gotten Kate Beaton an agent and several book deals. You might also find good success crowdfunding your graphic novel on Kickstarter. Of course, you could also become your own publisher and use a print-on-demand service to sell at cons or turn them into eBooks or PDFs to sell online.

If you want to write and illustrate a graphic novel to be published traditionally, you can do what Innes or Stevenson or Beaton did above and get your work out there first, or you can create a graphic novel proposal to send to agents. If you don’t have a complete, finished graphic novel to pitch, you’ll need a link to your portfolio (see resources in next paragraph) and a complete script.

If you want to do pencils or inks or colors, you’ll need to create an outstanding portfolio. Then you’ll do portfolio reviews to meet editors and art directors, or you’ll get an agent, who will share your work with acquisitions editors and art directors. I have heard nothing but good things about Chris Oatley’s online Painting Drama class. Oatley did character design for Disney, and his students learn how to instill deep emotional impact into their drawings and paintings–exactly what art directors are looking for. If you’d like to illustrate graphic novels and picture books for children in particular, I highly recommend KidLit411 as a resource.

If you just want to write graphic novels, you’ll need to read a lot and write a lot in your genre. Then you’ll need to write an entire script and a) query an agent to represent your script, or b) send your script to a comics publisher open to script submissions.

Graphic Novel Script and Manuscript Formats

Comic Script Formats

You may have heard of the Marvel Method, and you might have seen Alan Moore’s micromanaging scripts, but unless you are Stan Lee or Alan Moore, I recommend using Dark Horse’s suggested format. See and download a host of comic script examples at the Comic Book Script Archive and at Comics Experience’s Script Archive.

If you are really serious about writing comics, I cannot recommend Superscript enough. (This is not a paid nor requested endorsement.) Superscript is built for comics writers and has comics-specific short codes and automatic smart formatting. You can also export to PDF or Word in a number of formatting styles. It has saved me SO MANY HOURS of formatting time. See pricing and get a one week free trial.

Formats for writer/illustrators

As both writer and illustrator, you can write your script however you’d like, as long as you have a complete graphic novel to show for it or it’s legible enough for an agent to read. See how Innes and Oatley, both writer/illustrators, wrote and formatted their own scripts here. Innes uses a modified comic script, and Oatley writes his more like a screenplay. At the link, you can download their script pages and see how the script changed from draft to pencils to final colored pages.

Formats for writers seeking literary agents (and literary publishers)

If you’re looking for a literary agent and are not illustrating, read what agents are looking for below. Whether you write a more classic comics-like script or write more of a screenplay style, include golden details to guide and ground the illustrator. If you are writing real-life or historical settings or characters, add links to photos or videos for references. Tell the story through action and dialogue and, if necessary, captions. Shannon Hale, a NYT best-selling novelist, shares her style for graphic novels here (Update: this link has sadly now been removed. Check out Chris Oatley’s scripts in the previous section and read Brent’s preferences below).

What agents are looking for

If you’re wondering what comics publishers are looking for, see this Definitive List of submission guidelines.

Bree Ogden wants a query letter with a link to the script and/or artwork. She wants scripts in the comic style.

1. I look for proper formatting. Little mistakes here and there are fine. But screenplay formatting and/or prose are unacceptable. It shows me so many things, namely that you’re not familiar with the genre you want to write in.

2. Outside of formatting, I look for things like: are the captions too long? Does the dialogue in the panel give enough information without being verbose? I usually storyboard the first few pages (if it’s just a script without sample panels) and see how it pans out as an actual graphic novel. You’d be surprised how easy it is to make a mess of captions!

3. I look to see that the writer has a grasp on description and an eye for detail. This makes working with an artist so much easier.

[…]

It should look like this:

Dear Agent,

Blah blah *query letter* blah blah.

I’d love for you to take a look at the first five pages of my graphic novel script and some sample art. You can view both on my website http://www.___________.com. The password to view the script is __________.

[Closing remarks]

(Read the full article on LitReactor)

 

Brent Taylor wants a query with scripts written in a less formal style:

I typically prefer a query along with sample script pages pasted into the body of the message, with a link to art or samples attached as a PDF. The one thing that I will say that is more craft related is that I really like GN scripts to be written in a more “Hollywood” way. When GN writers get too caught up in art direction and minute details [like Moore’s style!] it detracts from the character and story, and I find it’s much easier to sell a GN when the script is written in a really readable manner for those who aren’t as familiar with formal comic formats.

(Source: Personal communication)

What? Bree and Brent want completely opposite things in their scripts? Bree describes a comic-like graphic novel with panel breakdowns. She probably has connections with comics publishers. Brent is looking for more prose-like graphic novel scripts, which means he’s probably not going to submit your script to comics publishers; he’s going to submit it to book publishers.

Generally agents want different things depending on whether you’re also illustrating the graphic novel.

If you are writing only, send a query letter once your script is complete and polished. Check submission guidelines to see if you can paste the first five pages below your query letter or include a link to your first five pages in your bio paragraph.

If you are illustrating and your script is complete, send a query letter with a link to your portfolio and sample pages (unless the agency requests proposals in their submission guidelines).

If you are illustrating and your script is not complete, send a cover letter and proposal (unless the agency requests something else in their submission guidelines).

Some more agent responses:

Please research agents and publishers before you submit or sign any contract. Inclusion in this post is not endorsement. I also do not update this post if/when agent wishlists change.

Editor responses:

  • Rachel Stark is accepting MG graphic novel submissions at Sky Pony Press. Email cover letter and attach complete script. If illustrating, attach first three chapters as a PDF. If your work is complete, you can include a link to your finished work.
  • McKelle George is looking for hybrid novels like Illuminae or A Monster Calls for Jolly Fish Press. She’d prefer a proposal or a link to complete work.
  • See editorial preferences for comics publishers here

Difference between a query and a proposal

Query letters are like cover letters.

A query letter is a one-page pitch addressed to an individual agent which gives the details of the story’s characters, goals, and obstacles. Don’t tell the ending, but make the reader need to know what comes next. Include a short paragraph with details about the graphic novel: title, genre, and word count (page count only if you have an idea of how your graphic novel will be laid out, and it’s within standards). Give a 1- to 2-sentence bio, and then sign the letter/email. You can send query letters to any number of agents, but address them to each personally, and before you submit, be sure to check each agency’s submission guidelines and whether they even accept graphic novels.

See an example of a successful query for a graphic novel.

If you are writing but not illustrating, only send query letters when your script is complete.

If an agent asks for samples of pages or artwork, never include attachments unless expressly asked to do so. Instead, paste text at the bottom of the email or include a link to your portfolio or pages in your bio paragraph.

Proposals are like interviews.

A proposal is a multi-page pitch which proves that you are capable of entering into a contract to complete a graphic novel. In other words, you may not have a complete graphic novel finished, but you do have a complete grasp of what you need to finish it. Check with the agency or publisher’s guidelines to see what they require. Some things you might be required to include:

  • A cover letter (generally required)—one page, addressed to appropriate person by name—who are you, what do you write or make, and why are you a good fit for this agency’s or publisher’s line-up?
  • A CV—usually optional unless you have prior publications to include
  • Synopsis (usually required)—full synopsis of what happens in the story, from beginning to end
  • Sample chapters (generally required for writers or teams)—usually 3 chapters or 10,000 words
  • Sample artwork (generally required for artists or teams)—the best pieces in your portfolio. Try to pick images which tell a story and set a scene; posed pin-ups or portraits are not the best choice for a storytelling proposal

Formatting, Submitting, and Publishing Graphic Novels | LaraWillard.com

Did you find this information useful?

  • Please share on social media! ❤
  • Consider subscribing to StoryCadet.com, my online portal for writing workshops. I offer courses in drafting, revision, and pitching/querying. By subscribing, you’ll be notified when courses will be offered.
  • If you’d like to book me for editing services, I have a page just for visual narratives (graphic novels, comics, picture books) on my editing site.

What Pop Songs Teach Us about Voice

We’re going to play a game: Name that tune. Can you name the songs listed below? No cheating! I picked a variety of decades and artists. See if you can name them all.

  1. You may say I’m a dreamer / but I’m not the only one
  2. A singer in a smoky room / a smell of wine and cheap perfume
  3. Hanging out the passenger side /of his best friend’s ride / trying to holler at me
  4. Gold teeth and a curse for this town were all in my mouth.
  5. We count our dollars on the train to the party.

What Pop Songs Can Teach Us about Writing Voice

That first song has a line which grabs your attention.

The second line sets the scene with sensory details.

The third comes from a song that defined a term for a generation. But it doesn’t tell us the [Urban] Dictionary definition straight out—it shows us through a scene.

The fourth song uses a handful of similes and other fresh imagery.

The fifth song characterizes the singer and her friends.

Together, these five songs show how important a unique voice is—and how popular a strong one can become.

How do you improve voice?

The opposite of strong voice is a generic, impersonal one. To create a strong voice, do the following.

  • Be relatable and understandable. (Don’t write in a way that the reader can’t follow. Don’t try to spell out dialect or accents phonetically.)
  • Use sensory detail that your character would notice.
  • Show what you mean using people or situations unique to your character’s experiences.
  • Use similes and metaphors. Revise cliches into fresh imagery.
  • Characterize through specific word choice.

Writing Exercise—Fifteen Blinks

Option One: Read this to find out what a Fifteen Blinker is. Choose five to ten specific words or images from one of the songs below and write a Fifteen Blinker using those words.

Option Two: Pick a song with memorable lyrics. Look up those lyrics. Rewrite the song by swapping out the words and imagery for those of another character’s point of view. Some ideas:

  • One of your characters
  • Romeo, the lovestruck Shakespearean teenager
  • A pothead (e.g. one of Cheech’s, Chong’s, or Seth Rogen’s portrayals)
  • A proper British lady trying desperately to impress her in-laws
  • A man who has been cryogenically frozen through several decades and just woke up
  • A seven-year-old who wishes to be a princess
  • A toddler

Want more writing exercises? See my tag. Want some critique partners to exchange work with? Join the community at StoryWorldCon. Want a writing workshop tailored to your work and your budget? Choose your course at StoryWorldCon. Subscribe to my blog for course dates!

Answers:

Click on the links below to read the full lyrics.

  1. “Imagine,” John Lennon
  2. “Don’t Stop Believing,” Journey
  3. “No Scrubs,” TLC
  4. “New Slang,” The Shins
  5. “Royals,” Lorde

I’ve been listening to The Shins for years, but I never actually paid attention to the lyrics in “New Slang” until today. As I referenced above, they’re full of great imagery:

  • Turn me back into the pet I was when we met.
  • I’d ‘a danced like the king of the eyesores
  • New slang when you notice the stripes, the dirt in your fries.
  • Hope it’s right when you die, old and bony.
  • Dawn breaks like a bull through the hall

Every time “Royals” comes on the radio (which is very frequently), I am awed by the fantastic diction. This was written by a fifteen year old: 

  • I’ve never seen a diamond in the flesh / I cut my teeth on wedding rings in the movies
  • We’re driving Cadillacs in our dreams
  • And we’ll never be royals. / It don’t run in our blood, / That kind of luxe just ain’t for us.

What song has your favorite lyrics? I remember in tenth grade English needing to bring a song in to share with the class. I brought Fiona Apple’s cover of “Across the Universe.”

Act Three: The Final Exam (NaNoWriMo Final Week)

Psst…Are you on Twitter? If so, follow @LaraEdits! Today I tweeted the difference between formal and fiction writing.

Act3-Final-exam

Posts in this series so far:

I talk about the second act in my series on plot. Here I’ll continue examining how these 8 C’s of Plotting combine with Theme in Toy Story‘s second act.

Last time we left Woody, his motivation changed—instead of being motivated by his desire for position (both the physical spot on Andy’s bed and as the head honcho among toys), he’s now motivated by a desire to be a good friend. The “Break into 3” is the comprehension, as you’ll remember:

Comprehension

BUZZ
Come on, Sheriff. There’s a kid
over in that house who needs us.
Now let’s get you out of this thing.

WOODY
Yes Sir!

Once out of the gloom, the character needs to make a new plan, which starts Act Three.

Act Three

Act Three’s Action, Curveball, Final Battle, Culmination, and Resolution are similar to Act Two’s Preparation and Problems through its Elation period. Here’s how they match up:

Act Two Act Three
Preparation & Problems Action
(last, worst problem) Curveball
Confrontation Final Battle
 (end of confrontation) Culmination
Elation Resolution

The differences between the three acts are motivation, growth, and theme.

Motivation

  1. In Act One, the immediate goal is introduced and the ultimate goal is suggested.
  2. In Act Two, the immediate goal is achieved or changed and the ultimate goal is realized.
  3. In Act Three, the ultimate goal is achieved or changed.

Growth

  1. In Act One, the protagonist starts with a sense of normalcy, which gets threatened and thrown into chaos.
  2. In Act Two, the protagonist learns how to adapt to that chaos (or “ocean”) by learning abilities and gaining allies.
  3. In Act Three, the protagonist uses everything he or she learned in Act Two to gain a new normal.

Theme

  1. In Act One, the protagonist has an established belief about the world.
  2. In Act Two, that belief is challenged (sometimes also demonstrated by a B story)
  3. In Act Three, the protagonist develops a new belief.

Sometimes the theme is demonstrated by a dilemma: The character is put in an impossible situation, needing to choose between A or B. Both are important, and the loss of either would be deeply felt. The character comes up with a new option, Choice C, which is chosen at the Culmination.

Brian McDonald, story consultant to Pixar and an expert on the subject, sums up the theme’s progression through the acts in two ways:

  • Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis
  • Proposal, Argument/Proof, Conclusion

Read his thematic analysis of The Godfather here.

 Let’s breakdown Toy Story‘s Act Three.

Action

Woody’s in “jail,” Buzz has a rocket strapped to his back, and here a moving truck comes to take Andy away forever. A nice reminder of that ticking time bomb. We have to know—What’s next?

  • Buzz helps Woody get out of the milk crate (sequel)
  • Sid wakes up, grabs Buzz, and takes him outside to blow him to space/smithereens. (new goal)
  • Scud (the dog) sees Woody, but Woody slams the door on him. (Tiny victory for Woody, but also a pinch point / foreshadowing)
  • Woody asks Sid’s toys for help, hinting they’ll “break some rules” (character development, foreshadowing)
  • Goal/pinch point montage: Andy is shown sad to leave both Buzz and Woody, Sid is shown building a launch pad, Scud is waiting outside the door to eat Woody
  • Woody makes a plan (this is implied with a visual and three lines of direction to other characters—it’s not spelled out for the audience. They’ll have to keep watching to see what the plan is)
  • Partakers in the plan get into places
  • Achieve plan part one: get HANNAH (previous character) to get rid of SCUD (immediate threat)
  • Set-up for plan part two (keeping up mystery of this plan—not even telling Buzz)
  • Achieve plan part two: teach SID a lesson and scare him away from Buzz (immediate threat) and any other toy (greater good) by breaking the toy rule and coming to life, but not before SID gives Woody a match (foreshadowing, tool)
  • Sequel: Sid is afraid of Hannah’s dolls now, Woody & Buzz shake hands.
  • Van horn honks: Andy and his family are saying goodbye to their house.
  • Woody runs to van, but Buzz is stuck in the fence. Woody leaves the van to go save Buzz (character development)
  • Van drives away (problem), Buzz and Woody duck to avoid moving truck just in time (character development—compare to the gas station semi), they wake up Scud (antagonist)
  • Buzz and Woody both manage to catch up with the moving truck. Scud catches up with them and starts pulling Woody off.

We end with some character development…

WOODY

I can’t do it! Take care of Andy for me!

…before Buzz sacrifices himself for Woody, jumping off the truck to tackle Scud. (mutual relationship development)

Curveball

Woody unlocks the back of the truck and looks for something—he’s got a plan, but we don’t know what it is. He tears into a box labeled “Andy’s toys.” The toys react, but he ignores them (more development) and looks in another box. He finds the RC car and its remote, then throws RC out of the van. The other toys scream—now they have no doubt Woody is a toy murderer. Woody drives RC over to Buzz. The toys charge Woody. Woody’s being attacked by toys while trying to drive RC and Buzz toward the moving truck, away from Scud, and through traffic. It’s a chase and fight scene full of obstacles, and it ends with the Curveball:

The mob of toys lift up Woody (still holding the remote) and
head for the open back.

WOODY
No wait! You don’t understand!
Buzz is out there! We’ve gotta
help him!!

MR. POTATO HEAD
Toss ‘im overboard!

WOODY
No, no, no, wait!

The toys toss him out into the road. As the truck drives
off, the toys CHEER.

MR. POTATO HEAD
So long Woody!

 

Final Battle Exam

The “Final Battle” is the last fight in the war. However, perhaps a better way of seeing it is as a final exam. Everything that the character learned is now put to the test.

First, a sequel to the curveball: Woody gets up, is nearly run over, and then gets swooped up by Buzz and RC. Then he’s ready for his final test. Let’s see how he does:

  • Woody successfully drives RC through traffic.
  • The other toys see him with Buzz and realize they were wrong, and Woody’s been telling the truth all along.
  • Woody tells the toys to lower the ramp, and they listen to him.

Another twist! RC’s batteries start running out. The toys are seen (but only by Andy’s baby sister). RC’s batteries deplete.

  • The rocket (tool) could get them back. Woody has a match (tool).

A car drives by, extinguishing the match. Miniature gloom as all hope seems to be lost.

  • Woody uses (ally) Buzz’s helmet like a magnifying glass (tool/ability) to light the rocket, which takes them off toward the moving truck.
  • Woody deposits RC into the back, accidentally but successfully.

The rocket hurtles upward higher and higher.

WOODY
Ahhh!! This is the part where we blow up!

Culmination

The culmination is the end of the final battle.

BUZZ
Not today!

Buzz confidently presses the button on his chest. Wings jut out of Buzz, severing the tape that holds him to rocket. The toys separate from the rocket just before it blows up. The toys plummet.

Just then Buzz banks under some power lines and soars upward
again. Woody takes a peek.

They’re flying.

WOODY
Hey, Buzz!! You’re flying!!

BUZZ
This isn’t flying. This is falling — with style!

WOODY
Ha ha!! To Infinity and Beyond!!

They soar gracefully towards the moving truck, but then pass
over it.

WOODY
Uh, Buzz?! We missed the truck!

BUZZ
We’re not aiming for the truck!

Buzz and Woody fly right over the van’s sun roof and then
drop into the car.

Buzz gets his character development, too. The B Story is tied up nicely.

Resolution

Andy finds Woody and Buzz in the seat beside him. He hugs them, and the two toys wink at each other.

At Christmas (this scene could be considered a small Epilogue), Andy’s toys are anxiously waiting to hear what new toys Andy will be getting—a nice parallel to Andy’s birthday at the beginning of the movie. The toys have hit a new normal. Woody isn’t afraid of not being the best or the favorite anymore.

But Buzz might be nervous about Christmas. He asks if Woody is nervous.

WOODY (laughing)
Now Buzz, what could Andy possibly
get that is worse than you?!

SFX: BARKING

ANDY (O.S.)
Wow! A puppy!

We ZOOM BACK through the window to a CLOSE UP of Buzz and
Woody.

They look at one another with a half-smile, half-grimace and
laugh weakly.

Fade out.

THE END

Theme of Toy Story

Remember Woody’s belief/goal from Act One and his experiences in Act Two:

Being the best and favorite toy (act one) + making a friend (act two) =

Being the best isn’t as important as having a best friend.

Let’s check that theory with what characters say, with what they do, and with the music.

  • When Sid is torturing Woody, he says: “Where are your rebel friends now?”
  • When Woody is trying to convince Sid’s toys to help him, he says: “There’s a good toy down there and he’s—he’s going to be blown to bits in a few minutes all
    because of me. I’ve gotta save him! But I need your help. Please. He’s my friend. He’s the only one I’ve got.”
  • Woody and Buzz both give up chances to be with Andy in order to save each other.
  • From “You’ve Got a Friend in Me”: “When the road looks rough ahead
    / And you’re miles and miles from your nice warm bed / You just remember … you’ve got a friend in me”
  • More from the theme song: “Some other folks might be a little bit smarter than I am / Bigger and stronger too, maybe / But none of them will ever love you the way I do / It’s me and you”

Writing Act Three

What does your character believe in Act One? How will her experiences in Act Two change that belief? What is the final theme or message of your story?

Did you use any tools or abilities you’ll need to later implant in the “Preparation and Problems” section? Make a note of those to include while revising—don’t go back to the beginning until you’ve finished your first draft.

Did writing your ending give you ideas for starting your story in a different place? Is there a way you can wrap up the story that would pay homage to your beginning?

The ABCs of Act Two (NaNoWriMo Week 3)

act_two

Toy Story and its characters are owned by Pixar.

Posts in this series so far:

I talk about the second act in my series on plot. Here I’ll continue examining how these 8 C’s of Plotting combine with Theme in Toy Story‘s second act..

The Ocean

Act One gave us a character with a desire that’s threatened. Woody wants to be the favorite toy, and Buzz’s appearance threatened Woody’s position.

The character’s mistakes (or, in a passive protagonist, his inaction or avoidance) put her into an impossible situation or foreign location. This is the “ocean” of Act Two. (The term “ocean” comes from the Paper Wings Podcast.)

Toy Story’s Act One is character-driven. After the inciting incident, Buzz’s arrival, everything that happens in Act One is a result of Woody’s decisions.

Act Two serves three purposes—ABC:

1) provide the protagonist with Allies and Abilities,

2) develop the B story or Belief (theme), and

3) Challenge the protagonist with different kinds of Conflict

Complication, the Break into Act Two

When we last left Woody and Buzz:

BUZZ
Sheriff, this is no time to panic.

WOODY
This is the perfect time to panic!
I’m lost, Andy is gone, they’re going
to move from their house in two days,
and it’s all your fault!!

BUZZ
My fault? If you hadn’t pushed me
out of the window in the first place–

Woody and Buzz are stranded at the gas station. Woody nearly got ran over by a semi truck, and he is freaking out. Being lost is the worst possible situation for a toy desperate to be favorite.

Preparation and Problems

The Preparation and Problems section of the plot is the longest section. It’s also the part where most movie trailers gather material from. Blake Snyder calls this section “fun and games”—and that is how the audience will view it, but all of the ABCs listed above need to be introduced and built up during this section. After the Preparation and Problems, the main character should every thing he needs to succeed during the confrontation and the climax.

Note the B story is optional and flexible. When you frame your story with theme, your B story is going to give another opinion or point of view on that theme. If your story is a romance or buddy story, the B story will be the arc of that secondary protagonist.

In Toy Story, here’s the beat sheet:

  1. Introduce Buzz’s delusions as the B Story (He thinks he’s supposed to save the galaxy from Emperor Zurg—Woody knows he’s just a toy)
  2. Woody tricks Buzz into getting on the Pizza Planet delivery truck
  3. W & B sneak into Pizza Planet (obstacle)
  4. Woody finds Andy; Buzz finds a spaceship crane game (conflicting motivations)
  5. Sid gets an alien, Buzz and Woody out of the crane game
  6. Sid takes the toys home, gives the alien to his evil, toy-killing dog Scud (stakes, antagonist)
  7. Sid steals his sister Hannah‘s doll and performs toy surgery on it (new character; stakes)
  8. With Sid gone, his room comes to life. B&W are in toy hell—populated by mutants (situation, new characters)
  9. At Andy’s House, the toys are still looking for Buzz. Andy comes home without Woody. Toys consider it a sign of Woody’s guilt. (pinch point)
  10. Sid tortures Woody with a magnifying glass, starting his forehead on fire (stakes, tool)
  11. Trying to escape, Woody uses Buzz’s karate-chop action to fend off the mutant toys (B story)
  12. Woody and Buzz run into Scud. Woody’s pull-string wakes the dog up. (challenge)
  13. Buzz sees a commercial for a Buzz Lightyear toy (B story midpoint)
  14. Buzz tries to fly (B story elation)
  15. Buzz falls, and his arm pops off, confirming he’s a toy. Hannah picks him up. (challenge, B story collapse)
  16. Woody falls out of the closet entangled in Christmas lights and finds Buzz at a tea party with Hannah. Woody imitates Hannah’s mom’s voice to get her to leave (tool, obstacle, belief)
  17. Buzz is Mrs. Nesbit (B story gloom); gives Woody idea to fly out window (obstacle)

Through this section, Woody gains allies (Buzz, the mutant toys) and abilities (the magnifying glass, talking to humans). Buzz’s B story, which was suggested in Act One, gets its own arc here. Woody’s beliefs start changing—earlier he’d be destroyed by truck or magnifying glass before breaking his “toy” character. Woody and Buzz are both challenged, revealing their weaknesses. We also get a “pinch point” reminder of the antagonists Woody will have to face next:his fellow toys at Andy’s house.

Confrontation, Elation, Collapse

Woody throws the Christmas lights to Andy’s toys, and some are happy to see him (elation), but Mr. Potato Head still doesn’t trust him, and reminds the other toys what he did to Buzz. Woody tries to get Buzz to prove to the toys that he’s okay, but Buzz, still depressed, throws his arm at Woody. Woody pretends to be Buzz with just his hand. The toys might just believe him … until he slips up and shows them the severed arm. Now they’re positive he’s a toy killer, and they close the window.

Gloom

Pixar movies tend to have lengthy gloom periods because they follow big, emotional collapses. Compare this to Dreamworks movies, which tend to have less intense gloom periods. In many stories, especially visual fantasies, the environment or weather conditions will reflect the gloom period.

Here’s a beat sheet for Toy Story‘s gloom:

  1. Woody tries to save Buzz from the Mutants, who actually mend Buzz’s arm (allies)
  2. Sid is coming back, and Woody tries to drag Buzz out of the way, but Buzz is still depressed (B story)
  3. Woody hides, gets trapped; Sid decides to blow up Buzz, but he has to wait until the thunderstorm is gone (obstacle, stakes)
  4. Andy really misses Woody; he’s moving tomorrow (hope, stakes)
  5. Woody asks Buzz for help, but Buzz is still depressed.
  6. Woody explains why being a toy is great. He says Buzz deserves to be the favorite.

Midpoint

As I’ve said before, the Midpoint can happen any time between the Confrontation and the Comprehension. The Midpoint occurs at about 50% and is a shift in thinking or purpose. In Toy Story, Woody’s Confrontation and Collapse happen in the same scene, right after Buzz’s. The Midpoint often occurs during a sequel—when the character has a moment to think. For Buzz, the midpoint is when he’s lying on the ground. He’s not going to keep trying to get back to Star Command anymore—his motivation has changed. For Woody, the plot midpoint starts when Slinky drops the blinds. Woody isn’t going to be the favorite among toys anymore. But Woody’s emotional, character midpoint starts when he says this:

WOODY
Oh, come on, Buzz. I…Buzz, I
can’t do this without you. I need
your help.

and ends when he says this:

WOODY
Why would Andy ever want to play
with me, when he’s got you?
I’m the one that should be strapped
to that rocket.

Listen Buzz, forget about me. You
should get out of here while you can.

Woody stops focusing on himself being Andy’s favorite toy and starts to realize that he needs others to help him. He starts thinking of Buzz and Andy rather than his own position.

The plot midpoint is the scene, and the emotional midpoint is the sequel. All together, you’ve got a big Scene at the middle of the story that shows a change in direction or motivation.

Comprehension

The comprehension is whatever drags the character out of the gloom.

BUZZ
Come on, Sheriff. There’s a kid
over in that house who needs us.
Now let’s get you out of this thing.

WOODY
Yes Sir!

Once out of the gloom, the character needs to make a new plan, which starts Act Three.

Writing Act Two

Have you figured out what your character’s deepest, unconscious desire is?

What does your character believe in Act One? How will that belief change or evolve? What shift will your character experience during the midpoint?

What kind of people, places, and obstacles will help your character arrive at the midpoint?

Remember the 12 different types of antagonists. Brainstorm problems your character might face while en route to the midpoint.

I’m donating some edits for an auction benefitting Summer Heacock. The top 5 bidders will win their choice of a full plot critique or an intense line edit of their first ten pages. Bid here before Monday November 23rd.