And now, after all of yesterday’s analysis of how you can make chapters work in eight to ten screens, you’ll find on May 1 that you have every right to say to me, “So then how come the first chapter of Insufferable clocks in at 23 screens?” This is why, and it’s a reflection of my long-held philosophy of what a first issue should be.
I’m a huge believer that the first issue of a comics series–or, more applicable to what we’re doing here, the first installment of a serial–fails miserably if the reader can’t walk away with a clear idea of what the series is going to be about. That doesn’t mean the creators have to spell everything out or that there’s no room for mystery–what it means is that by the end of installment one, the basic series premise should be conveyed. Hook a reader all you want with suspense and mystery and intrigue, but give them something concrete in exchange for their time. Give them at least as much information about the story as they’d get by reading the back cover copy on a paperback. You want them to know conclusively by the end of chapter one whether or not they want to come back for chapter two. You don’t want them having to blunder through four or five chapters before they even have the slightest notion what they’re reading, not in serial form.
Sometimes–actually, so far, every time–this means having to expand that first installment enough to fit in a conflict/resolution, a cliffhanger, AND the series premise (at least as much as you’re willing to give away) in as clear a way as possible. Note, “clear” and “simplistic” aren’t synonyms–I just don’t think you can afford to leave a reader confused at the end of that first installment, because there’s every chance s/he won’t come back.
You don’t have to keep re-stating the series premise thereafter, though you might want to dip the reader’s toe in it from time to time just to refresh his or her memory.
In the case of Insufferable, Pete and I ran that first installment out to what feels to me to be about eight print-comics pages worth of story–that, with some added digital-format transitions, ended up at about 23 screens. And we even threw in a little surprise at the end for anyone who thought they already knew every detail of the series premise. I think it works. Interested to hear your feedback when it goes up Monday.