Friday, March 18, 2011

Deconstructing Alan Moore - Plotting in Top 10

In December of 2010, I attended a lecture by Paul Levitz at the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art (MoCCA) on "The Long and Short of Plotting." Levitz offered a number of tools to help writers improve their plotting skills, including something he called a Rising and Falling Subplots Chart.

Levitz suggested that writers deconstruct other people's stories as a learning exercise, so I decided to use the Subplots Chart to analyze the plot of Alan Moore and Gene Ha's Top 10, published by America's Best Comics/Wildstorm in 1999.

Top 10 followed police officers working in the city of Neopolis where nearly everyone--the criminals, the citizens, and even the mice--had superpowers. From a blind cabby who drove using only his Zen senses to the dog running roll call, Moore and Ha created a madcap universe that the reader could still take somewhat seriously.

My personal goal with this plot deconstruction exercise was to better understand how Moore timed his various storylines in the 12-issue miniseries. But, hopefully, you'll find something useful in the approach that you can apply to your own stories.

As a bit of background, according to Levitz, you want your sub-plots to RISE until they become the MAIN ACTION, then RESOLVE (perhaps with an epilogue), while you simultaneously have other plots rising at different paces. You don't want stories rising and falling at the same pace. Just using random numbers to illustrate this concept, you might have one story moving at a smooth 1, 2, 3 speed, while another progresses as 1, 2, 2.5, but then jumps to 5. Pace may also vary depending on the content of the subplot--for example, a romance subplot might build more slowly than one involving a speeding bus.

Let's see how that plays out in Top 10, shall we?

In the chart below, I’ve listed all the subplots going down the left side, and the issues across the top. Yellow cells indicate the most important developments in that particular issue. For purposes of this discussion, only the first five issues are shown, and I’ve removed the specific page number references (which tend to not progress sequentially for many of the plots and make the chart hard to view).

(Click chart for more detailed view.)

As you can see, Moore had three main storylines, and they did indeed move at different paces. The overarching storyline of the 12-issue miniseries--that begins with the Tintown homicide--takes the majority of the first two issues to establish the basics, but then goes on a slow burn, taking only one full page in issue 5 as the other plots heat up.

A second major thread--the Green Gang led by the punk son of a Godzilla-like character--moves the fastest. After only being hinted at in issue #1, it reaches a cliffhanger by issue #3, and peaks in issue 4.

Overlapping both stories is the Libra Killer storyline, which takes center stage in issue #3, hits its cliffhanger in #4 (at the same time the Green Gang story resolves), and then itself resolves in issue #5, just as another subplot, involving Super-Mice, is introduced.

So, we have three main storylines, two of which resolve in the first five issues, while the overarching storyline continues its slow burn, with issue-by-issue revelations.

There were a few other points worth noting:
  • INTRODUCTIONS: Issue 1, at 32 pages, used all of its extra space to introduce the world and the main characters through the eyes of the rookie, Toybox, experiencing her first day on the job. This storyline acted as a "wrapper," and was the main focus of the first 8 pages, as well as the last two.
  • DENSITY: I remembered that the plot of Top 10 was fairly dense, but the number of subplots introduced in the first few pages was still amazing. In pages 6 through 9 of issue #1, Moore mentions seven different plot threads, and every one of those threads had at least a panel or two of additional reference in the first issue (listed as "partials," if less than a page). Even the "Ghostly Goose on the loose" story gets panels on pages 6, 25, and 28 of issue #1 and reappears in issues #2, 3, and 5.
  • COHESIVE PLOTS: A number of these seemingly separate plots later converge into the main story arcs, but that's not obvious as the story begins. For example, in issue #2, the subplot involving the Zen Cabby appears to be simply a secondary story, but on the last page the Cabby leads the officers to the missing sidekick of the central murder victim. However, not every subplot leads back to the main murder storyline, leaving the reader guessing as to which subplots are related.
  • CONCURRENT PROGRESSION: The other interesting point was how often multiple plot threads were moving simultaneously, one inside another; rarely was a scene or exchange used for only one purpose. This one factor makes the Subplot Chart a vast oversimplification. For example, on pages 12-13 of issue #1, while the officers are checking the homicide scene (moving the main storyline of issue #1 forward as they hunt for clues), the officers are also discussing Smax's past with his dead partner, introducing new characters, showing Toybox's power, and more.
Top 10’s structure is similar to an ensemble police drama. The structure lends itself to quick cuts between multiple storylines, while the device of the morning Roll Call allows references to many plots in passing. Still, the execution here is very impressive. When you add in the world building elements, the sharp dialogue, the fascinating ideas, and the beautiful, detailed artwork of Gene Ha, you have a stand-out miniseries, and a great example of how to handle multiple characters and plots.

I guess we expect no less from Alan Moore.

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