Writing Excuses Episode 28: Writing for Webcomics with Phil and Kaja Foglio

This is the first of five episodes recorded on location at WorldCon 66 in the Colorado Convention Center in Denver. Brandon, Dan, and Howard are joined by Phil and Kaja Foglio, and we discuss writing for webcomics… no, wait… writing for “sequential picture-assisted storytelling.”

Phil and Kaja are the creators of Girl Genius, the web’s foremost hunk’ o’ steampunk — and we here at Writing Excuses are big fans. During our short time together they help us understand the nuances of creating Girl Genius pages, writing to the outline of the story, and crafting their dialog. The Foglios (and Howard) have a little bit of advice for folks looking to start their own webcomic, too.

(Mmmmm…. Grizzly Bear Soup!)


37 thoughts on “Writing Excuses Episode 28: Writing for Webcomics with Phil and Kaja Foglio”

  1. Big fan of Girl Genius! Sparks rule the world!

    Okay, here’s my question:

    I have been chastised most severely for “info hiding”, which, as far as I can figure out means not explaining, be it ever so briefly, something that the POV character knows that is relevant to the plot. (Even if the POV character wouldn’t be thinking about it at the time, aparently).

    In this ‘cast, it was mentioned that the opening of Girl Genius just tosses you into this world, with no explanations. This is a style that I like very much, as a reader, but where is the line? Can anyone explain to me what exacly “info hiding” is and when it is okay to not explain something at all?

  2. A great example of “info hiding” is The Da Vinci Code, in which many characters (all of them, probably) will think about some piece of important information, often at length, without actually revealing it; they’re thinking about it, and you know that they’re thinking about it, and it’s happening right there in the moment, but they don’t actually say what it is on the page. It’s a cheap device that can be effective to raise tension or mystery, but mostly just cheeses people off.

    The “toss you into the middle with no explanation” system that Girl Genius uses works, because it mostly used as a method to enrich the background of the story rather than conceal any major plot elements. It’s kind of the same rule we suggested for magic systems: the less the reader knows about something, the less you’re allowed to use it to solve plot problems. If you write a story where the resolution or mystery hinges on a certain fact, and your POV character knows it but just doesn’t ever tell the reader, people will feel cheated.

  3. What? No writing exercise? How disheartening!

    HUGE fan of Girl Genious (and all things steam punk!) Thanks for getting Phil and Kaja to sit in.

    As to the “toss you into the world” issue, when you’re writing fantastical fiction with a background world that is vastly different from this one, you really don’t have much choice. The reader certainly isn’t going to read three chapters of lecture detailing how the market economy of your feudal empire functions. It’s great that YOU know how it works and you can sprinkle little bits and pieces of that info throughout the story, but the reader doesn’t really care unless it’s germane to the plot. There may be an author or two who can pull off throwing in a brief recap of the world’s history or detailing of certain aspects of the society, but most of us will fall flat on our faces if we try. (Stephen R Donaldson’s “The Gap” series inserts short encyclopedic chapters which detail some element of the world background in between character viewpoint chapters. It works wonderfully for him. Good luck if you want to try it yourself.)

  4. Yeah, there’s a HUGE difference between concealing plot elements and throwing you into the middle of the story.

    Consider that first line of Girl Genius: “Let me tell you a Heterodyne story, but not a Heterodyne story like your mother will tell you…”

    And then the comic begins. We’ve been given a name, “Heterodyne,” that suggests mad science, and from the art we can see that things are kind of steam-punky. But we also know that everybody else in this world knows who the Heterodynes are, or at least THINK they know, and that there are layers of mystery.

    But we don’t know very much yet. Fortunately, we’ve been teased, and we want to know more. We want to follow the Heterodyne thread and learn more, and that’s all it takes. We are thrust scene-by-scene through the story. Our gaps in world-specific knowledge are filled. We learn to like the characters. And as of this writing, in Book Eight, we THINK we know most of what there is to know about the Heterodynes, but there’s STILL mystery to be uncovered.

    This principle could have been covered in our “In late, out early” podcast, or in our “great first lines” podcast. It’s that far-reaching, and that important.

  5. I got bored today after my computer burned up so I used my phone to download the podcast, and being that it was on my phone, I made a writing excuses ringtone. Hope that didnt break any copyright laws or upset anyone , anyway if anyone wants, it text me at 918-398-1660 and i will send it to you

  6. I wouldn’t expect a writing prompt. How about a drawing prompt?

    Okay, draw a 6 panel comic with a great first line and a great punch line. If the best you can do is stick figures, so be it! But at least sketch out what should be seen in each panel and what is said.

    If you can do that, great! If you can’t, then perhaps you can better appreciate the work of Howard, Phil and Kaja.

  7. Phil Foglio’s comment about improv reminded me that another good way to practice sequential storytelling might be Paper and Pencil RPGs, since you don’t get to retcon there either.

    Oh and yeah, huge Girl Genius, Buck Godot, and What’s New fan over here. As well as Schlock Mercenary (how I found this place) and I’ve enjoyed the Mistborn books too, so good job everyone and please keep ’em coming.

  8. I thought of this when I listened to the podcast, and Howard’s comments set it up perfectly:

    “And then the comic begins. We’ve been given a name, “Heterodyne,” that suggests mad science, and from the art we can see that things are kind of steam-punky. But we also know that everybody else in this world knows who the Heterodynes are, or at least THINK they know, and that there are layers of mystery.

    “But we don’t know very much yet. Fortunately, we’ve been teased, and we want to know more. We want to follow the Heterodyne thread and learn more, and that’s all it takes. We are thrust scene-by-scene through the story. Our gaps in world-specific knowledge are filled. We learn to like the characters. And as of this writing, in Book Eight, we THINK we know most of what there is to know about the Heterodynes, but there’s STILL mystery to be uncovered.”

    This is an excellent example of what James Gunn refers to as the Protocols of Science Fiction. The typical example is Heinlein’s “the door dilated.” That phrase with no other explanation is protocol to the reader that this is SF, and sets expectations, making the savvy SF reader want more. It enriches the vision of the world being presented without spelling it out in detail. Gunn points out that those unfamiliar with SF are often thrown by this, and that spelling out such things is typical of non-SF (on inexperienced SF) writers trying to write SF. On writing sites, especially during critiques, I’ve often seen the “I’m totally lost. I don’t get it.” when a non-SF reader hits this sort of thing, while SF readers “get” it. When Howard sees “Heterodyne,” he riffs on it, he clues in that more is coming, he begins trying to fit that phrase into this world. The language juxtaposes against the picture which looks like an old world, pre-modern story teller setting, and it makes him go, aha, coolness is in-bound.

    IMHO, this is one of the great strengths of SF, and one of the sources of wonder in the genre. Here’s Gunn’s article: http://www2.ku.edu/~sfcenter/protocol.htm

  9. Very interesting podcast, but I do have one criticism. When you have multiple guests could you please get them to introduce themselves? On the podcast there are no convenient flashes of the appropriate talking head to help us identify the person being introduced like there are in video interviews/discussions. We (the audience) have only the person’s voice to identify who’s who and when a familiar voice (Brandon’s in this case) introduces the guests, we don’t get the chance to associate a voice with the person’s identity. As a result, I spent the first portion of the podcast trying to figure out which of the new voices belonged to each guest and not really paying attention to the content. Once I figured it out, I then relistened to the entire podcast (a plus for the 15 minutes format) to pay attention to the content. Having the guest introduce themselves or even just say “Hello” as an immediate response to their introduction gets rid of this problem.


    Because, you know, we recorded them all at WorldCon, and probably forgot to have the guests introduce themselves.

  11. You could do a voice over like a golf tournament: (whispery voice) “That was Phil Foglio, artist for geniusgirl.net,” and that voice is his partner Kaja Foglio….”

    Or I’d be glad to provide the time machine I hacked up in my basement this week, provided you guys get me into WorldCon when we get back there…. :-)

    Seriously, it’s a good suggestion, especially if you have more than one guest. With my bad hearing, it’s hard for me to pick out which is Dan versus Brandon sometimes. But that’s likely just my deafness.

    It’s a great episode! I’ve really been enjoying Genius Girl, having not discovered the story before.

  12. It’s actually not just you. I don’t anymore, but I had some trouble telling Dan and Brandon apart when I first started listening. And yeah, good idea. I second (third? Fourth?) the motion.

  13. Guerry, I already tried to get you into WorldCon and it didn’t work, but still go back and try anyway, because otherwise the paradox is really going to confuse me.

  14. What’s worth mentioning is that Howard and the Foglios are pretty much in two separate sub-mediums. Girl Genius, Buck Godot, and sundry are in a comic book / manga style with pages, while Schlock Mercenary is more in the newspaper comics style with strips. I notice the writing style between the two tends to diverge quite wildly.

  15. Someone further up (DanJ) mentioned they missed the usual writing prompt from the podcast.

    Here are three I made up.

    Writing Prompt: Describe an origin mythology (for your fictional world) and use as many disparate elements (from different myths) as possible.

    Writing Prompt: Describe a scene where someone must befriend a character that they have loathed since childhood in order to obtain an objective.

    Writing Prompt: As a dialog exercise, describe a scene in which two characters are involved in stealing a body from a grave. No dialog tags, but do it in such a way it is clear who is speaking. Have one of them reveal an important secret that they have been hiding from the other character.

  16. @Steven Clark: While I’ll be the first to agree that newspaper comics and long-form comic books are different mediums, the divergence between Girl Genius and Schlock Mercenary is minimal. GG tends towards humor, with punchlines occuring with decent regularity. SM tends towards action and drama, never sacrificing the punchlines, but often providing the same thrills and chills as long-form stuff.

    Then there’s the fact that both GG and SM have long story arcs.

    The principal difference is that Schlock Mercenary remains tethered to the daily punchline, which forces a certain rhythm to the story. Girl Genius doesn’t do that (as was pointed out during the podcast — those who think it does just haven’t read the next page yet.)

    So… while we’re in different stylistic genres (newspaper comic vs comic book) and different settings (steampunk vs military SF), the principles of exposition, plot, and setting that the Foglios and I apply are the same.

    Put another way, their car is in the left lane, and mine is in the right lane, but we’re hanging out the windows passing Grey Poupon back and forth so it’s kind of like we’re in the same place.


  17. Danm your cursed 15 minute time limit. I could have spent an hour listening to the Foglios and still wanted more.
    Great job guys.

  18. Dan, I think there’s a glitch with the time machine, and it’s got me worried. When I saw Howard’s post, I took the machine back and picked his pocket after he picked your pocket. Things seemed to be going well until I got to WorldCon. I went to remind you guys to have the guests introduce themselves, but I was too early and couldn’t find you. So, I stepped into a panel discussion on writers crossing over to SF from other genres. Here’s the part that worries me. I saw *myself* on the panel. I was a midlist romance writer.

    Howard, could you please, please, please go back and pick my pocket after I picked your pocket after you picked Dan’s pocket? Just burn the darn pass. You guys can fix the introductions in future podcasts. Ugh, that word: future. I’ve seen the possible past, and I fear the future.

  19. Now all we need is a love triangle between Dan, Howard, and Guerry, and we’ll have our very own Writing Excuses Soap Opera on our hands!

  20. Alas, Guerry, I subscribe to the “12 Monkeys” style of paradox resolution, in which the past is unchangeable regardless of time travel. So you’re stuck in midlist romance, and I’m afraid there’s nothing that can be done.

    Man, we totally need to do a podcast on time travel.

  21. I’m with you Dan. My current story is playing with parallel universes and parallel timelines where both aspects are different across parallels but still recognizable, hence my babbling.

    I love SF.

    I agree on a time travel podcast. Can of worms!

  22. guerry, you bring up an interesting topic on which I have tried to write stories around a few times, but always ended up discarding them. this would be paralel universes and timelines. I have always ended up discarding them, because I felt as if I was going down the same road as Philip pullman in His Dark Materials. I hope that you have better luck with it than I, sadly I gave up that road to try something else. Which of course was a time machine, and having heard your experience with the machine, I can also testify that it did not work out the way I planned. No matter what I tried, I keep failing to win the heart of Catherine The Great. I am currently working on a mind control device, so when I get positive results I shall post the blueprints online. Then I shall bring Catherine to present day, and she can do a podcast on leadership and politics. Wish me luck, she’s Fiesty!

  23. Hi,

    Its very rare to find a novel or movie that actually clears up every single time paradox. I’ve generally stayed away from time travel, because its so easy to lose yourself and forget what joe soap did when he went back in time the second time, and what effect this would have on his 4th visit, which would thus effect the present. etc. (I love writing sci-fi).
    Do I have to study einsteins law of relativity??

    How important is it to tell the reader these laws.

    I’d love a podcast on time travel.

  24. time travel really is exreamly over done though. there have been so many stories on it, which some are interesting, many just repeat themselves in one way or another. either in a machine, harry potters time turner and like devices, even corpsecicles are essentialy time travel. i read sci-fi and fantasy to be taken to the future or a more interesting past. i say let the books themselves be the time travel device, because i dont think i can really take another story about bouncing around in time through some device, but thats just my opinion.

  25. Something that most people forget is that if you’re going to have a time machine, you can only go back to when it was originally built.

    If you build it in 1995 then in 3016, the limit backwards is 1995.

    However, Topher has a good point; it has been done to death. If you want to write for practice, it’s probably great, as it is interesting. Nevertheless, to sell would take a level of writing that I personally do not have. Though I probably won’t sell anything, I am enthusiastic.

    So who knows, do what you love, and hope for the best.

  26. Oh, hope springs eternal. I’ve got a different spin on it that’s character driven and not paradox driven. It also depends on the fact that you can’t change anything. Either way, I’m still paying my 1 million word price, so if it sales, fine. If not, then I’m still learning alot about POV, etc.

    Thanks all!


  27. I would like to apologize Guerry, my last post really sounded like I was trashing your idea, which I was not trying to do. I support you in it, and we are all paying the million word price, I have paid part of mine on a story about a character that goes through a portal from our present world to a fiction world, as if that has’nt been done too many times. It was a tangent on the idea, not towards someones work. I would love to see someone really do something new with time travel, its just that, like superman and vampires, we all know the rules sorounding them, so it becomes just another story with original characters doing something not so original anymore. On the other side to this though, i would highly recommend using and overdone idea like time travel, corpsecicles, vampires ect. to not have to focus on the general outline as much since all the rules have been already written for you by other authors, and use it to focus on character and voice, dialogue and setting. I have written many stories where the plot was overdone many times but the fact that i didnt have to worldbuild at all, being i already had the rules, was able to write a great character, and was able to take that character and write them into something else more original. this has been my cure for writers block, maybe it will work for others as well, its my infinite writing prompt for myself, write a character doing something that has been done a thousand times, then once you have an interesting character, take that character and write him into something original.

  28. @Topher: Don’t worry, I didn’t take offense. I appreciate the comments and advice! I vacillate between those that say there are no new ideas, and those that feel there are. I’d have to dig it out, but one of the grand masters said to avoid the old ideas unless you really had a different spin or know you will do it better. Of course, you would have to read a *lot* of SF to know what has / has not been done.

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