Writing Excuses 8.48: Long-Form Storytelling with Sam Logan

Recorded live at GenCon Indy, Sam Logan of Sam & Fuzzy joins Brandon, Mary, and Howard to talk about long-form storytelling. Sam’s webcomic has been running for eleven years now, and has evolved over time into something of an epic.

Sam talks to us about how he got started, and how the strip morphed from its gag-a-day origins into what it is today (is this similar to what happened with Howard and Schlock Mercenary? Maaaaaybe.) He also talks about his planning process, and the manner in which he structures the smaller stories to fit inside the larger ones.

If you’re looking for a good starting point for Sam and Fuzzy, Sam says that point is right here.


Go for a walk. Think about what you’re writing while you walk. Don’t do that Facebook or Twitter thing while you walk. Just walk, and think.

Feed, by M. T. Anderson, narrated by David Aaron Baker

15 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 8.48: Long-Form Storytelling with Sam Logan”

  1. eek! How many years of story lines??? in his head??? I am with Brandon… write it down, somewhere. Cool that his advice to start small is the same as for novel writers. Great chat guys!

  2. I can appreciate this cast because I think with the daily advancements of where web-technology is taking us, I can see web comics as going nowhere but into a boundless Pool of Popularity. More and more people are wanting to get their feet wet in this area and it’s great to see casts where there’s advice and stories about this. Thanks.

  3. Great podcast :) Quick question . . . do you know of any good books which discuss the principles of comedy? Anything to help me understand how good comedy is structured? This is something I a NOT naturally gifted at. Unfortunately. So, where do I start?

  4. I love it when the cast is joined by creators of great long-form webcomics. When will you get hold of the guys – and guyettes – behind Quantum Vibe, Space Mullet, Galaxion, Drive, Spacetrawler, A Girl and her Fed, Lady Sabre and the Pirates of the Ineffable Aether, Girls w/ Slingshots, The Damnation of Charlie Wormwood, … ?

    And I’m fascinated by the structural similarity between those webcomics and the other predominant art form of the early 21rst century, the New American TV Show.

    Episodes arcs, season arcs, The Big Arc, …

    Listening to Sam, I could not help but think about the way those structural elements come into play in e.g. Firefly, NCIS, TBBT, Breaking Bad.

    I’d really love to hear you guys talking with a writer or showrunner from one of these …

    I think that as writers of novels, and especially series of novels, we can learn a lot from them.

    Mesmerized in Munich

  5. @Laura: Unfortunately, successful comedians (in the very broad sense of the term that includes the various media aside from stage performances that are humor driven, like a lot of comics) are generally born to it to at least some degree, and thus often don’t know what they’re doing on a technical level. This makes it hard to get a decent discussion of how to create good comedy; at best, you can generally find the deconstructive works produced by people analyzing, which tend to lose at least some of the charm in the process.

    @Timothy: Hmm, I’d almost argue the other way around – serial TV writers could learn a lot from novelists. A lot of shows mire themselves in trivialities to the point where the main plot gets lost for very long periods of time. Firefly is an excellent example of a show getting lost in trivialities but being good anyway. Assuming Serenity (The movie, not the first episode) was focusing on the main plot of the show, we’re left with 2 major plot threads from the season we got as major components of the story: Reavers, and River Tam. If you were to trim down to main plot points, you get episode 1 (passengers board), episode 3 (salvaging the remains of a ship attacked by reavers), episode 9 (the hospital raid, and River’s brainscan), episode 14 (Alliance hiring bounty hunters to catch River, and River showing she’s far less out of it than she seems).

    Yes, the plot needs some fleshing out, but that’s 4 out of 14 episodes tying directly to the plot: a ratio that would break a novel. Unless you’re doing the detective story thing: Sherlock Holmes, Poirot, Mrs. Marple, Nancy Drew, etc…in that format, each book is essentially equivalent to an episode of a TV show, and not all of them have major long-standing impacts on future books.

    A lot of TV manages to be good anyway, but that’s largely because the 1 hour a week format doesn’t work as well for solid story advancement. Dexter is one of the few shows, excluding anime, that follows a more novel-style story and actually pulls it off. Well…there’s reality TV, but please don’t claim reality TV is as deep and complex as novels typically are….even when they’re shallow and simple novels.

  6. @Rashkavar: I can see your point. If you think that a series must have a main plot, and that the episodes must solidely advance that main plot, your conclusion that e.g Firefly is a good show in spite of getting lost in trivialities is certainly valid.

    My analysis is based on a totally different model: I think that there does not need to be a main plot, or it can be fairly abstract (how bad can you break?), there is no need to nest plots hierachically based on importance, but arcs of different lenght can be most prominent at any given time, and can interact in different ways.

    Thus my conclusion is that Firefly is a great show specifically because it does not subject episode arcs unduly to any main plot. TBBT is a great show because any big storylines – Lenard and Penny, Howard and Bernadette – are developing at a natural pace instead of being solidly advanced.

    Firefly had many more plot points aside from River and the Reavers: Where did the shepherd come from? Will Jayne eventually stab Mal in the back, to his face? Will the Malinara ship sail anywhere? Even: Will Zoe and Wash have a baby?

    It would never occur to me to let the Serenity movie, which was created after the cancellation of the series, in lieu of – and as an inadequate replacement for – several other seasons which should have been made, define what is to be regarded as the main plot for the series.

    I certainly agree with you, though, that it would be possible, and maybe not very difficult, to find TV show examples that suffer from pointless meandering.

    And of course, different media, genres and formats require different math when is comes to trimming and focussing.

  7. Jim: Actually. Babylon 5 is an excellent example of that kind of storytelling. Again, though, any publisher working on Babylon 5 the novel draft rather than Babylon 5 the TV series draft, would have cut out a lot of the episodes, particularly in the early parts, (and probably would have cut Season 5 altogether). Seasons 3 and 4, as I recall, were very tight – hell, 4 somehow managed to wrap up the direct confrontation stage of the whole Vorlons/Shadow conflict and still had time to do a satisfactory Earth Civil War. It’s a bit of a stretch to argue the Bab-5 dockworker strike, for instance, has a great deal of impact (though one could argue it’s symptomatic of Earth becoming increasingly draconian, setting up the Civil War plotline)

    Timothy: By paring down Firefly to the Reaver and River plotlines as I did, I didn’t mean to dismiss everything else as irrelevant. When I look at Lord of the Rings, the basic plot is Frodo’s journey to bring the Ring to Mt. Doom and destroy it, and the trials and tribulations, internal and external, along the way. Boiling the book down that far literally removes half of The Two Towers, and the vast majority of Return of the King (the first half of TT and RotK being dealing with the other 6 Fellows of the Fellowship, and Chapter 4+ of the Frodo half of RotK being enormous denouement.) Do I think Lord of the Rings should have been told this way? No. Do I think Firefly should have been told that way? No. (Is Serenity better than nothing? Yes.)

    The problem with applying the TV model of having lots of independent threads contributing in minor ways to the main plotline and having it all fall together at the end to novels is that it’s fundamentally different to what one expects when one picks up a novel…unless it’s a detective-hero story like Sherlock Holmes (and that’s more or less entirely because of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s choice of format and his writing talent making it so very successful.)

    If you’re at all interested in anime, I have an excellent example of how standard TV and standard novel expectations differ. Ghost In the Shell (Standalone Complex) is…umm, just look up a review or summary to explain what it is, since words fail me. In its original form, it was released as a 26 episode series over 2 seasons. It features an overarching, complex story about the “Laughing Man” case – an unsolved major crime from several years prior, as well as a number of shorter stories that fit into the half hour time format, including preventing espionage through theft of a politician’s brain (in this world, it’s actually a viable means of kidnapping), and preventing a tank prototype who’s AI has gone berserk and is moving toward the city. (I’m deliberately avoiding the plot twists, here). It was later released as a 160 minute movie called the Laughing Man, which culls the side stories and trims some stuff out of the Laughing Man episodes in order to create a much more streamlined presentation of the overarching story. (Its edited primarily for those who got to know the characters and such in the original release, but had trouble keeping track of the Laughing Man plotline, so a lot of characterization is removed.

    The 26 episode version is what TV audiences are looking for; the movie is what novel readers are looking for (well, aside from the rather harsh editing treatment needed to fit the story into something that even remotely fits the general definition of movie length). It’s just like what Howard talks about with his comic strips – he needs a punchline every 4 frames, because he’s writing humor, and that’s the end of each publication of his story. TV episodes generally need to have a self contained major plot thread, because that’s the end of the publication of their story. Novels aren’t required to have a punchline every 4 frames or a completed plot thread every chapter, because those are not the endings of the publication. Novels have the freedom to run every plot thread over much longer periods of time, because they are of indeterminate length (well, within reason – LotR was written as a single book, but the publisher had Tolkein chop it in 3 because it was too long).

    Of course, a large part of this debate is based in personal opinion. You appear to be rather fond of the staccato plot format of TV, while I prefer the flowing, reaching plot format of novels. Which means this debate ends when we agree to disagree, or when one of us gets bored or dies, since we’re both right and we’re both wrong.

  8. @Laura agreed 100% with what Rashkavar said. That being said, it may be a helpful exercise to look at people in your own life who make you laugh. Analyze what they do to generate that laughter and try to incorporate those elements into your own characters. Good luck! :)

  9. @Rashkavar: As much as I enjoy this conversation, I’m not (yet?) ready to die over it. So, yes, let’s agree that this is a matter of taste. I just wish every disagreement on matters of taste were so nice.

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