What would later become Nuklear Age started as a bog standard These Aren’t Your Grampa’s Superheroes story that was meant to be quite serious.
Yeah, that lasted about two sentences before I bored myself to tears. Jokes popped up to keep things punchy enough to maintain my interest. As soon as things bogged down, as soon as I had to ask, “What’s keeping me here as a reader,” boom, that’s where the punch goes.
What is a punch? Well, something interesting. Anything interesting. It’s a gag, a twist, a dramatic reveal, even just a clever — but not too clever — flourish.
This is probably the very first thing I intuited about writing. You need to hit the reader with something at least once per page. Give readers a joke, an emotion, some curiosity, a character or action to love or to hate, anything that makes them want to turn the page to be hit by the next thing.
Seems obvious, right? Yet we’ve all sat through dull scenes in books, in movies, in TV shows, and in comics. Just putting words in a row isn’t enough. You’ve got to give them some kind of impact. Otherwise, why’d you arrange them that way?
I carried this punchiness into comics without realizing it until Greg Rucka pointed it out ten years later. Which makes me seem clueless, so I’ll claim to have internalized the idea so deeply I didn’t have to think about it anymore.
Yeah, that’s what it was.
But, no, I think about it constantly. Writers have a problem. It’s very easy for us to be so fond of whatever we’re typing that we forget other people might not share those affections. We indulge ourselves and end up with 1,200 pages where significantly fewer would’ve been better.
We fight this in Atomic Robo by planning six issues of story and then cramming them into five. We are forced by the external laws of time and space to include only what is necessary to tell our story. We reduce it to the important parts, the punchy parts, because there are no pages left for dawdling.
Don’t mistake incident or spectacle for punch. It’s not that you need a constant stream of things happening, or that you need to mindlessly raise the stakes over and over, or blindly accelerate the action. Doing that turns your script into noise. You’ve got to give your reader room to breath, time to process.
And your punches don’t have to be obvious and showy. In fact, they should almost never be those things. When you feel like something is “trying too hard” or “up its own ass with itself,” there’s a good chance the text is overselling things that ought to be left alone. I most often notice this with comedy, as it appears to be a mark of incredible bravery not to jump and point and shout at a joke you’ve written.
You want your big story beats to be obvious — characters’ motivations, how those inform their goals, how their goals inform their actions, what exactly is at stake if the bomb is not defused, and so on. But your page-to-page punches? Those work best when the reader accepts them as a natural part of the narrative.
Just slip the punches in there and trust your readers to pick up on them. Some folks won’t, because some people (okay, probably a lot of people actually) need text to desperately flail at them before they’ll notice something about it. My advice? Don’t write for those people! Writing for poor reading comprehension a special kind of prison. Don’t do it. Over time those people will tend to avoid your work because they’ll find its appeal mystifying. Good! Now you don’t even have to think about writing down for them!
That’s enough out of me. Gotta get back to punching readers!