Visualize the Story First When Designing Instructional Comics

A comic-themed template and stock characters might make your eLearning project seem like a comic, but a true instructional comic must begin with visualizing the story. Think about it. When using the video medium to communicate a learning concept, you wouldn’t randomly shoot video without a plan and a script. Similarly, you can’t shove content into a comic-style format and call it a learning comic. My recommendation is to visualize the story first when designing instructional comics.

Think first about the story

Start by putting on your design hat and think about the story you want to tell. If you approach this phase with focused instructional intent, the rest of the project will fall into place. It is hard because some content, such as compliance and policy-driven subjects, are dry by nature. But our brains are wired for stories, and storytelling is the most powerful means of communication. Your audience wants to relate to the content. The emotional connection between the content and your audience is the hook.

Determine character roles

A comic character can take on the role of a human, an animal, or an object. Think of your characters in terms of roles as opposed to appearance. Here is a basic list of characters you could choose from:

  • The hero or protagonist—usually the main character; friendly and relatable
  • The villain or antagonist—struggles with, challenges, or fights the hero
  • The dispatcher—sends the hero off on his or her journey
  • The donor or helper—prepares or assists the hero in the quest
  • The prize—the goal or objective

There are countless ways of approaching your story using character roles. One example could be that you are selling a product and place the hero or protagonist in the center of the story. The product could be the donor or helper character. The villain or antagonist could be the problem the product is attempting to solve. Another example would have the customer be the prize that needs saving, with the product as the hero.

However you decide to approach your story, character roles will help you frame the plot and overall story structure.

Create the plot

The plot motivates and drives the reader/viewer through the story. For an eLearning instructional comic, ponder how a learner might perform a task, learn a new procedure, or change a behavior. As you think about your content with different character roles, consider how they would in interact in your story. 

Here are seven basic plots, with instructional suggestions.

  • Overcoming the monster—the hero sets out to confront the villain that threatens his or her home
    • How a learner overcomes adversity to become stronger or wiser
  • Rags to riches—the hero begins with little, gains a want, loses it, and fights to regain it
    • How a learner owns a mistake or benefits from taking risks
  • The quest—the hero sets out in search of a specific prize, overcoming both physical and emotional obstacles to succeed
    • How a learner must grow emotionally to succeed
  • Voyage and return—hero travels to an unfamiliar place, befriends new characters, together they overcome difficult obstacles, and the characters help the hero return home
    • Demonstrates the power of teamwork and shows learners the benefits of being open to change
  • Comedy—the hero begins with confusion, misunderstanding, or mistaken identity, which leads to conflict before ending in celebration
    • How a learner might negotiate a difficult situation or how teams learn how to support each other
  • Tragedy—the hero is good but flawed and is compelled to break the rules, setting in motion a series of events that lead to the hero’s downfall
    • How a learner performs a task or procedure by learning from mistakes
  • Rebirth—the hero is bad or flawed in some way and is shown his or her true self through a series of events or other character relationships that lead to the hero redeeming him or herself
    • How learners benefit from having the capacity to change

With so many plot possibilities, you may want to write out a few to see how an idea might play out. In choosing the overcoming a monster plot for a safety training course for managers, for example, the villain could be safety hazards and the hazards could be character roles. When developing the script you might write, “In her new role as warehouse safety manager, Sara needs to get safety claims under control. However, hazards are jeopardizing a safe environment and she must address awareness to rid the warehouse of these pests.” 

Build structure

The structure pulls the character roles and the plot together. There are many story structures used by writers and movie makers. The typical story structure used in writing (exposition, plot, climax, falling action, resolution) doesn’t work well when designing instructional comics for eLearning because the climax is in the middle of the arc. Also, unlike a 300-page novel, eLearning must be short. It must capture the learner’s attention immediately, and hold it through meeting the learning objectives.

The most common structures that can be applied to instructional comics are:

  • Monomyth—classic tale of hero’s journey; leaving home on an unknown adventure to then return home with a prize to share with the community
    • A new sales representative departs on a long trip to earn the business of a larger customer
  • Mountain—mapping a story that builds to a climatic ending
    • Finance and accounting discover a major error and forensic accounting skills are applied to solve the problem before a looming shareholder meeting.
  • Nested—several narratives run at the same time; whyis at the center, surrounded by the howand what
    • Change management of why a new policy or procedure is introduced, surrounded by how it impacts employees and what the organization will do to mitigate the change
  • Sparklines—comparing what iswith what could be
    • Organizational culture
  • In medias resstarting in the center of the story, where it is the most exciting
    • Executing a new health care initiative that saves a life, and then what led up to that critical moment
  • Convergence—different modes of thinking come together to form a single idea
    • Two or more roles having similar but unrelated negative experiences who unintentionally share with each other, and that inspires a solution
  • False Start—begins with a predictable storyline, disrupting, and starting over
    • The predictable safety and personal protective equipment training disrupted with role reversal where the equipment becomes the Hero characters
  • Petal—multiple unconnected stories center around a single concept that all relate back to a single message
    • Diversity training with unconnected scenarios that merge together to increase awareness.

The key with structure in an instructional comic is the climax, which provides the excitement or the drama. Regardless of which structure you choose, a good technique is writing how the objectives are met, and then write the instruction by backing into the structure. For example, a petal structure with a rebirth plot around diversity could contain two or more scenarios where an offender, the Hero, redeems him or herself through awareness.  

Conclusion

Instructional designers who choose to present their work in a comic medium must consider the story first. Otherwise, the eLearning is just artwork skinned around content and made to look like a comic. A good story will elicit emotion in your audience and connect them to the objective. Remember to visualize the story first when designing instructional comics.

Citations

Booker, Christopher. The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories. New York, NY: Continuum, 2004.

Smeda, N., E. Dakich, E., and N. Sharda.Developing a Framework for Advancing e-Learning through Digital Storytelling.” International Association for Development of the Information Society (iadis) Digital Library, Vol. 1, pp. 169-176. July 2010. 

Sparkol. “8 Classic Storytelling Techniques for Engaging Presentations.” 28 November 2014.

Wikipedia. “The Seven Basic Plots.”

Editor’s note

Kevin Thorn will be a featured speaker at The eLearning Guild’s DevLearn 2018 conference. He is presenting two sessions: Getting Started with Stop-Motion Animation for eLearning, and Design Before Developing: Getting Started with Storyboarding for eLearning. Click here for further information or to register for the conference.

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