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The Creative Process - Dilbert Blog

The Creative Process

Once again I have inadvertently created the same comic twice. Call it self-plagiarism if you must. The first one ran 5/25/07:

Then on 9/18/08 its fraternal twin appeared. Readers were quick to let me know.

In my defense, it isn’t a case of laziness. Drawing is the hard part for me, not the writing, and both comics were drawn from scratch. It isn’t a case of running out of ideas; I always have plenty of those, thanks to readers submitting material. So what the hell is wrong with me? I’ll use this excuse to give you a tour of my creative process.

Every comic starts with a basic premise, either from my own experience, reader suggestions, or the business headlines. I typically start drawing the first panel of the comic before I know where it is heading. The premise tells me which characters will be involved and where they will be. It helps to start drawing right away because I feel as if I am making progress. No writer wants to look at a blank screen.

When the characters appear, it’s almost as if they suggest dialog. I think a similar thing happens for movie writers who find it helpful to imagine a specific actor in a role when creating dialog. Seeing a character helps you find the right voice.

Once the first panel is drawn as a rough draft, I tinker with the words. I might do a first draft of the writing all the way to the end just to make sure the characters appear in the order they will be speaking. I’ll go back and fiddle with the wording between spurts of drawing. As I get deeper into the process I inevitably have the following thought: Did I already do this exact comic, or does it just seem that way because I have been thinking about it for the past hour?

I’ve created 365 Dilbert comics a year for 19 years. I remembered all of them for about the first four years. Now it is impossible. So I sit there for a few minutes rummaging through my memories and finding nothing but spider webs. At this point I will digress and give you my untested theory about creativity:

Creativity is highly correlated to poor memory.

For me, ideas stream through my head at a frantic pace. I feel like a bear trying to grab a salmon. If my paw misses its target, that salmon is gone for good. I don’t dwell on it. I just lunge for the next salmon. I think people who have fewer thoughts per hour have time to let them settle in and form memories. It’s just a theory.

To make matters worse, every few months I like to draw a generic character that has something horrible happen to his head. I just like how it looks. Sometimes the head explodes. Sometimes it turns into a skull, or shrinks, or enlarges, whatever. These are especially hard to remember because they get lumped in my memory and congeal over time into “things that happened to heads.”

The punch line for my recent repeated joke, “Clean up on aisle three,” wasn’t original the first time I wrote it. It’s funny in part because the phrase is so common, even in the context of humor. When you pair a common phrase with an uncommon situation, such as an exploding head, the reader’s brain has a little hiccup over the juxtaposition, and that triggers the laugh reflex. Gary Larson was the master of that method. His Far Side comics often featured unusual characters in bizarre situations saying things you hear all the time.

You can go the other way too. I often mix unusual wording with mundane office situations to produce the same mental hiccup. Why say you attended a long meeting when you can say you watched your irrational optimism circle the drain, starving and screaming at the same time?

And always end with a clean finish. Like this.