In a recent post I shared some thoughts about balancing words and pictures in a Dinotopia book. In this followup about the writing process, I’d like to say something about the approach to storytelling.
At one time I thought of a long-form picturebook as a kind of “movie for your hands.” I strove for a tight, three-act dramatic structure to the plot. I read all the books on the theory of writing screenplays for movies. (Below is an unused concept sketch for a 1995 film treatment.)
But I’ve gotten away from that way of thinking a bit, because I’m realizing more and more that a picturebook is not like a movie. It’s not ruled by time in the same way as a dramatic presentation. It’s more of a “springboard for daydreaming.” Pictures invite you to hit the pause button on the forward motion of the narrative. You can consider side trips and tangents.
With this in mind, I’ve tried to allow parts of the book, like the whole sequence in Sauropolis, to function a series of episodic diversions and thought experiments before we are grounded again in linear narrative movement.
You could create a full-length picturebook without any overarching story at all, and many masters have. Most of Rien Poortvliet’s books present a loosely connected improvisatory cascade of images. Faeries by Alan Lee and Brian Froud covered the subject topically without an overarching story. So did Arthur Spiderwick's Field Guide by Black and DiTerlizzi. Shaun Tan’s recent masterpiece, The Arrival, has a strong story, but no words at all.
I feel very passionate about extended-length visual books. I’m not even sure what to call the form. It’s not the same as a 32-page children’s picture book (at 160 pages, Dinotopia is five times as long), and it’s not like a graphic novel. Some people have called it a “visual novel” or a “long-form picture book.” But whatever you call it, the words and pictures are inextricably woven, and reinforce each other in all sorts of unexpected ways.