Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Writing, Part 1: Words and Pictures

I’ve been blogging mostly about the artwork in my Dinotopia books, but the writing is just as important to me and deserves a little explanation.

Each picture, as they say, is worth a thousand words. The pictures convey mood, atmosphere, a sense of place, and character. But the writing communicates everything else. Only the writing can deliver narrative sequence, continuity, backstory, dialog, interior thoughts, names, sounds, smells, and feelings. That’s a lot of work for a few words to do.

It’s a challenge to subordinate the written text to the pictures. It would be very tempting to give over more space to the writing, because writing is much faster to compose than artwork. A Dinotopia book could be finished up in half the time if the writing were allowed to take up the majority of the page space. But I think picture books work best when they sustain us primarily in a visual, dreamlike mode. Like graphic novels or movies, picture books suffer if they are too text-heavy. I end up writing about five times as much material as I have space for, and have to cut most of it out.

With words and pictures balanced in this way, there isn’t the novelist’s luxury to indulge in rich layers of motivation, backstory, and extended conversation. It’s a sacrifice I gladly make in exchange for the glories that only pictures can provide.

Although I have the plot worked out fairly carefully in the early storyboard and outline stages, there’s plenty of room for improvisation during the final art stage. The idea for the old musical conductor character named Cornelius Mazurka, for example, emerged while I was creating the paintings.

The running text comes last, so ideas that come up during the art stage can freely enter the story. I write the final text in the InDesign page layout program, with all the page elements in place. In this way I can be sure that the text comes to a full stop at the end of every layout. I want the reader to be able to pause and enjoy the artwork without being tripped up on the page turn. And I want the book to be as inviting to the casual browser as to the reader who takes the full train ride.


Erik Bongers said...

Perhaps it's an advantage not being a novelist. The urge to write a rich lasagna can be kept in check.
I admire writers of prefaces - mainly of art books. I am jealous at their seemingly unlimited ability to write pages and pages full of interesting sentences.
Yet at the same time I am embarrassed as I often fail to understand the meaning of their proze. I therefor often skip the narratives and focus mainly on the pictures and surprizingly I find the reading experience as full as can be. A limitation of my cerebral sponge I fear.

Anonymous said...

Certainly there are limitations to how much text to put on each page. But any limitation also offers structure and that can be a plus. Although my genre is flash fiction it is the extreme limitation on the number of words used that gives flash fiction its beauty.

Brine Blank said...

I was often curious if the illos dictated the text or the text dictated the you are storyboarding how does it play out for you? I again appreciate the melding of artistic cultures (writing, illustration, design)and flexibility you talk of in letting certain aspects 'create' themselves...