Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Writing, Part 2: Thoughts on the Story

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.


Erik Bongers said...

The balance between words and images remains puzzling to me.
I have graphic novels where the dialogs are in medival rhymes and take up a major part of the pages (Le dernier chant des Malaterres, Francois Bourgeon) and on the other hand I have graphic novels with no text at all (some of Moebius' work).
So is there a golden rule here?
The examples suggest not.
However, for myself I use the rule that whatever can be seen in the picture should not be repeated in the text and vice versa.
Simple enough, were it not that I noticed that some readers of comics tend to jump from text to text without paying attention to the images. Those kind of readers are a bit lost in case a large sequence of pages does not contain any text.
Apparently some readers are more 'textual' while others (like myself) are more 'visual'.
Impossible to please all, so I stick to my little rule of thumb (no repeats), knowing that not all readers will be able to appreciate this.

Dan Gurney said...

One of the reasons I like the first Dinotopia and Chandara best among the series is precisely because of their relative lack of dramatic structure. Your first book, while it had some drama in it, felt basically like a National Geographic coffee table book. It invited non-linear browsing. I read Chandara's text all the way through, but my favorite pages are the diversions, such as the windmill spread.

I think you're right to ponder the genre of your books. I don't think there is a name for this genre quite yet.

Anonymous said...

well, whatever the form/genre might be called... I just figured this is the right place to drop a few lines about your storytelling.

I come back to your books time and again, re-reading them and enjoying them for a different aspect each time - so I think the storytelling works perfectly alright... let the future literary scholars find a name for this genre...^^

And my favourite passage of all three books I own has to be the "marketplace of ideas", with Arthur finally giving in to whatever there is inside him besides knowledge and reason and the immediate invitation which follows.
I just love that page!

Paul Schreivogl said...

I highly recommend "Understanding Comics" and "Making Comics" by Scott McCloud.

Don't let the names throw you off...they're a deep study and discussion of this very question in an emminently readable format. They ponder in great detail the relationship within a story between pictures and words, as well as how to incorporate the two and what the mind is thinking about as it reads.

Your artwork is fantastic, by the way...:)

Erik Bongers said...

Another possibility is to have the story go in parralel of the images.
E.g. the images show a man walking down the street with a suitcase.
The accompanying text is a letter that he has written, explaining why he is leaving.
Obviously the letter was written before the person left, so the text is a 'flash-back' from the timepoint of the pictures and at the same time the text explains what's going on in the pictures.

[hmmm, my second reply on this subject. Seems to intrigue me :) ]

Anonymous said...

i'm a huge fan of dinotopia, i traveled to see the show and exhibit at the smithsonian, i've written to james gurney (and got a letter back!). i own all the books except the new one. i even own the book created around the stamps. i tell everyone about dinotopia when talking about art and artists i love....BUT....i have never read any of the dinotopia books, i know the rough outline of the book and the plots, but i never wanted to read or took the time to read the books....

it is a bit confusing, i'm such a fan, but for me the pictures mean more when you relate to them, instead of being told what they are and how to look at them.

for me it would take away from the images to read the book? for me its only about the art, in my opinion some of the greatest paintngs/images ever created. they tell there own story beautifully and there is no need for the words...not to say the story isnt great....just to say that after seeing the images i never needed to read the story....

Anonymous said...

Thanks to all of you for these thought-provoking comments! Dan's encouragement was one of the factors that returned me to the approach of the first book.

Erik, I really enjoyed seeing the images on your linked website, which on their own suggest wonderful stories. And I agree with you that the pictures and words should not cover the identical ground. (I've heard that called "Mickey-Mousing.")

Big e, I'm fascinated by and I respect your decision not to read the text. I have the same response to many amazing French and Japanese comics that I'm not able read. Many of my very young fans are in a similar pre-reading mode. In any event, the pictures are meant to suggest their own stories.

I second the recommendation for Scott McCloud's books on Comics, which analyze in great depth all these strange harmonies between words and pictures.

Dan Gurney said...

FWIW, I happened to "read" David Wiesner's text free Flotsam to my kindergarten yesterday. They loved it. So did I.

There is something very special about sharing a story like this. The pace, choice of words, the selection of points of emphasis all arise in the moment and are brought about by the interactions among the illustrations and the "reader" and the "audience." This makes for a very connected and unique experience.

I wonder what magic a wordless Dinotopia book might evoke.

Anonymous said...

I have three of those four books, so am adding the fourth to my wish list. ;)

Erik Bongers said...

Thank you very much !
Being a beginner (only one book in the stores currently), every encouragement, especially from an accomplished master is extremely...erh...encouraging !(work on your writing, Erik)
Apart from your books and images, your blog, where you give a to-the-bones insight of your way of working is a big source of inspiration and information.
Even the little calenders you use encourage me to work more conscientiously.

The Ginger Darlings said...

I love the balance of words and pictures in the Arrivals, one of my favorite books of the year and such a challenging "read".
None of those words in there messing up the lovely pictures.
Designers can do so much damage to a book too, unless stopped sometimes. My "Can You See a Little Bear?" written in wonderful economic sentences by James Mayhew, almost went out looking like a school reader until James and I suggested they might like to try a little harder. Even then they printed it on paper so thin that it looks like magazine paper. So hard to keep control over all the stages of a book so that you get something beautiful at the end of the day.
Maybe I just get more demanding as I get older, or more precious, but I do so often feel let down by my publishers when it comes to the finished product.

Stephen James. said...

I've been looking at alot of books and how they balance words and pictures.

Interesting topic. Books that tend to emphasise pictures over words tend to be longer horizontally, while those that tend to emphasise words tend to be more verticle. It's interesting.