Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Storytelling Lecture, Structure - Part 1

Storytelling Lecture Series, Part 5 (Edited from the transcript of a 1994 seminar)

Let me tell you a little bit about some other structural things that you may need to know. You heard me say, "Introduce your characters” a couple of times. What does that mean? What I mean by that is, whenever you are trying to establish your status quo, Little Miss Muffet sat on a tuffet, you have the same duty as the newspaper reporter--who, what, when, where, why, how. You've got to give them a clue about what that status quo is so they can understand how it's disrupted. That means also understanding who these characters are.

When you bring your character on stage, on the figurative stage, you want to let the reader know enough about this guy so he's got a handle on him. Now you never stop letting the reader know about the guy. Introducing interesting characters doesn't just end, you keep doing it. When I say introduce the characters what I mean is give the reader a clue. If you go to any professional performance let's say, a Broadway play, a movie, watch a TV show, or read a good book, usually the first time you see a character the author takes great pains to give you a handle on that character. If the guy in a Broadway play is a tailor, almost certainly the first time you see him he'll have a tape, he'll have pins in his mouth, a pair of pants over his arm, chalk marks on his hands, it will tell you he's a tailor. Sometimes they won't. Sometimes there's a scene where he's in a tuxedo and he's going to the opera, but the reason they're doing that is because they are saving it as a surprise--one of the actor's costume splits, is there a tailor in the house? I'm a tailor! That's the kind of thing. You guys watch TV. You see movies all the time. You read books all the time. Start watching movies (good movies) twice--once for fun and once with a note pad in your lap, and the pause button in your hand. Start looking at what the writer did, try to figure out why'd he do that. You'll find that what I'm saying is true. With any professional piece of work the characters are brought on stage, they're introduced. You get to know them enough so that you can now understand what they are, who they are, so that when the disruption comes you can see it. You'll also see writers doing all kinds of tricks, literary devices to get their points across. 


Aside: Just to bring it back to where we live: ever read a Barks Uncle Scrooge?  The first time we see Uncle Scrooge, he's ALWAYS DOING SOMETHING CHEAP OR MISERLY.  He continues being avaricious throughout the story, doesn't he?  But the first time we see him, for sure, he's fishing a nickel out of a sewer grate with some gum on a string or somesuch.  Do it well, make it amusing or dramatic and no one notices that you're introducing the character.

Remember that's what we're doing. We're communicating. If you don't communicate, what's the difference if you have a great story? You'll see professional writers foreshadow things. You'll see them do parallel construction to make points. You'll see them do juxtaposition of scenes to try to drive home a point or create contrast. You'll see them use irony, or contrast, or mood, or imagery. Now I'm not equipped to stand here and have the time to go through all that and try to explain how's it done, and in truth in a collaborative medium like comics it really is much better for me to get on and to show you the artwork and then you'll start seeing how some of these things interplay. Go to the library, but use your eyes. Start examining what you're looking at, the movie you're looking at, examining it, and finding out what the guy's doing and why. Try to figure out what was in the writer's head. You'll find in Star Wars the first time you see Luke Skywalker, they tell you who he is. And I don't mean they just say, "Hey, here's Luke." They show him doing something that is germane to his character. The same with every other character. As I say they don't stop, and every once in a while they'll change up on you, they'll show you something contrary so that they can reveal later that the guy is a tailor, but basically you should look for that.
  


(continued)

6 comments:

DougieMcCoy said...

great first lesson be looking forward from more from master of comicbook storytelling

Marc Miyake said...

Dear Jim,

I recently heard about a recent comic whose characters had bios in the back of the first issue. Sounded like the writer wasn't confident in his ability to introduce the characters. Everything the reader needs to know should be in the story itself. If I need to buy a sourcebook to make sense of a story, something's wrong with the story.

Your point about Uncle Scrooge probably also applies to Archie comics, mutatis mutandis. I don't have any on hand at the moment to confirm that, but I'm pretty sure that has to be the case. I certainly didn't start reading Archie from his first appearance in 1941. Yet I knew who he and the gang were without consulting WHO'S WHO IN THE ARCHIE UNIVERSE.

I think the key is defining action as opposed to generic action. Know who your characters are, and you'll know what actions define them. If I know Reggie is a egomaniac, I'm not going to let the reader first see him simply walk down a street. Anybody in Riverdale could do that. No, I'd make him do something Archie or Jughead wouldn't do in the splash panel. Like pick up the school newspaper and get mad because HIS picture wasn't on the front page even though he believes he won the big game for Riverdale High.

That action not only defines him but also sets the plot in motion. In one panel, we've gone from foundation to disruption. Reggie's ego got bruised. What could Reggie do about it? Do something that will get him on the front page. Maybe he'll join the school paper so he can write about his greatness. Or try to date a reporter and impress her with his greatness. Whatever he does has to be another defining action. Archie stories are often short, so every action counts.

Bios tell us who characters are. Defining actions show us who characters are.

When people praise characterization, what they mean to say is, "I saw a lot of defining actions."

I think many superhero fans might equate "defining actions" with "using superpowers." So they'll write massive fight scenes with 42 guys using 42 different powers ... but speaking basically identically. However, a character is more than a power. Archie characters have no powers, yet they are still distinct. Powers amplify personalities but are no substitutes for them.

You've mentioned "an issue of X-Men with a full page or at least a large panel of the Angel soliloquizing about the joy and glory of flying." Lots of characters fly, but would they feel the way the Angel does about it? Say what he said? Use his body language? Flight doesn't just have to be a way to get from A to B. It can define, and not just in the sense that "Flyguy flies but Captain Terra doesn't." Ditto for any other power. The Thing and the Hulk are both super-strong, but do they use their strength in the same way?

I've made up characters with different powers. But do they really act differently? Express themselves through their powers? Am I able to define them through their actions even when they're not using their powers? Your Uncle Scrooge example is making me reexamine what I've been writing. Thanks.

Will said...

@ Mark-
FWIW - I don't mind the use of the "bios" from time to time. Particularly in a NEW introduction of characters...

Otherwise there may not be adequate to time to give each one their own voice and nuances that add to the texture of the story. They risk being unnoticed, caricatures or red herring filler..

When I have to wait from month to month to get the next "fix" I need a story that moves along at a nice clip can and be easily recalled from 1 installment to the next. Life is busy. Kids work, cub scouts, honey-do list of never ending chores...

When I carve a bit of time to enjoy myself with some escapism, I don't wanna work overly hard to remember where I last was..

Marc Miyake said...

Dear Will,

I was talking about a text page of bios at the back of a comic. Haven't seen that comic myself and I don't want to.

I'm not against small amounts of overt information. I liked the little blurbs for each character in Jim's recent Legion stories. They made sense to me because they reminded me of pop-up windows on a computer screen and therefore fit the future setting. I've bought old Weisinger Superman comics with part 2 of a story beginning with a one-page recap of part 1. That's fine. What I don't like are big data dumps at one extreme and obscurantism at the other.

And I think it's possible to introduce the characters through defining actions rather than exposition most of the time. No Archie reader ever needed to be *told* who the characters were. There's no caption that says, "Jughead loves food." You see him eating, that gets him into trouble, he has to devise a way to get out of it, etc. Foundation feeds disruption.

My first mutant comic was NEW MUTANTS #4. Back in early 1983, I knew nothing about the X-Men and their extended family apart from the fact they were mutants. Yet I don't remember having any trouble following the story. I bought THE OFFICIAL HANDBOOK OF THE MARVEL UNIVERSE because I wanted to learn more about the New Mutants' world, not because I needed it to understand the comic. Chris Claremont told me everything I needed to know. Jim's emphasis on storytelling fundamentals during his tenure as editor-in-chief paid off.

Lee in Limbo said...

"Jim's emphasis on storytelling fundamentals during his tenure as editor-in-chief paid off. "

Exactly! It's the thing that exceedingly few writers can work without, particularly in serialized franchise IPs (gads, it makes me sad to have to describe comics characters and titles that way, but that's really what they've become, isn't it?).

Will said...

I guess my comments missed the Mark, Mark.
(Sorry. I apologize. I'm a sucker for a pun)

I guess I wasn't quite clear in my last post. Apologies for the confusion.

Does a Bio blurb/synopsis/summary replace storytelling? NO. Can it supplement a story and help move it along? Sure! When used judiciously its a great tool. Comics are a visual medium, what good is the Joker if he visually doesn't leverage the playing card or clown motiff? Those help explain what he is about. So does Whimpys desire for Hamburgers.. Its enhancement not a replacement.

If I can jump to a different medium fer a sec... take the TV series Enterprise ans SGU. Both were canceled. IMHO they spent too much time making those series character driven as opposed to focusing on the action and lacked a compelling unifying theme. The action was a bit slow.

I prefer a "Big Picture" plot story where the action seemingly moves on a plan and is fast paced.. Take Starlin's Dreadstar on the Epic imprint for example. Its been a while since I've read it. But if memory serves, it leveraged the summary's to give attention to the back-story and character development on Vanth, Ziggy, the redhead, the monkey and the rise of the Kingpin-Pope guy and his church whereas to put all of that IN the story would have possibly made it drag a bit. The 1st arc was what 16 issues or so? So it was important to get to the point and stay on track.