Can You Tell Me A Story?
What’s your definition of a story?
A common definition is “an account of incidents or events”. And if you were to reduce it to it’s most basic elements, you might be right.
If I tell you about how I went to the store and bought bread, I have basically told you a story. Or is it just a statement of facts?
But even a mediocre story is far more than that. A great story manages to convey ideas and emotions, takes our imagination on a wild ride, and above all creates a connection.
Stories don’t have to be verbal either, or kept in the written form.
One of my favorite examples in recent memory can be found in the 2012 series of Hawkeye. The series is written by Matt Fraction, but artist David Aja and colorist Matt Hollingsworth often tell even more of the story.
In this issue, the story is told from the perspective of Lucky The Pizza Dog. The two words used are only there to describe a sound, but the story tells you exactly what it needs to, and conveys this efficiently and descriptively.
Hawkeye himself is a character known for his loss-of hearing. Throughout his 50+ year career he has been deaf at multiple points, and this handicap has sometimes been healed, at other points just basically forgotten. (It’s called Comic-book logic.) But this issue does focus on a period of time in which he has lost his hearing. Even though the characters communicate through sign language, it is not necessary to be able to interpret ASL. The book tells you exactly what you need to know. The ASL might add a sense of realism, and give those that can interpret it a bit extra, it’s not necessary to follow the narrative.
But even narrative tools like panels aren’t necessary when telling a story. Sometimes you can take a single image and tell you everything you need to know. In literature you have a famous example of a concept named “Flash Fiction”. This particular example is often ascribed to an author known for his brevity.
For sale: baby shoes, never worn.Ernest Hemingway
Six words, and they tell you so much. We don’t always need to know why certain things happen because the impact they have on the emotional narrative is minimal, and you need to be able to trust your audience that you can deliver on your intent. Just as long as you can deliver that first spark.
This display of Hansel & Gretel offers a lot of information without words. We see two children, by themselves at a house in the woods, and the lady who lives there. Nearly every fairy tale we’ve ever heard in our lives has taught us that an eldery lady living in the woods by herself is probably a witch. We see the house is edible, and that the children are stealing the food from the house and are in the process of getting caught.
This is a wealth of information, and it’s basically a single frame from a story. But every detail gives creates a context from which we can deduce a narrative, and our brain will automatically form a story around it.
But the beauty of illustration is the lack of restrictions that can be found within (and sometimes even outside of) your frame. When you compare this to photography, which is restricted by what the photographer can see through his viewfinder. A combination of long and multiple exposures allow him to play with it a bit, but it is impossible to compose a frame like you can an as an illustrator. Tools like Photoshop narrow that gap a little, but guess what? These tools are available for you too.
Take this page for example:
This page by Will Eisner, considered by many as the father of the Graphic Novel, is so efficient and stylish in the way it tells this story. There are panels, but they are part of the narrative, every piece of the page serves a purpose to tell you something. The layout of the house, the hidden passageway, the figure whose face is obscured just outside the front door. Each of these serve a purpose, and they spark your imagination right away.
Or telling a story by using the context. Take each of these pages, and while they might be slightly funny, the pay-off of the story doesn’t really come to life until you’ve read both in sequence.
Will Eisner published a few great books on graphic storytelling, and are well worth a read.
It’s a very interesting exercise to try and reduce your story to the basic points, without just reducing it to the basic plot.
If we take Romeo & Juliet as an example, instead of reducing it to two lovers who end up dead because of a forbidden romance, we reduce it to the following elements.
- It’s about 16-year old boy and a 14-year old girl
(Yes, the characters really are that young)
- It’s set in Verona
- They belong to opposing factions
(families being a detail)
- Who are at odds
(Including Mercutio, Tybalt and Paris can help clear this up)
- Their romance is fatal
- And could have been prevented had the Friar deliverd the message in time.
These elements tell you a condensed version, but detailed version of the story and together they offer a multitude of options to illustrate the story.
I suggest you give it a try, and attempt to condense other stories you are familiar with to similar lists. Finding your basic plot, and the details that make it the story you love.