Writing craft

[— Karen Myers —]

As often, single-panel comic artists distill the essence of story with admirable skill. They can only succeed with the cooperation of their readers, just like writers of fiction.

Is the image above, a single moment, the start of a story (inciting incident)? Is it the mid-point crisis (now everything changes)? Is it the start of the final resolution (battle or forgiveness)?

When I look at it, all of those things run through my head at once. My brain tries them all out. You could spin it in any number of directions. Note that the creator doesn’t really put up any barriers to that fabulation — the story is yours to instantiate.

When we create full narratives, however (short or long), we get to shape things to guide the reader where we want him to go…whether that narrative is an epic or a haiku.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that the reader will go where you point him. That’s what makes it art (or at least craft).

I’ve learned a lot by reading about story-telling in comic books, via Scott McCloud.

I’ve mentioned the first of these books before, I know, but every now and then I read a book about writing, instead of just another quick entertainment. I’m a million words in to this fiction-writing life, but — you know — that’s just a good start. I always learn something when I pause and read something worthwhile about the craft. At this point, I see story everywhere (as you can tell from some of my posts), just as I see story in the panel that heads this post.

And then there’s structure… I can reliably drive my husband nuts as I announce the various plot points in a TV script before they occur, all the foreshadowing incidents, and all the conventional 3 or 4-act structures that TV shows and movies are so generally (if not universally) fond of (as am I — I’m happy with conventional structures as long as they do the job I want of them.) Of course, the more story you see or produce, the harder it is to fool you as a reader or viewer.

So what do I get craft pleasure out of? The skills of language, of precision, of setting, of character interaction, of reader guidance (like the above example)…there sure is a lot of that to admire sometimes. And snark — let’s not forget attitude and humor.

What sorts of pleasures do you treasure from your reading (and writing)? Do you have trouble with seeing everything as story, too?

11 thoughts on “Writing craft

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  1. I’ve never been very easy to surprise, but I have always been able to lean back and enjoy how THIS story unfolds in the details and the characters. Maybe it’s because I’m a re-reader. I don’t need to be surprised or to wonder. I can just… enjoy the story.

    1. There’s a reason that little children want to have the same story read to them, over and over. The comfort of knowing what’s coming is better than the first-time suspense. (At least at certain ages and for certain personalities).

      I wonder if the meta-story of, say, Christianity doesn’t have the same effect on some people — the certainty of familiar story providing comfort.

      (My own metaphysical impulses don’t run to Abrahamic (or any) religions (not for lack of exposure), but I can see how the story aspect might work.)

      1. The comfort of knowing what’s coming is better than the first-time suspense.

        Maybe I’m still a little child, because that’s exactly how I feel most of the time. The first time I read a mystery, I’m often tense because I’m afraid that one of the characters I like might be the murderer. On rereads, I can relax and enjoy myself, knowing who I’m supposed to like and who I should detest. I can simply enjoy the clues and foreshadowing and various plot beats of the story.

      2. The older you get, the more familiar you are with types of stories and the better you can abstract them.

        When you are a preschooler and terrified by Disney’s Snow White, you may not be able to generalize the Disney fairy tales don’t have unhappy endings.

    2. In the same way, I can lie back and watch VFX-heavy shows as long as they’re written at least ok. IF my brain engages ands starts dismantling the effects shots and whats wrong with them while watching the show… you’ve lost me.

  2. The one-panel stories from comics like The Far Side rather remind me of the “postcard” stories that Cedar and the other “Moms of the Apocalypse” have been doing. In 50 words, you just don’t have time to tell a lot of story. But you can allude to things that we all know, set up situations that have to resolve a certain way, and in many respects, “trick” the reader into thinking that you wrote a lot more than you actually did.

    1. Larson is particularly adept at leaving the (middle and) ending off of his “stories”. Some may appear obvious and single-threaded, but many are ambiguous and could skew off in all sorts of directions.

      If you sometimes have trouble coming up with “and then what happens?” in your own stories, you could do worse than to choose some random Larson cartoons and write up varied one-liners about the missing (middles and) endings as an exercise.

      1. And then, once you have a list of possibilities, add the Scott McCloud insights as to how exactly you would instantiate those various one-liners (visible weapons? POV? hero-ex-machina? hidden pitfalls? etc.) using the shorthand graphic toolkit of the comics industry and translating that back into narrative text.

  3. I can’t answer that about stuff I read without without turning into “These Are a Few of My Favorite Things”. In terms of stuff I enjoy writing they tend to be either quiet but important character moments, or big, splashy By the Power of Grayskull moments.

  4. I tend to enjoy scene and setting, the culture of the story, as much or more than the characters. I tend to go back and re-read landscape and culture descriptions rather than character scenes. The books I did re-read over and over? The original Pern novels, the Blue Sword duology, some L’amour. I”m not sure if it was/is a sign that I’d end up as an environmental historian or other combo-historian, or just inner perversity. [shrugs in cat]

    As a writer I like setting, and having characters doing things. Which may be why the character in a recent story refused to talk or otherwise cooperate with my ideas. SIGH.

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