Storytelling

Posted on April 14, 2012

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I started Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series a few years ago, but never managed to get past the second book; not because it wasn’t good, I just didn’t have the time.  Now I find myself with long moments here and there, in between various work projects, but I don’t have the books with me.  Instead I have the graphic novel, trade paperback version.  At the end of the first collection, there’s a letter from King to the reader.  He talks about a lot of things, but one subject sticks out in my mind: his work with different mediums, from novels to movies.

(Actually, come to think of it, Stephen King and Neil Gaiman are the only two authors I know who routinely work with novels, comic books and television/movies.  And they’re both really good at it.  Wonder how many other storytellers fall into that “renaissance man” category…)

I found myself musing–as I usually do after two or four cups of espresso–about the differences in storytelling mediums.  Actually, I may not be approaching this properly.  Must be the espresso…

Mankind has been telling stories since the dawn of time, since we first learned to communicate with each other.  (Granted, I can’t prove that, but I believe it based on what I’ve learned in my 30 years of life.)  Since then we’ve created several mediums to transmit those stories.  I won’t be able to analyse each in their entirety, but I want to touch upon some aspects that I find particularly interesting.  My focus is on the novel, the comic book and the movie.

Novels, at their core, are words strung together into sentences, then paragraphs, and maybe chapters or sections, etc.  The whole effect is a story with a beginning, middle and end, and usually with several peaks along the way, resulting in a conclusion.  I know, I’m being vague on purpose because there’s no hard and set way to define the novel (or any other storytelling medium).  I’m trying to get to a point, though: novels (and short stories, and generally any other form of prose) are linear.  I don’t mean that in the macro- sense, in the big picture that is the overall plot of any given story.  I mean it in the micro- sense.  When you read a sentence, you progress from one word to the next.  You go from one sentence to the next.  You finish the page before you turn it and read the next page, and so on.  Whatever path the larger story takes, the reader is confined to reading one word at a time.

Now, I understand that some people read differently.  Speed-readers absorb more information in a smaller amount of time, and so presumably read more than just one word at a time.  Personally, I have a habit of skipping sections of prose and finding the “good parts,” which actually slows me down because I feel like I finished the page without reading all of it.  My point stands, though: to read prose, you have to progress in a linear fashion.  Not so with comic books and movies.

When you look at a painting, you don’t focus on the whole of it.  The eye is capable of receiving a lot of information at one time (after all, we have a field of vision that exceeds 180 degrees in all directions), but our brains consciously recognize a more narrow area.  So the whole of a painting isn’t “seen” at one glance.  It takes a few moments, and during that time the eye “scans” the painting; the pattern used depends on the artwork (how the key elements are organized) and the viewer (what attracts the viewer, personally speaking).  In other words, our eyes do this:

This is why I say a novel is linear: the eye tracks over one word at a time.  A comic book is a series of paintings, and so it’s probably the furthest thing from linear in this sense.  Each panel is a painting; a page is a collection of paintings; two pages is usually the most you can view at one time, but the ability to turn the pages and glance through the art at will allows the reader to consume more of the story in a way that novels do not allow for.

Movies (and television) are also different in that they’re a combination of linear storytelling and non-linear visual storytelling: you can only observe a few seconds at any given moment, and re-winding the movie interrupts the flow; and each moment you observe is filled with a visual image, like a painting, that may contain a greater variety of information.

I realize this may not make the most sense, and for that I apologize.  I may have to hunt down some literature on this topic, just to see if anyone has put effort into exploring how we tell stories.  See, novels and movies aren’t the only form; we also have poetry or music; theater, such as plays or operas; and even video games, or similar interactive stories.

Yeah, that’s all I guess.  Just wanted to put thoughts on the page.  I’ll have to come back and explore these topics some more…

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