Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Hotspot #22: The Thin Veneer Between Art and Science in Good Storytelling

It's been a while since I've really thought (or done anything) about comics theory. Actually I have been lax in the comics department in lieu of my sudden reemergence of interest in the written word. It's a phases thing. I operate like that. Well that and my day job requiring me to travel to a whole different country for months does not help.

Anyway, as I spend hours over my word processor getting reacquainted with the art of telling a compelling story with the aid of pictures such as the comic panel, I have come to realize that the mystery of making a good comic and writing a good story is intricately linked. Oh sure we can yammer all we want about good art and writing in the terms of good characterization and worldbuilding, but frankly all that means jack when you forget the end goal of any form of creative art: getting a message across in a way that the audience enjoys.

The illustrate the example I just came back from the cinema after a marathon movie session: I watched Toy Story 3 and The Last Airbender back to back. That combination? Yes yes I know. My only excuse is that I had free tickets to spend.

Well it was like comparing a pinnacle of storytelling with a pit.

Toy Story 3 was sublime with some surprisingly adult connotations that I'm sure flew over the kid's heads. That's probably why it works so well on so many levels though. It made me laugh and cry and laugh and cry.

The Last Airbender well... felt like it was being in a car ride with someone with an learner's plate on display.

Contrary to popular belief, I do think that M. Night Shymalan did in fact like and watch the Avatar: TLA original animated series. In fact, I think that was the problem, he was too scared of the source material that he didn't dare to take creative control. So he settled for picking out parts of it and haphazardly trying to join them together- without consideration for what it contributed to the overall plot of the story. Shame, as the set and effects looked quite passable at times, but the characters might as well have been sock-puppets.

If I could summarize the problem, I would have said that Toy Story 3 worked because it knew what it wanted to do: tell the last part of the toys' story. It focused on doing it excellently. And it succeeded.

The Last Airbender bombed because it tried to hard to do everything and succeeded in doing nothing instead. You could tell that the film was made with one objective in mind: Cover Book 1: Water from the series and show the world of Avatar. And it did that. Sort of. The problem was that it forgot its REAL objective. And that was convey the overall message of the arc. It also committed the cardinal sin of any kind of movie/book/comic. It forgot it was supposed to tell a coherent story. (And NOT narrate one. Seriously... “They became friends right away.” !?!?!?!!11!)

So much for the failings of the cinema. What does this have to do with our comics?

Well a story told in movie form and comics form still share the same problems. And the problem half the time is most people who make comics don't have a message to tell. As a result you get those stories that start out great but waffle halfway and lose their focus in the end. (Incidentally, yes, I am aware my own comic suffers from this. Nothing says learning like first hand experience.)

And then there's the other side of the plate. Those stories that do have a message tend to be too indelicate about how they tell it, so all we get is a thinly disguised author's tract instead. No one really enjoys that. As with everything it's all about striking a balance.

The hard thing with comics is that as I have probably said a dozen hundred times before is that it is an amalgamation of art and writing. Well that's what most people describe it as. The gist of the matter here is that “writing” is an extremely generic term and doesn't describe much. While art is easily defined, and is an easily classifiable aspect of a comic, writing encompasses a whole different spectrum of things.

To give an example: (I wish I had my copy of “Making Comics” by Scott McCloud on me at the moment, but I am sitting in a hotel in California right now so my library is kind of a few hundred/thousand miles away) you can pretty much tell at a glance at a page how good (or not good) an artist's work is by the recent few pages of their comic. But what you can't really do is tell how good their writing is by the same, unless said artist specializes in single-page long gags. This is especially true for long serial type comics.

Then we get on to the question of what exactly constitutes good writing. I mean I have been shot down in the past for labelling a comic as having bad writing for having a nonsensical plot in a serious setting, and derailing that plot for the sake of characterization. After all, said author took pains to make characters deep and believable, right, so how dare I say that their writing is bad?! (Insert whine here)

On the other hand we also have those stories that have water-proof-at-30m-deep tight plots, riveting action, but the protagonists of the stories have about as much personality as a cardboard cutout. Some work. Others don't. So would you classify that as good writing or bad?

Well I am sure you get my drift by now. Writing is not an easy thing to judge. It goes deeper than that.

The problem with me is that my path in life has put me in the somewhat awkward position that is half scientist and half artist. It's not a comfortable position. On one hand my scientist side tends to prefer rationality and frustratingly stiff attention to detail. On the other my artsy side says screw it, let's just go with what you feel.

So I'm a scientific artist.

A lot of the arts people are of the opinion that you can't be scientific about art. Art is about “feeling” they say. They point at the formulaic approaches some people take to emulate the successes of other comics as evidence art has to come from the heart and not controlled approached and all that.

I call bullcrap on that.

The reason why people copy formulas is because they don't understand. That's why they follow a formula. They follow it because they know it works. They don't understand it. It's like the difference between a tech support operator and an engineer. If you have had to deal with enough tech support people you'll realize that most of them follow a script and resolution chart. Any deviation from the set paths sets them in a panic because it's unfamiliar territory to them and they do not know what to do. Incidentally, and sadly, most sales and marketing people fall in this category as well.

I mean think of your day job. Do you really understand what you do or do you only know what you are supposed to do? It's not the same thing. What most people receive in job training is a series of motions to go through. Most will never understand the mechanics and big picture behind what they do.

The same thing applies to comics. If you really do care about telling a good story, make sure you know what you want to do and how your art works. Sure you can try doing it again and again and leave it to chance to strike a chord, or do it enough times until you intuitively know what is needed to get the reaction you want. But what the latter is doing is simply internalizing the set of rules needed to get you your result.

Or you can opt for the more reliable method: reach for a pencil and paper, and plan the basic foundation in advance, then go over every bit of it testing every link to make sure it belongs and fits together. Then worry about filling it out with fine details later.

Telling a story is like solving a maths problem on paper. It's not that we don't know how to do it, but it's just a lot easier to solve 128 x 512 on paper than in your head...

Without a calculator, Wise guy.


  1. Speaking of testing, where is that script for the next Jaded chapter? or is that too far away still? Maybe you should tell me the story again in the near future.
    Yes, I think ALL scripts have to go through a bunch of testing and processing before rolling it out onto screens... but in my case, a book. I'm on my THIRD draft and am getting preeeeetty tired. See you in a couple of weeks!
    BTW, great writing. I'm in need of your skill NOW!

  2. Aaaah I've missed your rambly thoughtful posts!!

    You pointed out the problem of finding a balance between having an entertaining story and expressing your message/theme. I used to have (still do sometimes) difficulty with this balance, since I have always done stories with a message/theme as the driving force.
    So I asked my old University teacher about this problem, and she told me that a good way to get around this is to incorporate the themes into the characters. Build complex characters who have obstacles/history/personality, and as you do the narrative will fill out quite naturally. When there is focus like this on characters within the narrative, any messages/themes are found through them, and are far more interesting/thoughtful too. And it seems that more themes then you expect seem to pop up when doing this kind of process, you find new messages/explorations/emotion each time you go over the story. I took on that advice and it's really helped my stories fill out so much, ppl who comment on my comics take much more delight in the characters and are much more thoughtful in what they say about the story too...
    Yeah I think I'm a 'scientific artist' too, I generally find it hard to just randomly do anything artwise, everything has to have a reason/be tested.

    And wow, you have a job that takes you to other countries? Lucky you! Must be tiring but exciting :)

  3. Glad to see you are updating your blog again. I am looking forward to reading it when you have to go back home and I don't get to see you irl anymore. And for those of you reading these comments, it was not the poor taste of the blogger that led her to see Avatar: TLA against all wisdom and advice, it was me! You can blame me. I sort of take that movie as a lesson in what not to do when trying to tell a good story. At least Toy Story 3 was good :)

  4. @Mos: Funny you brought that up. I'd just discarded the old script for The Jaded (6th time now) and started anew. But I've learnt my lesson this time. The insight from this hotspot helped me realize I need to change my approach to make it work.

    I'm seriously considering scripting the rest of TLS now. I know TLS has always been an on the fly production, but it's never been coloured until now either, I figure I ought to do a better job on the finale.

  5. @bex: That's really some interesting input!

    I think your teacher hit the nail on the head on how the importance of the characters in conveying the message: by experiencing and discovering it for themselves.

    I mean we call the art "storytelling" but honestly, it really comes closer to "story-immersion". The characters aren't in the story to tell it. They're there to demonstrate- no, live it.

  6. @Arlene: Haha don't be silly, the company was fun ;) , so was our collective snickering at how bad it was, LOL! A most educational experience.

    Definitely going to miss our IRL discussions. *sigh* well at least I'll have more time to yammer on about comics on my blog again...

    After London, presumably.

  7. I agree so much! Storytelling is science and art!

    Really, success at anything generally requires a balance between technique and intuition.

    I generally write mine out, get an idea, but as I'm drawing it, it evolves by feel. It's amazing how many times (no matter how carefully scripted out a page is beforehand) I've started drawing a page and surprising things happen, sprung from feel, rather than planning.

    Nice post! Hope you liked the states! What do you do, anyway?

  8. I'm an engineer ;) The software/electronics kind. Nowadays the line between these two tends to blur.

    As I see it, the scientific part starts off as the foundation, the the artsy intuition works for the decorations and finishing. They key point is understanding when to make what accommodations for which.

    Sometimes you need to cut back on your artistic wants for the sake of focus and conciseness.

    Sometimes, you just need tap into the feel of things and emotion and let yourself go.

    Comics are like building cars and laptops. You need the science on the inside to make it work, and the art on the outside to make it look good and attractive to peruse.

  9. I couldn't agree more so I'm not going to waste a bunch of words trying to refute anything you said.

    At least, not in this post....