Tag Archives: story structure

How to talk to your plants (and other stories)

A couple of days ago I decided to buy some valerian root extract for the first time. I’ve been having trouble sleeping lately, from the 4:30 sunrise and the stress of my to-do list, and I thought that making tea with valerian at night might help. The plant also grows naturally in our front yard, but after some internet research I wasn’t sure that it could be consumed raw.

So I went and asked at the Coop. “In herbalism, you’re supposed to ask the plant if it’s safe to eat,” said one of the natural medicine specialists. “Have you asked the plant?” I checked her expression and saw that she was being serious. “How does the plant answer?” I asked. “I guess you just get a feeling,” she said. Having never had a conversion with a plant before, I wasn’t sure that I was qualified to risk my digestive health on my cross-species linguistic skills, so I went ahead and bought the extract anyway.

But, as strange as it sounds to ask a plant a question, I think stories work in a similar way. My husband, Tim Stout, has been coaching me on stories and how they work, and there seems to be a parallel strategy: ask the story what it wants, and listen to its answer. And the story will start to talk to you. I’ve had several false starts with this next section of Hieroglyph, which has been very frustrating, but I know the solution isn’t too far away. It’s a matter of clearing my head enough to listen. And who knows! Maybe I’ll hear something new from my story today. And if not, there’s a plant in the front yard who’s probably feeling neglected. I should go out at chat at my next 4:30am wake-up.

Once Upon A Time there was a Happily Ever After

Mary Magoulick, folklorist and Associate Professor of English at Georgia College, posted a great description of what a fairy tale is. Let me just quote her here:

Fairy tales, also known as wonder tales or märchen (from the German), are a sub-genre of folktales involving magical, fantastic or wonderful episodes, characters, events, or symbols. Like all folktales they are narratives that are not believed to be true (fictional stories), often in timeless settings (once upon a time) in generic, unspecified places (the woods), with one-dimensional characters (completely good or bad). They function to entertain, inspire, and enlighten us. In these episodic narratives the main characters are usually humans who often follow a typical pattern (as in a heroic quest) that is resolved partly by magic. The fact that these wonder tales still appeal to us attests to their richness and effectiveness as symbolic communication.

Luke SkywalkerThis week I’ve been examining our personal library of films, comics and books for stories that have anything to do with fairy tales, and been surprised to find a plethora of works that easily fit into the above description. Characters that are opportunistic and hopeful, themes often dealing with socio-economic struggle and lower classes seeking power, and/or a transformation process, such as the frog to prince, or the rags to riches. Aside from Disney films and literary-based works like Oh Brother Where Art Thou?, there are an incredible number of stories that use magic to teach a lesson or help complete a quest. We love magic. Star Wars is 100% fairy tale, is it not?

The trick is to use fairy tale character archetypes while still keeping the character and the story interesting. We KNOW that innocent Luke Skywalker must SURELY triumph over the black hearted cloak wearing Darth Vader from the first moments of the trilogy, but we keep watching because he is an Everyman in peril, and the circumstances of his life interest us. Magic? Monsters? A “road movie” set in space?! Sign me up!! Today Star Wars is looking just a little bit hokey, but I love it just the same, and it grabs me every time. I know EXACTLY what happens in the films… but I want to watch it again and again. Fairy tales seem to scratch some deep-seated story itch for almost everyone.

When the cartoonist Seth visited the Center for Cartoon Studies two weeks ago, he said “The only chart you have for what is interesting is your own taste.” I am realizing that I have quite an appetite for fairy tales. My thesis already is a fairy tale of sorts, but this research may help me to turn up the volume and figure out the appropriate staging. I feel like I’m on a good track.

Rest in Pieces

Last week I had a break through with my thesis project direction! My story isn’t a drama… it needs to be a satire! This realization changes everything, of course, and makes the vast majority of my writing and drawing thus far obsolete, but I no longer want to do the serious and personal rite-of-passage story about weddings and family relationships that I originally intended, because it wasn’t going to be a FUN story (and God knows there’s enough anxiety in comics, anyway). The story I’m now planning is TECHNICALLY still a rite-of-passage, but with all of the new wonkiness and antics and escalating chaos, it should be a blast to write and draw and still get my point across. I will still be thinking a great deal about scene writing, dialogue, and Blake Snyder’s advice (in Save the Cat, a fantastic book about story and screenwriting), but I feel much more satisfied with this new approach.

I thought this blog would be a good place to show (and, sniff, mourn) all of the work being laid to rest in pieces and temporarily shelved on it’s way to the garbage. It took this stack of writing and thumbnails, page break downs and drawings to get me moving forward and find what the story is really about, what amounts to one Binder Inch of work:

Rest In Pieces

I’ve put in about 8 months off-and-on of thinking time and wheel turning, which isn’t much time at all in the big scheme of things, and I count myself lucky to have this break through in November (instead of March or April) for the sake of my thesis! I have a lot of months and weeks left to act on my new instincts and keep things at a draft level.

On Friday I met with my thesis advisor David Macaulay and showed him the chapter synopsis of the new draft. He said “This is good.” Which, coming from him, is more than enough outside validation to last me through the month, even if by December I’ve ruined the entire thing with my new ambition!

On Writing

Alec Longstreth just had us read a short interview with Hope Larson on writing graphic novel scripts and working with an editor for our Professional Practice class at CCS. I liked Larson’s approach and philosophy a lot. It’s nice to hear of creators who work from scripts, as I’m trying it out for the first time now. I’ve been putting in long hours writing out my wedding graphic novel idea, structuring the acts, working out scenes, and now finally flushing out more of the actual dialogue. Here’s what my “Board” looks like (an idea I got from Save the Cat, by Blake Snyder), with each card showing a scene, and each row is an act (Act 1, Act 2.1, Act 2.2, Act 3). It’s been a lot of fun!

Script Board

Wedding sketches

This week I’ve been working on writing scenes for a graphic novel idea about a wedding. Writing is hard! But I’m learning so much by really trying to understand structure and character development, building moment after moment into a comprehensive story. I’ve had positive feedback on the project this week from an agent with Sanford J. Greenburger Associates and from Rich Johnson (Publishing & Graphic Novel Consultant, formerly with DC Comics) during their respective visits to the Center for Cartoon Studies. My hope is to have a full proposal and a rough dummy by the end of the semester!

Running Bride