At the start of this class I made a statement of belief. I claimed that narrative is central to the human sense of self and that we can effect our audience at their most fundamental core by confronting them with compelling new narratives. I argued that with such a powerful communication tool available, we had good reason to approach our work with a ‘narrative first’ perspective and that writing is both a familiar and uniquely powerful tool for developing narratives.
With the creation of narratives established as our primary goal, our journey has taken us back and forth through story deconstruction and reconstruction and up through structures of increasing scale.
We began on the first day by breaking down narratives from example books into their component parts:
- Time frame
- Critical event(s)
- Critical character interactions
We looked at both explicit and implicit characters. We saw how characters, in partnership with scenes, enact the events of a story. We also spent time looking at the different approaches to handling the narrator and the shifting relationship of narrator, reader and main character.
Our example books, though simple, presented a range of scenes to examine in their stories. We had scenes that were ‘in the world’ and scenes that were ‘character experiences’. We saw how changing scenes worked with changing events to create narrative arcs in our examples.
We also looked at different uses of time in these stories. In some, we saw clear starting and ending time limits. Others had open endings or open beginnings. These differences helped us see the important role time played in creating the shape of the story.
Once we established these basic building blocks of the story, we used them to construct new stories starting from tiny seed ideas. Having defined the basic units and having practiced with building stories from the units we finished our fist day. For homework you were challenged to try these new ideas in the natural environment of your studio and to produce a first draft of a new work.
On the second day we moved to a slightly larger frame of reference, working with complete stories rather than story seeds. We took existing stories and saw how they could be abstracted into their component parts, then transformed by swapping those components with randomly selected replacements. We then used our editing skills to blend the new parts together into a seamless new story.
This exercise helped us see the shapes of stories and how the shape of a narrative is dependent on the events and their connection, but is largely independent of scene and character.
With this larger perspective established, we considered the possible shapes of stories we could create.
We proposed a working list of story shapes.
- Rags to riches (rise)
- Tragedy or Riches to rags (fall)
- Man in a hole (fall-rise)
- Icarus (rise-fall)
- Cinderella (rise-fall-rise)
- Oedipus (fall-rise-fall)
- Punchline story
- A stranger comes to town
We also considered basic structural or stylistic approaches we might make use of.
- The illustration of a conflict
- Character sketch
- Short story
Both lists were proposed as prompts for our explorations rather than as definitive.
At this point we had both small grain and large structure systems to work with to help us understand our stories. This allowed us to proceed to consider the broader context for our stories. After all, we are not writing for writing’s sake, we’re writing for artists’ books.
We finished up our second day with a very general look at how our writing could be distributed into a book structure. We discussed how the parsing of our story across a series of pages might be used. Pacing, rhythm and the hiding and revelation of information were among the new possibilities discussed. We also considered the opportunities for layering concepts that become available as we combine visual content with our text.
At every step of our journey, at every scale level, we considered our audience. We discussed the importance of thinking about how closely they might be like us. Whether we could trust that they share our frame of reference and how we might adapt our work to improve the chance that they will receive our message.
Now as we discussed the task of embedding our writing in the final package for delivery we recognized we were adding both time and complexity to our story. This brought us again to consider our audience. How much time and effort can we expect from them. Is our message appropriately scaled. Is its meaning too transparent or too opaque? Will the reader feel we ‘played fair’; will they think the message was worth the effort.
In our final day we’ve taken one more step up in scale. We looked at the possibilities presented by the front-matter and back-matter in our books. We also spent some time considering the opportunities presented in our system of marketing communications.
We looked at our books in the larger context of ‘art that includes words’. Examples of popular music provided us an entry point in our examination of these related artistic traditions. We saw a variety of strategies that can inform our creation of books.
This approach was grounded in my second statement of belief; that we don’t have to view book arts as a new form of expression, struggling for a place at the cultural table. I believe when we place narrative at the heart of our books, we place our work at the heart of a long tradition of artistic expression; films, animation, all forms of writing, music (especially music with verse). The list could easily be extended.
If I am correct in my view, there is already a chair at the table waiting for us, a community of artists that understand and share our concerns, and an audience that has been trained to appreciate our work.
I hope I’ve given you good reasons to allow my two statements of belief even if you you don’t embrace them as you evolve your art in the long term. But whether you accept them or not, there is still an elephant in our living room.
I’ve presented my ideas as a system. We’ve talked of groupings, categories and techniques. But we’re artists, not engineers. So, as we close our class you may be asking “What about intuition? Why did you include the article on the ineffable in the reading list if you though narratives could be systematized?”
These are fair questions and the answer is simple. I knew you were artists and that intuition is at the very heart of your practice. What could I expect to teach you about the insights and instincts that guide you and that give rise your unique artistic voice?
Instead of trying to change or (heaven forbid) limit the role of intuition in your work, I’ve had a different goal in mind. I’ve been trying to awaken some new senses in you. Senses that can supply your creative-self new raw material. I believe your native instincts for meaning, humor, irony and wonder will absorb and integrate these new sense perceptions seamlessly into your work.
We all know the 5 physical senses; touch, taste, sight, hearing and smell. Less known is proprioception, which allows us to know the positions of unseen body parts. We’re also all aware of the value of sense descriptions in our stories. We have heaps of vocabulary for that.
But narrative is more than a sequence of physical sense descriptions. Now though I’m going to argue that all of our human experiences are nothing more than sense perceptions. But to completely describe our world and our experiences in it we need to become sensitive to four new senses:
- Who sense
- Sense of dynamics
- Motivational sense
- Sense of information space
Your new who-sense will make you increasingly conscious of and sensitive to the characters that inhabit your stories. You may begin to feel them crowding around your seed ideas, and with this awareness you’ll be able to cooperate with them to inflate a new story.
You may start to detect the influence of characters that aren’t mentioned in your stories. Perhaps the scolding father your character has never managed to grow beyond. Or an institutional presence that is the unstated source of your characters paranoid suspicions.
Your who sense will also help you respond to (or manipulate) that mysterious blending of author, narrator and reader. How distinct will you make them. Will you treat the reader as a witness or include them as a participant? With your who-sense awakened, you’ll have the information you need for your intuition to guide you to the right answer.
Sense of dynamics
Your sense of dynamics will come to your aid in many ways. First this sense will help you understand the shapes of your stories as they are created by the ebb and flow of events. With this awareness you can trust your intuition to guide you to amplify or mute the shape for best effect. This sense will allow you to detect the rhythm of your story and to recognize passages of acceleration or deceleration. You’ll be able to feel these changes both in the events and the language of your story. And with this awareness, you’ll be able to make appropriate editing decisions down to the smallest scale of word selection.
Combined with your who-sense, your sense of dynamics will make you aware of character dynamics; individual change, relationship acceleration, shifts in power and the like. Your artistic instinct will surely make good use of this new input.
Your motivational sense will help you understand the why of your story. To bring your characters to life in the mind of your reader, their actions must feel logical and consistent. You may be creating an absurd world with absurd characters, but if the characters suddenly stop acting from their absurd motivational system, your reader will stop believing them. We need our motivational sense to help us decide on the events that will drive our story and the responses of our characters to those events.
At some phase of your creation you will probably seek information from your motivational sense about your own purposes for making this work and not some other. This knowledge may help you in editing after your initial drafts have revealed the core of your story. Or you may have a feel for the ‘why’ of your story when you first come across the seed idea.
You may also be guided by a sense of why your readers will take the time and effort to engage with your work.
And at the very largest scale of our practice we can use this sense to understand the motivation of our collector and consumer base so we can better tailor our market communication.
Sense of information space
The last sense I’m trying to awake is a sense of information space. This is our most ‘meta’ sense; crudely translated, meta is information about information. This sense will allow us to distinguish areas of ambiguity and clarity in our writing. It will provide us feelings about when less is more vs when less is a puzzle without a meaningful solution.
Our sense of information space will allow us to feel the interactions between visual elements and concepts conveyed by our words. As the experiences we want to deliver grow in complexity, our skill in using our sense of information space must also grow to help us keep the layers of words, images, textures, rhythms and structures organized properly.
That's a wrap
So, my engineering approach was just a technique. The real goal has been to help you recognize and begin expanding these 4 new senses.
Some philosophers maintain that language is necessary for having any concepts. I’m not sure if this is true. It seems that I can feel joy or sadness without words for those experiences. But I think that we can agree, having names for certain concepts makes them much more manageable. Knowing the Scottish word ‘tartle’ describes that panicky hesitation just before you have to introduce someone whose name you can't quite remember, gives us a way to encapsulate this experience. The concept does exist without the word, but not as clearly. It was this clarity that I have tried to bring to some pre-existing concepts though my categorizing and labeling.
These newly clarified elements and ideas are the objects of our new senses. This has been our goal, to see more clearly and to understand more completely so we can communicate more effectively.