How can we tell stories using the spaces around our characters?
For a little while now I’ve been trying out exercises from Scott McCloud’s brilliant book Making Comics[i]. It’s a deeply thoughtful text on the art of storytelling and, with a little imagination, its lessons are just as applicable to the traditional novel as they are to the graphic. I recently shared my first sequential art project, which you can find here. In this article, I’m going to share one of the exercises I completed and use it to talk about telling stories with empty spaces.
Exercise #7 on page 57 of Making Comics asks, “Can you draw an unoccupied room with enough detail that a friend can tell you at least ten meaningful things about the kind of person that lives there, just by looking at your drawing?”
I did three drawings for this exercise, threw one away, had one taken from the art room at school, and managed to save the last of them long enough to get a photograph:
Who lives in this room? What sort of person are they? How do they spend their time? What sort of things do they like doing? How old are they? What do they look like?
Describing something by using the spaces around it is a deeply engaging form of storytelling. Readers love to figure things out, and spaces invite questions. They give us physical things that we can instantly recognise. That recognition gives us clear impressions about the people who live in that space. We know the feeling of the door that jams when it is part way closed, or the corner of the bed where the springs are broken. We carry with those feelings a wealth of associations. It is the very empitomy of showing not telling.
My favourite recent example of this was in an episode of Mad Men. Alpha-male marketing executive Don Draper’s wife has moved away to persue her acting career. He finds that the window in his uber-posh apartment keeps on popping open, letting in a cold draft of New York air every time he turns his back. He doesn’t need to tell us there’s something missing from his life. The window tells us for him.
Visual storytelling offers you all sorts of opportunities. You can achieve a level of detail and richness of image that would be cumbersome in the writtern word. Fitting all the detail in this room into a written paragraph would result in a very long paragraph indeed! You can’t keep all the detail without boring the hell out of your reader, but once you’ve splurged all the pictures in your head onto the page you’ll find certain images that stick – the teddybear in the corner, the old-fashioned hi-fi – and those are the things that you put in the story.
Now one of my faults as a fiction writer is that I get bored writing descriptions. Maybe this is because the very first things I wrote were plays. Descriptions feel like annoying stage directions that get in the way of writing exciting dialogue. I kind of want to write “Exit followed by a bear” and leave it at that. But that’s because I’m thinking about “description” as being separate from “story”, when nothing could be further from the truth. I need to use the spaces to tell the story.
I didn’t get bored drawing this room. It became an adventure. I was discovering the character through the process of deciding what went into the space. As if I was helping them move in. The intricacies, details and idosyncrasities that came into the process of deciding whether this was a person who made their bed in the morning, whether it was someone who would use a laptop or a desktop, why and how they ended up having an old fashioned hi-fi, all created a richness and believability to this invisible character that was far greater than that of people I’d created using more straightforward character sketches.
Drawing the place where your characters live may not be for everyone, but I think useful writing exercises can be stolen from this. How about this slight modification: “can you write a paragraph about a room that shows us six meaningful things about the person who lives there?” What does the inside of your character’s bag look like? Where do they leave their bike? What do pass on their walk to work? The process of exploring these other places will bring a new richness to your story, and introducing your characters via the world around them is a much more engaging experience for your readers.
I’m not sure that any of this is particularly profound, but the experience of drawing the empty rooms was valuable. So I guess this is more of a “do don’t think” sort of article. It’s easy to think about all the good things you would do for your writing if you weren’t so busy trying to make your plot work. But, really, seriously, try taking some time out to write about the stuff on the periphery. You’ll find surprising things there.
[i] McCloud S, Making Comics, Harper (New York: 2006).
[ii] The drawing is an A3 tonal piece done with normal graphite pencils. Obligatory I’m so bad at drawing pity-seeking comment blah blah blah. The light source on the spherical light shade is wrong. It’s not the only thing that’s wrong (or bad), but it’s the thing that bugs me the most. I’m working on it.