Sequential Art Project: Writing with Pictures
“Sequential Art” is the rather lofty term that Will Eisner used in his seminal work Comics and Sequential Art*to describe the process of arranging pictures, images and words to narrate a story. It is central to comic book writing. With so little space to tell the story, each image in each frame must successfully catch the essence of the action whilst establishing the drama, tension and mood. Comic book writing is not just about drawing the picture but also about choosing which picture to draw.
Of course, the same is true of any piece of storytelling. When we write prose, we are selective about what we show the reader, drawing their attention to key elements or ideas and skipping things that are less important or might drag down the pace. We are so used to selective framing in story telling that when a story comes along that tells in “real time” we notice it as unusual. And even there, we can’t describe everything our characters see and feel. We make choices.
Even the core visual ideas in comic book writing can translate to broader fiction. In a story I was working on this week I wanted to show that the central character felt superior and more powerful than those she was watching. I moved her to a balcony so that she was looking down on them. Use of shadows, close ups and long shots, framing those things central to the action or pulling the camera so that the horrible image is just of screen: these are all things that can be achieved textually as well as visually.
Both because I love comics and to explore this notion of sequential art, I have been playing a game with my father (an actual real artist). The game is taken from p56 of Scott McCloud’s fantastic book Making Comics** (you can check out Scott’s website here). If you’re into comics then McCloud’s work is really worth checking out.
You start out by drawing 16 equally sized frames. In the first frame you draw a figure, standing about, not doing much of anything. Then your partner tells you what your figure is going to do next. You draw that, they take a look, and tell you what they do after. Repeat until you have a completed story. Expect surrealism, especially if you do it with my Dad.
There are a number of ways that you could play this game with the written word – perhaps inverting it, such that after each 100 words you write your partner sends you an image which has to be incorporated into the story. The point is to try and think of the best and clearest way to encapsulate whatever crazy notion your partner has sent you now in a single frame. It is an exercise in economy of expression as well as encouraging you to try out ideas and images that you might not usually use.
I have been tweeting the results so far, which will probably have made no sense if you follow me on twitter. I thought I’d write this post to explain and stick the images all together in this post so you can follow if you’re interested. I’ll keep updating as we go along. It’s probably best that I avoid the usual self-depreciating remarks about my drawing, because, you know, obviously. I hope that sharing these pictures might encourage you to try out the game, to see how visual art might bring new perspectives to textual art, and also to see that you don’t have to be an artist to enjoy and learn from drawing!
*Eisner W, Comics and Sequential Art¸ WW Norton (New York: 1985)
*McCloud S, Making Comics, Harper (New York: 2006)
You can follow my updates below, and my Dad’s on his website via this link here: http://cliffface.co.uk/sequential-art-project-telling-stories-pictures/
Sequential Art Project
10. “Run,” it said as it built up speed passing him by. “Safety half a mile away 3 minutes far side of George St or Dead”
11. Running fast through a street crowded with people who seem totally oblivious to recent explosion.
12. Thrown against a wall you watch a ripple of change move up the street. People pause then all walk away from you. (I changed collapse to thrown)
13. Running up the steps between buildings: “We need to get high to stop this, next to the castle should do.”
16. A good pub and it is special having a beer when you, your mate and the landlady all went to primary school together.
If you’d like to read up on my reflections after the project was finished, you can find the article here.