Scryptic column #2 — “It’s All in the Wrist”

I found a few of my “Swift as Mercury” columns that used to run over at Scryptic Studios, this nifty website for comic book writers.Drew Melbourne invited me to do a column, and then it folded. Go ahead and blame me for it if you want.



#2It’s All in the Wrist

File under: Telegraphing

Skillfully manipulated before your eyes in the rhythms of:

The Mighty Mighty Bosstones – 1-2-8

The Mighty Mighty Bosstones – Who’s Foolin’ Who?”

The Mighty Mighty Bosstones – “Sugarfree” [demo version]

N.W.A. – “Express Yourself”

I was, for awhile, the luckiest boy in the world.  Not because I had a dog, though that helped, but because I lived on the same block as a magician.

There is no greater fascination for a six-year-old kid than a—holy cow—real life magician whose daughter is friends with your sister, giving you just enough excuse to show up on the poor, though patient, man’s doorstep every afternoon for a couple months and sit there just waiting for him to do a trick.

Except maybe the stripper next door, but we didn’t have one of those in our neighborhood. She lived four blocks away.

The magician, over time, segued into the not-too-unrelated field of hypnotism a few years later, from sleight-of-hand to sleight-of-consciousness. Which, hey, sounds like a great place for our own segue into today’s subject: the information trade.

All stories are a bargain between the teller and the audience. They are a proposition, a trade of belief for fantasy, interest for action, and attention for information.  A good story, as Steven Grant has aptly mentioned, is a con game.  Conmen work through misdirection.  They operate by getting a mark to accept certain premises, then hand him a different ending than he presumed he’d get.  Storytellers do the same.

The only difference is the mark agrees to be conned in storytelling, so they get upset if you don’t successfully bait, switch and deliver an unforeseen resolution.  Also, scam artists make better money than comic writers.

Not that every good tale needs a twist ending.  Sometimes a straightforward objective and a simple campaign to obtain it is best.  If your story is about a little puppy needs to cross the river to get home, that’s fine.  Remember, however, that even the most easily entertained listener is going to be yawn when the puppy simply crosses the bridge that took him to the far bank in the first place.  Collapse the darn bridge and make him swim!  Obstacles yield conflict, conflict yields tension, which in turn, provokes a resolution, and the sum of all these ingredients, is a tasty recipe for drama.  Yummy drama.

The story’s outcome might be expected, but framed in its new context, there is some twist of plot or emotion that creates an effect the audience wouldn’t have devised for itself.  Without a personal stamp, something new to think about, that narrative really wasn’t worth telling, was it?  It didn’t inform us of anything new.  This is why an icicle once made a great murder weapon for a mystery novel, and is now an atrocious cliché fit only to appear in Murder She Wrote reruns and your fan-fiction director’s cut of Identity Crisis.

Hush, baby, hush.  You know in your secret heart that’s true.

“But I am unable to imagine abstract concepts due to all the chalk I ate as a child,” you plead, “Help me to understand!”  Oh, gentle reader.  There is nothing to be understood; your parents’ tragic death was a senseless, random tragedy that you seek to impose meaning on through your war on Gotham’s criminal element.  However, if you’d like to understand storytelling, that’s cool.  Stories are all about the juxtaposition of events to create a coherent narrative of progression.  They also pass the time till death claims us all.  Here’s a visual metaphor to assist you.

Storytelling is a shell game, where your maguffin is the pea and the shells are the conflicts that play keep-away with it.  You shuffle them around (the shuffling itself would be your plot), leading your reader’s attention with the shell that presumably holds the pea, occasionally flashing a glimpse of the pea to remind your audience where we all stand.  In your case, in front of a conman who’s about to take you for 20 bucks.

Eventually, the conflicts are resolved when each shell is lifted to reveal…no pea here.  Keep searching.  Perhaps, then, the conflict isn’t the shell, but the superposition of its contents.  We come to the final two shells and, of course, it’s never the one we think it is.  But we’re rewarded (or robbed) by the pea we’ve been looking for under the only shell it now can be.

That’s how it’s done.

But that’s just the big picture.  Everything you choose to include, every moment, breath and swear word that makes it into the limited space you have to tell your story, is information you’re giving to the reader for a reason.  It may be simply to add veracity, or color, or hide an important story clue in white noise so it’s not so obvious.  But it may also be a way of telling the reader “Head’s up – this is going to tumble into place later.”

The storytelling as shell game column: telegraphing. Choose your signals carefully. Everything you put into the story is a communication to the reader. Say you want to introduce a little crisis where a girl borrows her friend’s shirt, and spills wine all over it.  You want to ratchet up the “Oh no!” reaction when this happens to maximum return.  You decide, hey, I’ll have the friend tell us how much the shirt means to her, and you jot down this dialogue:

“It’s my favorite shirt but I’ll lend it to you because I trust you to take care of it.”

Well, that’s fine, but your readers are smart, and a line like that will tip most of them off that now something is about to happen to that shirt, and you’ll probably end up with less shock effect than if your friend-character had kept silent.  Traditional sitcoms, the kind churned out and canceled almost by lottery every season, do this constantly.  So trim it:

“It’s my favorite shirt.”

Sometimes the best writer, like the best engineer, is a lazy one.  The readers will make the connection themselves when the shirt is ruined later.  But, hey, maybe that’s too plain for you.  Maybe you want to pull double-duty on the line and color it to inform us of both plot AND characterization.  Have the character restate the same thought with more clue as to her inner reasoning:

“Your big date?  You HAVE to wear my white shirt.  It looks good on me, but it’ll look GREAT on you.”

We perceive that she really treasures this shirt.  Better still, it makes what happens later more painful.  This isn’t just about stupid accidents or irresponsibility with borrowed property.  This is a FRIENDLY gesture, a loving act.  This shirt isn’t just a sign of trust, it’s a gift for the evening from a thoughtful person who is now hurt.  The friend offered this, unprovoked, simply to make life better for the character we’re identifying with! She’s a considerate person, she doesn’t deserve to have her wardrobe trashed!

You can see personal agony in a little minor crisis now.  By focusing the setup laser-tight on what a great friend she is, we raised the emotional value.  We gave what happens later more meaning, and we did it without letting the reader know it’s just planting our feet for the punch to come.  In the scene, at the time, our focus is on humanizing our characters, making them likable.  We’re not thinking about what might happen to the shirt.  We’re focused on what makes the shirt interesting in the long run: the people.

Each variation of that line is like choosing how clear and long a glimpse of the pea you’ll offer the mark before clapping down the shell again.  It contributes to the final effect. To use a different metaphor, every little detail is important, because the information you hand out, you’re eventually going to have to take back.  Like a magician making red and blue handkerchiefs vanish, you’re ultimately going to produce a knotted chain of them to end the trick.

The point is everything you put down has meaning. It all gets tied together in the end (or, if you’re super-magical, woven into a purple kerchief).

I’ll say that again: every element of the work has meaning.  It doesn’t necessarily advance the plot, and it might be colorless cotton stuffed in there to bury the key points (mysteries do this most frequently, so that the key information will register with your brain, but not stand out later) in white noise.  But everything you decide to put into the work, has the value of saying to the audience, “This is something I want you to know, it is part of the story.”

Now, of course, you might not succeed in connecting it to the framework.  In the previous column, I compared structures of a house to structures of a living organism.  And I’ll grant the house this: everything has a function.  No architect ever just decided to put a chimney in the middle of the bathroom.  There are no appendices.  It’s an efficient creation.

But, hey, the appendix doesn’t intrude on your day-to-day operations.  A substantial narrative can afford one or two vestigial tales and still run at top speed.  Once in awhile, a story, like a person, might die from appendicitis, but your instincts should be able to diagnose that in time.

In comics, that information is visual, which I like.  I like sound effects and bullet trails and idea bulbs, and any other trick where the words and the picture start melting into one another.  Personally, I think it’s ok to lean on dialogue-heavy sequences sometimes, that’s the joy of comics: the balance AND the imbalance of picture and prose.  Just as you can create a marvelous sequential tale with no words whatsoever, you can produce a great comic sequence of words, words, words, and add in a picture that shifts its meaning.  As long as the pictures and words are interacting, you are making a comic.  You’re communicating ideas through a combination of direct representation (pictures) and symbolic images (words).  Both are containers for ideas.

Comics are born in the space between representations of ideas. Comics happen in the gutter between panels.  Comics also happen when both sides of your brain apprehend words and pictures at once. “Picture then picture” and “Picture plus words” are two different actions of one technology, but ultimately, the comic is a medium that acts on closure and the connections between elements of composition.

Ask yourself: how does this picture change these words?  How do these words determine the picture?

Observe a (not very well-drawn) picture:

You empathize with the woman’s surprise.  You can’t help it.  You see her, with no other context, and identify with her. (now if this were the end of a book and she were the villain, perhaps you’d feel a sense of justice, or schadenfreude).

Now, a second version:

And surprise is focused into fear. Someone is threatening to kill…someone, most likely her.

But what about a third version?

That could be a look of joy.  Or, we could find out in the next panel that there’s a third person in the room, and the poor lass is watching her boyfriend of six years propose to her worst enemy.  It’s Eisenstein’s montage effect, friends, and every new brick in the wall changes that wall’s size and shape. That’s how comics work.

One of Watchmen’s most-emulated tricks in comics storytelling is to have two scenarios comment on each other, but it’s not a nice technique simply because it involves symmetry.  It’s a juxtaposition to create the effect of a plan falling into motion, of foregone conclusions, of predetermination, though not predestination, all of which tie into the villain’s machinations, Dr. Manhattan’s unified worldview, and ultimately, the inability of ANY of the characters to perceive the total picture (though Manhattan seems to have the broadest view, encountering the partially-blind symbol least of anyone).  At best, they grasp a portion of the picture before them.

With that said, you can get a lot of good and versatile use out of this technique, and many others, pioneered by Moore and Morrison and McCay, and even some people whose names don’t even begin with M. Devise your own.  Let the world know how it goes.

Just make sure when you’re telegraphing this information, you’re not revealing or withholding anything to your detriment. The worst thing you can do, in comics and con jobs, is come up empty when the last shell is flipped.

But oh, brother, when you give them a good show, and surprise them without betraying any of the tricks you’ve premised along the way…

That’s magic.