Friday, October 23, 2009

Showing and telling

One of the time-worn maxims of writing is "show don't tell." Novice writers mumble it in their sleep, and experienced writers stand in front of novice writers and repeat it. Sort of an "I had to learn it, now you have to learn it."

As a picture book writer and as an artist, "Show don't tell" is been a maxim that I have to view differently. It's my job to tell the story but in telling it, I get to use pictures (show) AND words (tell). Do you suppose it's a coincidence that show-and-tell vanishes from the classroom about the same grade as picture books? Wordless picture books are phenomenal in their own right but admit it, they don't function to improve reading skills and there are some constraints on the types of information they can convey. At the same time, words only don't always spark the fascination of the reluctant reader. Or even an avid reader, sometimes - even in adult markets, why do you think that so much effort goes into producing that eye-catching cover?

That being said, it's long been my theory that in a picture book, good illustrations will carry a weak story but weak illustrations will sink even some of the most magical text. I have some wonderful stories by various talented and favorite writers on my shelf but quite frankly, don't read some of them very often because the illustrations are not appealing to me at all. It doesn't have to do with style or color - some of them just don't add to the story.

And that, I think, is the key.

In picture books, both the art and the text tell a story. In the best picture books, each carries a separate thread of the story but they become braided together through the tempo of the tale to create something unique and whole and completely satisfying.

As a writer, I cannot add every detail to the text. The story has to be a single "lint free" thread. But in the pictures I can create a rich world or a fanciful one that supports and adds to the intrigue or humor or suspense or silliness of the story.

As I was mulling this over once again (I offer a workshop on this so spend a fair bit of time thinking about it), I picked up The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Bookby Bill Waterson. It's a fascinating book because he shares some of his "behind the scenes" thoughts about everything from the strip composition and story lines to his struggles with licensing and syndicates. And he makes this statement:
"The best comics have funny writing and funny drawings, but sometimes the strength of one can make up for the weakness of the other."
So far I agree. And then he goes on to say this:
"Great writing will save boring artwork better than great drawings will save boring ideas ... "
Now if you've been paying attention, I just spent a couple paragraphs disagreeing with this. But he goes on:
" ... but comics are a visual medium, and a funny picture can pull more weight than most people think."
Okay, that's true. Particularly because he demonstrates it so well by having a frame just below this statement where Calvin's bubble gum imploded all over his face. He concludes:
"Whenever deadlines force me to go with a mediocre idea, I go for broke on the illustration."
And we're back to agreement. Ding, ding, ding. Round's over ...

Picture books, like comics, are largely a visual medium. I suppose it's a perk of the current publishing environment that fewer of the boring ideas (including a few of my own) are making it to market. The variety of illustration styles and mediums is also picking up and giving greater variety to the look and feel of the stories.

But I still say go for broke on both.

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