Shop Mobile More Submit  Join Login

Here's an old journal from 2010 about storytelling. Because I have a lot more readers these days, I think I'm going to start reposting some of my earlier posts for my newer audience. So for you old timers, feel free to skip.

In full disclosure, I slightly edited this journal to make it a little more balanced (while also fixing a ton of typos).

--------------------------------------

I feel like the word "storytelling" gets thrown around a lot in our industry.  Yet when I look out there at some comics, I don't always see a lot of evidence for it.  

It feels like people in comics pros--myself included--often use the word only because we feel like we're supposed to.  Over the years enough professionals have been accused of being poor storytellers to the degree that everyone is now afraid of being a pinup artist as opposed to a bona fide storyteller.  But it's not enough just to claim you're a storyteller.

Most people reading this probably have a few artists in their heads right now that are probably awful storytellers—some we don't agree on, but some who are so notoriously bad that very few would defend them (it's funny how we train each other to agree on trends).  Even though most artists own books by Will Eisner and Scott McCloud, many don't seem to understand them on that deeper level.

Or maybe they have read them, but they haven't utilized the information.  They're fans of the IDEA of storytelling and they honestly believe that they ARE storytelling, but they're not internalizing it like I think they should. Of course, much of it is subjective--often what successfully emotes one reader will completely lose the next. In other words, there aren't many rules, just guidelines. And because I spend a lot of time thinking about this stuff, I've found it helpful to divide "storytelling" into four categories so it becomes an easier concept to employ.

1.Traversive storytelling


Traversive isn't even a word, so I'm inventing it.  Have you ever climbed a mountain?  Then you've traversed it.  You've gone from the beginning of the trail of the mountain, up the side, to the top, and back down on the other side.  Storytelling works in much the same way.  And your panels should be visually traversing people through the story.  Is it clear where Logan is standing?  Did you introduce that doorway before he walked through it?  Why did that beer he's drinking come out of nowhere?  Where's the bar?  What kind of bar?  What are you drawing that clearly indicates this stuff?  If a reader can't get SOME sense of what's going on without the word balloons, then you're not telling a story.  But this one's a no brainer—even most editors look out for this one.  At least during portfolio reviews.

2.Symbolic storytelling


Remember how Scarface had that cut over his eye?  It wasn't just
there to look cool.  De Palma was also telling us something: Scarface is permanently wounded, scarred, and he can't hide it.  That scar reflects something about that character.  But that's an obvious one.  We often see obvious symbolism through storytelling: rain=sadness, autumn=death, snow=a blanket.  Or a character is drawn really small to show how large and scary his world is.  But some directors push it further.  In THE ROAD TO PERDITION, Mendes linked water with death.  Young Michael witnesses death paired with ice at a funeral, rain at an execution, and a lake when his father is shot at the end (spoiler alert).  Anything can be used as a symbol if you set it up properly.  Symbolism isn't necessary to a story—it's just the gravy.  And the guys who use it stand out, so we should all be using it.

3.Acting

The way you draw you characters acting and interacting is a huge help to the dialog.  A stone-cold Punisher face is awesome, but what else can you add?  How is he moving?  How is he standing?  Are his arms crossed?  Is he ever so slightly rolling his eyes?  Acting is a form of action, so don't get bored in those talking-head scenes.  There's a lot going on that you can play with if you're smart enough to pick up the ball and run with it. Human beings read body language and faces more than they realize, so be mindful of what you're directing your characters to do. If done right, readers will be getting more from your art without being conscious as to why.

4."Awesome" storytelling
     

Ever see that commercial with Michael Bay blowing stuff up while he's saying "I demand everything to be awesome"?  It stands out, doesn't it?  Whatever your opinion of Bay is, I think he's making a valid point: people want to be moved, and excitement is a huge part of comics. 

 One of my favorite movies is T2, and T2 is far from a perfect movie.  But the reason I love it so much is because Arnold is awesome on that motorcycle.  In one scene he pulls out a shotgun from a box of roses—THAT'S awesome.  He lifts John from his dirt bike onto his Fatboy—THAT'S awesome.  He's wearing one leather glove to cover his metal hand. –THAT'S awesome.  So why all this talk about "awesome"?  The more fun you're having in a story, the more invested and emotionally committed you are.  Having something impact you is important—even if it's just cheesily "awesome".  But there's a fine line between being an "awesome pinup" artist and throwing someone an "awesome camera angle" every now and then.  You can be an "awesome" artist and still be all the other things I mentioned.  Sure, drawing the SWAT team in the foreground wasn't in the script--but fuck it because SWAT teams are awesome!  Comics are a visual medium that can't always compete with novels, movies and video games—so there are times when it MUST be about the artwork.  So give the people a bone.  No editor is ever going to make you redraw that SWAT team into the background because you drew it overly awesome.  (Here's a short list of "awesome" things in comics that you should try to draw the fuck out of ever chance you get: guns, cars, leather anything, swords, anything Japanese, explosions, alleyways, bricks, boots, and anything angry.)


For me, these are the tenets of storytelling.  I'm sure I've missed a few, and I know a lot of these overlap.  Storytelling isn't a science and it doesn't happen completely on the page; it mostly happens in the reader's head a thousand miles from where you're standing.  So I make it a goal to do my best and be as clear as possible.  Not that I'm an expert—I make plenty of mistakes and am still learning.  I'm actually hoping to spark some debate so I can hear your thoughts and make my process better.

Add a Comment:
 
:iconartsend:
Artsend Featured By Owner Jan 29, 2014  Professional General Artist
Very nice. I loved your short list. haha
Reply
:iconmiahart009:
miahart009 Featured By Owner Jan 27, 2014
This is an awesome post. I really appreciate all the hard work you put into writing this. I will definitely be keeping this in mind. I look forward to reading more of your journals. Thanks.

Reply
:iconsequential76:
Sequential76 Featured By Owner Oct 1, 2013  Professional

PRJ arrived and I'm a 3rd in, really nice work.  I keep glimpsing foreward through the art and everybody is so well developed early it makes for easy plot spoilage. It's easy for me to say this won't be the last book I read from you.

Thanks!

Reply
:iconbern-:
BeRn- Featured By Owner Aug 26, 2013  Professional General Artist
Sharks and tentacles are awesome!
Reply
:icondevmalya:
DEVMALYA Featured By Owner Aug 14, 2013  Professional Traditional Artist
this is really helpful. amazing tips and a peek into what makes you such an awesome artist :) will try them out in my art as i go on
Reply
:iconthe-standard:
The-Standard Featured By Owner Aug 6, 2013  Professional Traditional Artist
This post is a good reminder,thanks for sharing.
Reply
:iconthelastinterceptor:
TheLastInterceptor Featured By Owner Jul 15, 2013  Hobbyist Digital Artist
This is a VERY interesting subject, thanks a lot for sharing!
Reply
:iconkylebjart:
kylebjart Featured By Owner Jul 3, 2013  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
You guide rather than dictate which is nice, genuinely helpful and a fascinating insight to the process. Looking forward to seeing more.
Reply
:iconjohnchalos:
johnchalos Featured By Owner Jul 2, 2013  Professional General Artist
Cool.
Reply
:iconj-rad88:
J-Rad88 Featured By Owner Jun 30, 2013  Professional Traditional Artist
#1 is such an excellent point. It got pointed out to me at a portfolio review and it was like a gateway opened in my mind. It's easy to get wrapped up in our own stories. We spend so much time developing them that we know exactly how everything looks in our heads, so if we forget to show the door before the character walks through or how one character is standing relative to another, we bridge over those gaps in our heads because we, as creators, can see it all. But stepping back and thinking about the information that the unaccustomed reader needs is colossally important. Some of the best advice.
Reply
:iconsevenofeleven:
sevenofeleven Featured By Owner Jun 29, 2013
Cool article.

I did one comic and that was it.
I like this stuff because it is relevant to people who write stories.
Reply
:iconalicemonstrinho:
Alicemonstrinho Featured By Owner Jun 29, 2013  Professional Digital Artist
I really think you should write a book about the things you say in your journal. Reading your toughts has helped me a lot, specially about the industry and storytelling, and I'd definitely get a book from you =)
Reply
:icongalacticpink:
galacticpink Featured By Owner Jun 29, 2013  Hobbyist Digital Artist
While its not... well, it wasn't a comic first, I think #4 is entirely the reason Adventure Time has the fanbase it has. XD
Reply
:iconzarro83:
zarro83 Featured By Owner Jun 27, 2013  Student Traditional Artist
You forgot the "heart", it takes the heart to tell a story :)
Reply
:iconjlawrence:
JLawrence Featured By Owner Jun 25, 2013
I'm always looking for the "Awesome" in my comic storytelling. It's the great thing about this medium-limitless budgets and imaginations concerning content!
Reply
:iconthebellhop:
theBellhop Featured By Owner Jun 25, 2013  Student Filmographer
I love T2. It's pure, distilled spectacle and awesome. I don't even know where to get started (choreography, cinematography, characterization, philosophy, color hues and symbolism, strong plot, great pacing, special effects, rich setting, etc), but it's my go-to movie when I need inspiration. Plus, it's made in such a way where the momentum never really stops and each and every scene makes sense or lends itself to the next scene. It's a carefully crafted explosion that's always topping itself. It's the closest thing to a cinematic roller-coaster I've seen and it has one of the most cathartic endings that I've experienced. I know I'm biased, but it's a really good movie, and I'm glad you chose it for the the "awesome" category.
Good read.
Reply
:iconjk5-inks:
JK5-Inks Featured By Owner Jun 25, 2013  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
What about adding in the fundamentals of design as PART of storytelling? In a recent conversation with a fellow dA member, it was brought up about the movement of the eye; yes, there are a lot of artists out there that understand the elements & principles and use them accordingly, but there's also a large population (which I think may run in the "awesome pinup" artist area, that are fantastic at drawing the pic, but less than fantastic at directing the readers eye through the piece. What does this have to do with storytelling??

How about directing your reader through the story, ie: they're not just reading panel to panel, square box to square box; they are following the flow & fluidity of the art in aiding them to read the story. Storytellers should not only be able to give the 'idea' of what's going on in a story without word balloons, but should also be able to 'direct' the story teller through the story all while giving the idea of what's happening. Otherwise, it's just a series of 'awesome' pinups.

My two cents...too much thought?
Reply
:iconis-lnds:
Is-lnds Featured By Owner Jun 25, 2013
wish i could fave this comment.
Reply
:iconjk5-inks:
JK5-Inks Featured By Owner Jun 25, 2013  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
Hehe...cheers mate! :)
Reply
:iconsounddrive:
Sounddrive Featured By Owner Jun 29, 2013  Hobbyist Writer
*instant fav*
Reply
:icongisellerocks:
GiselleRocks Featured By Owner Jun 25, 2013   General Artist
This was really funny to read and helpful. Have to get on the drawing grind with that short list of awesome things. Awesome necessities. Yes
Reply
:icongreensprite:
GreenSprite Featured By Owner Jun 25, 2013  Professional Digital Artist
I completely agree on symbolism and acting.

However, the "awesome things!" list is entirely subjective and depends on the audience you create for. In fact, an accumulation of the things you listed there make a movie or comic feel boring and cliche to me. Which is not to say they're bad - just that I'm not the audience for it. Me, I'm more interested in storytelling that has universal appeal, and there are some hints in the comments as to what that might mean. It's probably a combination of artistic skills such as pacing and composition and feelings/situations that everyone relates to (loss, loneliness, ambition...) approached in a fresh way.

Also regarding traversive storytelling: I think we could in fact use less of that. Sure, every storyteller should avoid confusing the reader by mistake. But *controlled* confusion, fucking with the readers' perception, nonlinear storytelling and other mischievous tricks are often what get me to really love an artist (of any medium).
Reply
:icontheapprenhensivewrit:
Storytelling is far from easy, you can't just come up with some random stuff taken out of nowhere and glue it together hoping that it'll make a successful story. Many people still believe that inspiration is an "incredible" idea that spawns at any moment in our minds. True inspiration is the conclusions which we come to realize by carrying out a full time investigation of our sorroundings (put simply).

Also, I think the key point of storytelling is sending an encrypted message to the readers. Understanding the author's true intentions is what makes a story worthwhile.

Thanks for the info, quite useful :)
Here's a small advice a literature teacher gave me. Establish limitations to the story or restrictions to yourself when writing. Placing rules makes up for a more intricate story. The more, the merrier.
Reply
:iconvitzhk:
vitzhk Featured By Owner Jun 24, 2013  Student General Artist
That's very useful. Added to favorites.
deviantART muro drawing Comment Drawing
Reply
:iconkreepingspawn:
KreepingSpawn Featured By Owner Jun 24, 2013  Professional Digital Artist
Tempted to try to put the whole 'awesome list' in one image... just to see if I can do it.  ;}
Reply
:iconmanoelricardo:
ManoelRicardo Featured By Owner Jun 24, 2013  Professional General Artist
I think theres a type of story telling that you dont use in your works for obvious reasons: the graphic feeling. like in craig thompsons "Blankets". some pages the feeling of the character fill an entire page, submergin the reader deep inside the characters chest. that demands a lot of design sense, artistic courage, and if done right, causes a huge empathy with the readers. and in some kind of stories, is a demanding storytelling technique. And Craig Thompson is a fuckin master on that one. :D
Reply
:iconheinzranxerxes:
HeinzRanXerxes Featured By Owner Jun 24, 2013  Hobbyist
i love it
Reply
:iconskmonteiro:
skmonteiro Featured By Owner Jun 24, 2013  Professional Traditional Artist
This great, man. Although every time I've hiked up a mountain I usually tend to go back down the same side I cam up, not up and over. Haha.

The only thing you didn't touch on here (and that may be because you already reference Scott McCloud) is the idea of using the panels to help with storytelling. I think too many artists nowadays either draw their panels strictly shot for shot as their writer has given it to them or divide them into weird angles and shapes for visual interest and forget that the shape and layout of the panels is a HUGE factor in telling your story. In fact comics are the ONLY medium in which this is a factor, so you think it'd be something more people would pay attention to (I'm not counting film because their "panels" never really change and are consistently the same size).
Reply
:iconseangordonmurphy:
seangordonmurphy Featured By Owner Jun 24, 2013
Good point. I guess there should be a point simply called "clarity" then, and comic panels, layouts and drawings should always be clear, first and foremost.
Reply
:iconskmonteiro:
skmonteiro Featured By Owner Jun 24, 2013  Professional Traditional Artist
Agreed. But love you re-posting the old ones. I mean to go back through them, but what with the laziness and all . . .
Reply
:iconceltezon:
Celtezon Featured By Owner Jun 24, 2013  Professional Filmographer
I am unclear if you are saying that these are all DIFFERENT kinds of storytelling or if they are all what MAKE UP storytelling. I would actually say that all 4 of these are different PARTS of storytelling and are all necessary pieces for good storytelling. Doing just one of them would be one dimensional. A truly great story should have a clear progression with explanations and logical progression (your Traversive), have something deeper than just the surface story going on (your Symbolic), have subtle actions occurring that lead performances rather than relying heavily on lines (your Acting), and should always have elements that strike people with wonder, excitement, or another equally powerful emotion (your Awesomeness). I would also like to add that the core message of the story should be rock solid and also be something that is ethically sound (or intentionally ethically grey to draw attention to the ethically sound truths). For instance, you wouldn't write a story that the whole core message boiled down to "it's okay to beat your dog with a club" because no one would want to read that.
Reply
:iconseangordonmurphy:
seangordonmurphy Featured By Owner Jun 24, 2013
Agreed, these are things that make up storytelling. For me, anyways.
Reply
:iconanimatrix1490:
animatrix1490 Featured By Owner Jun 24, 2013  Hobbyist Artist
Kudos to you. Acting is so important to a story. Often, however, I feel like the "acting" in something like Tintin or something similarly simple/cartoony is easier to "read" than more realistic. (Yours excepted, of course :))
Reply
:iconcazz-r:
CAZZ-R Featured By Owner Jun 24, 2013  Hobbyist Digital Artist
Awesome!
Reply
:iconoagarciacruz:
oagarciacruz Featured By Owner Jun 24, 2013  Hobbyist
Thanks man! This kind of information is basic and most helpful! You rock man!
Reply
:iconcmp839:
cmp839 Featured By Owner Jun 24, 2013
Interesting stuff, Sean (loved Punk Rock Jesus by the way, top notch work).

A couple of books flew around The Joe Kubert School when I attended that might help narrow down some of the broader strokes you've painted here, which is to say that there are book that express what comprises, the ingredients of these specific points:

Robert McKee's STORY [link] - built for screenwriting, but constitutes lots of rich content for storytelling, in general. A must-read.

Eisner's COMICS & SEQUENTIAL ART [link] - pretty much biblical.
Reply
:iconseangordonmurphy:
seangordonmurphy Featured By Owner Jun 24, 2013
Yeah, me and Gabe both loved Story as well a Screenplay by Syd Field.
Reply
:iconbiram-ba:
Biram-Ba Featured By Owner Jun 24, 2013  Hobbyist Digital Artist
I think the "awesome" thing can be a trap, especially for young artists.

"I demand everything to be awesome" means in Bay's head there are things that aren't awesome and things that are. The latter being explosions, women on bikes in uncomfortable positions, and Michael Bay's movies. I've been on a similar ego trip myself with my first webcomic. I found some pages recently: dark, melodramatic, pretentious (I honestly hope I suck a little less now).
Now I look at Sergio Leone, for example, and in his movies everything already IS awesome. He just puts the camera in the right place, so we can see how awesome these things are. First ten minutes of "Once Upon a Time in the West" is a bunch of guys waiting for a train, doing nothing. Water drops on one's hat. Another trying to chase the fly off his face. And it's awesome.
And I feel like a lot of comic book artists don't appreciate the natural awesomeness of things/characters, and instead try to force awesomeness templates on them. That's why all the angry superhero faces, clenched fists, boobs&butt poses.
Reply
:iconhobzart:
hobzart Featured By Owner Jun 24, 2013  Professional Digital Artist
i couldn't agree with you more. OUATITW is truly awesome and that guy knows how to place a camera one of my fave movies of all time is rumble fish because of the shots more than anything, and the symbolic storytelling going on that movie is amazing. there is a scene where nic cage tells dillon he is not smart or tough enough to take his older brothers place, and dillon walks out of frame but is still reflected in the window where he was standing but he appears only as a silhouette, symbolizing that he is forever in shadow and/or a shadow of his previously arrogant self. i feel like that is one of the major strengths that anime has. i am an animation graduate and i focused on the traditional side of things, i also tend to not like a lot of anime bc of its lack of movement and its culturally different rules of pacing, but some really stand out and they know how to make EVERYTHING look awesome.
Reply
:iconbiram-ba:
Biram-Ba Featured By Owner Jun 24, 2013  Hobbyist Digital Artist
I was just watching "GiTS 2: Innocence" yesterday (have to admit, that movie goes a bit over my head), it was also like that.
Reply
:iconhobzart:
hobzart Featured By Owner Jun 24, 2013  Professional Digital Artist
i haven't seen that. i saw the original. if you like cyberpunk anime give mardock scramble a try. there is a bit of nudity, but its pretty tame in that regard. it is however violent as hell
Reply
:iconbiram-ba:
Biram-Ba Featured By Owner Jun 25, 2013  Hobbyist Digital Artist
I don't know about cyberpunk specifically, I like hard sci-fi, a bit of philosophy and crime/cops stories, and GiTS has all of it.
I might try Mardock, sure.
Reply
:iconjunerevolver:
JuneRevolver Featured By Owner Jun 24, 2013  Student Filmographer
It seems like each of these are methods, rather than genres of storytelling- and that components of all four of them should be included to convey the story to the reader in the best possible way. They should be considered not only for the artwork but the script itself.

Very inspiring journal- as always! Thanks
Reply
:iconjustblah:
justblah Featured By Owner Jun 24, 2013  Professional Traditional Artist
number 4 is a spot on justification for duncan macleods random appearance in city of demons haha!

im one of your old followers and i will say this to you, the more we hear it from the pros the more it sinks in! repost everything! because i sure as hell end up forgetting something along the road till you remind me haha!
Reply
:iconseangordonmurphy:
seangordonmurphy Featured By Owner Jun 24, 2013
Haha, wow that takes me back. Thanks for the support over the years. :)
Reply
:icondualmask:
Dualmask Featured By Owner Jun 24, 2013  Professional Digital Artist
This was a great read, especially me being someone who has called himself a storyteller in the past but is really just someone who sometimes puts some pictures together that loosely connect (and even then almost never finishes the 'story' anyway). I'm motivated. And I do own those McCloud and Eisner books...time to read them in more depth.
Reply
:iconshadymark:
ShadyMark Featured By Owner Jun 24, 2013
Number three. Wow, the number of blank looks I get when I try to explain that a good artist acts through their artwork. Good comic book artists have to be good actors. An artist that has mastered this is such a joy to read.
Reply
:iconsheldongoh:
SheldonGoh Featured By Owner Jun 24, 2013
Fantastic article! And just what I need, especially that last bit about bringing the awesome. In all the thinking and worrying and planning that goes into my thumbnails and layouts, the one thing I try and be mindful of is that idea about the artwork serving the story -- which I usually take very seriously (sometimes too seriously) -- and I often forget to sprinkle in the awesome now and then and to HAVE FUN drawing the damn pages because if I had fun drawing it, there's a pretty damn good chance SOMEONE will have fun reading it (or at least looking at it).

Thanks for this. Seriously.
Reply
:iconartistjerrybennett:
artistjerrybennett Featured By Owner Jun 24, 2013  Professional General Artist
Yes, please repost older stuff, as I am probably one of your new followers. I seriously appreciate those who take time to tell us these things. We need to hear them, or hear them again. Thanks!
Reply
Add a Comment:
 
×

:iconseangordonmurphy: More from seangordonmurphy


Featured in Collections

journals by animatorjourneyman

articles by Kieguy

Process, Tutorials, Stock and Journals by RobWake


More from DeviantArt



Details

Submitted on
June 24, 2013
Link
Thumb

Stats

Views
30,436 (1 today)
Favourites
168 (who?)
Comments
57
×