« MENTORS CORNER/from EMMANUEL GUIBERT | Main | MENTORS CORNER/from GEORGE O'CONNOR »

March 24, 2008

Beginning-Middle-End

[From the desk of Steven Seagle]

I’m always amazed by people who tell me that they could never do what I do: tell a story. I think it’s the opposite. I think people can’t not tell a story. I think it’s in our blood. Genetic? Jungian? I don’t know, but I blame a little something I call:

B-M-E

Sure it’s core to writing a story, but it’s also innate to human existence:

B-M-E

When it’s absent from a situation, or when the facts of its presence are insufficient, we fill in the blanks and create:

B-M-E

Beginning-Middle-End

We can’t help ourselves.

Think about it. The whole of our human existence is measured out as B-M-E:

You’re born. You work. You die.

Maybe you imagined a different middle:

You’re born. You love. You die.

Maybe my ending was your middle and you had a different ending altogether:

You’re born. You die. You’re born again in the form of a praying mantis.

Even people who tell me they could never write a story spend most of their day (if not life) doing just that – conveying events in the form of B-M-E. When someone asks you how your day was, you tend to start at the beginning, work your way through the middle and wrap it up with how it ended. Sure the details may differ, and that’s where doing something like writing professionally develops (hopefully) a better sense of how to convey B-M-E, but each of us has within a raconteur lurking somewhere.

Here, see if you can even begin to stop yourself from creating a tale when you consider this worded image:

A car pulls away at high speed from a person lying in the middle of an intersection, a bag of groceries scattered around them

Writer or not, your mind has probably already started telling you the story. And despite the fact that what was described with words was a single instant, your mind has most likely started to fill in the missing parts using an inborn sense of B-M-E. For most people the B-M-E associated probably goes a little something like this:                                                                                     

B = Car hit person

M = Person was knocked down and spilled their groceries

E = Car sped away from the scene

It’s likely that’s what you came up with, but that is only one possible read of the worded image. Most people would tend to fill in the blanks with the person as the victim. But nothing in the image itself:

A car pulls away at high speed from a person lying in the middle of an intersection, a bag of groceries scattered around them

explicitly names the person in the intersection as the assault-ee. What if we filled in the blanks incorrectly? What if the car wasn’t the “villain” at all? What if the driver was the victim and the person on the ground was the bad-guy (or bad-gal, because, of course, nothing in the description mentions anything about gender either!)? I bet you’ve already started reconstructing your B-M-E. Your mileage may differ, but here’s mine:

B=Person tried to attack driver at intersection

M=Driver threw bag of groceries out window at attacker’s head

E=Attacker was knocked down by groceries as driver made her (or his…or their!) escape

We fill in the blanks based on past experience. We make assumptions about what we see, hear, taste, smell, and touch. That’s not news. But what I rarely hear mentioned about all this is that those assumptions tend to be structured in the most basic story sense: B-M-E.

So what happens when we jump from written cues to visual? Gene Yang has had such an incredible year with his 1:2 book American Born Chinese that he (hopefully!)  won’t mind me pulling out three panels of his great tome for a little field test. Here are three sequential wordless images from the book. It’s a scene that’s only three panels long, but with no words, I’ll bet you can still B-M-E the full story between the characters Jin and Amelia (do that, then start reading again when you’re done!):

 

Abc11

Abc12

Abc13

Okay, not bad. You used visual cues to determine they’re in a movie theater and based on previous B-M-E experiences (from your life or others) you pieced together what happened: Jin is considering his chances for making a move, he goes for it and Amelia is shocked, but then she leans in leaving Jin surprised that his courage paid off, or something like that, right?

Great! But… (you knew there’d be one, right?!) I have, in fact, suckered you! The panels above weren’t actually in the right order. That didn’t stop you from making sense of them, but can you suss out the real B-M-E of this micro story when the three panels are placed in their proper sequence (come back after you’ve cracked it!):

Abc21

Abc22

Abc23

Good. Sure. Easy. Jin and Amelia are at the movies, leaning in, feeling close, then Amelia suddenly sits bolt upright having thought of something troubling, Jin doesn’t know what’s up. Finally, Amelia’s eyes glaze over, something is wrong and Jin suspects he might know what that something is…him. That works, right?

Great! But…what if I told you that the panels above weren’t complete? This mini-story isn’t a three panel sequence at all. It’s actually a four panel sequence. And here’s how it really plays:

Abc31 Abc32Abc33Abc34

Okay, got it – same basic story as before, but with the actual ending to the scene in place we now know the sticking point, right? A jealous, hot-head rival for Amelia’s affections, who makes his position known by coming to Jin’s house later and socking him in the face before leaving the scene.

Or are we just back to the story of the car the pedestrian and the groceries again?

I have to confess, Gene is likely to come to my house and punch me in the cheeks over this whole blog. Because the fact is, nothing above was the correct visual story laid out in American Born Chinese. I left out panels in the movie theater, never gave the correct sequence, and that punch image is from way later in the book. A complete disservice to Gene’s incredible storytelling abilities…to illuminate your inherit story-making abilities

I took it all out of context and out of order and…you were still able to B-M-E it. We can’t stop ourselves! We have to make order of what we’re being given as written words or visual cues or…

Or when we’re reading comics…both.

That’s the really interesting thing about this jewel of an art form. It’s working on two modalities at once, and you’re processing the gaps (intentional and unintentional alike) to complete those scenes, stories, and themes. But just like the intersection/groceries/car fragment above, don’t be so sure you’ve given a comics page let alone an entire graphic novel it’s only possible reading. Here’s the cold –hard truth:

We fill in the blanks.

And we fill them in with whatever we have.

And we might get them very right…or very, very wrong…

But either way, we make the work, not just the author's, but ours.

So with that, here's the first image from Genius, the First Second book I'm doing with my long-time, brilliant collaborator Teddy Kristiansen, due out next year.  The image contains many clues about what the story is about.  Feel free to B-M-E all you like until then. . .

Genius1

[UP NEXT WEEK: CALISTA BRILL]

Comments

Great post. It's very refreshing. It's gonna help me a lot in my Writing Graphic Novel class.

This was a great post - thanks Steven!

The comments to this entry are closed.

My Other Accounts

Blog powered by TypePad
Member since 05/2005