17 April 2008

The Back Alleys of Your Narrative

In my presentation on plotting last Saturday, I quoted from the writer Alan Moore's essay Writing for Comics, available as an unnecessarily illustrated booklet from Avatar.

Mainstream comics publishing puts a premium on plot, sometimes at the expense of other elements of storytelling. For decades adventure comics have promised conflict and confrontation, twists and trick endings, a roller coaster of emotions and expectations that leaves readers wanting to take another ride. To succeed in that business, therefore, Moore had to figure out that element of a good story early on. And here's what he learned.

As I see it, a successful story of any kind should be almost like hypnosis: You fascinate the reader with your first sentence, draw them in further with your second sentence and have them in a mild trance by the third.

Then, being careful not to wake them, you carry them away up the back alleys of your narrative and when they are hopelessly lost within the story, having surrendered themselves to it, you do them terrible violence with a softball bat and then lead them whimpering to the exit on the last page.
Believe me, they'll thank you for it. TOMORROW: More Moore.


Disney Diaries said...

I love that idea! Tricking the reader into submission. How far can you take it once they're in, do you suppose?

J. L. Bell said...

Well, every story is fundamentally a trick: making readers care about characters who don't exist, doing things they didn't and perhaps couldn't do, with no possible consequence for the real world.

Even within stories, though, I think readers like to be tricked sometimes: to realize one step behind the author (although one step ahead of other readers, naturally) that things weren't the way you thought they were. The butler was simply a red herring. The nice boy wasn't so nice. The antagonist had laid a trap all along, and so on.

If stories didn't trick us along the way, then we'd know how they'll come out and wouldn't need to read them.