Three Things Graphic Novels Taught This Memoirist About Writing Prose
I’ll admit, I was late to the graphic novel genre. I was one of those who sneered (inwardly, for I have some modicum of tact) that they were comic books. And while I loved comic books as a kid, and filled my childhood shelves with Richie Rich and Archie and Uncle Scrooge, literary storytelling those were not.
But then I read Marjane Sartrapi’s Persepolis—a work that I believe could not have been written as effectively in any other form—and I became hooked. Since then, I’ve noticed that graphic novels often make craft points even clearer than prose. Here are three such lessons, and the books that inspired them.
1. Spare prose for strong emotions.
The book: Persepolis by Marjane Sartrapi
In Persepolis, Sartrapi’s relatively simple drawing style illuminates the horror of the Iranian revolution, as experienced by Sartrapi as a child. I’ll leave the proper technical terms to artists, but I would describe her style as almost color-blocked. Clean lines, lots of dark space and some blank white space, mostly simple shapes. She doesn’t draw every little detail in the background. The style is spare. Simple. The simplicity captures something of the child’s worldview, but also allows the horror of the events to come through much more strikingly.
Once you start looking for this technique, you’ll see it in prose all the time—prose that was lyrical suddenly gets simpler when the horrible stuff is happening. Think of, for example, the contrast between the lyrical, lengthy sentences at the start of Jo An Beard’s anthologized-all-over-the-place essay “The Fourth State of Matter,” and the short, staccato, plain sentences two-thirds of the way through the essay, when the action’s going down. No need for the language to over-emote, beat its chest, remind the reader that what’s happening is awful. Chekhov famously said that you should always under-write grief slightly, always write it a bit coldly, a bit pulled back, so that the reader feels more emotion in response to what’s on the page than the prose is insisting on. The feeling must be evoked, rather than insisted-upon. Trust your reader to understand the horror of what’s happening. Let her feel it for herself.
2. Mary Poppins was right—a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down.
The book: Logicomix by Apostolos Doxiadis
How exactly does a biography of philosopher Bertrand Russell—not exactly the hot pop culture figure of our time—become an international bestseller with, at current count, 119 Amazon reviews? (The most popular biography of Immanuel Kant has 11.)
The answer, I think? Pictures made it fun.
Sometimes I ask my students to summarize Eula Biss’s personal narrative in her essay “The Pain Scale,” a braided, lyric essay in which she interweaves a story about her own pain with meditations on mathematics and Dante and pictorial representation of the hospital pain scale. Inevitably, there’s silence at first. The students stare at me. I stare back, waiting. The essay is so complex, there is so much to it, the obvious answer must be wrong. I can see the worry on their faces: Is this a trick question? Finally someone raises a hand. “Um, she’s in pain?”
Yes, I say, exactly! She’s in pain, she’s in pain, no really, she’s in pain. For all the essay’s luminous beauty and inventiveness, her personal narrative is pretty much just that. Now, I ask them: Would they like to read an essay that simply said that?
If your material is inherently dry or of limited interest, or has been covered before, and (crucial and) you want your book (or essay, or haiku, or whatever) to be of general interest, you’re going to have to work a little harder to make it interesting, to make it surprising, to delight. This is just an unfortunate truth. Voice can be the answer (think of Seymour Krim’s excellent sustained whine in “To My Brothers and Sisters in the Failure Business”), structure can be the answer (Biss’s “The Pain Scale”), or hey, you can write it in graphic novel form. Because pictures are fun! But whatever the solution you settle on, be aware of this challenge: Think of your reader. Entertain your reader. Your reader will thank you—perhaps by making your book into an unlikely bestseller.
3. Without a narrator, your character’s just stuck in a box.
Book: Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
We pretend that memoir as a form is simply the author writing down what happened, working with a narrator that is simply herself, to describe a character who is also simply herself. But I owe the novelist Frederick Reiken’s excellent fiction craft article “The Author-Narrator-Character Merge” (published in the Writer’s Chronicle in 2005, and available via its—paid, unfortunately—archives) for the realization that often when memoir prose feels flat and under-imagined, it’s because the writer isn’t doing enough to distinguish these different roles she carries.
In a graphic novel memoir, this distinction is suddenly very clear, because of the device of the panel. The character is represented pictorially, inside the panel. The narrator is represented in the text surrounding it. (And the author, of course, is the flesh-and-blood person with the inking pen in her hand, never able to crawl onto the two-dimensional page except through the mediation of the narrator.) Sometimes there’s less of a distinction between the narrator and the narrator, and the narrator is simple narrating what the character’s doing—for example, here, as young Alison and her father begin to play a game:
But the reason to build up a distinct narrator voice is for the gift it gives you at other moments, moments when the character cannot know everything necessary to create dramatic tension. For example, here, after the narrator has referenced the myth of Icarus. Young Alison is still just playing the game with her father, enjoying the moment—the narrator has to hint to us what’s to come:
Consider the above panel with the narration stripped away. The child is simply playing with her father, enjoying a sweet moment. A perfectly nice scene, but a bit, well, boring, and only operating on one level. The character is stuck in the box of the moment—as we all are in life. She will stay there; she has to, that’s her job as the character, to live. That’s why you need a narrator. Add narration and all of a sudden the same scene becomes complex and laden—and the reader can’t wait to turn the page. For more on the craft behind Bechdel’s work, check out writer Joe Bonomo’s smart blog post deconstructing her use of perspective. But for now, remember this: Without some distinction between the character and narrator (even in present tense, for the narrator is always a few seconds ahead of the character, or she wouldn’t be able to narrate), your character is trapped in a box. Don’t ask her to carry the story alone—then your story, too, will be stuck in a box, left to plod along at one level. Narration! It’s a beautiful, suspense-giving thing.
Writing this post makes me realize I should add one more lesson learned—a fourth, then. Read widely, and outside your genre. You never know where your next craft tip will come from.