Unlike Fiction And Comics, Art Is Non-Linear (And What This Means If You’re Making It) – A Ramble

Well, for today, I thought that I’d talk about one of the ways that art differs from both comics and prose fiction, and how this affects things like getting inspired and getting information across to the audience.

With a few exceptions (such as “Choose Your Own Adventure“/”Fighting Fantasy” – style gamebooks), prose fiction is linear. It is read one word at a time in a specific pre-determined order. Likewise, every page of a book is supposed to be read after the previous page and before the next one.

The same thing is true for most comics too. Again, although there are some exceptions, you usually read each panel and/or each page in a specific pre-determined order. Likewise, although comics usually contain both artwork and text, the placement of the text usually determines whether the audience reads it before they look at the art (or vice versa).

For example, some traditonal-style newspaper cartoons (eg: “Giles” being the classic example of a cartoonist who did this) often place the text at the bottom of the image, so that it is read after the audience has seen the image.

None of this is true for art. Even though artists can use various compositional techniques to draw the audience’s attention to one part of the picture, the audience usually sees the whole thing at once. They can also look at any part of the picture in any order, without being too confused by it. Unlike comics and fiction, art is non-linear.

This non-linearity can make it both easier and more difficult to get inspired when making art. On the one hand, you only have to come up with a single interesting image, rather than planning a detailed story. I mean, a painting of a random natural landscape could be quite interesting, whereas a written description of the same scene would probably be less compelling (due to the lack of a story). So, not having to plan out a series of fictional events means that it can be easier to get inspired when making art.

But, not having to come up with a story also means that you have to come up with a new idea every time you want to make some art. Although coming up with the initial idea for a comic or a story might be a bit more difficult or time-consuming, it means that you can make more stuff more quickly afterwards. Because the events of your story will progress in a logical order, all you have to do is to look at your idea and ask yourself “what happens next?“. You can’t really do this if you’re making lots of separate paintings or drawings.

Likewise, because art is non-linear, this also means that telling a story or getting information across to the audience has to be handled in a slightly different way. Even though art doesn’t require a story, artwork can often look a lot more interesting if it contains storytelling of some kind or another. But, how is this done and what are the limitations?

In short, storytelling in art has to be done through implication. Since you can’t describe a series of events to your audience, you have to pick one moment from that series and draw or paint it in such a way that the audience will be able to work out what happened before and what happens afterwards. Likewise, you also have to imply a lot of the backstory through background details too.

Here’s an example of a digitally-edited painting of mine that includes some storytelling elements:

“Scaffolding” By C. A. Brown

The fact that this painting is telling part of a horror story is immediately obvious from the ominously gloomy lighting. Likewise, the futuristic headlights in the sky contrast with the 1980s/1990s-style buildings, technology and clothing designs in the rest of the picture, suggesting that the events of the picture take place in some kind of dystopian future.

In the middle of the picture, a woman is either inserting or removing a tape from a VCR. Yet, she stares at the screen in shock because a menacing picture still remains on the screen even when the tape isn’t in the machine, implying the unseen work of an occult hand. In the close foreground, a man holds up a cassette case for a horror movie, implying that this is the tape that the woman is holding.

As the old saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words (or 133 of them in this case, but who’s counting?). But, although this one painting can get all of this information across to the audience in less than a second, non-linear artistic storytelling does have some disadvantages.

Simply put, you can’t tell complex stories or convey complex information in a single piece of art. Yes, you can give your audience the impression of a more detailed story, but if the scene in the example painting was part of a novel or a comic, you would not only know the names of the two characters, but you’d also know exactly how they ended up with the video tape and why they are watching it.

So, yes, the fact that art (unlike comics or prose fiction) is non-linear has both advantages and disadvantages.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

2 comments on “Unlike Fiction And Comics, Art Is Non-Linear (And What This Means If You’re Making It) – A Ramble

  1. Two sides to a story says:

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