How Straightforward Should Your Narration Be?

Ever since I got back into reading regularly a little over a month ago, I’ve noticed something that I hadn’t really thought about before. Namely, the difference between the narration in more modern 21st century novels and in novels from the 20th century. Obviously, this is a major generalisation and there will be many exceptions to this rule, but I have noticed a vague difference between 20th and 21st century narration.

In short, modern narration is often a bit more straightforward. It’s a bit more matter-of-fact. It is designed for quick and efficient readability. And, in a lot of ways, this is a good thing. After all, narration shouldn’t get between the reader and the story. By making the narration reasonably effortless to read, a writer can easily immerse the reader in the story. And, when this works, it works really well.

For example, when I went through a phase of reading Clive Cussler novels a while back, it was striking to see the difference in narration between Cussler’s older thriller novels from the 1970s-90s and the more modern novels that have been co-written by other thriller writers. The differences in sentence length, descriptions and linguistic complexity are fairly noticeable. Yet, the more modern ones tend to grab your attention a bit more strongly and tend to be more effortlessly readable.

Or, to give a more nuanced example, I’m currently reading the third novel (“Dawnbreaker” – from 2009) in Jocelynn Drake’s excellent ‘Dark Days’ series and, after I got used to the narration in the first novel (which is slightly more descriptive than the average thriller novel), reading the subsequent novels has felt as effortless as watching a gripping TV show. The narration is still reasonably descriptive, but it is also written in a fairly direct and matter-of-fact way too (which is helped by the use of a first-person perspective).

To give an even more nuanced example, take a look at Natasha Pulley’s “The Watchmaker Of Filigree Street” (2015). Although the descriptive narration in this novel is meant to evoke 19th century narration, it is still designed to be very readable through things like the careful use of formal language that will be easily understood by modern readers, few to no references to classical mythology and slightly more straightforward sentence structures (that will be familiar to modern readers). And this works really well 🙂

But, I’ve also been reading some slightly older novels too and it always surprises me how slower and more descriptive the narration can be. Even in a thrilling action-horror novel like Shaun Hutson’s “Erebus” (1984), the narration will often be a little bit slower, more formal and more descriptive. Plus, of course, there are novels like Neal Stephenson’s “The Diamond Age” (1995) that deliberately use dense, formal, ultra-descriptive narration.

Yet, I’ve found myself reading a mixture of older and newer books. This is because, although more formal and descriptive narration can be slower to read, it does have benefits. In short, it allows for a greater sense of richness and depth, at the cost of speed and ease of reading. It is something that requires a little bit of extra skill and effort to read, but you get more of a sense of accomplishment and a deeper story in return.

It’s kind of like the graphics settings in a computer game. If you set the graphics to “ultra-high”, then the game will look really good, but it will run more slowly. If you set the graphics to “low”, then the game won’t look as detailed, but it’ll be a lot smoother and more intuitive to play. Of course, there’s also a “medium” setting too…

After all, as I mentioned earlier, this is a massive generalisation. It’s also a bit of a simplification too.

Because, even more “readable” modern novels still need to use descriptions. Likewise, even more descriptive older novels still need to tell a compelling story. So, it isn’t a question of one extreme or the other, but more of a question of balance. And, if you’re telling a story, you need to think about this balance.

Whilst more straightforward modern-style narration will make it easier for people to pick up your story and keep reading it (and it means your story can compete better with TV, videogames etc.. for people’s attention), it also means that you have to be a lot more economical with your descriptions. You need to edit ruthlessly and efficiently.

Likewise, you’ll also have very slightly less room for using a unique narrative style too – so, you have to place extra emphasis on making your story unique in other ways (eg: characters, plot, settings etc..).

On the other hand, more complex, descriptive and “slower” narration can put off potential readers, but it means that your story will have a greater sense of richness to it. It means that your readers will be able to better picture the scenes you describe. It also means that your narrative style can be a little bit more unique (and memorable) too. Finally, it means that you can also do even more things (eg: literary techniques etc..) that no other storytelling medium can do.

As I said earlier, this isn’t an “either/or” thing. All stories, modern and old, fall somewhere between these two extremes. But, working out exactly where you want your story to fall is a decision that is well worth thinking about carefully.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Great Stories Don’t Always Need Complex Plots – A Ramble

Although I’m busy making this month’s webcomic mini series at the time of writing, I thought that I’d talk very briefly about writing and storytelling today. In particular, I thought that I’d talk about how great stories don’t always have to have complex plots.

The idea that great stories have to have ultra-complex, intricate plots can be something that can be off-putting to new writers. But, this is something of a misconception. In fact, great stories can have incredibly simple plots…. and still be great. But, how?

Simply put, it is more about the journey than the destination. Many great stories (in a range of mediums) are more about the characters, the atmosphere, the emotional tone, the style etc.. of the story rather than because of how detailed or complex the plot happens to be.

To use a cinematic example, take a look at the classic 1982 sci-fi masterpiece “Blade Runner“. On the most simple level, it is a film about a detective who is ordered to find and kill several human-like robots who have travelled to Earth illegally. There’s also a romantic sub-plot too.

But, of course, the film is much more than just this. Despite the relatively simple premise, this film is revered as a masterpiece for so many reasons.

First of all, this basic premise is used to explore a host of complex themes (eg: the meaning of life, corrupt authority, morality, capitalism, discrimination etc..). Likewise, the film’s characters are often intriguingly ambiguous and fairly distinctive. Finally, the general “look”, atmosphere and style of the film is a brilliant blend of science fiction and film noir that has been hugely influential on many things made afterwards.

So, a “simple” plot can be used as a skeleton to build a much greater story around. Because, as I mentioned earlier, great stories can often be more about the journey than the destination.

So, if you want to tell a really brilliant story, then it’s ok to use a fairly simple or obvious premise. The trick is to focus on everything else, like the characters, the dialogue, the style of the story, the atmosphere of the story etc…..

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Apologies for the ridiculously short article, but I hope it was useful 🙂

Artistic Sophistication Isn’t Everything – A Ramble

For today, I thought that I’d talk about artistic sophistication (eg: realism, detail etc…) and why it isn’t the be-all-and-end-all of being an artist. But, first, I thought that I’d illustrate what I’m talking about with a technology-based metaphor. If you aren’t interested in this, then skip the next two paragraphs.

A couple of days before writing this article, I ended up watching some Youtube videos about the history of handheld video game consoles, which contained an interesting fact (that anyone who grew up in the 1990s will know already). The Nintendo Game Boy vastly outsold the Sega Game Gear. If you had a handheld console in 1990s Britian, it was almost certainly a Game Boy. Yet, the Game Boy was considerably less sophisticated than the Game Gear.

The Game Gear had all sorts of impressive features like a full-colour screen, a cool-looking ergonomic design etc.. and the original Game Boy was a grey brick with a puke green low-resolution monochrome screen. Yet, the Game Boy was king. Why? It was cheaper, it was there first, it was incredibly reliable, the batteries lasted for ages and it was probably easier for companies to program games for it.

So, what does any of this have to do with art?

Well, everything.

For starters, one way to build an audience for your art is to produce it regularly and post it online regularly. Making art on a regular basis usually means that your art will be less detailed than it might be if you, say, spend several days or weeks on a single painting. For example, here’s a preview of one of the digitally-edited paintings for next month’s daily art posts:

This is a reduced-size preview, the full-size painting will be posted here on the 20th May.

It certainly isn’t my best or most inspired painting, but it isn’t my worst either. Yes, the background looks undetailed and it isn’t as good as paintings that I’ve made on more inspired days – like this one:

“Backstreets” By C. A. Brown

But, this doesn’t matter because it’s a daily painting. If I have a mediocre day, then there’s a chance that the next day’s painting will be better. Likewise, making art every day means that you have to learn how to get over feeling uninspired as quickly as possible (which increases your artistic confidence). It means that you have to learn how to make interesting-looking art efficiently. It also means that your audience has a good reason to look at your site or blog on a regular basis too.

A good example of this sort of thing can be seen in regularly-updated webcomics and syndicated newspaper cartoons. Most of the time, these cartoons don’t include hyper-detailed art. Compared to the comic books and graphic novels you might see in a bookshop, they look incredibly primitive. Yet, they have a much larger audience for the simple reason that they can be made quickly, published very regularly and read quickly.

Moving on to another subject, the “sophistication isn’t everything” rule also applies to the art supplies that you use. If you buy expensive art supplies, then you’re probably going to be more hesitant about using them (which means that you’ll practice and experiment less). If you buy expensive art supplies, then you’ll probably have less of them. If you buy expensive art supplies, then you might set yourself up for disappointment by forgetting that practice and skill are the really important factors behind making good art.

This even applies to digital tools too. For example, the program that I use for a fair amount of my image editing is an old one from 1999 called “JASC Paint Shop Pro 6”. Many of the useful features in this program can also be found in a free open-source program called “GIMP” (GNU Image Manipulation Program). These programs are easier to learn and use for the simple reason that they contain fewer ultra-complex features. This means that it’s easier to feel confident when using them, and it means that doing what you want to do with them is often a lot quicker too.

So, yes, sophistication isn’t everything. If anything, too much sophistication and complexity can actually be a hinderance.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Webcomics And Complexity – A Ramble

Well, since I was still busy preparing a webcomic mini series for mid-late January, I thought that I’d ramble briefly about webcomics again. In particular, I’ll be looking at complexity levels in webcomics today.

I can’t remember where I read this, but I remember reading that one reason why political arguments happen all of the time on Twitter is because people are (or were) restricted to using 140 characters for each post. With such a small space to express an opinion, simplistic, sweeping statements tend to be preferred. Because there’s less room for nuance and complexity, arguments tend to happen more often. This, of course, made me think about dialogue in webcomics.

One of the most challenging things to learn about making webcomics, especially if you come from any kind of writing background, is the dialogue.

With a few exceptions (and, yes, I’m going to mention Winston Rowntree’s “Subnormality” yet again because it regularly breaks this rule and it still “works”), webcomic dialogue has to be short and concise. In many ways, it’s a lot more like the dialogue in a film than in a novel.

As such, there isn’t always room for too much complexity. Sometimes, especially with shorter webcomics, this isn’t too much of an issue. After all, if your comic just tells one joke within the space of three or four panels, then it doesn’t always need that much complexity. You just need to set up the joke and then deliver a punchline.

But, of course, if you want to do more than just tell jokes, then you have to think carefully about complexity. Since, although complex dialogue is difficult to do well in webcomics, there are plenty of other ways to add more complexity to your comic.

The first one of these is to use more visual complexity. As the old saying goes, “a picture is worth a thousand words”. So, one way to compensate for the lower levels of complexity in webcomic dialogue is to rely more on visual storytelling. For example, here’s a panel from the webcomic mini series I’m making at the moment:

The full comic update will be posted here on the 24th January.

Although this panel contains a slightly dense block of narration above it, I’ve tried to cram the events of an entire dream into just one panel. As such, the panel is a strange montage-like thing that is “unrealistic”, but which gives a general impression of what the character is talking about (eg: games consoles, cool people, highly-graded essays etc..). But, in addition to this, I’ve also clearly separated the foreground and background by using different colours, to add an extra layer of depth to the picture.

So, yes, one way to compensate for the lack of written complexity in webcomics is to use slightly more complex art sometimes.

The other main way to add more complexity to your comic is to increase the length of it. You can do this by including a continuous storyline in your comics (like I did with this comic, then this comic, then this comic), but one problem with this approach is that it can confuse new readers who discover your comic halfway through a story arc. Likewise, continuous storylines require a lot more planning – lest they turn into endless, rambling things that end up exhausting you.

Another simpler way to increase the length of your comic is to keep making self-contained comics, but to make each comic a couple of panels longer. This is something that I ended up doing earlier this year, when I switched to making A4-sized comics. Of course, since your comic is longer, each update will take longer to plan and produce. So, your update schedule might have to be reduced. But, it’s a simple way to add a bit more complexity to your comics.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Why “Modern Art” Paintings Aren’t As Easy As They Look – A Ramble

2017-artwork-why-are-modern-art-paintings-more-difficult-than-they-look

Although I’m busy preparing this year’s Christmas comics at the time of writing, I thought that I’d talk about “modern art” today.

Before I go any further, I should probably point out that I’m only talking about paintings and not about things like *ugh* conceptual art. In particular, I’m talking about the kind of early-mid 20th century paintings that usually get labelled as “modern art”, despite being slightly on the older side.

These are paintings from genres and movements like expressionism, the abstract genre, fauvism, cubism etc… One thing that many of these paintings have in common is that they’re often slightly on the minimalist side and this can often lead people to think that they’re “lazy” paintings that anyone could make in five minutes. I used to think something similar, until I put it to the test.

The day before I wrote this article, I wanted to make a quick painting to fill a gap in my art schedule before I could start my Christmas comics.

Since I’d seen a rather cool-looking expressionist painting from 1912 called “The Tiger” by Franz Marc a while earlier and had noticed that the painting was out of copyright (under both European and American copyright law), I thought that it would be a rather interesting thing to make a quick study of.

Franz Marc’s painting looked like it should be an easy painting to recreate. After all, the whole thing is a collection of geometric shapes. It’s like a low-resolution 3D model from a computer game made during the early 1990s. Seriously, it wouldn’t look out of place in “Alone In The Dark“. So, it should be pretty easy to create a study of it, right?

Wrong. It probably took me slightly longer to recreate a second-rate copy of this picture than it would have taken me to make a good original painting. If you don’t believe me about the “second-rate” thing, here’s a reduced-size preview of my recreation (which really doesn’t look as good as Franz Marc’s original):

This is a reduced-size preview of my recreation of Franz Marc’s “The Tiger” (1912). The full-size painting will appear here on the 18th December.

Although it probably took me less time to make my study than it took for Franz Marc to make the original, I still had to carefully judge the size, proportion and relative position of each “polygon” whilst sketching the picture (which is something I got wrong a few times). Compared to copying a more realistic historical painting (where there’s a lot more room for slight errors etc..), it was far more complex than it appeared to be at first!

Likewise, I had to “decipher” the painting whilst I was copying it and work out why various shapes ended up in the position that they did. For example, the two things sticking out of the lower half of the tiger are (probably) supposed to be it’s tail and one of it’s legs. Once you’ve noticed this, it seems really obvious – but it can take a while to figure out what these parts of the painting actually are.

No doubt that when Franz Marc was actually making this painting, this process was probably ten times more complicated. I mean, he had to work out a way to paint something as complex as a tiger using relatively few cleverly-placed lines, colours and shapes. This painting probably took longer to make than a more “realistic” painting of a tiger (which could just be painted from life if there was a museum or a zoo nearby) would.

Like with pixel art in old computer/video games, a lot of classic “modern art” paintings were probably more difficult to make than than they look for the simple reason that the audience rarely sees the complex process of distilling something complex and realistic into a relatively small number of shapes. Or, the imagination and skill required to turn a realistic image into an interestingly unrealistic one. Or, in the case of abstract art, making a combination of random shapes etc… that still look visually interesting, despite having no obvious meaning.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂