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Excerpted from “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses” by Mark Twain.

JayJay here. Over the years Jim has had a few classic sources of advice on writing that he would refer writers to. Here is one of them. Good things to keep in mind.

And I recommend reading the essay that these guidelines are taken from even if you have never read any Fenimore Cooper. It’s very funny. Over the years Jim has had many people ROTFL when he performed dramatic readings of it. Makes my sides hurt to even remember.

The rules governing literary art in the domain of romantic fiction require:

  • That a tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere.
  • They require that the episodes of a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale and shall help to develop it.
  • They require that the personages of a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others.
  • They require that the personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit sufficient excuse for being there.
  • They require that when personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk, and be talk such as human beings would be likely to talk in the given circumstances, and have a discoverable meaning, also a discoverable purpose, and a show of relevancy, and remain in the neighborhood of the subject in hand, and be interesting to the reader, and help out the tale, and stop when people cannot think of anything more to say.
  • They require that when the author describes the character of a personage in his tale, the conduct and conversation of that personage shall justify said description.
  • They require that when a personage talks like an illustrated, gilt-edged, tree-calf, hand tooled, seven dollar Friendship’s Offering in the beginning of a paragraph, he shall not talk like a negro minstrel in the end of it.
  • They require that crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader as “the craft of the woodsman, the delicate art of the forest” by either the author or the people in the tale.
  • They require that the personages of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone; or, if they venture a miracle, the author must so plausibly set it forth as to make it look possible and reasonable.
  • They require that the author shall make the reader feel a deep interest in the personages in his tale and in their fate; and that he shall make the reader love the good people in the tale and hate the bad ones.
  • They require that the characters in a tale shall be so clearly defined that the reader can tell beforehand what each will do in a given emergency.

In addition to the large rules there are some little ones. These require that the author shall:

  • Say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.
  • Use the right word, not its second cousin.
  • Eschew surplusage.
  • Not omit necessary details.
  • Avoid slovenliness of form.
  • Use good grammar.
  • Employ a simple and straightforward style.

JayJay here. Rob commented on A Review: Captain America & Bucky #624:

Jedi Knights and Harry Potter wizards are clearly superheroic. heck, the HP kids are children-who kill bad wizards. Plenty of kids look up to them.

and the rest of them are “normal people” the same way Batman is lol i.e. not really.

and yet, I still looked up to Luke Skywlaker though he blew up the Death Star and killed thousands of people; sliced off arms, and casually knocked people into the Sarlaac pit.

Rob

December 12, 2011 6:12 PM


Here’s Jim’s Answer:

RE: Heroic characters killing or not, here’s what I think:  Heroic fiction often tends to place heroes in life or death, kill-or-be-killed situations. If no one ever actually does get killed, if it always turns out that there was a nobody-dies alternative, then the jeopardy was false and can become tedious.
 
Stan in the 60’s managed to do it well enough — not have heroes kill anyone, that is — so that it never bothered me that the building destroyed was, fortunately, abandoned, that people were “thrown clear” by the blast, that everyone got out alive. Stan seldom had anyone killed.
 
Other writers didn’t do so well. In Green Lantern, for instance: When Green Lantern’s ring was, without any set-up, revealed to automatically protect him from mortal harm to undo the dramatic death he’d just suffered, when Green Lantern was “proven” dead, but the Guardians, I think, were able to bring him back because there was still an “atomic spark of life,” I realized that rabbits would always be pulled out of the hat. Reading those “yarns,” as Julie called them, was all about guessing or seeing the clever trick at the end — the “twist,” to use Mort’s term — not the human drama.
 
These days, writers use death for drama with reckless abandon. And it has the same effect as the GL gimmicks — we become inured to it, and it becomes tedious.
 
My feeling is that each heroic character should be true to his core concept. Some few will not kill.  Period. Most, I think, will kill in extremis. Some, of the new bad-boy “hero” ilk will kill when it is “fair” enough, but not really unavoidable.  Some kill seemingly callously or carelessly. “It’s okay, they’re bad guys.”
 
Whether the characters at any particular level on the killing scale are “heroes,” I suppose, is up to the beholder. To me, the latter two categories might be protagonists, but aren’t heroes or heroic in my book. Doesn’t mean they aren’t legit protagonists, or can’t be done, or shouldn’t be done. Do them well, I say. True to their core concepts.
 
But be conscious of consequences. Think through and reflect the ramifications. For example, Claremont once had a scene in which Wolverine killed several of the bad guy’s henchmen brutally and unnecessarily — “It’s okay, they’re bad guys” syndrome. Wolverine does this in front of Storm.  Her reaction?  “I can’t look.”  She averts her eyes.
 
No, she wouldn’t. She would stop Wolverine, or, failing that, she would thenceforth consider him a bad guy. Storm falls in the will-not-kill, or possibly the kill-in-extremis category. Seeing Wolverine unnecessarily gut several of the villains flunkies, who weren’t at that moment doing anything heinous and were in no way a match for Wolverine or a threat to him would change Storm’s relationship with Wolverine forever. I told him do it and deal with the logical consequences, or change it.
 
Which brings us back to Stan, and other good writers. Death is serious. Handle with care.

Anonymous has left a new comment on your post “Sex and Drugs – Part 2“:

Jim,

I love the blog and read it daily, but I have to disagree on one point: You can’t really compare a movie and a comic book title. There is no fat in a movie because of the time constraints;they have to cram a whole lot into an hour and a half or two hours. It’s more like a one-shot. Having to deal with a continuing narrative is completely different isn’t it? They don’t just tell a story and it’s done. It goes on and on and on. They really have to flesh the characters out quite a bit more. Maybe I’m looking at it from the wrong angle.

Again, I really enjoy the Blog!

Neil

Posted by Anonymous to Jim Shooter at December 27, 2011 1:21 PM

ANSWER:

I respect your right to disagree. I think you are wrong. Are there differences between writing for comics and movies? Of course. Movies have time constraints, comics have page and panel restraints. Each medium has advantages and disadvantages. But, the basic obligations of the writer are the same. No matter how many comic book issues have preceded the one in your hands, no matter how many will follow, the one in your hands is the unit of entertainment you bought. The movie you are watching is the unit of entertainment you paid to see. They ought to be worth the price. That comic book, that movie, should be well-crafted. Well-crafted, from the writer’s perspective, means no irrelevant, confusing or non-sequitur parts. No shock-surprises that require prior knowledge to grasp their significance. Nothing to weaken or muddy the story. Nothing to ruin or compromise that unit.

That said, being usually a serial medium, comics do offer the opportunity to do continued stories and long-term continuity bits, teasers, slow builds and continuing sub-plots. I talk about how to do such things starting here: http://www.jimshooter.com/2011/11/how-to-do-continued-stories-and-next-or.html

A lot of movies these days have sequels or spawn a series. Bad directors, actors with clout demanding self-serving changes, interference from the producer or studio and film editors often compromise the screenwriter’s work, but I assure you that a screenwriter with any chops at all strives to make each movie, each unit of entertainment work as well as if it were the only one.

Some screenwriters use techniques similar to the ones explained starting on the post linked to above. For instance, in one of the Predator movies, we see a skull of a monster from Alien in a predator’s trophy case, presaging upcoming Alien vs. Predator movies. (But if you never saw Alien and don’t recognize it, it’s okay! It’s just another weird skull in a collection of skulls.) This has become more prevalent in recent times as sequels are planned, and often contractually obligated.

It’s easier for comic book writers to employ such techniques because it’s a month or so between our releases, as opposed to a year or so for movies. But the same logic applies. The same basic principles of craft apply.

Mystery is good. Confusion is bad.

A few of Mark Twain’s Rules of Literary Art:

  1. That a tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere. 
  2. They require that the episodes of a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale and shall help to develop it. 
  3. They require that the personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit sufficient excuse for being there. 

Substitute “issue” for “tale” to apply these rules to comic books. Rule #3 is really Twain’s Rule #4, but it autocorrected to #3 when I cut one rule out (because it was irrelevant to this issue, oops, I mean reply.)

I would expand #3 above to say anything should show sufficient excuse for being there, and I am confident Twain would agree.

An old saw often heard regarding screenplays goes: If you show a gun in Act I you’d better fire it in Act III. Sufficient excuse for being there.

In comics, if you do it as a proper tease, you could show a gun in one issue and fire it in the next. You’d need to show it again in the issue in which it is actually fired.

Kurt Vonnegut had his set of rules, too, in general agreement with Twain’s. For one thing, he said, “If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.” For comics, I’d modify that to “If a sentence or a bit or a scene does not illuminate your subject in this issue in some new and useful way….” Again, the tease principles apply. 

And now, once more with feeling: Despite the “Rules” cited above, THERE ARE NO RULES! THERE IS NOTHING THAT CAN’T BE DONE. IF YOU TRY TO ENFORCE EVEN MARK TWAIN’S RULES, SOME WHIPPERSNAPPER LIKE SIENKIEWICZ, MILLER OR LAPHAM WILL COME ALONG AND DO SOMETHING WONDERFUL WHILE TRAMPLING ALL OVER THE RULES.

However, it’s the “something wonderful” part that eludes most people. Most people who throw down and dance upon the rules produce garbage. They can proudly say they ignored the rules. But they produced unreadable garbage. It takes someone with rare ability, insight and vision to venture off into new territory and make it work, make it wonderful and find a new way. When someone does, ain’t it grand?

I believe that Twain and certainly Vonnegut would heartily agree.

Even “decompressed” stories can be done if done well. I’ll talk about how to do that sometime, if anyone’s interested. Anything can be done if done with insight and skill.

So, take the “rules,” all rules, for what they’re worth: They’re tools. Twain’s rules comprise a pocket guide that helps writers analyze and judge the efficacy of their work.

The rules are not for readers! Readers shouldn’t be trotting out the rules and measuring works against them to see whether they like them. A reader should like something or not without worrying about whether all the screws are tightened. Unless they think it’s fun to take a story apart and see how it’s built, how it works.

Personally, I think that the notion that comics are so “different” that what would be unacceptably bad writing in any other entertainment medium is somehow okay in our medium is part of what’s killing our medium. The presumption that readers are familiar with what went on before and will keep buying more units in the hopes that irrelevant things will eventually become clear or meaningful is suicidal.

The best way to encourage a reader to buy next issue is to make the one in their hands great.

When I was a kid, when I finished reading a story by Stan and Jack or Steve I said “wow.” These days, when I finish reading a comic book, too often I say “what?”

A final qualifier: Every day, some poorly crafted, stupid, bad creative works succeed, and every day, some well-crafted, brilliant, excellent creative works fail. The success of a creative work is dependent upon too many uncontrollable factors to be entirely predictable. But I firmly believe that producing excellent works is like a batter having a level swing. At the end of the season, the creators who produce excellent work bat .406 and lead the league. Those who succeed here and there with bad work bat below the Mendoza line.

I suspect t’was ever thus. I suspect it always will be.

Marvelman has left a new comment on your post “And So This Is Christmas Plus More Sex <http://www.jimshooter.com/2011/12/and-so-this-is-christmas-plus-more-sex.html> “:

It’s a small world. I came on this blog to recommend that Jim take a look at Azzarello & Chiang’s Wonder Woman. I highly recommend it. However, I’m not sure that each issue contains as much exposition as it should. I think it’s possible a new reader would find herself lost. Which brings me to two questions…

1) Jim, how do you feel about the “what has gone before” pages which are now printed on the first page of many comic books?

2) Do you think it is alright for some books in a line to be directed at a general audience and others to be intended for comics-savvy readers? Or, would that just lead confusion about what a brand (e.g. Marvel, DC…) represents?

ANSWER:

RE:  “…how do you feel about the “what has gone before” pages which are now printed on the first page of many comic books?”

I guess they’re better than nothing, but some of the ones I’ve seen are badly written and do as much harm as good. They usually shouldn’t be necessary, in my opinion, though occasions may arise that warrant them. I used introductory text pages in “Alpha and Omega,” the serialized Solar: Man of the Atom #0 story published by VALIANT. In most cases, a writer should be able to get across the essential information very briefly, in a caption, perhaps, or a bit of dialogue. Then, as the story progresses, in organic and inobtrusive fashion provide more introduction of characters, situations, etc. I think I did a fair job of it in Turok Son of Stone #2, the script for which we have just made available for download.

Things often go wrong with those introductory texts.  Unless they’re written by a skilled writer, they often contain not enough information, too much information (becoming long-winded and tedious) or irrelevant, confusing information. The intro text for Captain America and Bucky #624, for instance, says this:

“1941. ORPHANED AFTER THE LOSS OF HIS FATHER, JAMES “BUCKY” BARNES BECAME THE MASCOT AT FORT LEHIGH AND GAINED A REPUTATION AS A NOTORIOUS TROUBLEMAKER (my italics for emphasis). AS WORLD WAR II LOOMED, BARNES WAS SELECTED FOR A ONE-OF-A-KIND SPECIAL ASSIGNMENT WITH THE ARMY: TO BE THE NEW PARTNER FOR STEVE ROGERS, AKA CAPTAIN AMERICA. AFTER SURVIVING COUNTLESS HIGH-RISK OPERATIONS, BUCKY WAS ULTIMATELY LOST, PLUNGING INTO ARCTIC WATERS AND PRESUMED DEAD…”


As I read the story, somewhere in the back of my mind I kept wondering when Bucky’s troublemaker past would be a factor. Turns out it wasn’t. So why mention it?

Ah, but the main problem with those intros is that too often the writer of the story relies on it to provide all the information necessary, and therefore doesn’t even make an attempt to communicate things we need to know to understand the story. Which inspires the intro writers to be even more long-winded and tedious.

RE:  “Do you think it is alright for some books in a line to be directed at a general audience and others to be intended for comics-savvy readers? Or, would that just lead confusion about what a brand (e.g. Marvel, DC…) represents?”

Again, that shouldn’t be necessary. But, since weeding out the unskilled comic book writers (somebody used the term “professional fanfic writers”) isn’t something that the major companies are likely to do soon, maybe giving them a playpen of their own and getting real writers to do the heavy lifting on cornerstone titles would be worth a try. It’s an idea. I can even imagine DC or Marvel trying it. Good one.  But…how sad that things have come to the point that quarantining the professional fanfic writers and letting them do stories aimed solely at readers steeped in the lore seems reasonable.

For general all-around drawing information, the famous Andrew Loomis books are great.

Figure Drawing for all it’s Worth – Jim said, “Figure Drawing For All It’s Worth has the best section on perspective I’ve seen.”

Drawing the Head and Hands

The Andrew Loomis books are out of print but can be downloaded here:

http://alexhays.com/loomis

Our buddy Kyle has done a wonderful, essential book on cartooning and comics:

Kyle Baker, How to Draw Stupid and other Essentials of Cartooning

Will Eisner has some highly regarded books available. Best for more advanced students:

Comics and Sequential Art: Principles and Practices from the Legendary Cartoonist

The classic style guide no writer should be without:

The Elements of Style by Strunk and White

Some good information on writing are Syd Field’s Screenwriting books:

Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting

The Screenwriter’s Workbook (Revised Edition)

The Screenwriter’s Problem Solver: How to Recognize, Identify, and Define Screenwriting Problems

Also:

The Craft of the Screenwriter by John Brady

William Goldman: Five Screenplays with Essays

William Goldman – Four Screenplays

These are a couple of Jim’s favorite books:

Great to read if you want to write science fiction:

Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space by Carl Sagan

Fascinating book written by a cultural anthropologist:

Our Kind: Who We Are, Where We Came From, Where We Are Going by Marvin Harris

JayJay here. This is a Types of Shots guide I came up with at Broadway Comics to help communication between the writers and the artists. I used art from some of my favorite comics, The Watchmen and Love and Rockets, when I put this together.

CLOSE SHOTS – Good for conveying details, emotion, reactions, expressions.

EXTREME CLOSE-UP – A shot in which a small object or part of an object fills the entire frame, usually cropped.

CLOSE-UP – A shot in which the subject fills most of the frame with little space around it.

BUST SHOT – A shot in which the main subject is fills much of the frame, but more of the surroundings are shown. As in a head and shoulders or portrait type shot of a person.


MEDIUM SHOTS
– Good for establishing figures and body language, human size action.

CLOSE MEDIUM SHOT – A shot with the subject near to the camera and clearly visible, but most likely partially cropped.

MEDIUM SHOT – A shot which shows the subject and its surroundings equally well. Usually full figures.

LONG MEDIUM SHOT – A shot where meaningful information and details are still clearly visible, but the subject of the frame occupies less of the space than the surroundings.

LONG SHOTS – Good for setting locale, showing location of objects, showing an area, showing big action.

LONG SHOT – A shot at such a distance that few details and little meaningful information about the object of the frame can be readily seen.


DISTANT LONG SHOT – A shot where the object can still be clearly seen, but no meaningful information about the object is discernible at all.

EXTREME LONG SHOT – A shot that is so distant that the main object is a dot or is not visible at all. 


OTHER DESCRIPTIVE TERMS

  • ESTABLISHING SHOT – A shot that shows enough of the surroundings to establish the locale adequate to the telling of the story.
  • HIGH ANGLE or BIRD’S EYE VIEW or DOWN SHOT – A view from an angle higher than normal eye level.
  • LOW ANGLE or WORM’S EYE VIEW or UP SHOT – A view from an angle lower than normal eye level, frequently the ground level.
  • DIAGRAMMATIC SHOT – A view from normal eye level at 90 degrees to the action or interaction of the subjects.
  • STRAIGHT ON or DEAD ON SHOT – A view from directly in front of the subject.
  • OVERHEAD SHOT – A shot from directly above or almost directly above the subject.
  • PANORAMIC SHOT – A wide angle shot which is similar to the viewpoint of a panoramic camera.
  • FULL FIGURE SHOT – A view in which the subject is not cropped.