A friend of mine recently showed me this web comic (incidentally, this is the published piece up for discussion for our meeting on April 2). Now, I am no fan of horror (to tell the truth, this kept me up with unreasonable terror the night after I read it), but I found myself rifling through Emily Carroll’s work.
I know we’re a writer’s group. And this story has no words in it. And it’s nonlinear. And sometimes it doesn’t even make snese.
But it’s still a story.
Cynthia talked a little bit a few weeks ago about the vignette. If I had to characterize “Grave of the Lizard Queen,” I’d call it a series of related vignettes. Alone, they barely tell even a piece of the narrative—and even that is up to interpretation. But together, we get a story of the entombed Lizard Queen’s life.
Nonlinear narrative can be a technique used for good—or for great evil. Notable examples in fiction are the Time Traveler’s Wife, Wuthering Heights, The Lies of Locke Lamora, and The Name of the Wind (I would love to see short-fiction examples of this if you have one!). I’m reading Locke Lamora now. Told both in the present (in which Locke is about 25) and in the past (in which he’s closer to eight or nine), the novel is less concerned with chronology and more concerned with world-building through specific events or characters. By portraying the ruthless king of all thieves, Capa Barsavi, in the present and past in quick succession, we get a better sense of Locke’s memories of Barsavi forcing him to swallow a shark’s tooth just as he’s walking in on Barsavi brutally torturing someone in the present. The result is the reader feels immediate tension in the presence of this awful guy.
It’s a pretty clever way to write a story. With the technique in media res, storytellers can skip right to the action sequences, and fill us in on backstory later. However, in traditional storytelling, we can usually control the order that the reader experiences pieces of the story, and therefore have a greater hand in the way their brains make the connections between different points in time.
With the images arranged in the way Emily Carroll put them, the viewer can experience the visual vignettes in whatever order she chooses. This happens in “choose your own adventure” stories and interactive novels like Blue Lacuna. Here, the “interactive dilemma” is that the author cannot always control which pieces of the story the reader is going to experience first. Readers, then, have more freedom in creating and interpreting the narrative the way they want to.
Check out this story, also by Emily Carroll. It involves both images and words, and two narrative choices at the end of the first page. Ever-so-slight changes in the second part of the narrative drastically change how the reader views the characters. Which image did you click on first? Who did you identify with more?
Let’s go back to our old friend the Grave of the Lizard Queen. Try clicking on the five images in different orders. What differences do you notice? Does the first image you click on impact how the story is told? In my case, I clicked on the center image first, so I got an immediately visceral idea of what it means to be a Lizard Queen: rebirth. This influenced how I interpreted the rest of the images. There are 120 possible stories that can be told with these five vignettes. Go hog-wild!
What I’m really interested in is how can we, as writers and artists, take advantage of this technique? More importantly, how can we (read: me) learn to let go of strict control of the narrative? I, for one, would really love to do a project like this in the future. Now, if only I could hone my artist’s skills as sharply as my wordsmithing skills…