So, in the further adventures of not-having-a-job, I use my down time to exercise and write.
Lately, I’ve been finishing a graphic novel I started last fall; I’m fairly close to the end of the first draft. This time – unlike in the past – I’m paying much closer attention to the moments I like and dislike, and how I’m changing things to fit the story.
I had an outline, originally. I’ve deviated from it quite a bit. And the deviations have been surprising, in good ways. For instance, I originally had my main character’s father alive, only to meet an untimely demise halfway through. Then it occurred to me to have him dead all along.
That turned out to be a much better solution.
But my favorite moments aren’t the exciting ones. Oddly enough, they’re the quiet ones. They’re the pauses that go on too long, the moments that don’t push the plot forward, and the lulls. I think of it like dynamics in music; great music plays with the soft, the loud, the constant, and the non-existent. Silence and quiet creates anticipation. In writing, it lets you build characters. Anything being written by the numbers will have expected quiet moments, that will last exactly as long as they need to. I like letting them go on a little bit longer than that.
My friend Jared, an indie horror filmmaker, threw this up on his Facebook feed a few days back – Roger Ebert’s review of Spirited Away by Hayao Miyazaki. In it, Miyazaki says,
“We have a word…in Japanese,” he said. “It’s called ‘ma.’ Emptiness. It’s there intentionally.” He clapped his hands three or four times. “The time in between my clapping is ‘ma.’ If you just have non-stop action with no breathing space at all, it’s just busyness…The people who make the movies are scared of silence, so they want to paper and plaster it over. They’re worried that the audience will get bored. But just because it’s 80 percent intense all the time doesn’t mean the kids are going to bless you with their concentration. What really matters is the underlying emotions–that you never let go of those.”
I picked up on that from manga and a lot of Haruki Murakami’s writing. I didn’t know that it was a cultural thing, until I’d read that interview. But it explains a lot of what I like about that way of storytelling; having extra room makes it easier to express emotion, and create relatable characters. It gives them a chance for great moments.
The lull is also a comedic tool. I picked that up from watching Graham Linehan’s wonderful series The IT Crowd, which is chock-full of long-gag humor. American humor is usually very snappy, and sometimes reactive; you don’t get the long gag as much, because it’s drilled into the audience (and therefore subsequent generations of comedy writers) that humor only happens at this sort of breathless pace.
Well, it can. But comedy is about the creation and resolution of tension. Tension takes many forms, and there are just as many ways to resolve it. In my case, I took two pages to set up a gag that delivered a plot point. I could’ve done it in three panels, but it wouldn’t have been nearly as much fun – and it wouldn’t have given me the chance to drop a few little extra character touches in there.
So, unlikely sources of inspiration for an American graphic novel – Japanese literature and English comedy. Go figure.