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Writing Excuses Season Four Episode 15: Visual Components of Storytelling

Writing Excuses Season Four Episode 15: Visual Components of Storytelling


Key Points: Cohesive? Lazy shortcuts and a dash of signature elements. Lots of cool stuff, but find a way to connect them together. Underlying commonalities, like the circle template. The design of the book, maps, cover art, and other visual elements are a kind of prelude to the book, that can help set the feeling before you start reading.

[Howard] 15 minutes long because you're in a hurry.
[Brandon] And we're not that smart.
[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Howard] I'm Howard.
[Isaac] And I'm here because Dan is not.
[Brandon] Dan is on book tour. Yeah for Dan. Everybody go to Dan's book tour except...
[Howard] He went into reprints, didn't he?
[Brandon] Yep. Serial Killer is into a second printing already. Everything is going well. We have invited Isaac, Isaac Stewart, to come and be our guest star this week. Isaac is the person who did all of the interior art for the Mistborn books. So all of the maps, all those cool symbols that you see... we' ll actually try and put some of those up on the liner notes... link to some of those so you can see what Isaac is doing. He's very heavily with the Way of Kings with me. During his day job... Isaac, why don't you tell us what you do?
[Isaac] I'm a videogame animator. I worked for several different companies. I have worked for Wahoo Studios -- they're also known as Ninja B -- I do a lot of downloadable games for the Xbox. I've also worked at Eat Sleep Play on a game that they will be announcing this fall for the PS3.
[Howard] Fantastic.
[Brandon] You've done some directing as well of animated shorts and those sorts of things.
[Isaac] That's correct. On a game that was not released for the Wii... it was completed. I did the animated shorts. There were about 25 to 30 minutes of them. I directed them along with John Boyles.
[Howard] Are you still doing Rocket Road Trip?
[Isaac] We're also doing a web comic about a monster hunter and his exploits, having a family and also being a monster hunter at the same time. It's a little bit crazy. It's called Rocket Road Trip.

[Brandon] Today we want to try and do a very different style podcast. We want to talk about visual cohesion. All the elements that come together to make the story work visually. So everything that's not the writing. Which you may think,. "Oh, epic fantasy, Brandon, you don't have very much of that." Yet there is. It's not just the descriptions in text. But there's all the sort of stuff that Isaac did. The symbols, the maps. Particularly in the Way of Kings where we're doing a lot of extra art for it. Of course, with Howard, you've got a lot going on in the Schlock-verse. Howard, how do you keep your visual elements, all of the nontext elements, cohesive?
[Howard] I start by... I start by being lazy and always deciding to take shortcuts that feel like they're actually okay to take. When I say shortcuts, rather than detailing something, I'll use swoops and curves, I'll throw down some straight lines with a straight edge for background type things. I do that one in order to save time and two because when my hand draws a curve or when I draw the same... when I use a French curve to do the same arc... just those shapes, the fact that I'm throwing those shapes, helps everything hold together. Then when I actually design an element that's a little more complicated, like the flat screens that everybody looks at, I try and make sure that there are signature elements. For me, it's the obligatory fiddly bit, that... the little yellow ball on a stick that pokes out of all kinds of Schlock tech.
[Brandon] So you use those... stick those on things to say this is a Schlock tech.
[Howard] I... in part it's a joke. You stick one on the end of the shovel, and people are like, "Why does the shovel need to be high tech?" Well, this is the 31st century. The shovel has to have its own hyper node connection, otherwise, how do you know that you're not hitting power lines when you dig? Suddenly, that suggestion becomes Schlock canon. Oh, well, obviously if you're digging with a shovel that doesn't have a hyper node connection on it, that would be against the law. The design elements... there is feedback between the design elements and the story. It's fun.

[Brandon] Isaac, I handed you Mistborn. As is usually the case, there was just a lot of work that I was doing. I just essentially said to you, I need maps and symbols. Go. How did you work with that? What did you do? You came up with this brilliant stuff with very little direction.
[Isaac] Part of it was how cohesive the ambience of the book was. It felt very Gothic in a lot of the parts. Some of the keeps felt like cathedrals. I kind of was able to take that and go from there and make sure that I kept things kind of hard angles, or if I was using arches and the borders that go around it, those look kind of gothic. I also went into... you also had a feeling when I was reading it of some of Dickens books. It felt Dickensonian London. So I looked at maps of...
[Howard] Dickensian?
[Brandon] Dickensian.
[Isaac] Dickensian. Thank you.
[Brandon] Evil Dickensian is kind of one of the things I was going for.
[Isaac] It came out without you having to tell me that. But I looked up maps of that and used the style of the era. Kind of tried to translate it to something that was a little more jagged, hard, and evil. The... I drew a lot of different symbols for the Mistborn symbols. I must have 1000 of them. But what made... but finally clicked was I saw a picture of rusty nails that had been bent. That got me to thinking about the nails that the Inquisitors have going through their eyes. I just started drawing spikes that way. That's where those came from, was rusted nails.
[Howard] When I look at the Mistborn symbols, I look at them and I think, "Oh, my gosh. Somebody took that poor letter Q. and drove nails in it until it burst open." That feeling, that sensibility of... it's not just that the elements are allomantic, it's that the elements are hemallergic... or what's the...
[Brandon] Right. Hemallergic. It was... when you're doing this, and this is not just for visual artists, though visual artists I think can learn a lot from this. Creating that cohesion... we've talked about it before... world building is about coming up with lots of cool stuff, as many cool things as you can, then finding a way to connect them together. Because if they're not interconnected, then they're just going to feel hodgepodge. I love... I still remember when Isaac first showed me the symbols and said I think that we'll base... we could base a language... a writing system... an alphabet based on nails pounded through things. He showed me a few, and I thought, "Isaac, that is brilliant." Because what that did is it tied the linguistics to the magic system, and also tied it to the general world building by the way the view felt.
[Howard] In fairness, it didn't tie anything. It nailed them together. Come on.
[Brandon] It nailed them together. You see the symbols and you're like wow, those are cool, I want to put those on my skateboard. But they also look like they just... they look cool in a way that ties everything... okay, nails everything together. I was so excited because it turned on that light in my head. When I'm designing... I'm working on a book called The Way of Kings which I've mentioned before. One of the visual components of The Way of Kings is that the world is blasted by these massive storms, these huge hurricanes every couple of days... one a week or so, they come through and just nail everything. I wanted visual components that added to that. I wanted everything in the world to have to deal with this. If you've got storms that are enormous...
[Howard] So windswept, sandblasted, those sorts of words?
[Brandon] Yeah, windswept, the diction I'm using. But when I designed the houses, the people live in houses, and like, OK, you're going to live in slanted houses where the roofs slant down to the ground so that the houses don't get blown over. You put slopes on your houses. You have plants that grow at an angle away from the storms so they don't... so they're actually leaning into the winds... or against... or leaning with the winds. You build an entire visual element to a world to build around these sorts of things.

[Brandon] Isaac, you are going to do our book advertisement thing because you have a book that you are currently reading that you think does a good job of this.
[Isaac] Yes. Right now I'm currently listening to Boneshaker by Cherie Priest. It's a nominee for the Hugo award this year. So far it is very good. It is a fun story. It is steam punk, and with every element in the story, she's designed it to feel very steam punk. When she describes the clothing people are wearing, it feels like it belongs -- not only to the steam punk era, but to the 1860s which is the era she's writing in.
[Howard] When you say steam punk, it is Victorian era, alternate history...?
[Isaac] It's Victorian era, alternate history. It's set in Seattle of all places, and has sky pirates, zombies, and a really good reason for people to have to wear goggles. I highly suggest it.
[Brandon] You said the actual printed book is printed in brown.
[Isaac] The actual printed book, the words are printed brown. Which kind of leads...
[Howard] Brown brown or like a black brown... how far brown do they go?
[Isaac] It's pretty brown.
[Howard] Wow. I want to pick that up and have a look at it.
[Brandon] But Isaac is listening to the audible version right now, and you can to. Download it, get a 15 day free trial.

[Howard] In talking about the brown letters in that book, I'm reminded of what Tracey Hickman asked for when Sandra and I agreed to publish X-Treme Dungeon Mastery. He said he wanted to evoke the same feeling that you had when you were flipping through your old D&D books, the old advanced Dungeons & Dragons. So we got out the advanced Dungeons & Dragons books, and we looked at it. We realized, "Oh, the big difference between these books and the role-playing books done today is the role-playing books done today all have digital paintings for all of the fantasy art work. Whereas these old books had mostly line art, it was very stark, black and white, and sometimes they had cartoons." The paper texture was a rag, it was a very toothy paper. So we made our paper decision based on the fact that we wanted to evoke these older books. I sent a copy off to the guy who did... I sent several copies off to the guy who did the cover art, and he e-mailed me back. I was so pleased. He said, "I don't know if you did this on purpose, but I opened that book and was transported back to my first Dungeons & Dragons manual because of the paper you chose." I felt very smug, because we had taken those design elements and they'd had exactly the effect we wanted them to have.
[Isaac] That is very cool.

[Brandon] Howard, when you're doing Schlock Mercenary, we've talked about the technology. Is there a way you keep your aliens feeling like they're in the same world? Do you not try to make them all look very different? Besides the technology, how do you make things feel cohesive? Because it doesn't feel scatterbrained to me, it feels like it's all part of the same world.
[Howard] The circle template. It's a silly thing, but when I first started drawing the characters for the strip... the human characters for the strip, I used a circle template to define a portion of the head size. I had a circle for the skull, and then I would hang the jaw from it with other shapes. If I wanted to know... if characters were in the same plane, I used the same sized circle. Regardless of age, regardless of physical size, they all had the same basic size skull. If somebody was standing further back, I used a smaller circle. I then applied that same exact sensibility to the aliens. If an alien is standing next to Captain Tagon in the same plane, I will use the same exact circle template for some portion of that alien's head. The result is that the scale is always consistent. We don't have little tiny fairy-type things. We do have elephants and other things that are really big, and those bend that sensibility a little. But the circle template... you can't see it when you look at the strip, you can't see where the circle template was. But it's there, and it's informing everything, and I can't live without it.

[Brandon] Isaac, as a visual artist and also a writer... an aspiring writer, but a writer nonetheless... how... have you used your artistic skill with writing to develop... have you gone the other direction, started with the art and then gone to the story ever or anything like that?
[Isaac] I can't think of anything specifically that I have on that. I often draw pictures of the characters, just doodles before I do anything. But I do know that Orson Scott Card has done that. He talks about in his book How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy I believe that's what it was called... he talks about Hart's Hope where he found a special piece of paper up in his attic when they were moving and he decided he needed to do something special with it, so he started doodling this map of the city. He started labeling the gates. There were anomalies in the paper, and he tried to figure out what is that in the city. It led to this whole story that he eventually wrote into a novel. That map I believe is in the front of that novel as well.
[Brandon] You've done a lot of map work. You've done maps for Robert Silverberg, you've done maps for me, you've done maps for John Brown. How does the map... how do you see that as a visual components of the books?
[Isaac] Well, it really should fit in with the book itself. A lot of the books that I see, the map doesn't quite fit with it...
[Brandon] What makes it not quite fit?
[Isaac] It's usually stylistically. I'm not sure if some of the map makers haven't read the books... and I don't want to rag on other mapmakers...
[Howard] If the map maker has read the book... whether or not the map maker has read or hasn't read the book, if the mapmakers sits down with a program like Campaign Cartographer and spits out a map, it's not going to fit the world unless the world is a computer-generated world. There are design sensibilities that canned software just won't support. You have to sit down with your hands and make these...
[Isaac] Draw it out.
[Howard] Render these shapes in the same spirit of what's been written.
[Isaac] Let me give you an example of this. We were just in Disneyland with the kids, and when you're waiting in line for the rides, like the Indiana Jones ride, they have this intricate tunnel to go through and everything... it's not the ride yet, but everything lends to the feeling of the ride so you're kind of getting prepared for it. The design of the book and the maps are kind of this prelude to the book. They can set a feeling for it. I remember picking up the Dragonbone Chair when I was 14 or 15, and that's the experience I had. Before I ever started reading the book, it had these maps, it had an author's warning, it kind of prepared you for the book. Not to mention the beautiful cover by Michael Whelan.
[Brandon] Yeah, Michael Whelan.
[Howard] We like Michael Whelan.
[Brandon] Alright. Isaac... oh, wait. Howard, you've got one more thing?
[Howard] No. I've got a writing prompt unless you want to make poor Isaac do it.
[Brandon] No, go for it.

[Howard] OK, writing prompt. First a little bit of backstory. I had Brook West design ship plans for the Integrity which was the ship that Tagon's Toughs ended up acquiring. In designing the ship plans, we arrived at some really fun anomalies where if you were to shut off the gravity, the water would suddenly flow through the ship and make a huge mess. I got a lot of mileage out of that. So your writing prompt, in order to be visual, sit down and draw yourself a spaceship. Draw some interesting bits of a spaceship. Sketch, skritch it out, whatever. Draw something, and then find interesting aspects about what you drew and work them into the story.
[Brandon] All right. This has been writing excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.
Tags: circle template, cohesive, connections, maps, story, visual components, writing excuses

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