Stories that age well

notes - studies

Telling a story is easy.
Just the sort of thing built in us -- story-telling animals.

Much less obvious to me is how to avoid writing and illustrating a story
that will make me cringe after some time has passed.

alan | sketches by Cat S.

I thought the only way to find out was keep churning them out,
and pay attention to the outcome.

Cringed a few times!

Now I think I can narrow it down to a few rules.
I really do think this will work, based on what I've observed so far.

If I knock down at least three of the following criteria, I'm willing to bet my drawing table --
it is likely going to be a keeper.


criterion #1: story is not autobiographical

I'm not entirely against autobiographies. I would just caution against the indulgence.
If I thought my life was that interesting, I would have at it -- but I don't!

I have made it work to write some parts of the story based on what actually happened to me.

The Wallpaper | comics sketches by Cat S.

But if I go a little too verbatim,
then it just feels like someone caught me in my pants.
(The realisation of which happens after the fact!)

putting on shorts | sketches by Cat S.

One way to solve this is in the next tip.


criterion #2: story shows more than it tells

This is really good stuff.
Perhaps I should have made this criterion #1, just for emphasis.
Literary writers swear by this -- show don't tell.

Mumbo's Jumbo | sketches by Cat S.

Show, don't tell!

Despite relying on written word, literary writers know to use visual language,
to make their stories leap out of the page.

cyclist and rain | sketches by Cat S.

For illustrators, this rule is far too easy to apply,
except when word-thinking creeps in!

The Wallpaper | comics sketches by Cat S.

When I avoid telling too much,
my illustrations tend to have more stuff to say.

Often surprised by the different interpretations from my readers that were all equally valid.
Makes me experience my artwork in a new light.
Sometimes I discover insights where I didn't intentionally imply.


criterion #3: story is not trying to be funny

This pertains to a specific kind of forced humour in comics.
The ones that seem to be overcompensating for a lack of charm.

I've read stories that don't try to be funny that still made me laugh.
Laughter is usually a precursor to a slight change in perception --
a charming thing to experience.

Mrs Ethel thumbnails | sketches by Cat S.

I'll leave the engineered humour to the professional cartoonists.
When it comes to illustrated short stories, I think I will fare well without forcing it in.
There's enough funny happening around -- just showing how people behave.

Mrs Ethel Edamame Tears | sketches by Cat S.


criterion #4: story didn't have a pre-planned ending / no moral end-goal

In whatever story I've read or written, I find a lesson whether or not the author put it in.
I realised a moral takeaway is unavoidable because it is generated by the reader. So I don't see the utility in starting off with a moral goal. It just appears as moral grandstanding after time has passed -- something I cringe at when I revisit my works from 10-15 years ago.

Canadian professor and clinical psychologist, Dr Jordan B Peterson, has an exquisite articulation of how I've felt about this. He was at The Rubin Report on 1 November 2017 where he said the following:

"The artist shouldn't be able exactly to say what he/she is doing. If you can say what you're doing, you're not producing art.

You could say art bears the same relationship to culture that the dream does to mental stability. Your dream doesn't say what it's about. It just is. You can interpret it and that's helpful sometimes, just like movie criticism's helpful. But the dream is something that extends you beyond where you already are -- that's why it isn't verbal thought. It's something else. It's like a pseudopod that's going out into the unknown. That's what art is.

And the art [that] subsumes the artistic vision to the ideological framework -- is putting the cart before the horse. It's actually a sin, I would say. It's like the ultimate and creative sins to do that, because you're harnessing the greater to the lesser.

It's like "Yeah you understand things and you can tell a story about what you understand." No no! You tell a story about what you don't understand. And then you pull everyone into the story. The story is an exploration in that way."

The problem with no pre-planned ending is exactly that --
knowing when and where to end the story.

The Wallpaper thumbnails | sketches by Cat S.

I did it in the past for the sake of certainty.

I've learned the proper way is to play it by ear. As with a musical composition, I figure out the next note based on the previous note. The music comes out harmonious.


criterion #5: story was conceived from a question I didn't have an answer for

Okay, enough do-nots --
I thought I would look to where I actually did something worth repeating.

cat diary new story | sketches by Cat S.

The stories I still find endearing are those which
I had approached with a genuine question I'd been wondering about.

Henry Badger | sketches by Cat S.

So far those have lead me towards surprising insights.
The story feels almost as if it wrote itself.

Nod & Sleep | sketches by Cat S.


criterion #6: story contains main characters that have good and bad traits

I would think this has to be elementary to a serious artist.
The good and the bad stuff is mostly internal. This is apparent in every great classic.

But I made that mistake as well - cringe!
Those good vs bad characters are too simplistic.

Now I've come to appreciate searching for negative and positive traits within a character.

The Unbelievable Exhibit | sketches by Cat S.

Since they drive the story forward,
the outcome is arresting when there is turmoil within.


Alright, that's everything that has made me cringe and not cringe so far.
Perhaps I'll do a study on character design for comics next time around.

Permanent3rdGrade comics art featured in this study:
The Wallpaper
Mumbo's Jumbo
Mrs Ethel
Henry Badger Interview
Nod & Sleep
The Unbelievable Exhibit