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Visual Storytelling: The Art and Technique

by Tony Caputo

Introduction by Harlan Ellison

Special essay by Jim Steranko

(Watson-Guptill, $24.95, 192 pages, paperback; April 2003.)

cover scanRecently, as I prepared to move house, I decided to purge myself of clutter before I started packing. Even books were not immune from my suddenly insatiable hunger to lead a life of minimalism.

Like most writers, I had collected a multitude of reference materials regarding the art and craft of putting pen to paper. As I reviewed each title for the keep or toss piles, I found myself cringing at the restrictive, pretentious "professional advice" that plagued most of these books. Soon, I discovered I had but a handful of important works to hang onto. And, if I had already owned Visual Storytelling: The Art and Technique, it would have been the one work above all others that sat at the top of the keep pile.

The problem with most "how to" and "how not to" books of writing, screenwriting, playwriting, comic-book writing, etc., is that they are written by people with knowledge based on their own egocentricity. They take their writing style and personal experiences, put them on the page as the rule of thumb to follow, and that's the end of that. But Caputo's work comes up with something far more important than ridiculous absolutes and one-sided stories: it offers an open-ended philosophy that allows the reader to take what he wants and run (write, draw or design) with it.

As Caputo states so perfectly at the outset, this book is

about telling a great story. It's not enough for the audience to read the story, or watch the film, or play the game. They need to experience the comic or film or game. That's visual storytelling.

In an instant, the work is not just for one particular artistic medium. It relates to everything from writing and cartooning to game development and film editing.

To get the reader into the proper mood, Visual Storytelling kicks off with a spirited introduction by sf writer Harlan Ellison. Honest and engaging, Ellison takes readers through his own storytelling experiences without pretence, while delivering a "know the rules, but break the rules" mantra which casts stones at the latest rules-of-thumb for screenwriters: "Don't incorporate camera direction into your script -- that's the director's job." Well, Ellison will have none of it. "You must think visually before you write," he declares. "And if one's visualization calls for a particular camera angle, director be damned." And if you're not a screenwriter? Don't worry, Ellison has something poignant and insightful for all comers.

Overall, Visual Storytelling is a hotbed of history, art, behind-the-scenes discovery and "method behind the madness" revelation. The read is as vibrant and as fast-paced as should be expected from a body of work devoted to telling a great story. Each page is chock-full of illuminating insight, with a multitude of intriguing sidebars and graphic images from manga, comics, film and gaming.

The bookend to Ellison's great intro is an enlightening special essay by renowned comic-book artist Jim Steranko. We're talking not about a "how to" piece but about a riveting wordscape concerning narrative theory, visualization of scene components, the core of the storyteller's art, temporal continuity, and far more that lies beyond the confines of a comic panel. Steranko's final sentence reflects the objective behind the book itself: "The art of [storytelling] is ultimately up to you."

Caputo has put together a treasure trove of storytelling history, philosophy and theory, where readers, writers, artists and film makers can explore lighting, colour, planning, pacing, theory and so much more. In a nutshell, Visual Storytelling is loaded.

I'm sure you'll find it at the top of your own keep file. Or, better yet, by your side as you bring your stories to their ultimate fruition. I can only imagine where my writing career would be today if I had had this book fifteen years ago.

Review by William D Prystauk.

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