Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Storytelling Lessons to Learn from Southland Tales

As cartoonists, we're responsible for creating entire worlds, whole casts of characters, designing everything, and, quite often, writing the plot, narration, and dialogue in a comic as well. That's a lot to do, and there's a long list of very basic do's and don't's to remember.

Now, I'm still only a sophomore, and I don't claim to be an expert in any way. But I do know that a really good way to learn the ropes of storytelling is to watch really bad movies. And for me, few films are better for this purpose than Southland Tales.

Southland Tales was written and directed by Richard Kelley, the creator of Donnie Darko. I'm sure most of you have seen Donnie Darko, or at least heard of it. It's a brilliant movie, and one of the best things about it is that nothing is over-explained. The whole film is ambiguous. I remember being captivated by it because I didn't know if the whole movie was Donnie's dream, or if he was hallucinating, or if it really was real. That was the best part of it.

When I was in middle school, several years after Donnie Darko had been released, my friend Graham and I obsessed over it, reciting our favorite lines and discussing our favorite scenes. Then, one day, he found a website that had the made-up book Philosophy of Time Travel that served as a major plot point in Donnie Darko. Graham was fascinated by it, but I flat-out refused to read it. Whoever wrote that book completely ruined the whole point of the movie. The book explains the whole plot away, assigning even the minor characters roles in the time travel equation, making into one big boring mess instead of the intricate, entrancing work of art it had been before.

And that's the major problem with Southland Tales. Kelley introduces us to a huge cast of bland, two-dimensional characters with ridiculous names, most of which have no real role in the plot to speak of, and a long confusing plot about some post-apocalyptic near-future with political nonsense no one cares about. And to make it all even better, he includes a character who over-explains the plot every time someone else isn't speaking and spouts out-of-context Bible quotes, and even with all that narration, no one knows who wants what and why. That is the entire movie.

This is the fastest way to lose your audience. First of all, make the plot absolutely clear. Don't start putting in side stories until the main goals of the major protagonists and antagonists have been established. Second, if you're going to have a large cast, make them each unique and make sure, make absolutely certain, that they are actually important and that the story wouldn't be the same or wouldn't move forward without them. And third, do not over-explain anything! Give the reader only the information they absolutely need to know. Your reader is not an idiot; give them a little credit. You don't need to say in the narration how a character reacted to a certain event, they should be able to figure out the emotions of the characters by your art. Over-explaining the plot takes out the mystery, the ambiguity, and the fun. If the reader's brain isn't doing any work while they're reading the comic, then the comic doesn't need the reader, and it might as well sit on a shelf and collect dust.

Emily "Skippy" Kay Jolkovski, a sophomore cartooning major from a small DC suburb in Northern Virginia, was born the year Punk broke and became a werewolf shortly afterwards. She enjoys 80's-90's alt rock and grunge, early swing and jazz, Klezmer music, Mexican Indian and Chinese cuisine, Coen Bros films, magical realism, sharks, controlling peoples' minds, and long walks on the beach after driving a stake into a vampire's heart.


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