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Wednesday, May 02, 2007


Royal Storylines

A Royal Storyline is a plot that, by virtue of its scale, ambition or emotional weight, inescapably upstages the other elements of the story.

A canny writer recognises when they have one of these on their hands, and rebalances accordingly. This is necessary, as spending more time on, say, the grain merchant who sells the grain that feeds the knight's horse, however complicated his personal life is, than on the knight's visions of God telling him to go and find the Grail in order to prevent an apocalypse - or indeed, spending more time on the knight, if it's the grain merchant who's getting the visions - produces a very peculiar story indeed. That's not the only example, obviously; if you're telling a magic realist story then visions can be a background thing... But generally speaking, Royal Storylines are stories that you know when you see them. And if a writer ignores them - often because they're so massively ambitious that it's easier to write the subplots - then you get unsatisfied readers. It can be more work to deal with a Royal Storyline, but you have to do it. It pays off.

To take a positive example, have y'all read Bryan Talbot's comic The Tale of One Bad Rat? (If you haven't, you should, because it's outstanding.) The story is about the flight and recovery of Helen, a teenage girl with a deep passion for Beatrix Potter's art (which is reflected in Talbot's artwork), who runs away from her sexually abusive father, goes through homelessness and depression and finally manages to get back on her feet. It's very honest and touching and generally speaking a great book, but also worth reading is Talbot's comments in the epilogue.

Talbot says, in brief, that he was originally planning on doing a comic about the Lake District. Feeling around for an idea, he started thinking about Beatrix Potter, who lived there, came up with the character of a teenage runaway girl, based on a girl he'd happened to see who reminded him somewhat of Potter, and, because he had to explain the girl being a runaway somehow when he was writing his proposal, had pencilled in the girl's motivation for running away as 'fleeing sexual abuse at the hands of her father'. He put in this motivation, as he puts it, 'without much consideration', because it seemed like a serviceable idea. But, having put it in, he did some research, and started looking at the idea seriously. This is what he says:

This issue was far too important to marginalize; I needed to change the nature of the story in order to address it. It became Bad Rat's raison d'etre and the chief concern of the plot ... Instead of creating a comic about the Lake District, I ended up writing and drawing a story about child sexual abuse. And I'm glad it turned out that way. This has been the most worthwhile book that I have been involved with and the best - not to mention the hardest - comics work that I've ever done.

Talbot, in short, recognized that he had a Royal Storyline on his hands, and took the appropriate action: he rearranged the less important elements of the plot rather than prioritizing them because he thought of them first and put in the extra work to do the main story justice. (And he really did put in work - just as an example, there's an acknowledgement in the back to a hairdresser he consulted to make sure the heroine's hair was growing at the right speed during the story's time frame.) The result? Well, according to his own website, it's the second-most requested graphic novel in the libraries of America.*

Pay attention to Royal Storylines. And read Talbot's essay; it's a fine example of someone taking stock and carefully working out how best to handle things.

*Beaten only by Maus, which is an absolute masterpiece; there's nothing quite like it.


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