Creator Confessions: Narration As A Crutch

by Frank Martin

There’s probably no easier tool to use in the storytelling toolbox than narration. Unfortunately, it also means narration is the most abused tool in storytelling. In terms of a movie, this is simple voiceover. For a comic, it usually takes on the form of caption boxes. It’s a very simple and straightforward way to communicate something directly to the audience or reader. There’s really no work involved other than just delivering it. The problem is that it’s so easy and simple that writers tend to use it instead of doing the actual work of communicating information through the story. In a ninety-minute or two-hour long movie, voice over for a couple minutes isn’t the end of the world. But for a twenty page comic book, the allure and impact of using caption boxes and narration can be felt a great deal more.

It all comes back to that age-old storytelling mantra of “show, don’t tell.” The idea is if there’s information that needs to be communicated then you find a way to show that information organically through the story rather than just telling the reader about it. The problem comes in very dense comic book tales that have a lot of backstory. This happens in sci-fi and fantasy when creators need to build a whole world from the bottom up. Novice creators will rely heavily on narration to set the stage and world-build, but a huge info dump right off the bat is a good way to turn your reader off. Instead, a good question to ask is whether or not world-building is needed at all. Sometimes it is extraneous information that the reader doesn’t necessarily need in order to understand the story. It’s extra baggage and, generally speaking, in a comic where space is limited, the idea is to cut as much fat from the story as possible.

That isn’t to say that narration can’t be wielded properly. Big Two comic books have narration with their characters all the time. The idea is to use narration not to tell the story but to supplement it either through tone or theme. Writers use narration all the time for characters not to explain the plot, but to explain their motivations and thoughts; their feelings, doubts, and desires. In this case, narration is used to get the reader in a certain mood and invoke certain emotions. In which case, narration isn’t holding the story up. It’s adding to it. Which is always the key to successful narration.

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