Graphic Storytelling... Connecting or Disconnecting

by Ron Samul

In 2013, the New York Times unveiled Tomato Can Blues by Mary Pilon and illustrated by Attila Futaki. This illustrated reportage brought out the best of an old publishing media (newspapers) and merged the new technology of web, journalism, and art to make an interactive piece that not only connects to readers, but also stylizes the time and the complexity of the story. In this emerging mainstream piece, Mary Pilon, the writer of the article discussed the significance of the project and how they struggled to make it work outside of the traditional world of long form journalism. Pilon explains,“Tomato Can Blues, was an exercise in figuring out how to keep readers hooked while still being factual. I think journalists can learn a lot from screenwriters and novelists about how to arc facts, which was a huge task here”. The shift in turning factual print news into creative visuals inspires an innovative method of story production – akin to the way we think about words and images on screens and in the functionally of web design. When big news media like the New York Times produces journalism that fits into the graphic medium high caliber illustrators and storytellers, readers can’t help but noticed that a visual shift is coming. But while the visual shift will create collaboration opportunities, it could add confusion for the reader. In some cases, it was hard to tell if Tomatoes Can Blues was in fact journalism or graphic novel. While there were hundreds of hours of work and interviewing involved, it was seamlessly enveloped into the production and therefore it felt like readers were experiencing a story that only fiction could create. Because multimedia storytelling such as Tomato Can Blues is only in its infancy, it is not just appropriate to be lacking the proper terminology, but also to have questions such as the one in a tweet by Marc Lacey, of The New York Times associate managing editor, who asked: ‘Graphic novel? Reported article?’”.

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Seeing Is Believing

by Ron Samul

When I was a kid, my dad and I were in the supermarket. A woman tripped over a cord in the frozen food section and hit her head on the freezer case. My father quickly ran to her and helped. He was a trained Vietnam medic, EMT, and firefighter. It was a given that he would help. As I watched the woman recover and the staff come out to help, I went over and did my part. I moved the cord so more people wouldn’t trip over it. Why did I do that? What was happening that empowered me to take action? When I saw my father helping someone, I wanted to help too. While I couldn’t offer medical assistance, I could go to the root of the issue, and help prevent this from happening again. The reason that I was empowered was because I had witnessed someone else acting. The fact that this story is still in my working memory proves that watching someone inspires action from others.

This week (4/14) in the New York Times Sunday Review, there was an article titled Raising A Moral Child by Adam Grant. In this article, he poses that we need to empower our children and allow them to act. But how do we do it? In the cited study and narrative, he concludes a fascinating fact: action speak louder than anything else.

“The most generous children were those who watched the teacher give but not say anything. Two months later, these children were 31 percent more generous than those who observed the same behavior but also heard it preached. The message from this research is loud and clear: If you don’t model generosity, preaching it may not help in the short run, and in the long run, preaching is less effective than giving while saying nothing at all.”

It seems that what my father did, and what this study concludes is that seeing actions, inspires others to action. What is really interesting is that he suggests that “in the long run, preaching is less effective than giving while saying nothing at all.” It seems counterintuitive to think that my father didn’t sit down with me and turn this moment into a life lesson as to why he helped this woman. His actions has already empowered me. In fact, in context to the article, I was more likely to give my help because he didn’t preach to me his intent and purpose. What he did was notice that I helped by moving the cords, and told my mother how I had helped.

It is a tricky world of empowering children, giving them
a sense of purpose, and shaping them into caring, empathetic people. However, sometimes telling or “preaching” a value will not help someone understand. They simply have to see it. A picture, in this case, could be worth a thousand words.

Awhile back, my step-daughter was in the hospital for a nasty bloody nose. While waiting, I was outside and noticed a man helping someone from a van into a wheelchair. Moving this person from the car to a wheelchair was tricky for one person. I quickly rushed over and offered some help, stabilizing the wheelchair and helping get the person seated. It took less than a minute, and they were very kind in their thanks. Once they were inside, my step-daughter said, “You like to help people, don’t you.” I just nodded.

-- Ron Samul is an educator and writer living in New England. www.RonSamul.org
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Divergent Pages

In a writing project that merges newspaper articles and fictional narrative together, we put the reader (and the writer for that matter) in a divergent storytelling place. A place that is more objective, offering and alternative to the portion they've already. I suppose I should explain this further. The writing project is based on narrative fiction that you might typically read, mixed with newspaper articles that give an alternative version of  what you have just taken on.

Aesthetically, I've been thinking about this concept. Why would I want to write an article about my chapters or narrative that revolves around newspaper articles? What if they confuse the reader? What if it makes the reader question the narrative? This intersection of the novel offers a heterotopian crossing of two forms, fictional narrative and news reporting. Even if it is fictionalized, newspaper articles hold a certain form, a certain ideal that they should be straight forward and factual. However, fiction is based on creating something that is not real and crafting it into a believable artifact. What we expect from these two different concepts, fiction and newspaper articles, contradicts the modes in which we get information. More over, it suggests that the truth isn't the narrative or the news articles, but something that is somewhere in between - in the connections and ideas made by the reader. The form, design, and construction of the story is already built to change the reader's mind even in the first few pages. A vignette of a woman who is hit by a fish falling from the sky, matched by an article that suggests plausible reasons that this might happen. Or the next section where the main character meets a boy who has been missing for awhile. After she has a strange but innocent moment with the boy, we find out there is a search for the boy and the suggestion that he is probably dead. These two opposing forces place the reader to decide what to make of those two opposing angles of the story. This become partly interactive because the reader can chose which element of the story holds more weight. But it isn't that simple. Sometimes, the two opposing elements agree, sometimes - they fight one another, and sometimes, they don't even seem to connect. Could someone read all the articles, and then read the narrative? Or could they read the narrative and then add in the articles at the end, like a scrapbook of articles that support the book. 

An idea that was floated around during a workshop was the possibility that a reader might be instructed to watch a small video clip or read a series of blog postings... stop reading the book... and do something else and bring back some knowledge to the narrative. It might be a complicated move through archives, videos, and other information accumulations - or it might be look at a few paintings online to understand what the characters in the book are seeing when they work with an art dealer. Interactivity doesn't imply synchronicity to the story or the plot although most interaction is based on logical choice of (A) or (B). The vast inclusion of information and ideas that can be merged into narratives is as fascinating and engaging as people felt about The DiVinci Code or other books that remixed their common knowledge of history and art and gave them a new story. 

Looking for new ways to keep the novel out of the grave doesn't mean that the novel has to become something unrecognizable, but it should connect with the digital, physical  and shifting changes of what we expect from interactive screens, interactive concepts and ideas. We don't always have to make our novels interactive, we don't always have to be innovative. Yet, we should be keen to look at where and when we can shift with the digital and physical art that surrounds us. 
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