As this book is not focused just on background design but rather on background design aimed toward storytelling, I thought it would be best to take this section and, just as we studied our layout grids to better set up our environments, take the time to set up the building blocks of visual storytelling to start understanding how to better connect these layouts with narratives. In doing so, I hope you get a better sense of purpose in terms of the layouts presented previously and have a sense of confidence when applying them within your work.
Before we jump into the subject of storytelling with layouts, however, let’s go over some of the fundamentals of visual (or for that matter, all forms of) storytelling. To do so, I’m going to make some assumptions about you and say that, at some point in your life, you’ve experienced (either through reading, watching on TV/film, or through the evolving narrative of a game) at least one story. There are many different types of stories—some scary, some funny, some tragic—yet all of them have a similar purpose and structure, which makes them understandable and relatable to their audience. Therefore, a lot of the following will definitely be familiar to you, even if you don’t know these concepts by name.
First of all, it is important to know that all storytelling derives from conflict, which is a specific issue or concern that provokes the entire action of a story to take place. Basically, it’s a motivation that causes your main character to react to the world and either set things right within his/her world, or change his surroundings and his/her status quo. In superhero stories, for example, those conflicts are usually expressed physically (bad guy shows up, does something bad, hero hears about said bad thing, hero engages bad guy to stop bad thing). These are called external conflicts. There is also a different type of conflict that is called an internal conflict, which is more of a personal, philosophical concept, and it could motivate your character beyond the physical issue presented in the story (usually it’s traumatic or concerns a situation the character either has trouble overcoming or uses his/her new role in society to try to remedy).
Well, I can hear you chiming in from the back, looking all frustrated, saying “Okay—we were doing well, just learning about layouts and horizon lines and all that crazy stuff and then you got all English Lit on us! What gives?!” Allow me to explain:
In every good story, the environment speaks directly to the concerns and issues of a particular character. Take the following scene, for example:
Here’s a shot of a city (any city, really) during what probably is the earlier hours of the morning (what we would call an establishing shot, a visual that sets up your stage for action; we will discuss different shots and go more into depths with them in the blocking chapter). The scene is tranquil and serene, but it already implies certain issues that would connect with any person living in a city: you have to get up, get ready to go to work or school, deal with the people you see daily (some you look forward to seeing, some you don’t), traffic congestion, and the list could go on and on and on. Well, those are daily conflicts—things we have to do to make a living and, most of all, live. However, they still are relatable and act as an entrance point to your audience member. Now, let’s take these same types of surroundings but add the type of drama we would see in one of these crazy comic stories:
Same type of situation (we are still in a city), but now the environment means something different: this is a city, so there are people all over the place (potential victims), buildings that could be destroyed (which could create obstacles for our hero, or become dangerous for the innocents below), and the environment itself stops being just a familiar place becoming instead a place filled with danger and excitement. Therefore, the environment reacts to the conflict presented, thus enhancing its dramatic effect!
Pretty cool, right? Ah, but there’s more!
Going back to storytelling structure, every kid in the world knows that there are three parts to a story: a beginning, a middle, and an end. Well, because we can’t just leave things be and just go with what works for us as children, we’ve taken to naming this set up as the three-act structure of storytelling. Here is a quick overview of how the three acts work.
– Establishes our main character (or characters), and the world in which our story takes place.
– Inciting incident: the situation that actually changes your character’s current situation and establishes the central conflict (or conflicts) of this story.
– Based on the inciting incident, your character (or, again, characters) make a decision on a course of action that responds to the new status quo (this is normally called the call in fiction) and begins the process of implementing said course.
– Our characters begin to have their first real tests and victories in terms of their new course of action as they explore their world more closely, meeting allies and enemies alike.
– The opposition redoubles their efforts, and weaknesses/threats are discovered that might threaten the success of our character’s (or characters’) mission.
– This all leads to what is called a moment of crisis, or the lowest point of our protagonists’ endeavor. Basically, the opposition has the advantage, threats have been exploited, and a momentous decision must be made in order for our characters to advance toward a final confrontation/ resolution.
– The decision made in Act 2 becomes a new call to arms, as our protagonist(s) prepare for a final showdown with the opposition (thus confronting the central conflict within the story). This will lead directly to…
– … the climax! This is the moment we’ve been waiting for since the beginning of the story, straight from Act 1! From here, we get to finish our story with…
-… the resolution, or how our story leaves off. It could be with everything set right in the world and your characters living happily ever after, or it could end in complete tears, or it could end with the promise of even more adventures (as potentially profitable enterprises tend to do).
This is more or less the basic three-act structure of storytelling. Oh, there’s plenty more to it, and if you study your Joseph Campbell, you’ll find that this very simple structure can open the door to very complex levels of epic narrative, but for now, this version serves our purpose.
We’ve begun with the premise that backgrounds are essentially the stage on which storytelling takes place. Also, the environment speaks to the emotional impact of a character’s stake within a particular story. Now we get to view the environment as an intrinsic part of the story, one that moves the narrative along and affects its overall outcomes.
Let’s start with Act 1. Let’s say the following image represents our status quo, once again using an establishing shot:
This is what you would call a relatable status quo (though, to be honest, it’s plenty idealized). The idea here would be to start with something close to normal, something that the audience member can relate to, so that, when the change in the status quo occurs, this most ideal of settings will acquire a different meaning. Let’s say, for example, that our inciting incident is going to be, oh, I don’t know, alligator people take over the world.
At the end of Act 1, our environment might look something like this:
Drama! We now have the exact same environment, but it’s now completely changed to serve the necessity of the story. Our stage reacts the same as our character reacts, and it informs the character on what he/she must now do.
Next, Act 2: the house has become the last stronghold of humanity. Alligator people are slowly taking over the world, but not this house, by gum! Thus, our setting changes yet again:
Our location is now fitting for the purpose of defense and offense, yet remains the same place. The narrative makes the environment organic and reactive. It also, apparently, makes it cool!
Finally, let’s move on to Act 3 and our finale: shortly after the discovery of a rebel alliance within the alligator people that allows for the dethroning of the evil Lord Arsvardsdus (whatever… I’m not good with names), peace is finally reached, leaving us to return to the scene, now years later, and find this:
We’ve rebuilt and restored the status quo, while at the same time acknowledging the changes that have occurred within our narrative. Just as our characters grow as people and begin to behave in accordance to what they have experienced, so do our environments, because they are characters in the story as well!
Throughout this section, we’ll explore other ways in which layouts respond to storytelling, and give you multiple options as to how best to represent a particular scene and how to use the environment to enhance it. Keep in mind that there are no rules that can’t be broken and that this book is not meant to be the definitive word on environmental storytelling. This book’s ultimate purpose is to prepare you with the knowledge necessary to let you decide how to use your environments in a way that best showcases your narrative.
In short, I’m not here to tell you how to tell a story or what to tell. That, my friend, is completely up to you. Onward!
Excerpt from Set the Action! Creating Backgrounds for Compelling Storytelling in Animation Comics, and Games by Elvin A. Hernandez © 2012 Focal Press an imprint of Taylor & Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.