Monday, January 28, 2008

Storytelling Engines: Savage Dragon

(or "Working Without A Net")

We've done a lot of discussing of storytelling engines in this column over the last year or so, but it's rarely that we've discussed a series that doesn't actually have a storytelling engine. This is because in practical terms, it's impossible not to have a storytelling engine at all; "storytelling engine" is my way of describing the protagonists, antagonists, supporting cast, background, setting, and central concept of a series, and a series with none of those things wouldn't be much of a series at all. ("All-new! All-different! Thirty-two all-blank pages!") But it's true that some series have more of a "storytelling engine" than others, and some have very little at all.

There are two reasons why this might be, both stemming from the point of a storytelling engine. The list of things mentioned above are there to help the writer generate stories in an open-ended series; if a writer is stuck for an idea, he/she can look to things already established to explore their possibilities further. (So, for example, a Spider-Man writer stuck for an idea can bring back Doctor Octopus, or a Superman writer stuck for an idea can do a "Red Kryptonite" story.) One reason to have a minimal storytelling engine, as I discussed earlier when talking about Howard the Duck, is that the story might not be open-ended. If you just plan to tell as many stories as are in your head and then stop, then you can feel free to make changes as and when necessary.

The other reason, as exemplified in 'The Savage Dragon' (yes, that is the subject of this week's column, I hadn't forgotten), is that sometimes the writer doesn't want help in generating stories. Erik Larsen, the writer, penciller and inker of 'Savage Dragon' since its inception, wasted very little time in setting up the Dragon's storytelling engine. He's found, naked in a burning field, with no memory of his past and very little concern for what it might be. He joins the police force in Chicago (seemingly by whim on Larsen's part), and starts fighting bad guys. Beyond that, the "storytelling engine" is entirely based on Larsen's imagination. If he thinks an idea is interesting, he puts it in. When he grows bored with it, he removes it. The setting changes based on his imagination, characters drift in and out when they feel like it, the Dragon's own background isn't significantly explored for the first 12 years of the character's existence (and barely even factors into the fifty issues covered by 'The Savage Dragon Archives Volumes One and Two'), villains show up, fight, and get killed when Larsen runs out of stories to tell with's pretty evident that Larsen is not someone who's worried that he'll run out of ideas any time soon.

Does it work? Frequently, yes. Not every idea that Larsen throws into the book is a good one (there's an embarrassing tendency towards pastiche at times, with "Mighty Man", "Doctor Nirvana", "Octopus", "the Arachnid", "J. Richard Richards", and other thinly-veiled Marvel and DC characters), but with so many ideas getting tossed into the mix, there's always something unexpected coming down the pike. Having such a fluid status quo frees Larsen to go wherever his imagination takes him, and so far, for the most part, he hasn't had trouble getting an issue out the door. More power to him if he can pull it off.

The only question is, how long can he continue to do so? I'm not predicting dire consequences or a sudden attack of writer's block, here; I'm merely pointing out that one of the big advantages of a storytelling engine is that it endures beyond the span of the engine's creator. Erik Larsen will no doubt be able to continue writing 'Savage Dragon' for a long time to come, but it may not endure past the point where he's finished with it. Whereas a storytelling engine can be handed off to another writer, and (so long as they don't break it) it will continue to generate stories for a new writer, even a new generation of writers. Imaginations come and go, but a good engine is built to last.


Mory said...

I think Invincible and Fables are similar.

Teebore said...

Although Fables (I don't read Invincible-I know, I know) seems to have the basic foundation of a storytelling engine laid in.

Obviously, Willingham seems to have the whole story in mind already, and who knows what shape the world he's created will be in when he's done with it, but I could see Fables being handed off to another writer to tell stories of "fairy tale characters in the modern world."

Mory said...

Except there isn't a set formula for how he does that. (Or maybe there is and I just don't see it.)

Teebore said...

I'm just thinking of it in the context of John's definition of a storytelling engine. Fables has all the elements he describes:

Protagonists: the large ensemble cast allows a certain fluidity between "protagonists" and "supporting cast", allowing some characters to fill both roles, depending on the story you want to tell. I'd say Snow and Bigby are more often "protagonists."

Antagonists: the Adversary, Hansel, Bluebeard, Shere Kahn. And its easy to generate new villains-pick an unused fairytale character and give him motivations contary to the protagonist's.

Supporting cast: again, this can change story to story, but I'd say Rose Red and King Cole, for example, are supporting cast members, even if they do sometimes feature in stories in which they are the protagonists.

Background: The characters have all fled their homeland to escape oppresion and begin a new life. Plus, each one has their own background (the traditional stories about them).

Setting: Fabletown and the Farm.

Central concept of a series: fairy tale characters in the modern world.

You're right, there isn't really a formula that Willingham uses, and he's certainly gearing his stories to one specific overarching plot (the war against the Adversary).

But once he's told that story or any others, there's still a storytelling engine in place that another writer could use. Even if the Adversary is defeated and Fabletown wins, you could still tell stories about these diverse characters living in the modern world, with a setting as unique as any, a rich background, and easily-crafted villains.

Anonymous said...

So Erik Larsen with Savage Dragon is like Steve Gerber with Howard the Duck when it comes to story engines?