Synoptic Narrative In Picture Books

A synoptic narrative depicts a single scene in which a character or characters are portrayed multiple times within a frame to convey that multiple actions are taking place.

The sequence of events is unclear.

Synoptic narratives typically provide visual cues that convey the sequence, but still might be difficult to decipher for those unfamiliar with the story.

There are 7 main categories of Narrative art. Narrative art is art which tells a story.

  1. Monoscenic — represents a single scene with no repetition of characters and only one action taking place
  2. Sequential — very much like a continuous narrative with one major difference. The artist makes use of frames. Each frame is a particular scene during a particular moment.
  3. Continuous — Continuous narrative art gives clues, provided by the layout itself, about a sequence. Sequential narrative without the frames.
  4. Synoptic — offers the synopsis of a bigger story. You must already know a story before you can make sense of synoptic narrative.
  5. Simultaneous — has very little visually discernible organisation unless the viewer is acquainted with its purpose. There’s an emphasis on repeatable patterns.
  6. Panoptic — depicts multiple scenes and actions without the repetition of characters. Think of the word ‘panorama’. ‘All-seeing’ (pan + optic)
  7. Progressive — a single scene in which characters do not repeat. However, multiple actions are taking place in order to convey a passing of time in the narrative. A progressive narrative is not to be interpreted as a group of simultaneous events but rather a sequence that is dependent on its location. Actions displayed by characters in the narratives compact present and future action into a single image.

Synoptic is the adjectival form of ‘synopsis’, which should give us a clue about what’s going on. Synoptic art = the synopsis of a bigger story.

You can find examples of synoptic art in ancient murals. The viewers of these murals knew the plots of these stories. The art simply triggered their memories of a familiar story. Everyone of the era understood the basic plot of the myths, fables, stories and wars depicted.

This is Mughal painting -- a style from South Asia.
This is Mughal painting — a style from South Asia.

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The Technique of Ticking Clocks in Storytelling

The very first episode of The Narrative Breakdown podcast is about a plot device which helps to amp up the tension in a story: Sometimes it even comes with a ticking clock sound effect — more often it doesn’t — and it describes a story which has time as a pressing issue. If there’s a bomb in the story you have an especially clear example of a Ticking Clock Plot Device e.g. the movie Speed.

The_Cat_in_the_Hat_Comes_Back_Dr_Seuss_Cover

(Here are many more tropes associated with Cat In The Hat, though ‘race against the clock’ isn’t one of them.)

 

A Trick Older Than The Hills

The ticking clock device has been used in storytelling to increase narrative drive for many generations. It is used in Cinderella, who must escape from the ball before midnight, before her carriage turns back into a pumpkin. Often, the device is implied rather than stated outright. In Hansel and Gretel, we know the witch will eventually eat the children. That could happen at any moment, though she’s waiting for them to fatten up.

Other Examples Of Ticking Clocks In Movies

  • Die Hard 2 — a plane running out of fuel
  • Speed — a bomb is set to go off if the bus goes under 50 miles per hour
  • Se7en — a cop must stop a serial killer before he kills his next victim
  • The Fugitive — an innocent man must prove his innocence before being caught again
  • Dumplin — Performances always give a story narrative drive because they provide a ticking clock. Without that, Dumplin would’ve been in great danger of losing momentum.

Ticking Clocks In Picture Books

Hilda Bewildered stars a petrified young princess, charged with the task of delivering a speech to open winter. As the live broadcast draws near, the princess concocts a story in her head to help her through the task.

 

TV Tropes refers to this as ‘Race Against The Clock’ and offers plenty of examples.

Variations of the ticking clock device can be found in a wide variety of genres — not just in thrillers — such as in Little Miss Sunshine (a road trip with a beauty pageant as deadline) and Planes, Trains and Automobiles, in which a man wants to make it home in time for Thanksgiving with his family in his warm, cosy house.

On the podcast, Cheryl’s first example of this device happens to be a children’s book: The Cat In The Hat, in which an unwelcome visitor makes a mess of the place, which must be cleaned up again by the time the mother gets home.

In picture books with ticking clocks, it is often the parent(s) who have made some rule, and it is universally understood that if the rule is broken there will be terrible consequences.

Aside from our own Hilda Bewildered, another picturebook that combines ticking-clock and the snowy, dreamy atmosphere of a mood piece is Home By Five, by Ruth Wallace-Brodeur, illustrated by Mark Graham.

Home By Five cover

As you can see, this is a gentle, dreamy book, beautifully illustrated in pastels.

But to contrast with the dreamy mood (and the dreamy Rosie), here on the first page a ticking-clock urgency is set up, as Papa instructs Rosie to be home by a certain time. He helps her to get ready for her ice-skating session. This is a handsome, nurturing dad who we don’t want to disappoint.

Home By Five setupHome by Five setup2

So we get a little antsy when we see Rosie dilly-dally along the way home, despite her best intentions. She stops to swing around the poll and to look inside the bakery window, and all the time the reader can see she’s not hurrying. But it’s a little frustrating because we aren’t given access to the time, either. This book sets out to be a mood piece, with evocation descriptions of the wintry landscape. But there’s that confounded ticking clock, ruining it for us as it’s ruined for Rosie…

Rosie dilly-dallies

We don’t know what time it is until Rosie arrives home. The clock tells us she’s pretty late. Her parents discuss what to do.

Home By Five clock

On the final page we see their decision: The 1992 option is to buy their daughter a wristwatch.

In two of our story apps I make use of the ticking clock device: In Midnight Feast we have Roya’s excitement of the lead up to Midnight, though I invert this device by drawing her evening out.

midnight feast ticking clocks

Jeff Kinney also makes use of the ticking clock in several of his Diary of a Wimpy Kid The Long Haul gags.

 

 

Continuous Narrative Art In Picture Books

A continuous narrative is a type of visual story that illustrates multiple scenes of a narrative within a single frame.

Multiple actions and scenes are portrayed in a single visual field without any dividers. The sequence of events within the narrative is defined through the reuse of the main character or characters.

Continuous narrative emphasises the change in movement and state of the repeating characters as indicators of scene or phase changes in the narrative.

There are 7 main categories of narrative art. Narrative art is art which tells a story.

  1. Monoscenic — represents a single scene with no repetition of characters and only one action taking place
  2. Sequential — very much like a continuous narrative with one major difference. The artist makes use of frames. Each frame is a particular scene during a particular moment.
  3. Continuous — Continuous narrative art gives clues, provided by the layout itself, about a sequence. Sequential narrative but without the frames.
  4. Synoptic — offers the synopsis of a bigger story. You must know a story before you can understand synoptic narrative.
  5. Simultaneous — has very little visually discernible organisation unless the viewer is acquainted with the story it tells. There’s an emphasis on repeatable patterns.
  6. Panoptic — depicts multiple scenes and actions without the repetition of characters. Think of the word ‘panorama’. ‘All-seeing’ (pan + optic)
  7. Progressive — a single scene in which characters do not repeat. However, multiple actions are taking place in order to convey a passing of time in the narrative. A progressive narrative is not to be interpreted as a group of simultaneous events but rather a sequence that is dependent on its position on the page. Actions displayed by characters in the narratives compact present and future action into a single image.

 

Continuous narrative art is pretty much exactly the same as sequential narrative art except minus the frames that help the viewer to know where one phase ends and the next begins.

Trajan's Column, depicting one event: The Dacian Wars
Trajan’s Column, depicting one event: The Dacian Wars
Continuous narrative in The Bear Ate Your Sandwich by Julia Sarcone-Roach

Marla Frazee makes a lot of use of continuous narrative. For example Mrs. Biddlebox (There’s an image of the thumbnail sketches for this book on Frazee’s webpage.)

from Boot and Shoe
from Boot and Shoe

Jan Ormerod is also a fan of continuous narrative in her illustrations. See Sunshine, Moonlight, Putting Mummy to Bed. Below Ormerod uses continuous narrative to depict a child getting undressed and dressed. I make use of this same technique to show a child getting ready for bed, but in an interactive picture book app, Midnight Feast.

Sun and Moon continuous narrative
Getting dressed scene in Sunshine

breakfast scene from Sunshine

Falling asleep Sunshine

Sunshine continuous narrative

Ian Falconer uses continuous narrative in his Olivia the pig stories. Here, Olivia the pig waits impatiently for her mother to sew her a different colored soccer shirt in Olivia and the Missing Toy. Not seen here is the bit where she walks off, bored.

Olivia waited and waited and waited

The double spread below is from Olivia and the Fairy Princesses. Continuous narrative is especially effective in stories about a hyperactive little person (or animal-person stand-in) because the multiple images convey a sense of movement.

Olivia and the Fairy Princesses

The cat drinking milk in Wanda Gag’s  Millions of Cats is an example of continuous narrative because the fall of the hill forms a clear temporal guide.

cats drinking milk
the double spread
cats drinking milk close up 2
a better quality image
cats drinking millk close up
a closer look

The road in Virginia Lee Burton’s Katy and the Big Snow provides a temporal guide. So this is an example of continuous narrative art.

katy-and-the-big-snow-hero

If this is were the same postman it would be an example of continuous art. But since it’s meant to be seven (identical looking) postmen, it’s not. It’s panoptic.
At first glance this looks like an example of continuous art but the title tells us there really are five separate firemen.

The following scene is from Diary of a Wombat by Jackie French, illustrated by Bruce Whatley.

Diary of a Wombat battle with bush

Continuous narrative is not just used in ‘art’. Here’s an image from the Stihl home page, presumably to convey the idea that if you buy the Stihl tools you can do all of these tasks in a fraction of the usual time.

Wouldn’t it be nice if you had that many clones of yourself working in the yard whenever big jobs needed to be done?

Warning Sign, Coober Pedy, Outback, South Australia, Australia

 

Panoptic Narrative Art In Picture Books

Panoptic refers to ‘showing or seeing the whole at one view’. Panoptic narrative art is often a bird’s eye view. The ‘camera’ is above. This is the art world’s equivalent of an all-seeing (omniscient) narrator.

The art itself isn’t necessarily three dimensional: Illustrators can create panoptic artwork in 2D if they’re after a more folk artsy style.

suburban happenings panoramic art

You will also hear the term ‘panoramic narrative. This describes a narrative image  that depicts multiple scenes and actions without the repetition of characters. Actions may be in a sequence or represent simultaneous actions during an event. Whereas the word ‘panoptic’ is generally used to describe aerial views, ‘panoramic’ is used to describe a ‘camera’ closer to the ground.

Panoptic and panoramic art was popular in the medieval era, where it most often depicts a myth.

The Conquerors by David McKee
The Conquerors by David McKee

Child Life May 1979

(The term has nothing to do with Foucault’s panopticism — I believe it is made up of ‘pan’ + ‘optics’ as in ‘all-seeing’.)

In modern picture books, there is a gradation of activity in a scene. Often, there is way more going on in a single picture book illustration than would ever be happening in a real life photograph. For example, in the scene of the school fair from Shirley Hughes’s Dogger, below, we can see sorts of things going on — all of which would have happened at the fair — but all of the individual actions are meaningful and it’s unlikely they were all going on at the same time. The work is therefore on the panoptic continuum.

Dogger the fair Shirley Hughes panoptic art

Film makers, too, often need to arrange characters within scenes in a way that wouldn’t naturally occur. But we accept these film conventions to a large degree, even when realism is the aim.

What if it’s clear from the context of the story that multiple actions in a single scene are definitely not going on at the same time? This is called Progressive narrative art, in which actions displayed by characters compact present and future action into a single image.

I believe Progressive narrative art is a subcategory of Panoptic art, and in picture books and film the two terms merge, for the simple fact that we in stories, characters live in ‘storybook worlds’, in which it’s perfectly possible all of these things are going on at once. We can’t possibly distinguish between the two states unless we were to know the ‘real events’. But these aren’t wars we’re describing — they are made up from the get-go; there is no basic ‘reality’.

Roland Harvey

Australian artist Roland Harvey is an expert at busy, detailed landscapes and has created a whole series of books with massive panoptic scenes: In The Bush, At The Beach, In The City and panoptic scenes occurring throughout his others.

Eureka Stockade cover

The First Fleet

on-the-farm-our-holiday-with-uncle-kev

Where’s Wally/Waldo

Where’s Wally was created by Martin Handford, English illustrator. These books make the most of that wish to hunt and search, linger and examine.

Where's Wally

Migrant by Jose Manuel Mateo

Migrant

This book uses a single vertical illustration and brief text.  It folds up accordion-style and recounts the story of a young family who immigrate illegally to Los Angeles, one huge image that is slowly unveiled over the course of the story.

 

The Great War : July 1, 1916 : the first day of the Battle of the Somme

The-Great-War-July-1-1916-The-First-Day-of-the-Battle-of-the-Somme__51E3YxrMkTL
an illustrated panorama by Joe Sacco would be worth a look. Not exactly for your younger crowd but an amazingly detailed depiction of what this battle site was like over the period of one day