Books, news, & views from Karen Traviss

Databursting characters & backstory

I regularly encourage aspiring writers to check out anime if they want to see storytelling polished to the nth degree. I know many people will ignore that and see only "cartoons" that are beneath them, but that's their loss. Good storytelling isn't about your dazzling use of the subjunctive, but about putting the person being told the story into the world you're describing and into the minds of the characters within in. Writing style's important, because it can be a barrier to recreating that world, and linguistic rhythm can rmake it easier for the reader to step into it, but the core elements of storytelling are common to visual arts as well, and we can learn from all of them.

I've honed my skills far more from working with comic artists, animators, illustrators, and TV directors than I ever have from writers. (I don't read fiction, as you know by now.) And a perfect example of what anime can teach you can be found in Dr Stone, a series about a remnant of modern humanity waking from a disaster that left them in suspended animation (I won't spoil the backstory here) to find a depopulated Earth that's reverted to the Stone Age in their millennia-long absence. Much of the story so far is about how Senku, a high-IQ teen who lives and breathes science, sets himself a personal mission to restore science and technology for the good of mankind. Those who've survived the disaster have lost family and friends. If that sounds unoriginal to you, you haven't seen the story treatment. It's clever, it's educational, and the top dressing of anime staples peels back, as it so often does, to reveal a foundation of heavyweigfht moral dilemmas and complex characterisation.

Anyway, data bursts. The point of this blog is a few seconds in episode 11 that made me want to stand and applaud. My stock in trade in characterisation and when I see it done brilliantly, I savour it. I'll just describe what it was, and what it could have been in the hands of lesser storytellers. It was quick, elegant, and moving. Once you think it through, you'll see how to apply it to ratchet your own work up a notch.

Senku, the ultimate STEM polymath, developed an obsession with science as a small child, and he's shown a Stone Age tribe how to work metal and generate electricity. Now he's shown them how to make glass. It's a necessity if they want to progress to making chemicals and medicines. He's standing in the doorway of a primitive hut looking into his new laboratory, which now has glass beakers, retorts, and test tubes on the rustic shelves. He's smiling, satisfied with what he and the tribespeople have achieved.

And then you see his moment of flashback. He's a little boy again, walking into his bedroom to find that it's crammed full of every scientific device and book that can be bought for a child, equipment that's long vanished from Earth. The items are all wrapped in paper and bows. It's an Aladdin's cave of discovery for an insatiably curious little boy.

Then the scene cuts back to his face in the present day. There's a hint of sorrow, and it's clearly a bittersweet memory for him. Whatever the anime's creators intended (and I don't know the answer to that) those few seconds said everything to me: he's remembering his parents and what he's lost. The anime could have shown the items unwrapped and cut back to Senku still smiling, to indicate that his passion for science was forged in early childhood and that his effort wasn't wasted: this was the path he was born for. Instead, it shows his joy at seeing gifts and that the memory's painful. His parents gave him all that and made him the potential saviour of humanity's future that he's become, but now they're gone. It still says he has a destiny, but it also tells you everything about his relationship with his family, and that there's a lot more beneath the veneer of smug confidence and apparently cold objectivity. And it does all this in seconds.

In storytelling, the devil is in the details. You don't need a page of description, and you don't need to spell things out to the reader or audience with the aid of a sledgehammer. One perfect observation that all humans can relate to or at least understand is worth a chapter of introspection. The hard work is finding that gem, of course, but the more attention you pay to people in real life, the more you'll spot these things.

Dr Stone is a brilliant piece of storytelling in many other ways, but that's for another day. If you're not a writer, you don't have to dissect it professionally the way I do to enjoy it. It's hugely entertaining. Just be aware of how much is going on under the surface to achieve that. Stunning work, the stuff of which joy is made.