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Heroes Never Rust #73 by Sean Ironman

Adjusting to the Story’s Needs

In a graduate-level fiction workshop a couple of years ago, a student used footnotes in a few places in a manuscript. The story was somewhere around fifteen pages, and footnotes were used three or four times, mostly toward the beginning of the piece. The professor and a few students remarked that if the writer is going to use footnotes, then they must use them, really use them. Basically, a handful of footnotes is not enough. On a separate occasion, a friend was kind enough to read an essay I wrote and offer a critique. I had used two parentheses in the essay, and he said that if I am going to be a person who uses parentheses, then I must use them consistently. To be honest, and no offense to my friend, I could not understand that reasoning.

There seems to be this rule with some writers that I have met (fiction writers, now that I think about it) that once a writer uses a certain technique, whether it be parentheses or footnotes or whatever else, that writer must use it throughout the entire story. I disagree. Perhaps it is because of my focus on memoir and the essay, with all their meanderings, but I fail to understand why a writer must use a tool in the second scene solely because that tool worked well in the first scene.

MsMarvel4Take Ms. Marvel #4, for example. In a comic book, readers are given dialogue, the action through visuals, and, at times, narration captions that usually serve as a character’s thoughts. On the opening page, readers get narration captions for Ms. Marvel as she lies on the floor clutching her stomach after being shot at the end of the last issue. “So I’m pretty sure I just got shot.” Her friend, Bruno, faces the reader, who is given Ms. Marvel’s perspective—We view the world through her eyes on this page. But, once the reader moves onto the second page, narration captions disappear and the viewpoint changes so that the reader can see Ms. Marvel on the floor bleeding out.

It is not until page twelve that the narration captions return. And, only then, do they return briefly. Out of twenty pages, narration captions appear on four pages across three scenes. On page one, Kamala Khan (the new Ms. Marvel) has no action or dialogue. On page two, she moves and speaks to Bruno. When the narration captions return later in the comic, Kamala is picking through her closet looking for a costume. The next scene in which they return is when she goes out to the bad guy’s lair in her new costume. She is finally her own superhero and does not transform into Carol Danvers.

MsMarvel4OpeningDuring these scenes, narration serves a clear purpose. In the first scene, the reader is placed not only in Kamala’s thoughts but in her viewpoint. The reader becomes Kamala. In the second scene, the narration lets readers know that Kamala is searching for a costume. Sure, through dialogue, the same idea could have been communicated, but then Kamala would be speaking to herself out loud. Finally, in the third scene, Kamala transforms into her own superhero. She is filled with confidence, and the scene serves as one of the most important ones in her origin story.

In memoir, writers use reflection to comment on the past events. But it is unnecessary to comment on every little action. Memoirists weave scene, summary, and reflection to create a memorable experience for the reader. Some sections may be heavy in reflection, while others are heavy in scene. The writer is given the room to judge what each section needs and act accordingly. I feel that Ms. Marvel is taking a similar approach. What could Kamala possibly narrate as she’s on the floor bleeding out and begging Bruno to not call an ambulance? Readers can understand her mental state through the visuals and the dialogue. Narration would not only be redundant, but it may ruin the surprise on page three when Kamala reveals herself to Bruno and tells him about her superpowers. The reveal is shocking, but if readers were given her thought process as she thinks about what to do, there would be no shock. Readers would see her considering the reveal, decide, and then act. The scene would bore readers and lack a strong impact. The same could be said later in the issue when she breaks into the bad guy’s lair. A robot shoots a laser and she ducks before smashing the enemy. There is no narration. Whatever would not serve a purpose.

MsMarvelShotNow, while I do think writers could use whatever tool they need for any scene, Ms. Marvel’s narration captions work because they appear on the first page. Once the reader begins, he or she knows that narration captions may be used throughout the comic. I agree that it may cause some confusion if the captions were saved until the end of the comic. Does a writer always have to use the tool right away? Is it possible to have captions come in at the end and not cause confusion? That’s up to the individual reader to decide, I think. Some readers may just hate the use of that tool, regardless of how much or how little it was used. To me, I believe that there are no rules to storytelling. Each story works off of its own set of rules, and when writers try have every story follow the same rules, they stifle their creativity and hurt the story. There are too many stories in the world. Every rule has been broken.[1]

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Photo by John King

Photo by John King

Sean Ironman (Episode 102earned his MFA at the University of Central Florida. Currently, he teaches creative nonfiction and digital media at the University of Central Arkansas as a visiting professor. His work can be read in The Writer’s ChronicleRedivider, and Breakers: A Comics Anthology, among others.


[1] Hey, in Charles D’Ambrosio’s Loitering, some of the essays contain the random footnote, and those essays are wonderful.

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