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Wednesday, May 02, 2007


Royal Storylines

A Royal Storyline is a plot that, by virtue of its scale, ambition or emotional weight, inescapably upstages the other elements of the story.

A canny writer recognises when they have one of these on their hands, and rebalances accordingly. This is necessary, as spending more time on, say, the grain merchant who sells the grain that feeds the knight's horse, however complicated his personal life is, than on the knight's visions of God telling him to go and find the Grail in order to prevent an apocalypse - or indeed, spending more time on the knight, if it's the grain merchant who's getting the visions - produces a very peculiar story indeed. That's not the only example, obviously; if you're telling a magic realist story then visions can be a background thing... But generally speaking, Royal Storylines are stories that you know when you see them. And if a writer ignores them - often because they're so massively ambitious that it's easier to write the subplots - then you get unsatisfied readers. It can be more work to deal with a Royal Storyline, but you have to do it. It pays off.

To take a positive example, have y'all read Bryan Talbot's comic The Tale of One Bad Rat? (If you haven't, you should, because it's outstanding.) The story is about the flight and recovery of Helen, a teenage girl with a deep passion for Beatrix Potter's art (which is reflected in Talbot's artwork), who runs away from her sexually abusive father, goes through homelessness and depression and finally manages to get back on her feet. It's very honest and touching and generally speaking a great book, but also worth reading is Talbot's comments in the epilogue.

Talbot says, in brief, that he was originally planning on doing a comic about the Lake District. Feeling around for an idea, he started thinking about Beatrix Potter, who lived there, came up with the character of a teenage runaway girl, based on a girl he'd happened to see who reminded him somewhat of Potter, and, because he had to explain the girl being a runaway somehow when he was writing his proposal, had pencilled in the girl's motivation for running away as 'fleeing sexual abuse at the hands of her father'. He put in this motivation, as he puts it, 'without much consideration', because it seemed like a serviceable idea. But, having put it in, he did some research, and started looking at the idea seriously. This is what he says:

This issue was far too important to marginalize; I needed to change the nature of the story in order to address it. It became Bad Rat's raison d'etre and the chief concern of the plot ... Instead of creating a comic about the Lake District, I ended up writing and drawing a story about child sexual abuse. And I'm glad it turned out that way. This has been the most worthwhile book that I have been involved with and the best - not to mention the hardest - comics work that I've ever done.

Talbot, in short, recognized that he had a Royal Storyline on his hands, and took the appropriate action: he rearranged the less important elements of the plot rather than prioritizing them because he thought of them first and put in the extra work to do the main story justice. (And he really did put in work - just as an example, there's an acknowledgement in the back to a hairdresser he consulted to make sure the heroine's hair was growing at the right speed during the story's time frame.) The result? Well, according to his own website, it's the second-most requested graphic novel in the libraries of America.*

Pay attention to Royal Storylines. And read Talbot's essay; it's a fine example of someone taking stock and carefully working out how best to handle things.

*Beaten only by Maus, which is an absolute masterpiece; there's nothing quite like it.

That comic is a very great comic, you're right. Maus does beat it I guess, again a wonderful and brilliant comic.

Why is it called a Royal storyline? And do you think that one should go with the royal storyline and get rid of the other elements, regardless of what was the original intention? My instinct is to say yes... but I guess there are no absolutes about these sorts of things.

Nice to hear of someone else whose read One Bad Rat. So few people seem to have done, even comic book geeks seem to have missed it.
Well, it's called a Royal Storyline, mostly, because I had to call it something...

And yes, I think one should go with it. You don't necessarily have to get rid of the other elements - Bad Rat started as an idea about the Lake District, and the Lake District is still a strong presence in the book - but you should give things their proper proportions. It's about balance; some stories exert a heavier gravitational pull than others. If I was more scientific I might have called it a 'super-heavy-thing-that-has-more-gravitational-pull-than-other-things storyline', but I fear I don't know the technical term for such an object...
Cool. I thought Royal storyline was some sort of existing literary theory you were referencing and not something you'd coined yourself.

It;s a very useful concept so thanks for coining it. The royal thing still confuses me a bit. But thats okay. I like to be confused a bit.

Hmm... I'm not very scientific either but... maybe star might work. Because a star is what all other bodies in a galaxy revolve around and it must have more gravity than the others...

anyway... I wasn't trying to get you to change your term. Just looking for its origin story.
That would be a neutron star :).
I think a neutron star plotline would be one so huge that it consumes all other plotlines to the detriment of the narrative. Possibly evident in The Matrix's tired 'you are the chosen one' theme drowning out all the other, more interesting parts of the film.
That would be a black hole plotline :).
You see? This is why I had to call it a royal storyline. Stars are big and complicated and you have to be much cleverer than me to work out which one is which.
Though actually, Joel, that's a good point - the all-consuming plotline must be the corollary of the royal one. A cuckoo plot? A pacman plot? Or, indeed, a black hole plot - I'm sure I heard that suggestion somewhere.

Hmm. Stars are shiny. That's about all I know of them.
A Usurper plot? Ooh, a King John plot!
The 'Chosen One' trope is notorious because it's real purpose is to sidestep boring details like backstory, motivation, plot.
"Why must I do this?"
"Because you are the chosen one!"
"Why must I collect all these rings of power?"
"Because of the prophecy!"
It crops up a lot in fantasy because it gives you a good excuse to visit lots of (hopefully) interesting places and characters but, as in The Matrix, people keep thinking a Chosen One plotline is interesting on it's own. Their mistake.
Matrix 1 was good though, thats why the rubbishness of the other 2 is so annoying.
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