August 28, 2013

Writing Wisdom from Tony Cliff: Grounding a Flying Boat

Today we're happy to host a guest post by Tony Cliff, author of Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant, recently released by First Second and reviewed here a couple of days ago. It's always a lot of fun to talk to first-time graphic novelists because so often they come at their projects with the perspective of having produced webcomics, or comic books, or having written or illustrated other types of books, and so we get to hear about the creative process and how it's similar (or different). Tony's here to talk about the nitty-gritty of dealing with fantastical elements, and how to finesse a story so that the unbelievable--a flying boat, say--becomes a necessary part of the story. Thanks, Tony, for stopping by!

When I began writing THE TURKISH LIEUTENANT, I wanted a way for her to be able to travel around the globe quickly and at will, without having to rely on the typical modes of transportation at the time (early 1800s). Similar to the way a James Bond is able to hop around the globe in the line of duty. So I gave her a flying boat. A flying sailboat, specifically.

The "sail" part is important. This is the time of the Napoleonic wars – a time when men on wind-powered warships were wrestling for control of the seas. Never mind that it would have been technologically incongruous to give Delilah a diesel-fuelled propeller plane to travel around in, it would do a disservice to the spirit and aesthetic of the time to equip her with anything but a ship with sails. Two on the top, for propulsion, and one on each side for lift.

Image: Tony Cliff/
A flying sailboat is, of course, complete nonsense, despite what you may have read elsewhere. Science – no, never mind science – your basic human understanding of the world prohibits the existence of a flying sailboat. But hopefully, within the context of DELILAH DIRK AND THE TURKISH LIEUTENANT, it is perfectly believable.

The boat is, for the most part, treated like background dressing. Delilah refers to it in only the most casual manner. Few other people see it. Those that do, however, react appropriately. They react how you might were you to encounter a real-life flying sailboat: a mixture of fear, awe, suspicion, and a cargo load of other assorted emotions. This is the first thing that helps the boat "sit" in the world without feeling patently absurd. Having a character in the story react to an extraordinary thing in a way that mirrors a potential reader's disbelief is an effective calming technique. You, the writer, are holding out a hand to your reader and saying, "yes, I know this is preposterous, but you're not the only one who thinks so! You're not alone in this!" You can see this happening in the GAME OF THRONES series with dragons. The characters who aren't (spoiler alert) freaking out about the real-live dragons are talking wistfully about the power and might of the dragons of old. Whenever ol' George R.R. Martin gets around to unleashing some actual dragon action, it's going to be good (this might have already happened? I'm only half-way through book three). Look at the entirety of Harry Potter's introduction to Diagon Alley and the Wizarding World - there's a reason ol' J.K. Rowling started Harry off in the world of regular, boring old humans instead of writing a story about a boy who's always known he's an amazeballs wizard. It's so we can share in Harry's discovery of these unbelievable people, places, and disgustingly-flavoured candies.

Perhaps you'd like to write about a world in which astonishing magic or extremely advanced technology (is there even a difference???) are hum-drum facets of everyday life. Even then, you may choose to include an "avatar" character; someone to represent the viewer's introduction to this world. Again, see Harry Potter. That magic stuff is all pretty routine to Ron and Hermione, but it isn't to us, and it isn't to Harry. The reader's avatar doesn't have to be a complete newbie, though – there are countless other ways to provide a helping hand to a reader who may raise an unbelieving eyebrow at the reality of your fictional world.

As far as these things go, I also appreciate simplicity and solid rules. The flying boat flies, assuming it is piloted correctly. It does not hover, it does not submerge, and you need water to land it on. It does not autonomously swoop in at the critical point in Act 3 to (spoiler alert) save Delilah from certain death. The very worst time to reveal a certain property or ability of a magical item is exactly when it becomes useful in resolving suspense or conflict. The boat is not a magic-bullet solution to Delilah and Selim's problems, and it doesn't do anything that hasn't been established.

Conversely, the boat is difficult to handle and fragile, which gives it character. The value of flaky, unreliable technology is demonstrated well in MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: GHOST PROTOCOL. Early on, it is established that sometimes some of Ethan Hunt's wacky gadgets can fail. Initially this is played for laughs. Later it is played for good, solid suspense. Overall, it is much easier to relate to than fantastic future-gadgets that never fail. How much time and effort do you spend maintaining the proper operation of the device you're reading this blog post on? Fallible technology and/or magic is much more believab%f000

Tony Cliff is a contributor to the Flight series of anthologies, has been nominated for Shuster and Harvey awards, and has three times been nominated for an Eisner award. Delilah Dirk is his first published graphic novel. (Bio courtesy of Macmillan.)

Tony Cliff's website
Tony's Tumblr blog (check out the awesome sketches thereupon!)

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