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Pictures that propel prose

How illustrations and a clear path can enhance a story.

This is part of an ongoing series related to Peter Meyers’ project “Breaking the Page: Transforming Books and the Reading Experience.” We’ll be featuring additional material in the weeks ahead. (Note: This post originally appeared on A New Kind of Book. It’s republished with permission.)


What’s the best way to combine text and pictures? Most designers — print or digital — try to artfully position both on the same page. Brian Selznick, author and illustrator of “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” uses a deceptively simple alternative: he devotes an entire spread (that is, two pages side by side) to each of the hundreds of illustrations in this charming and inventive story of a boy living alone in a train station. So, it’s a page of text, a page of text, drawing spread, a page of text, and so on.

Now that might sound like a lousy idea, one that could easily impose a page-flipping burden on the reader as she flips between pages to see the drawings or, worse, skips right over them. You see this happen all the time in computer books (sorry, O’Reilly!). The text on one page references the figure on another. All that back and forth between this page with the prose and that page with the picture impedes understanding and futzes with any flow the reader has established.

But Selznick puts his drawings to work, doing more than just illustrating what his prose explains. In “Hugo Cabret,” the art takes the storytelling baton from the text and, on its own, advances the plot. It’s an elegant device.

For example, at one point, the text describes an episode in which the boy, Hugo, follows a man who’s taken a notebook from him. We follow the pair leaving the train station, walking out onto the street, and the man ignoring Hugo’s pleas to return his notebook. The last paragraph in this scene, which is found at the bottom of a right-hand page, reads:

“Stop clicking the street with your heels,” the old man hissed through his teeth. “And don’t make me say it again.” He shook his head and adjusted his hat. Then, quietly, he said to himself, “I hope the snow covers everything so all the footsteps are silenced, and the whole city can be at peace.”

Next comes five spreads showing the two walking through the city, with Hugo tailing the man. On the final drawing the two enter a cemetery.

illustration from Hugo Cabret showing a cemetery
In “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” the text that follows this illustration assumes the reader has taken note of the pictured graveyard. (Click to enlarge.)

The text picks up again on the next page and begins: “They soon arrived at a decrepit apartment building across from the graveyard.”

See what happened there? The illustration is what first signaled the reader that the pair had entered a graveyard; when the text mentions it again (“the graveyard”), the assumption is that the reader already knows of its role in the story. By turning the visuals into part of the plot, Selznick earns his artwork more attention than a typical illustration-enhanced work of fiction. Readers, many of whom have gotten used to regarding art as “just a picture” that they can safely skip, learn that they need to pay attention to find out how the story unfolds.

So what’s the digital book takeaway? While I’m not advocating a direct replica of this perfect-for-print solution, I do think it holds one especially valuable lesson. By not cramming loads of different media types onto the same page and by purposefully relegating different items onto their own pages, Selznick gains control of the “reading path”: the order in which he’s decided the content should be consumed.

But isn’t that kind of authoritarian mandate heresy in an era of interactive, pick-your-path productions?

Not necessarily. Especially when it comes to fiction, letting the author control the reading experience is not necessarily a bad thing. By relieving the reader of any choice-making responsibilities — even as subtle as, Should I read this or that? or, Should I play this video or finish the text? — you give the audience something priceless: the ability to focus on the story.

Webcast: Digital Bookmaking Tools Roundup #2 — Back by popular demand, in a second look at Digital Bookmaking Tools, author and book futurist Pete Meyers explores the existing options for creating digital books.

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  • http://newkindofbook.com Peter Meyers

    Belle, you’re dead on. Can’t recall exactly where, but I’ve read a few reports recently that talk about what happens in the brain when we read fiction. In many cases, we construct visuals of the things we read. The one thing I do like about Selznick’s book is that his drawings jibe with my own mental images…or perhaps it’s that the art shapes what I *think* I’m envisioning in my head?

  • Michael Brown

    “Especially when it comes to fiction, letting the author control the reading experience is not necessarily a bad thing.”
    Sorry, but this is completely wrong. Reading a novel is the ultimate passive experience (except for maybe watching a movie). The reader does not want to be interrupted by having to make choices. Watch children when they are told they are going to be read a story. They go into an almost hypnotic state.
    Books where the reader picks the next branch of action are a lame curiousity.
    Almost no video games (the ultimate interactive experience) tell stories. Stories and interaction don’t mix.
    People who read novels want to be told stories – end of story.