The Curse of Knowledge

Writing a script for a graphic novel is very much like writing a screenplay, and I keep imagining it in terms of how it would play as a film. Are comics just an orphaned bastard child of movies? A lowly stand-in? Nah, I think that if they’re handled properly, a comic can do things a movie can’t. And vice versa, of course. While cinema can play with pace and time signature (as it were), comics are well-suited to shifts in pace. I’m not suggesting this be done haphazardly, since it obviously can intrude on a reader’s enjoyment of the product. But think of the number of flashbacks and weaving back and forth through time and setting that a comic can handle without sacrificing the flow of narrative: a film would be dizzying at that same level. It just seems there’s just something inherent in the pace of reading that allows the graphic novelist to pack more in while still having a breathable script. I’m learning this as I go, of course, but it seems true.

Also, a comic book format also lets the writer (the “director”) focus the reader’s attention on specific objects or details in a way that filmmaker’s can’t, at least not most filmmakers. Again, not without interrupting the flow and damaging that delicate suspension of disbelief necessary for the enjoyment of a story. Coppola did some great things in The Godfather: at the very end of the movie, at the baptism ceremony, when everyone is laughing and dancing and momentary frames draw our attention to a wedding ring, or a smile… that’s masterly work, and the way Coppola intercuts that scene with images of terrible violence is a great example of film approaching comics in its command of visual irony.

But comics are the richest loam for visual irony. Again, the pace of reading is slower, and you can pull the reader’s attention to a single detail without losing the rhythm of the story—a panel devoted to an extreme close-up of a ring often acts as narrative punctuation, even, a downbeat that defines the measure. See, as much as comics are compared to film, they are also much like music.

I’m playing around in Wayward Sister with music in comics. In different ways: I’ll insert song lyrics, either because the lyrics themselves are more important than the music, or contain enough of the rhythm of the song in them as to create a sort of metronome for the action. It’s hard to do, and I’m aware of the fact that the reader can’t hear the music I allude to. But I also just play music while writing that infuses the script. I guess that’s a cooking metaphor, so I’ll roll with it and go a step further by saying that music is the bouquet garni of the script: a simple bundle of complex flavors that deepen the dish and give it roundness.

There’s the tapper-and-listener problem I have to watch out for: in the early 1990s a Stanford psychologist did a study in which she divided her volunteer subjects into two groups: tappers and listeners. The tappers were each privately given a common song—Happy Birthday, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, an such—and were each paired off with a listener. The tapper then, without making any sound with their voice, had to tap the song out on a tabletop using their fingers. The listeners had only one job: to guess the song.

It should be no surprise that something like two percent of the listeners correctly guessed their song. What is surprising is that, when asked to predict their success rate, the tappers predicted about fifty percent of the listeners would get their song.

How could they be so off? In their bestselling book Made to Stick, authors Chip and Dan Heath call it the Curse of Knowledge. The tappers couldn’t separate what they knew from what the listeners knew. They heard the music in their heads, and they heard it when they were tapping. To them, the tapping so obviously echoed the music, it seemed like a simple matter for someone to guess it. But all the listeners hear is tap-taptap-tap–tap-tap, tap-taptap-tap–tap-tap. You hear Happy Birthday, don‘t you? Duh!

So, it’s an experiment. In episode two, I featured nearly the entire lyrics of the Tom Waits song “Goin’ Out West,” because they fit the scene well, and set a kind of coarse and tumbling rhythm that helped the scene. So much the better if the reader knows the song. But it’s hard for me—even consciously—to not hear it when I read the lyrics. If the experiment is a success, it won’t matter if the reader doesn’t know the melody; it will still feel like a pulsing song and the meaning of the lyrics will play off the action well. I hope it works.

As for the soundtrack: I’ve heard of other writers doing this. I remember reading an interview with Neal Stephenson about ten or twelve years ago, where he talked about the kind of music he was listening to when he wrote Snow Crash. It was a lot of Alice in Chains and other heavy metal. I remember thinking exactly: “Huh. I would not have guessed that.” I remember replaying the novel in my head, trying to overlay that soundtrack to what I had read. It made sense in a new way. No, it didn’t change the overall meaning substantially. But it did change the feel of it. The tone, maybe. (Except, while reading it I remember thinking of some kind of new wave music; the story’s protagonist, aptly named Hiro Protagonist, was in a band, if I recall. And I kept thinking of Buckaroo Bonzai, and my mind drifted from there. But the minor-mode grunge wail of Alice in Chains did not occur to me.)

Sure, if this were turned into a movie, I’d have more opportunity to use music overtly. It would certainly be less of an experiment, and leave less to chance. And until we come up with a technology that allows publishers to inexpensively create high quality multimedia electronic “paper,” (thanks again, Neal Stephenson!) movies and comics will just have to remain distinct genres, each with their strengths. And each with practitioners and artisans pushing and blurring boundaries. The experiments may fail, and they may not even blur boundaries so much as make them more clear. In the end maybe it’s all a matter of taste, anyway: if an expertly executed graphic novel version of Wayward Sister were one day released alongside a film version of same, which would you choose? If both were adapted to their respective medium in a way that plays to their strengths and avoids the pitfalls (which I am currently stumbling around in), then which would you choose? And how much of that is simply a matter of personal preference?

Anyway, I’ve got my “Coyote Don” iTunes playlist. It’s got equal parts Tom Waits and Gene Autry. Country and mariachi. A bit of the ol’ Bakersfield sound sprinkled with some o’ that Orange County sound. Lots of Neko Case, but also a new band I’ve been listening to called Mumford & Sons (think indie-folk with de rigueur soaring vocals and songs based on Steinbeck novels). And lots of random crap in between. I throw it all into the mix if I think it’s going to fit the “mood” of Wayward Sister, or the “mood” of a particular scene. As I listen, if it pulls me out of that Wayward Sister mindset or worldview, then I delete it from the playlist. This helps my writing rhythm, if not the story, and keeps my control of tone in check. Reminds me to play up the innocent Gene Autry or Roy Rogers if Ive been getting a bit heavy-handed with the gravelly Tom Waits. In this way, I don’t think it matters that you can’t hear my music. Hear what you want when you read it: in this instance it’s more for me than for you. Will it help your reading of the comic? God, I hope not: that would be to admit that the story can’t stand on its own legs. But will it enhance it, much as listening to Pink Floyd’s The Wall while watching The Wizard of Oz? Maybe. But this story is sooo not trippy.

Anyway, that’s my ramble about writing and music. It’s all part of the Curse of Knowledge. I’ll try to keep that in mind as I write, but also to ignore it willfully when it suits my needs.

Hell, at least two percent of you will still get it.



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  1. I think, actually, that it’s not a sign of the story not being able to stand sans music when music enhances the experience. Say, Murakami’s repeated references to particular jazz songs or Bob Dylan – it does more than just call to mind the song; it adds a depth to the character. If it didn’t, there’d be no reason to ask new acquaintances what kind of music they like (and I’m aware that that’s sometimes an irritating habit – it’s just an easy way to not ask the question “are you and I really going to get along, or no?”). Anyway, you’re the type of person who will fully be able to incorporate music without making it seem heavy-handed. I’m sure of it.

  2. Ok. Now I have to watch The Wizard of Oz while listening to The Wall. Haven’t done that in years!

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