Using Words and Pictures to Tell a Story – A Guest Post with Jeff Thomason

Today, artist/author Jeff Thomason has provided me with an amazing guest post. You might remember him as the artist who designed the Jak Phoenix character art you’ve seen as well as the cover artwork for my book Jak Phoenix 2: The Markazian Deception. Check out this great read about the illustrated story and how he is making it work for him…


Using Words and Pictures to tell a Story

I love reading stories. I love telling stories. And there are many ways to do it using a variety of tools. Two of the most common are words and pictures.

Words can be spoken, written, or read. The auditory section of your brain does the processing and interpreting, even if you read black text on a white page. Using words is telling a story (despite what your English teacher said about showing and not telling). There are many advantages to using words and telling including clarity (say exactly what you mean) and economy (cover large periods of time quickly).

Stories can also be told with pictures. The visual part of the brain does the interpreting here. Pictures have the advantage of showing what is happening, whether it is an action or emotion. They also save time by showing a scene and avoiding a lengthy description. The disadvantage is everyone sees something different in an image, so this approach lacks the clarity of words. And the economy—you can’t move as quickly through time nor as effectively with just visuals.

People have tried combining words and pictures to exploit the advantages of each and minimize the disadvantages. Sometimes the words dominate like in boys’ adventure books such as Hardy Boys or Treasure Island. Sometimes pictures dominate as in children’s storybooks like Morris Goes to School or Where the Wild Things Are or in silent films that occasionally show title cards while letting the picture carry the narrative. In both of these cases, the words and pictures essentially tell the same story. Usually you can remove the subordinate element and lose very little. This is called parallel storytelling. And it just doesn’t apply to uneven mixes—early adventure comic strips such as Terry and the Pirates or The Phantom took readers to exotic worlds with equal parts words and pictures. But they still relied on parallel storytelling, basically repeating what was said with what was shown. But it’s not the only way to skin a cat (or tell a story if you don’t like all that clawing and screeching).

Words and pictures can be put together in ways that create synergy meaning the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Common examples are advertisements where the words say one thing, the picture another, and the combination of the two make a third, more powerful statement.

So why can’t this be done with stories? Answer, it can, and it has, but it’s hard so not everyone does it. But luckily, there are a few who do whether it be on the screen, the stage, or the page. Watch a classic movie like Big Fish, pick up a great comic book like The Elektra Saga, or download an illustrated novella like The Caveman Conspiracy (a Wandering Koala tale) and you’ll see what I mean.

I see you scratching your head. The Caveman Conspiracy? What’s that? It’s my attempt at creating a new genre I’m calling an illustrated novella (but I’m not in love with the name so I may change it). You see, words and pictures both have different strengths. There are times when words can say it best, times when a picture is worth more than a thousand words, and times when a combination of the two is the ticket. But most forms can’t smoothly or easily switch between the three. Comic books come close, but the format requires more pictures than are necessary. The illustrated novella, however, can.

So am I the first one to try this? No. Others have done it before, but they called it a graphic novel. Will Eisner’s A Contract With God, Dave Mazzuchelli’s Asteryos Polyp, and Kyle Baker’s I Die At Midnight have all done this and done it well.

So why don’t I just call mine a graphic novel? Three reasons. First, most people think of a graphic novel as nothing more than a long comic book bound so it can sit on a bookshelf. Will Eisner did more than just create a long comic, but most people missed what was really going on, so now graphic novel is a misnomer for trade paperback. Second, all three examples I cited rely on panels, a unique element to comics, although Will used them sparingly. The panels always bothered me, so I got rid of them. And third, I hate word balloons.

So far I’ve created one story in this format and am working on a second. And I absolutely love it! It’s given me the freedom to tell the kind of stories I want to tell in a way that as unobtrusive and unobstructive to the reader as possible. After all, my goal is to make the story as easy for the reader to get lost in as possible. That means using the right tool for the right job with nothing wasted. An illustrated story doesn’t use enough pictures, and a comic book uses too many.

So are you curious what this new concoction looks like? If only there were a way you could sample it. Wait! You can! You can download the first half of the story for free from Smashwords, Barnes & Noble, Apple, or many other fine retailers or you can read it online at If you like it, pick up the second half. See how it ends. I’m pretty sure it won’t be what you’re expecting. And then get ready for The Green Bull (that’s what I’m calling the next one). It starts in a seemingly innocent … but I don’t want to spoil the surprise for you.

By Jeff Thomason
@Jeff_Thomason on Twitter
Jeff On Facebook


One Response to Using Words and Pictures to Tell a Story – A Guest Post with Jeff Thomason

  1. Pingback: Using Words and Pictures to Tell a Story – A Guest Post with Jeff Thomason « The Jak Phoenix Universe

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