by Bryan Patrick Avery
For the past several months, I’ve been taking a series of classes from the Academy of the Magical Arts whose headquarters is the famed Magic Castle. For the past few weeks, we’ve been working on a trick that I am certain I will never perform publicly. Still, I’ve practiced it religiously. Why? Because, though the trick itself doesn’t appeal to me, there are some key concepts imbedded in it that will help me in the future. The same can be true in writing as well. If you’re a picture book author, it might be tempting to read nothing but picture books in hopes to honing your craft. While that certainly will help, there’s much to learn from other genres, and forms, of storytelling.
This month, I want to look at a form that is easily accessible to you and also has a lot to teach us about storytelling: the comic strip. In particular, we’ll look at one series in particular: Peanuts, from Charles M. Schulz.
For those of us who have, at some point or another, labored over a manuscript and tried to figure out how to squeeze or story into 14 spreads or less, imagine if you had to tell a complete story in just 3 or 4 panels. That was Schulz’s task, nearly every day for 50 years. Given the staying power of Peanuts, I’d say he did it pretty well. Take a look at any Peanuts strip and you can see the Schulz storytelling power at work.
Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Linus and Lucy, and all the others are household names. The personalities of each character fly off the page and drive the action in every strip. Does anyone ever believe that Lucy won’t yank the football away at the last moment before Charlie Brown kicks it? Of course not. The characters, and their personalities, make each strip unique but also familiar. That’s what good characters can do for your story.
Where are these kids. In decades of reading Peanuts, I never once wondered that. Schulz has done an amazing job of building a world that every reader could relate to in some way. That, no doubt, has much to do with how well received Peanuts is around the world.
Four panels is not a lot of space to tell a story. Still Schulz is able to not a tell a story, but make us laugh, or sigh or even cry. One of my favorites is a strip from the early 70s. In the first panel, Snoopy sits on top of his doghouse and Woodstock kicks a tiny typewriter. Snoopy says that every now and then, his secretary wants to quit. This is the setup or Act I. It identifies the problem and the characters involved.
In the second panel, we jump into Act II. Snoopy continues talking about Woodstock who sits with his arms folder looking really mad. How will Snoopy keep him from quitting?
On to the third panel. We get a close up and Snoopy here. He says he doesn’t think Woodstock will walk off.
Now, we reach the fourth and final panel, Act III. We see Woodstock and Snoopy on top of the doghouse. Woodstock looks defeated. Snoopy is smiling as he says “He can’t leave because I’m standing on his foot.”
(from Peanuts 6/12/1970)
Pick up any Peanuts strip and you’ll see the same structure. It’s a large part of why Schulz should be remembered for his storytelling ability as much as for his artwork.
If you haven’t checked out Peanuts in a while, I’d encourage you to check out THE COMPLETE PEANUTS series. Each book in the series covers 2 years of Peanuts strips starting with the debut strip from 1950. The early years are fascinating because they show how the characters and structure of the comic developed into what we’ve seen in more recent years.
Well, that’s all for this month. Happy reading and have a magical month!
Bryan Patrick Avery writes poems and stories for children from toddlers through middle grade. His middle-grade story, “The Magic Day Mystery”, appears in SUPER PUZZLETASTIC MYSTERIES, an anthology from HarperCollins and the Mystery Writers of America. His picture book, THE FREEMAN FIELD PHOTOGRAPH, was published in April 2021 by Clearfork Publishing/Spork. His early reader series, MR. GRIZLEY’S CLASS, will be available in August 2021. Bryan lives in Northern California with his family.
We are so excited to be mixing things up at CBA, beginning with some delicious additions to the Blogfish. Meet our awesome bloggers!!
Here's our lineup:
1st Mondays begin with awesome Aussie debut author and former student Amanda Lieber who will be focusing on Aussie kidlit.
2nd Mondays will feature super smart Melissa Stoller whose career is taking off with several new books.
3rd Mondays will feature STEM, STEAM & SEL obsessed author Kourtney LaFavre sharing delightfully dorky, quirky, and fun info.
4th Mondays will be a mystery for right now.
And 5th Mondays we'll be taking a break