Illustrations and Story: The Last Hero

Novels and short stories, by their nature, are word-based. According to this article from the New York Times, “Your Brain on Fiction,”: Brain scans are revealing what happens in our heads when we read a detailed description, an evocative metaphor or an emotional exchange between characters. Stories, this research is showing, stimulate the brain and even change how we act in life.”

I’d like to direct your attention to “detailed description.” Detailed description and metaphor excite our senses and via reading we have an experience.

In Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, he opened his very first novel The Color of Magic with this description of Discworld: “Great A’tuin the turtle comes, swimming slowly through the interstellar gulf, hydrogen frost on his ponderous limbs, his huge and ancient shell pocked with meteor craters. Through sea-sized eyes that are crusted with rheum and asteroid dust He stares fixedly at the Destination….Most of the weight [of the world] is of course accounted for by Berilia, Tubul, Great T’Phon and Jerakeen, the four giant elephants upon whose broad and star-tanned shoulders the disc of the world rests….”

I think by all definitions of the word ‘interesting’ that this description is interesting. It is detailed. But, for me, it was hard to picture. In my head I stacked the turtle, then elephant, then elephant, then elephant, then elephant, and then the disc of the world teetering precariously on top. Kinda like a circus trick.

Then I got ahold of The Last Hero: A Discworld Fable, written by Terry Pratchett and illustrated by Paul Kidby. One of the opening illustrations is Great A’Tuin and his giant shell. Then the elephants are on his back, but not stacked. The elephants basically take up the ‘four corners’ of the shell and the Discworld is balanced – and seems much more stable – on their four backs.

While reading may stimulate us…I think that Pratchett’s narrative is aided by illustration. To ask a reader to picture elephants on a turtle’s back, and then in turn carry the world is not a huge problem. I’ve read Native American creation stories and Greek myths that demand the same kind of imaginative leap. But I like Pratchett’s story better now that I have seen the world. Prior to checking out The Last Hero the only thing I really knew about Discworld was that it was supposed to be funny…and therefore I made elephant circus stacks, instead of the more physically reasonable weight distribution illustrated by Kidby.

I think the best illustrations – for stories and novels, not books that are centered on the visual like graphic novels – are those that illuminate and clarify something that is difficult to picture. The original Alice in Wonderland has great illustrations, helping the reader picture what it’s like to play croquet with bird and hedgehogs. Places like Discworld and Wonderland – places where the normal is not easy to picture – are helped greatly by some kind of illustration, in my opinion. As clear as a writer is…sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words.

How about you guys? Do you find illustrations helpful or bothersome? Do you prefer stories ‘without pictures’ as Alice would say? Or are pictures a bonus?

One thought on “Illustrations and Story: The Last Hero

  1. I love pictures, particularly for children's books (and cookbooks, so I know what the dish should look like :-).

    I wish I could use illustrations sometimes. Some of the hardest edits have been me trying to get across what a space looks like, and how you get from one room to the other, etc.

    But maybe this is weakness on my part, as the writer? Dunno…

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