Doug TenNapel’s Unifying Theory of Everything; Beginning Middle and End

I’ve been lecturing on story for over twenty years. That doesn’t make me good at story because I’ve seen many people who have lectured on story for over twenty years who don’t know what they’re talking about. But one thing I can say about my story-telling thoughts is that they work… and that they are grounded in my theory of everything.

When I started making graphic novels, my first book being GEAR, I got into a bind by the middle of my story. I didn’t know where it was going, so I didn’t know what kind of end I was setting up with the first half of the book. There was a lot of wandering and meandering, then I grabbed a sketchbook and beat out the rest of the story until I found a satisfying ending. That began my journey (which also happens to have a begging, middle and end) of figuring out how to tell a story.

There is a lot of overlap with reality that story structure emulates because if you look for beginnings, middles and ends you’ll find them everywhere, even in your own real life! Each of us has a beginning, I hope that isn’t news to anyone. There was a time that you were not here. You will go through a middle of your life before you meet your end. Our lives are stories which I think are written by God, but that’s a different topic I won’t go into here.

Before I wrote Creature Tech, I felt apprehensive about my ability to draw human anatomy. I had written the Creature Tech script and knew I’d have to draw a lot of people and I needed to boost my confidence in that area so I took a couple years of figure drawing classes. What interested me in those classes was how the way I structure a figure drawing was similar to how I structure my stories. When drawing the human form, the basic proportions are lightly sketched on the paper. You don’t start by drawing a finished, polished head then move on to the neck. If you go to finish too early, your head may be well drawn but it might be twice the proportion is should be compared to the rest of the body. There must be a planning stage and that started to sound a whole lot like how my written stories needed an outline sketched before I could write a finished scene. If there is no outline, the finished scene could be “out of proportion” with the rest of the story.

All drawings also have a beginning, middle and end. There are three distinct stages I learned where in the beginning, basic proportions were set. It’s the “set up” for the final drawing. The middle “makes a case” for the conclusion by filling in basic structures with greater solidity. But you don’t ever go to final in that middle stage or the final drawing will lose drama and cohesiveness. The end of a drawing concludes with the biggest punch of all: you introduce your darkest darks and lightest lights to provide an irrefutable strength through contrast and polish.

Learning how to tell stories has helped me be a better visual artist, and learning to be a better visual artist has only strengthened the structure of my stories. Considering my own life’s beginning, middle and end has even helped me live a better life of goals, development and considering the end! This is how story is part of my universal theory of everything. I’m still in the middle of my theory, so I hope to nail this sucker by the end.