I’ve talked a little bit in an earlier post about how the idea of Otto originally emerged (http://www.billslavin.com/2010/07/star-is-born-imagining-otto_9811.html) but thought some of my readers might be interested in the brainstorming process that leads to ideas getting organized and on paper.
Most of the first book of Elephants Never Forget was written episodically. That is to say, once the arc of the story had been established ( Otto and Cracker's journey to America in search of Otto’s kidnapped pal, Georgie the chimp) most of the rest of the story was constructed from a series of scene ideas. These ideas usually came up and were fleshed out in brainstorming sessions conducted during regular evening walks with my partner Esperança Melo. Most of the best ideas were Esperança’s and would usually come from a conversation that went something like this:
Me: So, Otto and Crackers find themselves adrift in this huge metropolis, looking for his pal Georgie. What happens next?
E: Otto might get stuffed in a Porto-Potty.
E: A Porto-Potty.
Me: (dense) Why a Porto-Potty?
E: Well, he’s in the city and he has to go to the bathroom somewhere, and an elephant in a Porto-Potty is funny.
Me: (thinking now this isn’t such a whacky idea) Okay. Poop humour is funny. But why would there be a Porto-Potty?
E: Well maybe it’s on a construction site.
Me: (more enthusiastically) Yeah. And maybe he has to go to the bathroom because he ate a box of prunes or something.
E: That would have happened sometime sooner.
Me: Sure, like when Otto and Crackers first arrived in the city. Remember, he was hungry the whole time on the airplane and on the baggage carousel, so he may have done something ill-considered like eat a box of prunes. Maybe from an early morning delivery van when they first get into the city proper.
E: (still with the Port-a-Potty) It would be funny if the Port-a-Potty is being lifted up on a platform by a crane …
E: It would just be funnier if it all happened while being suspended from a crane.
Me: (hesitantly) Oookay. That might work. Sort of a Buster Keaton high-wire act?
Me: (gears churning) And actually that could work quite well, because once he gets out of the Port-a-Potty he would be way up in the air, and maybe for the first time gets a glimpse of how huge the city is! Like a great concrete jungle – an obvious metaphor for an elephant, don’t you think?
E: (uninterested in my elephant metaphors) Sure. Whatever. And maybe he sees an organ grinder and his monkey below in the street and thinks that it’s Georgie.
Me: That could work.
E: It would be really funny if he ran into a monkey on the street who was part of a flea circus.
This is typical of our collaboration around the writing, with Esperança coming up with the wackier and more original ideas, forcing me to then think out of the box. Then I run with it, taking all the good stuff, writing up the scene descriptions and dialogue and figuring out how it fits into the narrative as a whole.
There are many ways of writing for a graphic novel, some highly descriptive, others sketching things out in the broadest strokes possible. Because I have the luxury of being both lead writer and illustrator, my scenes and even panel breakdowns can be fairly loose allowing me to fill in the details later. I will speak more about this in another post on storyboarding the book.
At any rate, all of the discussion on our walk (other than the flea circus bit, which made no sense whatsoever!) led to this written scene:
High Wire Scene
Caption: Hours later …
Scene: Otto and Crackers walking down the street despondently.
Crackers: Cripes! We’ve been searching for ages!
Otto: I gotta go.
Crackers: Go? Now? We just flew 3000 miles to get here and you gotta go?
Otto: No, I mean go! You know–
Crackers: Ah, jeez! This ain’t the jungle, Otto. You can’t just go anywhere.
Scene: Now walking past construction site. There’s a Johnny-on-the-spot present. A construction worker has just left it, buttoning his pants and whistling.
Crackers: See that little house? You go there.
Otto: It seems a bit small …
Scene: Otto trying to get through doorway. Crackers pushing from behind, head under Otto’s behind.
Otto: It would be much easier if I could just-
Crackers: Don’t even think about it!
Otto is now inside. Crackers is pacing out front, with back to toilet. A crane is lifting a chain that is attached to the four corners of a skid that the toilet is standing on.
Crackers: Just let me know when you’re done.
Scene: The toilet is now lifting up. Crackers still has his back to it.
Otto: I’m feeling much lighter.
Crackers: Just hurry up, would ya?
Scene: Crackers is still facing away then turns, doing classic double take. The toilet is gone.
Crackers: I told you not to eat all those- Whaaa-?!!
Scene: From below, Crackers (in shadow) looking up startled as a sky crane hoists the platform with the toilet up into the air, towards the top of a skyscraper under construction.
Scene: Crackers chasing after platform. Otto still inside.
Crackers: Otto! Otto!
Otto: I’m coming! Just a minute!
Scene: Crackers now fluttering outside door. (Flush! coming from toilet.)
Crackers: No, Otto! This is bad! You gotta get outta there!
Scene: Door opens. Otto steps out.
Otto: So what’s the -
Scene: Otto jumps back, hugging toilet. Toilet tilts on platform.
Scene: Toilet tumbles off of platform. Otto is following it, flailing, but Crackers has grabbed him by the tail.
Scene: Otto is pulled back onto platform, and grabs chain, shaking. Platform is tilted dangerously to one side.
Crackers: Steady, big boy. Steady. Just make your way over to the middle here …
Scene: Otto has made his way to the center of the platform. He’s looking out on the panorama of the city below.
Otto: It’s huge! Like a massive jungle, but made out of- umm …
Scene: Close up of Otto. We can see a tear in his eye. Crackers looks on with concern.
Otto: Sniff! We’re never going to find Georgie, are we, Crackers?
Crackers: Sure we will, big buddy.
Otto:(Crying inconsolably) No we won’t! It’s hopeless! Boo hoo hoo!
Crackers: Easy, big fella. You gotta get a grip.
Scene: Otto suddenly wiping away tears, pointing excitedly at a tiny figure below. The whole platform tilts dangerously again.
Otto: Wait! I see him! There!