“Counterpoint” Picturebooks and Transmedia Design

The “counterpoint” approach to storytelling in picturebooks provides a great model for the design of transmedia narratives.

In their book Children’s Picturebooks: The Art of Visual Storytelling authors Martin Salisbury and Morag Styles describe the “complementary” versus “counterpoint” approaches to picturebooks.

Counterpoint picturebooks use words and images to provide different, perhaps contradictory, information to the reader. Philip Pullman, a respected fantasy author and expert in comics and graphic novels, says that counterpoint storytelling has the potential to show different things happening at the same time through a combination of words and images. As a result, the book can be understood in several different ways.

In Marta Atles’s picturebook No!, the central premise of the story is the gap in understanding between a dog ant its owner. The dog is the protagonist. The images show the dog’s behavior, while the text explains his perceptions of the world and his place in it. The word “No!” repeated page after page shows the owner’s response to the dog’s behavior. (See the first image in gallery).

Salisbury and Styles said in Children’s Picturebooks:

This combination, the text and the image telling us different things, makes it possible to have two different points of view, two realities – the dog’s and the owner’s – at the same time. This makes the book funnier because you see the contradiction between them. The images give more story, one that is not explained by the words. (pg. 110)

In David Wiesner’s The Three Pigs, the main characters create a new reality when they decide to climb outside the text and pictures. Several pages have pictures that prominently depict the pigs climbing outside the story. (See the second image in gallery)

The “warning” on the inside front cover of David Macaulay’s Black and White provides a clue to how readers should approach the book. It states:

WARNING: This book appears to contain a number of stories that do not necessarily occur at the same time. But it may contain only one story. Then again, there may be four stories. Or four parts of a story. Careful inspection of both words and pictures is recommended. (See third image in the gallery)

Four “separate” sub-plots that may or may not be related are laid out in individual panels on the books pages.It is up to the reader to decide the relationships between these sub-plots and what they mean.

The concept of counterpoint stories provides tremendous opportunities for the design of transmedia narratives. Imagine using different media for each of the “sub-plots”. The protagonist’s perspective of reality, for example, might be laid out in a blog post while a (supposedly) more objective reality may be told with still images and yet another version of that same reality might be shown in a series of video clips. The interplay of the protagonist’s perspective (expressed in writing) with what is seen in the still images versus video will have a significant impact on the audiences’ understanding of the story’s characters and events.

This approach can also be used to have the audience understand their own perceptions of reality. Suppose, for example, the story is told in such a way that the protagonist’s perception of reality is questioned by the audience when presented with “objective” evidence in the form of still images and video clips. Later in the story, however, the audience’s understanding of the reality begins to change as deeper examination of the “objective” evidence provides insights into the protagonist’s thought processes.


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