Writing lessons from The Arrival

The best part of unpacking is rediscovering forgotten treasures. I stumbled upon The Arrival a few days ago, a graphic novel by Shaun Tan which was first recommended to me by illustrator Kirsti Wakelin.

The Arrival is the story of an immigrant who flees oppression and arrives in a new land, where he must struggle to learn an unfamiliar language and culture, find a job, and hopefully bring his wife and child to join him. It’s told entirely without words, so it may seem a strange basis for writing lessons. But here’s what I think the book can teach wordsmiths:

1. Patience. The endpapers alone feature 60 individual drawings. Within the book are shockingly intricate city scapes, countless detailed facial expressions, moving hands, and intricate machinery. The project took four years to complete. There is a difference between banging out another story or whipping off another comic, and the painstaking realization of a dream. You have to admire (and hopefully emulate!) someone who’s chosen the latter.

2. Visceral Experience. The first time I “read” The Arrival, I was a little disappointed when, after the first few pages, it shifted from realism to fantasy. Within a few pages, I realized that Shaun Tan had to use an imaginary place, in order to make the reader viscerally feel the immigrant experience of arriving in a world so strange, it can barely be navigated. This is the ultimate in show, don’t tell. And as writers, we need to strive to make the reader undergo the emotion of our stories, not simply read the words.

3. Backstory. There are sections of The Arrival which tell the stories of minor characters’ lives. These are people with their own migration tales. In a few pages, Tan shows us the ways these minor characters have been changed by their adventures, and the ways in which their pasts affect how they interact with the protagonist. Too often in my writing, I use my minor characters as props, plopping them in as needed by the protagonist. But these people should have their own stories and their own histories.

4. Detail. The smallest illustrations in this book are the most poignant. In one frame, the protagonist uses his shoe to bang a nail into the wall. In the next frame, he hangs his family photo. There are infinite examples of this. The daisies raining down on the departing soldiers. The origami which appears from under a hat, and illuminates an entire father-daughter relationship. The comic face-spraying by an unfamiliar faucet.

I am in awe, again.

While you’re in the Shaun Tan mood, check out this site for his new short, based on The Lost Thing. Thanks to Simply Read for the link!

1 thought on “Writing lessons from The Arrival

  1. Pam R.

    Thank you for the link, Tanya… I had no idea a short was being made, now I can’t wait to see it. I’m a big Shaun Tan fan. Have you seen The Red Leaf?


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