The Flower Man by Mark Ludy: How to Read Like a Writer
At their core, most writers are story tellers, but words aren’t the only way to convey a story. Tale spinners can also use visual mediums. In The Flower Man: A Wordless Picture Book, Mark Ludy expertly weaves the story of how one positive person can change a community for the better. The only words he uses are in the book’s front matter where he writes “My Grandpa always said, ‘Everyone’s got a story . . . you jus’ gotta find out what it is.’ ” That is how to read The Flower Man – by following each character’s story.
Even Minor Characters Have a Full Story
The pages of The Flower Man are filled with so many details, a reader can’t possibly take them all in through one passing. The plethora of details is needed because Ludy isn’t telling only the flower man’s story, he’s telling each character’s story by illustrating how they change. When reading The Flower Man, pick a window and focus on the person depicted in the frame throughout the book and you’ll see their daily struggles and how the presence of the flower man helps the character overcome these challenges. Ludy has crafted thirty or more character stories in a twenty-two page book. Here’s an example of one character’s transformation:
In this series of images, readers can see a seemingly minor character change and arc like a major character in a novel might. The old man goes from alone and depressed to confused by the appearance of color and happiness to embracing others and stepping out of his room.
Anytime you add another character to your story, they should have a full history and life just like your other characters do. That doesn’t mean you have to deeply describe every character on the page. However, you as the author do need to know basic information about every character, so you can capture their voice and personality through dialogue, action, and body language. When you understand your minor characters, that knowledge will bleed onto the page, making those characters real to your readers.
One way of bringing a minor character to life in a short space is to pick one motivation, desire, or fear that relates to your plot or major characters in some way and bring that characteristic to the forefront. This will add an extra layer to your minor character and let the reader know there is more going on in their life. It will also make that character more memorable in case you decide to bring them back later in your story.
Nonverbal Communication: Facial Features and Body Language
Even though The Flower Man doesn’t have any words, the desires, fears, and motivations for each of the characters is clearly communicated to the reader. Ludy accomplishes this through facial cues and body language. Take a look at these two characters:
In this first image, readers can see they are arguing through their posture. In the second image they are embracing. You can use body language to signal these emotions in writing as well. A couple might have their shoulders slightly kinked as if they are turning their backs to each other or they might be snuggled together. Both of these are nonverbal cues letting the reader know how the two characters feel about each other in that moment.
While composing your story, don’t forget about facial cues and body language. When your protagonist first meets someone in an intense situation, don’t only describe what the new character looks like; describe the expression on their face as well. People, and animals, communicate significantly more with our bodies than with our words.
One especially important time to use body language is when a character is lying. It is the nonverbal posture and movements that betray the lie. The lie doesn’t have to be big or obvious: It can be as subtle as leaving something out of the conversation.
Even if your characters aren’t lying, they want something. Everyone wants something out of a conversation or interaction with another person. When those desires oppose each other is when your interaction gets interesting. This is why you need to understand your minor characters. They want something out of their interaction with your main character just like your main character. Pull those desires to the surface, so your readers can see them through facial cues and body language.
ReveAling Character Through Imagery
Take a look at the cover of The Flower Man. It’s a smidge busier than a novel cover might be – it is a picture book. Notice the contrast between the colorful flower man and the grey, indistinct city in the background. This makes the flower man pop. The color, his large eyes, his slight smile, and his stance all communicate a happy, positive character. Even without the background, readers would know what kind of character the flower man is.
You don’t need a whole bunch of clutter or images to communicate your story on the cover of your book. All you need is one image that represents a key character, plot point, or emotion. The story goes inside the book, not smashed onto the cover.
Why an Editor Recommends a Wordless Picture Book
Stories come in many forms. In one day a person might read, listen to a music album, and watch a movie. All of these are a form of story. One consistent element throughout all story mediums is the structure. There is a starting place where readers get to know the characters and world, then a change or inciting incident, a character arc, and a conclusion. The Flower Man has each of these elements and is one of my favorite books to share.
The next time your mind is blown by an amazing TV episode, album, or collection of pictures, take a look at the structure of the story. Look for the techniques the artist is using to take you on that emotional journey. Appreciate them, and like the characterization in The Flower Man by Mark Ludy, use them to Ignite Your Ink.
What other elements of story did you find in The Flower Man? Share them in the comments below, and if you haven't read Mark Ludy's masterpiece, click on the image. To learn more about when you should focus on developing your characters vs. your cover, download your free Timeline of a Book.
Ignite Your Ink is written by editor and author Caitlin Berve. She holds a MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics, actively participates in multiple writers’ organizations, and is dedicated to helping writers produce content that leaves an impression on readers.