The Sleeper and the Spindle: How to Read Like a Writer
The Sleeper and the Spindle is a young adult short story transformed into a cross between a picture book and a graphic novel. Written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Chris Riddell, it is an excellent example of how the written word and visual art can come together to create an engaging story. The book’s success is only possible, however, because of Gaiman and Riddell’s partnership.
Working with Another Artist: Combining Text and Image
When reading and examining the pages of The Sleeper and the Spindle, Gaiman and Riddell’s effective, elegant partnership immediately becomes clear. Neither artist is fighting to outshine the other. Instead they respect each other’s mediums and storytelling abilities. While setting up the story, Gaiman describes the treacherous, impassable mountains dividing the two kingdoms:
Even the dwarfs, who were tough, and hardy, and composed of magic as much as of flesh and blood, could not go over the mountain range. This was not a problem for the dwarfs. They did not go over the mountain range. They went under it (10).
This passage is followed by an image of the dwarfs walking on an underground pathway with a large creature passing by in the background. Gaiman doesn’t need to describe the journey under the mountains because Riddell’s illustrations flesh out the underground world faster than Gaiman could with words. Throughout the book, Gaiman is able to focus on the plot while Riddell handles the world building.
Gaiman didn’t try to control Riddell’s images by dictating they stick exactly to what he wrote, and Riddell didn’t go off on a tangent or reinvent the story and characters Gaiman had written. They looked for ways they could add to each other’s work, instead of distract from it. They were focused on creating a single book.
A solid, creative partnership should function in this way. Text and image shouldn’t repeat each other, but reinforce and enhance the other. The same goes for co-authoring a book. Each author shouldn’t repeat the same information. Instead they should expand on the characters, plot, or subjects being covered and offer a new unique perspective or a continuation of the story. If you are working with someone else to make a book, make sure you are focused on the creation and end product, not competing with your co-creator. Even if you have disagreements, the finished book should be cohesive and not hint at those differences of opinion.
Repeating the Right Information
Gaiman’s words and Riddell’s images do repeat some information in order to tell the same story and reinforce certain concepts. However, they do not reiterate the details. For example Riddell draws the queen’s extravagant wedding dress, while Gaiman describes it as whiter than snow.
Combining text and image the way Gaiman and Riddell do is particularly useful in character building. Gaiman doesn’t have to describe what the queen looks like because Riddell’s drawings show her. However, Gaiman does still describe key features of the three dwarf characters because he doesn’t use names. Instead he says “the dwarf without a beard . . .” to let the reader know which character is doing and saying what. Repeating this information in text and image makes the reader pay more attention to it, so if a certain item, feature, or person is key to the story, having that thing appear in multiple places can foreshadow its importance and prepare the reader.
Gaiman and Riddell expertly reinforce the queen’s feelings. The Queen in The Sleeper and the Spindle isn’t looking forward to getting married. She thinks:
It would be the end of her life, she decided, if life was a time of choices. In a week from now, she would have no choices. She would reign over her people. She would have children. . . . the path to her death, heartbeat by heartbeat, would be inevitable (14).
Here Gaiman is letting the reader see the queen’s thought process, why she believes marriage will end her life. A few pages later Riddell draws the queen being fitted in her wedding dress. With wide eyes and a slight frown, he shows she is not excited to be in the gown. She is terrified. Reinforcing the queen’s feelings about marriage are key to what happens to the queen in the end of the story. If Gaiman and Riddell hadn’t reinforced her feelings through repetition, readers might not accept or understand the queen’s decision. (I try not to spoil stories, so I won’t dive into this any further.)
If you are working with a creative partner, think about your character’s emotions and beliefs. Which ones are key to the outcome of your story? Look for ways you can reinforce them in your part of the work and your partner’s. Also pay attention to which aspects you might be unintentionally repeating. Will that repetition make those parts of your story stand out too much? In order to create an impactful finished book, you’ll have to learn how to edit your project as a whole by asking questions like these.
Why an Editor Believes Writers Should Read the Sleeper and the Spindle
The Sleeper and the Spindle is a modern version of two classic fairy tales, so the genre lends itself to combining text and image. However all writers end up fusing these two mediums on the cover of their book. When reading The Sleeper and the Spindle, pay attention to the partnership between text and image. The use of black and white with gold accents makes certain elements pop, including the text callouts. The font of those callouts and the facial expression of the characters build an emotion readers can respond to. You could use similar ideas to design an attention grabbing cover.
Also, you and your designer are entering into a creative partnership when designing your cover. Respect their artistic expertise and communicate with them. The Sleeper and the Spindle wouldn’t have impacted its readers if Gaiman and Riddell hadn’t respected and trusted each other. If you think about your cover as a partnership, you might be more open to new ideas. Read The Sleeper and the Spindle by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Chris Riddell to help you understand how to combine text and image and work with a creative partner to Ignite Your Ink.
What other ways do you think the text and image of The Sleeper and the Spindle complement each other? To read the book, click on the image to the right. For a timeline of when you should edit your book and start thinking about the cover, subscribe to Ignited Ink Writing.
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.