Right Place at the Write Time #6 – Storytelling Styles & Pacing
Category: Right Place at the Write Time
In the last Right Place at the Write Time column we talked about taking the germ of a story idea and developing it into a comic book script. I hope you had fun reading it, and I hope you found it useful.
In this round I wanted to spend a little bit more time dissecting the comic book page itself.
You mean, there’s more to a comic book page than words and pictures??
You’d better believe it. The key points I want to touch on are as follows: pacing, layout, dialogue, and the page turn.
In my brain, these are the four main things that I keep in mind when constructing each of my pages. At times, these elements come easily and at other times they are a burden that I’d like to carry to Mordor and toss into a volcano.
Because there is so much to be covered within each element, today I’m going to stick to some thoughts on Pacing in two parts.
PACING – PART 1: Compressed versus Decompressed Storytelling
Let’s start big picture. Here are some broad stroke thoughts for you to keep in mind when planning out your story as a whole.
Pacing is the area of writing where most new comic book writers struggle. I’m including myself in this. I’m still trying to get the hang of it. In fact, now that I think about it, I read comics every week where even veteran writers struggle with it.
Think back to a simpler time where comic creators had anywhere from five to ten pages to tell a complete origin story for a Superhero. In fact, lets use my favorite hero, Spider-Man as an example.
Stan Lee managed to accomplish Spider-Man’s origin story in eight panels. EIGHT.
Stan only had about eleven pages to work with so he couldn’t spend a whole lot of time on the spider, what it looked like, where it was born, and its motivation for biting Peter Parker. This is compressed storytelling at its finest.
Now, let’s take Brian Bendis’ Ultimate Spider-Man comic which debuted in 2000 and featured an alternate take on Peter Parker growing up in our current world. I love everything about this book, but what I want to point out is that it took Bendis several issues for Peter Parker to even be bit by the spider, and countless more before he ever got Peter into the classic outfit. This is a prime example of decompressed storytelling.
If you look at any comic book from the 1940’s up through the 2000’s you’ll see that compressed storytelling is the traditional writing method of the comics medium. Somewhere along the line a lot of this changed and readers decided that they were tired of watching the same superheroes fight the same villains to save the same people. Luckily enough we had publishers who were willing to take chances on smaller books where the writers were all about the character. The fight scenes were no longer as important as knowing who the story was about and seeing a genuine emotional arc for them.
Let’s use Ultimate Spider-Man again… if you really break it down, you’ll notice that the book isn’t actual about Spider-Man at all — it’s about Peter Parker. There are issues where you never see the kid in his costume and issues where he never throws a punch. When young Peter finally reveals to Mary Jane that he’s Spider-Man we have a book that’s essentially 22 pages of them sitting together on a bed talking. And that’s okay.
These stories are more like soap operas than traditional comics, but readers tend to make a bigger investment and buy the subsequent issues as they follow characters that they care about.
Which way is right and which way is wrong? Neither.
Each method of storytelling has its advantages and disadvantages and will likely depend on the book itself. If a writer is only given three issues (or 66 pages) to tell their story, they have to strike a balance between those decompressed character moments and then speeding things up in order to advance their plot.
Hey, I never said that any of this comics writing stuff was easy!
Grab some of your comics. See what types of books you’re naturally drawn to. Once you start writing, you’re going to figure out which storytelling style you prefer.
The easiest way to consider these methods is to stop and think about what you, as a storyteller, come up with first.
If you come up with your characters first, you’re likely going to be drawn toward a decompressed style. If you create your plot first and inject your characters later, you’ll probably be thinking in a compressed manner.
Again, it’s valuable to be able to write in both ways so that your readers have an investment in your characters, but eventually they’ll want your protagonist to stop talking and do something.
PACING – PART 2: Panels on a Page
There’s a lot of what happens in comic books that is subconscious to the reader. Things are happening all over those pages that you don’t even think about.
For instance: those white or black lines that separate the panels on a comic page? Those things are called gutters and without even thinking about it your brain is filling in everything that happens between them.
We see a panel of Spider-Man’s face. We cross the gutter and suddenly we’re in Spidey’s point of view seeing exactly what he’s seeing. Our brains subconsciously have made that transition along with the character. We didn’t need to give a panel by panel breakdown of Spider-Man turning his head and then more panels of us zooming into the item or object.
Our imagination fills in the gaps. Powerful stuff, right? As a writer, use this to your advantage when visualizing your stories and writing your panel breakdowns.
Legendary Batman writer and editor, Denny O’Neil once said, “a comic book world is a world lit by a strobe light.”
As you visualize your story, pretend that a strobe light is going off over top of it. Pull the most effective “frames” and use them to build your sequential story.
I know I touched on this next part in my Story to Script column, but I think it bears repeating.
You must be conscious of how many panels you put on a page as this too has a direct impact on the pacing of your story.
A comic book page can have any number of panels on them. Again, these aren’t by any means the rules, but rather the guidelines I’ve set for myself when I write.
1 Panel – For those big shocking reveals or blockbuster action moments.
* The fewer panels you have on a page, the quicker it will read and the faster the time passes in story.
Let’s use a few examples to highlight the points:
In Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s classic comic, Watchmen, a large percentage of pages utilize a nine panel grid. Notice how long it takes you to read all of the text, and how much happens within the art. I mean, Doctor Manhattan ends the sequence having made it all the way to outer space!!
If you have a lot to say and a lot that needs to happen within a particular set of pages, then the nine panel grid might be for you. Be careful though about requesting too many details within the individual panels. The artist doesn’t have a whole lot of room to work with!
What happens on this page? Doctor Manhattan is given his name and outfit and told that he will be a symbol of power to be used against the Russians to avoid nuclear war. Doc also comes up with his symbolic logo.
Now, let’s watch what happens when we cut the panel count down significantly. Take this three-panel action sequence from Grant Morrison and Cameron Stewart’s Batman and Robin.
Think about how quickly you make it from the top of this page to the bottom. It was probably three to five seconds, right? We have no copy to read until the final panel so there’s nothing to slow us down.
What happens on this page? Even though it’s just three panels, there’s a whole lot going on! Batman jumps from an explosion, civilian child in hand. He lands amongst the debris. He safely delivers the child to her parents and keeps on moving in pursuit of the villain.
Let’s compare… on each page, a lot happens, but it’s up to the writer and artist to pace the page so that everything you need to say is included, but the space is not wasted. When a comic book is only 20-22 pages in length, space is precious.
A great piece of feedback I recently received on one of my scripts was to very the amount of panels on each page. Let’s face it — people get bored and have short attention spans.
What I found myself doing was falling into a trap of overusing pages with five panels. They worked for the pace of my story and moved things along well enough, but once I saw the finished pages, the story looked very predictable. If you’re going to have three consecutive pages of nine panel grids in which your evil genius is going to pontificate his master plan to the hero, be sure that the next scene is full of action with as few panels as possible. This rewards the reader for having to suffocate through the exposition.
I’m going to pause here and we’ll all marinate on these ideas and suggestions. In a future column we’ll cover the remaining elements: Layout, Dialogue and the Page Turn.
As always, please utilize the comments and let me know if the advice has been helpful. Let me know if you agree or disagree. Also, feel free to ask questions so we can continue learning together!
Until next time…
If you didn’t already guess, Wes Locher writes comic books. Learn more about his projects at weslocher.com, follow him on Twitter @weslocher, or email him about wiring millions of dollars to his bank account at firstname.lastname@example.org, column, comic book writing, comic books, comics, compressed, decompressed, how to write comics, imagination, pace, pacing, page, panel, plot, project fanboy, right place at the write time, soap opera, storytelling, wes locher, writing