Pacing and Page-turning: Part 1
Submitted by WillieHewes on September 23, 2006 - 06:29
My last article on comics writing was moderately well received, so I'm having another go. This is about pacing your story in such a way that your reader will keep clicking that 'next' button. Not because I'm some kind of expert, but because I've been thinking about it, and this is what I think.
Page-turner: the advantages of high speed storytelling
Let me start by saying not all comics need to have breakneck pacing in order to be good. Actually, I really enjoy slow moving stories with a sense of stillness, like "Goodbye Chunky Rice" for instance. But I'm beginning to suspect that's even harder to do than pacing something with a lot of action or drama, so I'll leave that for someone else to explore.
The term "page-turner" is generally applied to thriller or crime novels. The idea is that once you start, you have to keep reading because it's so exciting you need to know what happens next. The ultimate page-turner in comics, for me, is Death Note, or at least the first two or three volumes of Death Note. The nail biting, coke-withdrawal, Aaargh-I-must-read-more-of-this quality of the early chapters is in my opinion a big part of what got so many people into the series. And once you're reading the series, you kind of need to keep buying it, even if the drivers in the car chase suddenly slam the breaks and go for a stroll through the mall together. (Metaphorically speaking, that's what happens in Death Note. Yes, really. =.=')
Anyway, page-turners are good to read and sell well. Part of what gives a comic this pageturning quality is high speed pacing. Unfortunately, many if not most narrative web comics are paced really, really slowly. Yes, that includes my own. So I've thought a great deal about how to accelerate the story, and stories in general. This is what I've come up with.
Sounds a bit obvious maybe, but you'd be surprised how often you end up spending pages and pages on something that is essentially an aside or a bridge between two more important scenes, and spend only half that many pages on the scene that's the actual meat of the story. That means you're not just wasting your own time on drawing something that's actually not that interesting, you're also wasting the time of the reader. Locate your crucial scenes, and decide on how many pages they should roughly be before you start writing it out. If a scene is not that important, keep the page count down. Way down if you want fast pacing. Look over what you've written before you start drawing, and make sure the number of pages you spend on a scene or chapter is justified. Important and unimportant doesn't align neatly with action and exposition as defined above. Some exposition is very important, and if so, it's justified to spend a large number of pages on it. Exposition also does not have to be boring; you can have flashbacks, dream sequences, heated discussion and even battles going on as part of it.
If by now you're thinking: "But it's all important! I don't have any filler!" you are in one of two positions. Either you've already done this, subconsciously, and trimmed everything to exactly as many pages as it should have, or you don't have a clear enough picture of what's important and what isn't. To test this, try summarising your story (or story arc if it's a series) in one or two lines. That should not be something like
An unwilling antichrist takes up arms against hell and stops their plans by cutting out the demon from himself.
That's a plot summary. To tell this story in a strictly minimal way, you need only a few elements: The antichrist, who should be a fully developed character, the forces of hell, preferably commanded by a fully developed antagonist, a build-up to the final battle, the showdown with its twist: the protagonist turns on himself. Now you have a sounding stone: anything that is part of those points is important. Anything that isn't, isn't. So cut it completely, or spend only a few pages on it. Sometimes you have to be cruel to write something really good.
This little antichrist plot could be anything from a thirty page short to a ten volume epic. That doesn't matter, as long as you spend more pages on sections that develop the plot, characters and central conflict than on scenes that are "colour" or "background", but aren't part of the main themes. A comic that at one point does this wrong (to my mind) is Fruits Basket, which, just as you're about to learn who the scary bad guy actually is, wanders off course and does a lot of background and side stories about secondary characters (the main character's female friends). Don't get me wrong, it's a great series and I love it, but that part made me want to yell at the author: stop stalling, tell me about Akito!
Speeding up the pacing of your comic, unfortunately, means cutting it down to size, and that hurts. Hopefully, judging scenes in terms of Important or Unimportant will help you decide which parts can be cut, altered, or fused into another scene.
Right, that's it for part 1, I'd be very happy to hear what you think or if you disagree on any point; I would like to develop this essay to make it as useful as possible. Next week in part 2, a little more about keeping a rhythm to your story and preventing dead zones.
In the meantime, why not check out Willie Hewes Comics?Ã‚
Goodbye Chunky Rice is a sweet but sad picturebook about two friends who say goodbye. It is excellent in its simple elegance.
Death Note is a detective/horror series from Japan about a notebook that makes people die. It is deservedly popular, well, for the most part. I think the earliest parts were the best by far.
My silly antichrist plot is something I made up as I wrote this. It will probably remind you of quite a few similar plots; that was intentional. I'm not planning to do anything with this story, you're welcome to use it if you wish.
Fruits Basket is a manga series about a girl who comes to live with a strange family whose members are posessed by animal spirits. It's heartwarming and very readable, but does run to an awfully large number of volumes.
This post is the first in a three part series. I can't quite get the WYSIWYG to work for me... :sweat: sorry! Thanks for reading anyway.