Pacing and Page-turning: Part 2
Submitted by WillieHewes on September 29, 2006 - 15:53
Hi, welcome back. Make sure you catch part 1, if you haven't read it yet. Thanks to all for the feedback, I'm glad you found it useful (if you did). This part looks at the same thing, pacing, but from a different angle.
Story Pulse - alternating action and exposition
If you've got a story to tell, and you've done some general planning out of what happens, it could help to look at the scenes, events etc. in terms of action versus exposition. Action doesn't just mean fistfights and carchases. Just having two people sitting in a cafeteria talking can be action, if their discussion is a crucial turning point in the story. Exposition to a lot of people is kind of a dirty word, but almost all stories need to have at least some of it. There will be moments where you have to explain something, the nature of the demonic power, the childhood event that made your protagonist such a nice guy, maybe just a bit of motivation that's not clear from the events itself. The kind of exposition that tends to get people's hackles up is the kind that is narrated by the author without involving the characters in any way. That's not the only way to do exposition, and in my experience, it's rare in comics.
I think it can be useful in terms of pacing to think of each scene as being either action or exposition. This can be misleading because there are grey areas, and there's more to a story that just this, but as a tool for constructing a fast moving plot I think it works. Just keep in mind it's just a tool, not some kind of absolute.
A scene counts as Action if stuff happens and the plot moves forward. Seen through an Action lens, a comic is a series of events that lead to a conclusion. To stay with my example of Death Note; Light finding the notebook, the first time he uses it, L "appearing" at the interpol meeting, Lind L Taylor on TV, the first time L and Light meet, these are the action scenes. A comic that consists entirely of action scenes can feel empty and pointless: why is all this stuff happening? Why do the characters do what they're doing? Exposition is needed to make it mean something.
A scene counts as Exposition if the events or dialogue in it don't move the plot forward, but serve to explain it, or explain more about the characters or the setting. Death Note happens to be pretty heavy on exposition. From the very first scene, in which the dice playing Shinigami talk about Ryuk and his weird ways, the many discussions between Light and Ryuk, between L and the police, the times that either Light or L think about their next move, all that is exposition (in this binary view of things, anyway). Because it's a complex plot, it needs a lot of exposition, and manages to fit it all in without reducing the pace much. So there's nothing wrong with exposition. Of course, too much of it can make a comic feel boring and distant; like there's too much telling what's going on and nothing to actually grip the reader by the collar and drag her into the story.
So basically, you need a bit of both. If you look at your detailed plot outline, and separate it out into scenes or even pages, you can mark each of them as either action, or exposition. Once you've done that, you can try to alternate action scenes with exposition scenes so you get a rhythmic advancement of plot, a kind of step forward, step to the right, step forward, step to the left thing. Or at least, avoid sticking too many exposition scenes in the same place. The risk of losing readers is highest if you spend a long time on exploring character's backgrounds, motivations and subplots without actually advancing the main plot. For the same reason, keep the pagecount on exposition sections down, if you can. Just don't make it too dense.
You could go through some comics you like, split them into scenes and mark them Action or Exposition, see how they run. If you do, tell me what you found, I'm interested in the experiment and will be doing some myself. I firmly believe in analysing the greats and learning from them.
Right, that's about enough for part 2. Man, I sure talk a lot. Again, I hope you found it useful in some way, or that it will inspire you to think about things like these. Do let me know what you think, if you do think. Thanks!
Next week the final part; about mountain ranges, tension graphs and keeping the momentum between chapters or episodes. Also: more about the antichrist! (I'm almost starting to like that silly imaginary hero...)