Pacing and Page-turning: Part 3
Submitted by WillieHewes on October 7, 2006 - 05:42
Serial storytelling: peaks and troughts
Some stories are purely episodic, like Star Trek the next generation or the Simpsons. You can miss an episode of Star Trek without losing track of what's going on because between the episodes, things return to normal and all the characters reset to default. There is some slow development over the course of the series and the occasional character who dies, but that's about it. You can watch the episodes out of order and not be confused.
Some comics are like that as well, but as you may have guessed, I much prefer comics that run from beginning to middle to end in an overarching plot. Stories like that have their inevitable peaks and troughts, especially if they go on for a long time. For such stories it can be hard to hold on to that page-turning quality between episodes or chapters.
Let's say the antichrist story is an epic story with sidequests, sub-bosses, lots of minor characters, etc. After a preamble, some history and setting exposition and a long buildup, our Dante-esque "hero" faces off against Moloch, the general of hell's army. Moloch explains why the forces of heaven have been chasing protagonist's tail for the last three chapters: he will soon open the hellgate and unleash the unstoppable forces of darkness, bringing hell to earth. Unfortunately, Antichrist doesn't take this as expected: he doesn't care for the forces of heaven, but this Moloch guy doesn't seem to be much better. He refuses to do what he needs to. After a battle, Antichrist escapes from Moloch.
I've described the scene in some detail to make clear where we are. If you picture a story as a graph, it should look a bit like a mountain range. You build tension for a while, peak, then let it down, build again, have a little twist, let it down, while overall you're building up towards the highest peak: the showdown (with satan, for instance). The escape from Moloch is a plunge into one of the valleys. The hero runs away free, he's taken his decision, everyone celebrates. The reader can put your comic down at this point to have some lunch. There's a certain risk here, in that the reader might not find time to pick your comic back up that afternoon. Maybe he's busy this week. Maybe he has other webcomics to catch up with. Especially if your comic is published slowly at a page a week, or if your reader will have to pay for the next bit of story because it's the next issue or volume, it's important that you've got enough hooks in him to drag him into the next episode, or you'll lose him. Or her.
Serial Storytelling: keeping the momentum
There are many reasons your reader might decide to return and read the rest of your story. Most obvious one is quality. If the comic's been good, fast paced, exciting and well drawn so far, he will want to read more of it. But this isn't much stronger than the motivation to pick up another series by the same woman that did "Block 6". As you may know, readers often don't do this. If you've got an ongoing story, there are many ways to strengthen this drive to pick up the next volume.
Foreshadowing means you give readers a hint of the events that will happen later on. It can be as subtle as a visual theme that points towards the resolution or as blatant as a prophesy. Skillful creators use a range of foreshadowing techniques to tie their plots together. In my antichrist epic there could be a "demon heart" theme hidden in the backgrounds as a foreshadowing of the final scene where the protagonist cuts his own heart out. Or, in the faceoff with Moloch, Moloch could indicate that opening the hellgate is the antichrist's inescapable destiny, and laugh at him as he escapes. This would at least signal that the story isn't finished yet, and that there's something bigger and better to come.
Probably the most effective way to keep your reader coming back for more is to start building up to the next peak before you let down the last. If your protagonist is fighting the main bad guy's minions, that's not too hard; it's clear he's going to fight the bad guy next. But if you've built up to a big flashy encounter, like this Moloch scene, and there's nothing bigger standing immediately behind him (the protagonist needs to learn more about himself and go after a McGuffin before he can try to take on Satan) it can be hard not to let down the tension completely. Probably the least you can do is simply indicate where the story is going next. Maybe antichrist's mentor has not told him everything he should have. "What!? Uncle Ben never told me this! He lied to me!" Apart from providing a nice angst moment, this shows where antichrist will run once he escapes from Moloch: he's going to have words with Ben. How will this go? There you go Ã¢â‚¬â€ hook.
While thinking of plotting and pacing it's worth looking at things like this: Does the story tension sag in the middle? Is there a dead point anywhere? Am I giving the readers enough information about where I'm going next, but not so much it becomes too predictable? Are my twists explicable with hindsight, even if you did not see them coming? Is there enough indication of the nature of the overarching plot to pull people from one episode to the next? It can be very difficult to answer these questions, but I think it's very much worth it to ask them.
I reiterate this isn't the only way to write comics. But I do think you need to think about these things if you want to have a tightly plotted, fast paced page-turner, unless you really luck out (*cough*Deathnote*cough*). Although these principles are most easily explained in terms of Protagonist, Antagonist, sub-bosses and the big showdown, they can also apply to other genres. Romance stories often have a similar build tension Ã¢â‚¬â€ let go Ã¢â‚¬â€ build tension Ã¢â‚¬â€ let go structure, like so: He smiled at me! Ã¢â‚¬â€ oh, but he's had such a difficult past Ã¢â‚¬â€ he kissed me! Ã¢â‚¬â€ but maybe he doesn't love me after all etc. Even stories that are mostly about the exploration and development of a single character, or about a philosophical concept explored through a number of characters, have key scenes where the important stuff happens with bridging scenes in between. Knowing what your key scenes are and how to build up to them is key to good pacing and that page-turner feel.
Right, I hope you enjoyed this little series; I think I'm done for now. :D Thanks for reading and for your comments.
Footnotes: the girl who did Block 6 is called Queenie Chan, who is currently publishing a miniseries called The Dreaming with Tokyopop. I've talked about her before, but since then I've read the first volume of The Dreaming and it's seriously good. If you like horror, check it out.
As for my comics, you can read them here: www.williehewes.co.uk