On Comics: Pacing

Part two! In this post (following on from my previous entry about writing comics dialogue), I’m going to have a quick look at pacing, or how a story flows from panel to panel. This is another important part of building a story- if you’re writing a chase scene, with your heroine escaping from a mob of angry villains, you want to ensure that the pace of the scene is quick and exciting in order to reflect the subject matter. It seems like a simple thing, but it’s often overlooked in a lot of comics, meaning that the pace of the scene jars with the content.

 

Pacing is largely a subjective thing, since everybody will read a comic at their own speed and the beauty of the medium is that the reader can linger on a panel for as much or as little time as they want to, but knowing how to arrange your panels to achieve the desired effect can go a long way towards drawing the reader into the story. The best comics (in my opinion) are like a dynamic symphony- they slow down and speed up when it’s appropriate, pulling the reader along with them. Pacing is also very important in the kind of short 4-6 page stories that I’ve written a lot of for the Psychedelic Journal of Time Travel and Professor Elemental- when you only have a small number of pages, pretty much every panel has to move the story forwards and finding space to pause for breath is integral. Getting the pacing right can make or break the flow of the story, so it’s important to practice.

 

Let’s begin with an example of a slow-paced scene. The atmosphere for this meeting between two rivals is tense and electric- if this were a film, we’d expect lots of slow, long camera shots looking around the room and giving the two characters time to converse. However, we also want to pick up the pace towards the bottom of the page, to keep the story moving.

 

 

Page
Panel 1
Wide-angle; the NEMESIS is standing with his back to the reader, looking out of a large plate glass window. The room is lushly adorned in a sleek, contemporary style. There is a wisp of smoke drifting upwards from the cigarette the NEMESIS is holding in one hand.

NEMESIS: I knew you’d come.

Panel 2
Another wide-angle panel, side-on; we see the HERO walking across the room towards the NEMESIS, looking bruised and battle-scarred. The NEMESIS is turning to face her.

HERO: Where is he?

NEMESIS: Not so fast, hero- relax, have a drink. We have much to talk about.

Panel 3
Wide-angle again; our view is now behind the NEMESIS. We can see the HERO in the background of the panel; the NEMESIS is slowly drawing a pistol out of a holster underneath his suit jacket.

HERO: Don’t try and distract me, Nemesis- I know what you’re up to!

NEMESIS: On the contrary, Hero… you have no idea.

Panel 4
Small, inset panel- close in on the NEMESIS as he takes a drag from his cigarette.

Panel 5
Another small panel- the NEMESIS raising his pistol to fire at the HERO.

 

 

As we’ve used three large, wide-angle panels on this page, we’ve been able to really slow down the pace of the story- it’s a break, a brief section of quiet and calm that gives the reader time to really digest both the surroundings and background of the panels and to sense the build up of tension between the two characters. If we hadn’t used these wide-angle panels (and panel 4, the close-up with the cigarette) the scene would have felt a lot more rushed and a lot more frenetic- which could also work, but not for the atmosphere that we wanted to achieve. We also used an inset panel for panel 4- these are very useful when trying to get the pacing right, since an inset panel (a small panel which is overlaid on top of a larger panel, often used to draw attention to something within the larger scene) can either reveal details about the scene or it can act as a sort of ‘quick cut’ between actions. In this case the larger scene (panel 3) was the Nemesis slowly drawing his pistol; we then built up the tension with an inset panel of him smoking his cigarette, to prolong the reader’s eye on panel 3. Finally, the small panel 5 acts as a clean break and shows a change in the status of the scene- the Nemesis raising his gun to shoot at the Hero.

 

I like to think of it as being the editor on a film- as the writer, you have the choice of whether to make quick cuts (smaller panels focussing on action), quickly switching from shot to shot to keep the tempo of a scene high, or slow cuts (larger panels focussing on atmosphere), to allow the build-up of tension. Study the work of some directors that you admire to see how they’ve approached the editing- Akira Kurosawa, for example (one of my favourite directors), is a master of using movement (and the lack thereof) to build tension and his films balance slow scenes with quick action masterfully. Here’s a great Youtube video about some of Kurosawa’s techniques, especially his use of movement (which isn’t something that can be directly shown in comics, but can be alluded to):

 

Pacing is definitely something worth studying if you want to improve the dynamism of your scripts- a lot of it will eventually begin to come naturally, and you’ll have a feel for how large or small or numerous the panels on a page need to be for the scene that you’re telling. Even if you’re constricted by a page count, think about the pacing and try your hardest to include breaks and panels that pause for breath, rather than action after action after action. Think about how great directors structure a movie scene and construct your scripts similarly.

 

Thanks for reading!

Chris