Imagine a Chair

#04 -- Panel Count, Pacing and Density, Part One

Let me start with a blanket statement. Based on scripts I’ve read and critiqued over at Comics Experience, newbie comics writers tend to do one of two things:

a) cram way too much on the page, with a very high panel count; or
b) have too little happening on a given page, with a very low panel count.

And when writers become a bit more experienced? They switch tactics, trading one problem for the other. Then, eventually, they settle into a good groove.

The reason for this pendulum swing, I think, is that too many beginning writers associate the number of panels on a page with the amount of information conveyed on that page. More panels means a denser page and vice versa.

But this isn’t necessarily true. In actuality, there are two factors at play: the number of panels and the density of information within each panel. Density of information, as used here, refers to the number of elements in a panel. Is it just a talking head? Two figures? What are they holding? Is one of them riding a horse? Is there’s a crowd? How much background detail is there? And how much of this is the reader expected to absorb, to fully understand the story? Do they just need to know that “oh, there’s Tom, and he’s talking.” Or do they need to notice that Tom is wearing Bob’s gold watch, as Tom races through the background of a panel focused on, I dunno, gorillas with laser guns. Wearing tutus.

These two things – panel count and density -- work together to determine your pacing, and to shape your panel count strategy (along with many other things like dialogue, rising and falling action, and so on, but the idea of these posts is to focus in on one small aspect of the craft at a time).

And if you think of these two factors as axes on a grid, then you can view it as four quadrants (insert cool visual example here that I’m too lazy to make).

So, let’s discuss those four quadrants one by one. Because of my goal to keep these columns fairly short, we’re only going to discuss the low-panel-count quadrants in this column before wrapping back around next week.

Low panel count/low information density
This happens when you have a fairly low panel count (maybe four panels at the most), with each of those panels conveying a fairly low density of information*. This has the effect of creating a deliberate pace. It works particularly well with striking visuals; pages marked by beauty and grace.

* I should note that “low density” is not meant as a slight; merely a factual description. It also refers only to the elements on the page, as described above. So a panel that’s considered “low density” by our standard could be conveying vast information about the character, through nothing more than a wicked smirk or a single teardrop. It also doesn’t take into account the subtleties of art techniques, of light and shading and so on, that convey information about the mood and the world.

This technique can be incredibly powerful, but is often used sparingly -- particularly on monthly comics where space is at a premium. When used correctly, it can invite the reader to linger on the image, to absorb its power and beauty on an emotional level.

By contrast, when used for too long -- or when used for moments that don’t warrant their emotional impact -- it can simply feel like very little is happening, for page upon page.

Because of its emotional nature and focus on moments of grace, this technique is often used on the downbeats; on the interstitial moments, when your characters are preparing for their next step or recovering from their last. For example, Jonathan Hickman and Nick Dragotta do this quite a bit in East of West.

It’s also often used at the end of issues -- at a point where creators want readers to stop, to linger and to feel a deep emotional connection. Consider, again, East of West.

But perhaps the best example of this comes at the very end (minor spoilers for a comics canon book that ended several years ago?) of Brian K. Vaughan's and Pia Guerra’s Y: The Last Man.

One last note: while (as I said) this technique is often used for quiet, interstitial moments, it can also be quite effective in creating dynamic and emotionally powerful action sequences. Consider these three pages from New Frontier, by (of course) the great Darwyn Cooke. I think what makes this work so well is that it’s not a fast-paced, visceral action scene, but rather the emotional culmination of New Frontier’s opening section; by presenting it in a series of large, gorgeous, “low-density” images, it has the feel of a moving tableaux.

New Frontier.jpg

Low panel count/high information density
This has a lot of similarities to the above quadrant, particularly in its ability to slow down the pace and cause us to linger over the panels. But while large, low-density panels engage our emotions, large, high-density panels engage our intellect, as we take stock of all the rich detail and dense information provided by the art.

One great example of it is Alan Moore’s, Gene Ha’s and Zander Cannon’s Top 10, which presents a rich and heavily detailed view of a world very different from our own.

Because it invites readers to stop and linger over the details, this technique can also be used for stories where background elements became important -- or even become clues. A good example of this is Rob Anderson's and Fernando Melek’s Animal Control: Special Varmints Unit (which, full disclosure, I edited). Anderson and Melek presented a world full of genetically modified animals, and planted them liberally in the foreground and background of their world.

But those backgrounds also contain clues about the ongoing story -- pertinent graffiti tags, billboards, a paperback sitting on a table. By filling their panels with dense and interesting information about genetically modified critters, the creators insured that readers would also absorb these plot clues.

And that’s it for this week! Next week we’ll revisit this topic and discuss how to effectively use a high-panel count, both with a low- and high-density of information.

We’ll also look at some full scenes, and track how creators jump around the four quadrants throughout an issue to control their pacing and keep the reader engaged.

Until then, I’m Paul Allor and I do not have a cool sign-off.

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This column is written by Paul Allor. You can find out more about him here.
If you’d like to keep up on this column, you can subscribe to his newsletter.
And if you find it particularly useful, you can support it through Patreon.

#03 -- Writing Unique Dialogue

Dialogue, amiright? There’s a lot to say about it – especially in comics. Subtext and text. The playful tension you can create between word and image. Writing dialogue that is both terse and meaningful. But before all that, I want to address one of the most common problems I see in the scripts I read: all of the characters speaking in the exact same voice. And, usually? Not the most interesting voice.

The most common pattern is for characters to all speak in simple, blunt and declarative sentences. To avoid subtext or colloquialism. They avoid wordplay and never intentionally obfuscate. Other times, characters will all speak in the same hip, quirky way, with identical slang and diction. And so the leads – who are often meant, ostensibly, to contrast greatly, instead end up feeling completely interchangeable. I sometimes have to keep flipping back to the beginning of the script, to remember who is who.

The solution to this is simple, but not easy. You need to give serious, conscious thought to the factors that shape our communication styles, and how those factors would come into play with your characters. I urge you to think of these factors on your own, and develop your own unique toolbox for shaping your characters’ speech patterns. But here’s some ideas to get your started.

Background and demographics

  • Region. What part of the country or world does your character come from? Be warned, though, that a bit of regional patois goes a very long way.
  • Role models. What were their parents or guardians like? How did they communicate?
  • Gender and race. These things obviously don’t determine communication styles in their entirety, but it plays a factor.
  • Religion. This can shape not just our way of thinking, our attitudes and beliefs, but also the basic words that come out of our mouths. The other day a day-job coworker was called into our boss’ office. I threw out a casual “be not afraid.” That was my Catholic upbringing shining through.
  • Education. This is a pretty big and pretty obvious one. It effects (not “dictates,” but “effects”) our vocabulary, our grammar, who we quote and how we think. How far did they get in school? What did they study? Is English their second (or third or fourth) language, and if so when in life did they learn it?

Emotions and Personality

  • Confidence level. Confident people tend to say what they mean, delivering complete thoughts. Less confident folks will mumble, break their sentences off. Test the water to see how others react before diving too deeply into a conversation or a point.
  • Mental health/sobriety. Altered minds can lead to altered speech.
  • Emotional state. How composed or out of control is your character, either in general or in that moment? Are they tightly monitoring their words, or blurting out things they know they’ll regret?

Situational factors (Yes, these categories somewhat overlap. Sorry)

  • Relationships. Who are they talking to? What’s their relationship like? How much respect, affection or revulsion do they have for that person? Think of how you talk to your grandmother versus your boss versus your best friend. Think of how Spike in Buffy the Vampire Slayer would talk to Drusilla versus other vampires.
  • Motivations. And in addition to who they’re talking to, what do they want? Are they trying to woo or impress? Are they being duplicitous? Do they honestly care about the conversation, or are their thoughts elsewhere? Are they mainly focused on listening or on talking?
  • Image projection. What kind of image are they trying to give off? Are they trying to dominate the conversation, or trying to fit in? Are they code switching, or trying to pass as educated, as straight, as “just folks?”

I could go on, but those are some ideas to get you started. And here is a very important point: when developing a character, do not just use one of these factors! It is extremely common for even established writers to do this, and painfully obvious when it happens. A character’s entire personality is determined by how well-educated she is, or what part of the country she’s from. But you need to think about a lot of these factors, and think about how they intersect and bounce off of each other. Not just “this character is from rural Kentucky,” but “this character is from rural Kentucky, has a Master’s in Social Work and loves to boss around his coworkers.”

Remember Frasier? That show set up a stark contrast between Frasier, his brother Niles and their father. But the truth is, those three characters had a tremendous amount in common. They all had the same sardonic, biting sense of humor. They were all quick to judge. They were all emotional, volatile, passionate. But those similar factors intersected with different ones: a different educational background. The influence of the Crane boys’ cultured mother, from a young age. A career in psychology vs. law enforcement. The combination of all these things set the characters apart, despite their many similarities. These intersections help you to build a richer, more interesting cast.

But – and this is very important – even after doing all of this work, the results may not be immediately apparent. Good dialogue doesn’t always (or often, in my case) come naturally. Instead it must be crafted, through careful revision, with thought given to each line. It can be tedious sometimes, and fun other times, but either way, it adds tremendously to the strength of your writing, and can help separate the work of a professional from that of a very talented amateur.

Okay, some quick examples. First, watch some Coen Brothers movies; they are absolutely brilliant at giving each of their characters unique voices that tell us a lot about who they are. Here’s a link to a scene from The Big Lebowski. Heads up – there’s a lot of swearing in this.

The Big Lebowski

These three characters all have radically different ways of speaking: The Dude (Bridges)’s speech is fragmented, exasperated. And the more exasperated he gets, the worse he becomes at communicating. He wants life to be simple, and he doesn’t understand why it isn’t. Walter (Goodman) is constantly explaining things to people, outlining reasons and providing lists. He sees the world in a certain way, and much of his communication style is centered around trying to make others see it in the same way. That’s’ what motivates him. He’s also patronizing and mocking, and he swings wildly from emotional outbursts (which he seems to love) to restraint (which he seems to desire). Donnie (Buscemi) is far more even-keeled than either of them, and his speech pattern reveals his natural curiosity about the world (and the fact that he’s not too bright); throughout this scene and most of the movie, the majority of his dialogue comes in the form of a question rather than a statement. And all of these things come across only through the way they talk, even without paying attention to what they’re talking about. They could be having a conversation about politics or their favorite movies or the proper way to make a quiche and it would still come through, because it all stems from character.

That’s obviously an example of extreme differences. But I also want to give an example of characters who are far more similar. So Look at this great scene from The Conversation (you can stop it when Stan leaves):

The Conversation

You have two streams of dialogue going: Harry Caul and Stan, and the couple on the recording. All four characters are using roughly the same level of vocabulary, they're all white New Yorkers, and both couples seem to have about the same level of education. But the differences shine through, in both conversations, and you could tell who's saying what even from a nameless transcript.

See you next week.

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This column is written by Paul Allor. You can find out more about him here.
If you’d like to keep up on this column, you can subscribe to his newsletter.
And if you find it particularly useful, you can support it through Patreon.

#02 -- Narrative Tension

Oh, hey there! Welcome back.

One of the biggest problems I see in comics and comic scripts is a lack of narrative tension. Tension pulls us along, drawing us deeper into the story. Without it, things can often feel flat, dull and a bit pointless.

There are many things that cause a lack of tension. Frequent culprits include a narrow emotional range, or a lack of passion from the characters; character dynamics that never shift or surprise us; wonky or slow pacing that distract from the story. But beneath all of that, a lack of narrative tension is often caused by a basic structural issue. And that’s the focus of this week’s column.

You’re going to hear me talk a lot about storytelling structure in these columns, so let me provide a basic definition: storytelling structure is the order and fashion in which you relay information to the reader.

And now a second definition: narrative tension is the disparity of information between the reader and characters. It’s the gulf between what the audience knows and what the characters know.

With that in mind, let’s break narrative tension down into three basic categories (not an exhaustive list, but one that covers most situations):

1. Things we know that the characters don’t.
Two characters are having a conversation. But there’s a bomb under the floorboards and it could go off at any moment. We know it, but they don’t. They’re just going on about their day while we cringe in our seats, waiting for the explosion.

2. Things some characters know that others don’t.
This is really a broadening of the first one, because we still have the information, and some characters still don’t. But again: two characters are having a conversation. Bomb under the floorboards. One of the characters knows it, and is trying like hell to extract herself from the conversation and make it out in one piece, all while not tipping off the other character.

3. Things the characters know that we don’t.
This time, we don’t know about the bomb. All we know is, this character sure is acting squirrely and desperate, and it makes us want to know why. You see this category a lot in detective fiction and mystery stories; Columbo clearly has the whole thing figured out, but we don’t, and we’re trying to keep up.

And please don’t let my “bomb under the floorboards” example lead you to think that tension must always be big and life-threatening. It can be far more mundane as well. A woman is trying to empty her business’ bank account, but we know that her business partner already drained it; a husband has lost his wedding ring and is trying to keep his wife from finding out; a man breaks down crying at his retirement party, and we have no idea why.

Let’s close out with a final example: in the original Star Wars trilogy, the truth about Luke Skywalker’s parentage is revealed gradually, with a few fake-outs along the way. That’s the structure George Lucas and crew chose, and the narrative tension comes from the fact that neither Luke nor the audience knows the truth about his parentage. Many of those who do know (his aunt and uncle, Ben Kenobi) tell him conflicting sets of lies and then die, leaving Luke to learn the truth from Big Poppa himself.

Lucas and his crew could have, instead, opened the first movie with a prologue (or a crawl!) that revealed the truth about Luke’s parentage. That would have been a very different structure, and provided a different type of narrative tension. We know the truth, and we know Ben Kenobi knows the truth, and every scene between him and Luke is shaded with that knowledge*.

* Quick sidenote: this second scenario is how most people now view the Star Wars movies; advance knowledge of a movie’s twists and turns changes the narrative structure and warps the storyteller’s intent. Sometimes this happens because a story is an established classic, but often, these days, it happens due to marketing. In The Sixth Sense, there were two major plot twists. The second, of course, is that Bruce Willis’ character is dead. But the first is that Haley Joel Osment’s character is communicating with the dead. When he reveals this to Willis, it’s clearly intended as a dramatic revelation; all their prior scenes are built around Willis trying to unravel the mystery of this child’s affliction. But the marketing folks chose to put the line “I see dead people” in every commercial, and this narrative tension was lost. In your own story, it’s worth considering what narrative tension will be lost in pre-release marketing, and do your best to work around that.

Now imagine if Star Wars had started by telling us about Luke’s parentage; and then revealing that Luke himself knew. He knew, we knew, his aunt and uncle knew, the droids knew, the jawas and the banthas knew. Everyone knew. It sounds ridiculous, but this is how many starting writers construct their plots. There is no mystery to drive things forward, no narrative tension to pull us in. If your story feels a bit slack and lackluster, consider what you could do to increase the narrative tension. At some point we’ll double back around to discuss those three types of narrative tension, and when each is the most appropriate.

See you next week.

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This column is written by Paul Allor. You can find out more about him here.
If you’d like to keep up on this column, you can subscribe to his newsletter.
And if you find it particularly useful, you can support it through Patreon.

#01 -- Introduction

Hey! I’m Paul Allor, and this is IMAGINE A CHAIR, my new column on the craft of writing comics.

Let’s be honest: a lot of people -- including a lot of writers -- don't take the craft of writing very seriously. The reason, I believe, is that we think of writing as something intuitive and innate. You can hear this in the way people talk about writing, as opposed to other artistic disciplines. We tell people that they should learn to draw. That they should study animation. That they should practice the trombone. But when it comes to writing, more often than not we simply say, “you should write.”

And to be fair, the basic nature/structure of storytelling is ingrained in us from a very young age. We hear and tell stories every day of our lives, in the form of picturebooks, in the form of jokes, in the form of water-cooler anecdotes.

But it's like this: close your eyes, and imagine a chair (then open your eyes again a few seconds later, unless, y’know… someone is reading this to you). Really work up a good, detailed image of it in your mind’s eye. Make it a basic, wooden chair, but beyond that it can be anything you like.

You know what your chair looks like. You know the parts. You know its style, and how it makes you feel. Now… go into a wood shop and try to make that chair.

Most of us can’t. We don’t have the skills or the craft to do it. We don’t know what tools to use, what kind of lumber to choose. We have no idea how anything connects together. If we plunged ahead anyway, the result would be laughable at best, and dangerous at worst.

Similarly, most of us can picture a story in our head. We understand it. We see the moving parts. We know what emotional impact we want it to have on the reader, how it should “work.” But without an understanding of craft, the final result will be little better than that sad, misshapen chair. Just as carpentry craft takes you from mental image to a functional chair, writing craft takes you from what’s in your head to a story that actually works on the page. Craft also helps you dig deeper than your initial instinct, helping your writing to push past cliché, past worn-out tropes, and into something that is truly, uniquely you. I hope that thought excites you as much as it excites me.

And now that my mission statement is out of the way, let’s talk a bit about format. If all goes well, IMAGINE A CHAIR will run every Tuesday, with each column topping out at no more than 700 words or so. I want something you can easily read and absorb in one quick sitting. As a result, some topics will be covered in one column, while others will take several. And while I’d love to say that the topics will have some semblance of organization and flow – a graceful swoop from macro writing concerns to micro comics craft – it’ll probably be pretty random.

If there are any topics in particular you’d like to see covered, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me at paul@govtcomics.com, or hit me up on Twitter @PaulAllor. If this goes well, maybe we’ll do a couple of Q&A installments at some point down the road.

And let’s (again) be honest: it takes a certain amount of arrogance for me to presume I’m qualified to write this column. But please understand that while I will no doubt slip quite often into the Voice of God, nothing on this page should be considered prescriptive. These are just one person’s thoughts. Hopefully you find some utility in them, but if not, I understand.

Oh, and I should probably end my first writing-craft column with some actual, you know… writing advice. So, uhm… always make sure to give your characters funny names. Everyone loves funny names. Just ask Charles Dickens (hee hee hee hee… “Dickens.”)

See you next week.

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And now a quick word from our sponsor (which is me): Paul Allor is a comic book writer, letterer and editor based in North-Central Indiana, currently writing about himself in the third person. Paul has worked on franchises ranging from Guardians of the Galaxy to TMNT to GI Joe (click this bold bit for a comprehensive list. All the bold bits are hyperlinks, ya see. Modern technology). If you'd like to check out his work, I would recommend... er, he would recommend... okay, enough with this third-person malarkey. I would recommend you start with Tet, my critically-acclaimed war-torn romance comic with Paul Tucker. I'm also very proud of TMNT: Mutanimals with artist Andy Kuhn and colorist Nick Filardi, a story about post-traumatic stress disorder and terrorism set in the TMNT universe. With jokes. Mutanimals is also on sale right now for only $3.99, which is an insanely great deal. Then there's Past the Last Mountain, my geopolitical fantasy comic with Louie Joyce and Gannon Beck. It ran digitally this year, and we'll be kickstarting a print edition next month. But you can read the first issue for free right now, on this very site. Finally, you can also sign up for Paul Allor's newsletter for more information on Past the Last Mountain and other projects. He just slipped back into third person, since asking people to sign up for his newsletter makes Paul uncomfortable. End word from our sponsor.

#00 -- Coming Soon

Imagine a Chair: A Column on Comics Writing Craft, by Paul Allor. Launching June 21.

Finally.