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.
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