Paneling, Pacing, and Layout in Comics and Manga #1
Working on Steady Beat Volume 2, I started to seriously focus on how I pace my stories. After penciling the last four chapters, I even went back and reworked (almost redrew) the first two. There's a consistency now to the pacing that makes it feel much more natural than perhaps the previous volume did. To me, at least. We'll see what the fans have to say once it hits the shelves. ^_~
For me, the most important thing to keep in mind when working with pacing in your graphic novel is:
Intentional, controlled variety.
There are many ways to control the pacing in your story. There's the writing itself. There's the art. And then there's the actual layout of the page. Think of it like an advertisement; you want the reader to look somewhere specific on the page first and then to intentionally lead their eye around the page for extra information. In the case of a comic page, you're leading the reader from art to dialog to art to dialog again at a pace that controls the feel and flow behind the story. People stutter when they talk. Characters have breaks in speech and uncomfortable silences. Sometimes we just want the eye to linger on a page to experience the intensity of a particular emotion. Other times we want the reader to move as quick and fast as possible in order to feel the character's urgency for speed or to feel the flow of frames as though the action were moving in real time.
When we look at a single panel:
We recognize this as a single instance in time. When we look at two panels:
We recognize that the first and second panels are a sequence in time, the first panel occurring before the first.
But what about time within the panel itself?
The illusion of time is created by the time it takes for the eye to travel across the page. Think of your page as a series of blocks of time like so:
The larger your panel:
The longer your eye will linger on that particular instance. The smaller your panel:
The shorter the moment will feel and the more quickly your reader will move on to other, more important panels.
So how do you know when to use larger and smaller panels? Well, let's take a few pages from Volume 2 of "Steady Beat"*:
Now that you've read that, let's take out the art and dialog and just leave in the panels:
What's the "beat" like? Where do your eyes linger? Where do they quickly pass? Maybe you'll notice that last page is a page all of the same panel size while the rest are of varying widths, heights, and even a variety of border vs. non-border. What's the logic behind it all?
The first page of this sequence also happens to be the first page of chapter four ("Beat 9"):
In this scene, the first panel is of Leah obviously in her room, busy at her desk. Note that it is also the largest panel on the page. Establishing shots should be the largest panel on the page. The setting sets the tone for the entire scene, relaying to the reader mood, location, and where they should expect the story to go. Also, making a point of establishing setting on the first page of a sequence of events makes it not so necessary to have to draw so many backgrounds in subsequent panels. There are times I leave out backgrounds entirely if I feel the need is for an emotionally heightened scene, but I don't do that without having an establishing shot first.
After the establishing shot, the scene moves on to show Leah apparently conducting an experiment on her cat, Schrödinger (physics fans should feel the love). However, before showing exactly what's going on, notice how there's a sort of "in-between" shot? You can see just a bit of what's going to happen next, but it doesn't give the full information away:
Japanese manga does this a lot. Little in-between moments that help spread out the pacing of the story. It's a transition from one moment to the next so that the pacing doesn't feel so jarring. Imagine walking into a room and suddenly being thrown into a conversation. That doesn't typically happen, though, does it? When we walk into a room of people, we take a good look at our surroundings, then we take an assessment of the situation, and THEN we join the conversation.
As these transition panels tend to be less important than the actual action or dialog in a scene, I make the panels smaller.
So, in order of most important panel (1) to least (3), here's how the page would look:
Starting to see a pattern here?
Any change in mood, theme, tone, or setting usually asks for more time, more dominance on the page, and therefore more space. If you take a look again at the sequence, try to pick out the major transitions or moments:
So then, what about borders? Why do some panels have borders while others bleed out onto the page? Well, there's two explanations for this:
Will Eisner set a precedent in his paneling by going with an "A, B, A, B" approach. A rhythmic variation from bordered panel to borderless and back again. It creates a sort of "beat" that helps maintain a constant interest in the storytelling. Like the bass beat in dance music. There's no tune necessary for the melody itself, but somehow . . . it keeps you tapping your feet and interested in the song. It's rhythmic and therefore unstoppable.
On the other hand, sometimes this approach doesn't quite work. What about something like the first page? If the last panel were open, it'd bleed into the first panel. And how do I know to start with an open panel rather than a closed one?
Well, again, like the concept of larger panels creating a longer sense of time and importance, the absence of a panel tacks on a little more time. Instead of traveling from panel border to panel border, The eye then travels across the ENTIRE page, lending a sense of timelessness . . .
. . . like a moment lingering in the air. This is wonderful for emotionally heightened moments (like that kissing scene you've been building up to or the moment Achilles is finally struck on the heel). Of course, there are lots of these little moments in normal scenes as well, and establishing shots are one of those.
So we take the two theories and adjust: Instead of thinking of the panels as "A,B,A,B", we think in blocks of panels. Here's how these pages would break down:
This is a technique utilized more in shonen manga than shoujo, but it's one I like nonetheless. It keeps that same steady beat in pacing without being overly complex.
Which brings us to last rule of sizing panels on a page. Try not to make all your panels the same size, whether it's a block of panels or individual. A page that looks like this:
Or even this:
Doesn't look nearly so appealing as this:
A little visual variety keeps the storytelling interesting. Remember that!
In tomorrow’s installment, we’re going to move on a bit and talk about layout. Or specifically, overall layout, including how to utilize balloon position with art in order to direct the reader’s eye at a specific pace and direction across the page.
*pages that don't actually give the plot of the book away, that is. ^_~
And here's installment #2!