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Paneling, Pacing, and Layout in Comics and Manga #2 - Little Rivkah's Journal [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]
Rivkah רִבְקָה

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Paneling, Pacing, and Layout in Comics and Manga #2 [Aug. 7th, 2006|06:19 pm]
Rivkah רִבְקָה

So okay, where did we leave off?

In our last installment (which you should read before even starting this one), I went over mostly panel size and borders, discussing how the panel itself can affect the flow of your story. Today I'm going to go over dialog balloons and their affect on story flow and pacing.

Ballooning is probably one of the most overlooked and least appreciated fields in the art of comic-making*. What a lot of people don't realize is that it isn't so much the shape of the balloons that's important; it's the layout of the balloons. Take for example Mr. Stickman, here:

He standing there, happy as can be. So let's give him a little dialog:

We know what he's saying in this panel, but . . . don't you think it could be better? Well, this is where the placement of your balloons comes in. Humor me for a moment and say aloud as though you were saying to a friend:

Everybody: "Gee. What a nice day it is. Not a cloud in the sky."

Notice the little pauses between sentences? Notice the lengthier pause between "What a nice day it is" and "Not a cloud in the sky?" Exact intonation will, of course, vary according to where you live and your dialect, but the basic speech pattern remains the same.

When we speak, there are natural pauses when we take a breath or lag behind/jump ahead in thought. Our timing changes according to the color of our emotions. When we're upset, our speech speeds up. When we're tired or cautious, it slows down. Sometimes we repeat words when we're particularly hesitant to voice our thoughts. The "I . . . I love you." is pretty common in shoujo.

So how do we show these pause in speech? Well, let's go back to our little stickman here, but break up the dialog balloons to better reflect the pattern of his speech:

When our eye travels across the page, it interprets any distance from one balloon to the next as a pause in speech.

When that space is filled with art, the eye will linger on the art and lengthen the pause even more.

Rather than leaving the character to the left or right of the panel and simply spacing the dialog balloons further apart, I often center the character on the panel and "settle" balloons around them to create these longer pauses. In that same scene with Leah playing the mischievous mad scientist with her cat, the first page last panel exactly shows this concept:

A question preceded by a statement usually has a pause before it, hence the placement of "Eh, Schrödinger?" to the right and "Perrrfect! Now to make you disappear!" to the left.

Using this same panel, let's move on to the next concept of dialog/balloon layout: Positioning

The majority of us being English-speakers, our natural reaction when reading a page is to start at the top left-hand corner and then make our way across the page reading right and down. Of course, many of us were raised on Japanese manga and can read as easily from right to left as left to right, but there is still that natural disposition to automatically start reading in the direction of one's native language. A few hundred books can't break the training of hundreds of thousands of ads, newspapers, blogs, websites, books, homework, and instruction materials written left-to-right in English.**

To demonstrate, here's the flow of the previous panel with dialog balloons:

Now what would happen if we were to flip the panel?

Well, here's the flow of the entire page:

And here's how the flow of the entire page with the last panel flipped splits up:

The eye doesn't know if it's supposed to read the TOP dialog balloon first or the LEFT dialog balloon first. In doing so, we confuse the reader who has to go back and read the balloons again to make certain they read them in the right order. This is bad, bad, bad, very bad. The flow of balloons and dialog and art should flow in as smooth a path as possible, entering at the top left hand corner of the page and exiting at the bottom right corner.

Now, this doesn't necessarily mean EVERY panel has to real left to right, top to bottom. Quite to the contrary! On page 138 of "Steady Beat," I had a lot of dialog to fit onto the page (actually, this whole chapter had a lot of dialog in general), but I didn't want the layout to look dull or boring. I wanted the art and dialog to flow as smooth and natural as possible.

Now, just sticking to the "left to right, up to down" policy, the page would look something like this***:

Unfortunately, this layout creates an overly-long pause between "E . . ." and ". . . F." To shorten the length of the pause, I moved "E . . .” a little more to the left and ". . . F" to the right:

I also moved "I . . ." in order to make sure the reader's eyes were directed more over Elijah, the speaker, than Leah. It's okay to make little adjustments like that for the sake of layout and design or to keep from obscuring the art too much. But IMHO, it's especially important the reader also knows who's speaking in the panel, and I'll often move balloons to indicate that.

Which brings us more directly to how art and dialog balloons interact with one another.

Naturally, you want your dialog balloons to be closest to the speaker on the page, especially if there is more than one person in the panel. It's very disconcerting to have the character on one side of the page and the dialog balloon all the way across.

It looks a bit like a floating, decapitated head, all lonely on the right side of the page.

Other than position of balloons being an indicator of who's speaking, dialog balloons can also serve to lead the reader through the art. When reading graphic literature, as beautiful as the art may be, it takes longer to read a balloon than it does to take a picture. Sadly, if you pile all of your balloons at the top of the page like so:

The reader is going to take less time to look at the art and skip right to the next balloon. Some people may overlook the art entirely, therefore missing important emotional clues on the face or in body language that would help them better interpret the tone of the dialog.

When you lay out the balloons and art on your page, try and visualize a connected line from the start of the page all the way to the end without breaking, making sure the balloons and art lead smoothly into one another. Here are a couple of examples that I hope you can learn from:

Dialog balloons are living, breathing, dynamic objects. Instead of just throwing them on the page, realize that they're a very part of the design and makeup of your story. There'd be no personality to the characters, no tone, no mood, no pace, and no direction without them.


In our next and last installment of this little series on paneling, pacing, and layout. I'll be covering the few things I didn't get to in the two previous posts such as doubled balloons, using sound FX for directing the eye, offsetting art in a panel or page, and knowing when to utilize same-sized sets of panels for special effects.



*Why aren't there any books on these things?

**And no, this essay isn't about publishing comics for a right-to-left audience. It's about writing comics for an English-speaking audience.

***Dialog taken out so that I don't give away too much of the plot. ;P

From: lefalcone
2006-08-07 11:36 pm (UTC)
Wow on parts 1 and 2. I learned a lot.
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[User Picture]From: selphish
2006-08-07 11:40 pm (UTC)
That's awesome. Memory'd.
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[User Picture]From: telophase
2006-08-07 11:58 pm (UTC)
*Why aren't there any books on these things?

I keep thinking about writing mroe essays and turning them into one, but haven't gotten much farther than that.
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From: crispypoohs
2006-08-08 12:56 am (UTC)
You definitely could. I wonder, if Mangaka America does well, maybe a #2 would be the next step :) In that case, you'd definitely have to write somethin.
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[User Picture]From: telophase
2006-08-08 01:02 am (UTC)
There's definitely a need for it - with all the How to Draw books out there, even for regular comics, they usually devote just a page or two to the ideas of visual flow and page composition, and those are the things that make comics comics and not just a bunch of pictures with writing on them.
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From: crispypoohs
2006-08-08 01:38 am (UTC)
For sure yo. I mean, you could dedicate an entire serie sof books to visual flow, pacing, and all those things that go into creating a comic, before you even draw your final figures.
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[User Picture]From: telophase
2006-08-08 03:00 am (UTC)
It looks like Scott McCloud may be doing just that, come September. I eagerly await that book.
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[User Picture]From: lilrivkah
2006-08-08 03:05 am (UTC)
Ha. Dude. That's awesome. *^-^* I have his other two how-to books, and I've was wondering exactly when his next one was coming out.
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[User Picture]From: kulimar
2006-08-08 12:06 am (UTC)
Yeah, it would be nice to have all those essays on manga creation from the internet compiled into one place. Great posts BTW. Think you could do one on crafting story beats from script to final art? (Perhaps like a 1-2 page example from your book even).

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[User Picture]From: honilee
2006-08-08 12:20 am (UTC)
I never knew how much work went into planning out panels! How do you write? Make a script, plan it out, then draw it?

Thanks again for posting this for us! It's so cool!
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From: devenybugom
2008-07-13 11:09 am (UTC)
Thank you for posting how much you make and explaining that’s actually cut in half by taxes and necessities, etc.
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[User Picture]From: dculver
2006-08-08 12:26 am (UTC)
I'm loving these, Rivkah.

keep them up!
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[User Picture]From: fernblossom
2006-08-08 03:24 am (UTC)
'Why aren't there any books on these things?'

Will Eisner talks about word balloon placement and pacing, but I think Scott Mccloud gets more into composition and flow. Either way this is a lot more in depth :)
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[User Picture]From: decibel45
2006-08-08 05:05 am (UTC)
Hey, now I know who those characters are! :P Though I do have trouble telling the difference between Leah and Sarai at times (and how the hell do you pronounce that, anyway?)
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[User Picture]From: dernjg
2006-08-08 08:25 pm (UTC)
You keep pushing down to the lower right corner. I'm not convinced that that's the best path for the eye on an even-numbered page. At some point, you need to push the eye back up to the next page, so that they can get back to panel No. 1 on the odd pages.
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[User Picture]From: lilrivkah
2006-08-09 04:53 am (UTC)
When you read a book, just because you finish at the bottom right corner, do you automatically cross over the page to the bottom left?
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[User Picture]From: dernjg
2006-08-09 03:21 pm (UTC)
Under that logic, the subconscious eye wouldn’t need everything that you just spoke of - it would scan left to right and top to bottom. But there’s all these pretty art things in the way that can trip it up.
If you’re just staring at a tombstone block of text, the layout would be fine. But paying attention to what is on the next page is almost as important as paying attention to what is where on the current page. I figured this out when my wife kept skipping ahead a page in some comics.
Again, it’s not an “always do this” matter, but it is something to consider.
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[User Picture]From: lilrivkah
2006-08-09 07:31 pm (UTC)
However, we've been trained to automatically start at the top left corner of every page, whether it's on the left or right. I agree that it's something to consider in some cases (take a two page spread, for example, or a single scene that crosses many pages). But I can't recall a time I've been reading a comic and ever been confused when crossing the page because the art stopped in the opposite corner.

Another thing to think of is that you have a very limited amount of space in which to tell a story. 160 pages may seem like a lot, but it actually runs out very, very quickly. A 5x7.5 page simply doesn't have enough room for the eye to make a full loop back up the right side of the page without it being some sort of borderless montage (bordered panels wouldn't work because the eye is automatically going to flip to the panel on the right, not down, with no room to crawl back up) . . . and montages typically indicate a single scene, cutting down on the amount of story and time covered on a single page. I think, if there were more room in which to work--say a children's book, larger issue comics, or full sized books like Flight, or even a web page which you can do all sorts of crazy things and the potential is pretty much limitless--this would be a wonderful concept. But I'm speaking purely in the context of graphic novels (because that's what the majority of young artists who read my journals also read and produce and need the most feedback on), though I have to say, I think it'd be more of a hindrance than help in those media as well (except for websites).

However, if you have examples, please feel free to post them. My opinion is always willing to be swayed, and I enjoy the intense discussion that goes along with differences in perspective and opinion. It's a beautiful thing that ART is something so broad in definition. :)
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[User Picture]From: goldfishhead
2006-08-09 12:28 am (UTC)
Ah! finaly! I've been trying to explain this stuff to my writer for months! thankyou~!

And yes, I was in a class from Scott this summer, and alot of this will be in there but its always good to have alternate methods of explaining things. Also, this takes into account the more fluid style of manga, and more diferse layouts. Scott's too old school for that ;)

If only I'd had this a year ago! Its usefull as is, but a year ago this would have been alost ALL new info to me.

Actualy...do you mind if I make use of this? I tutor a highschool girl, and I'm doing a couple one afternoon workshops at my local libraries this summer.

Let me know!
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[User Picture]From: lilrivkah
2006-08-09 12:32 am (UTC)
*lol!* You're welcome to do what you want with it. I put this stuff up free for a reason. :)
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[User Picture]From: thehornedgod
2006-08-09 01:23 am (UTC)
These are brilliant. Appreciated.
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[User Picture]From: absurdhero
2006-08-09 09:01 pm (UTC)
Cool stuff yet again. Breaking up the word balloons like that is something I've been meaning to mess with, but haven't normally had the space to do.
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[User Picture]From: dock
2006-08-10 10:53 am (UTC)
Great tutorial. This is a topic I have a lot of interest in, and often criticise comics for. I often edit my text considerably to work best with the flow of the page, and the placement of bubbles is crucial. Whenever I read comics with disrupted flow lines I feel like putting them down (but I usually don't, unless it's terrible ^^).
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From: dangilmore
2006-08-11 11:30 am (UTC)
Brilliant! Please teach us more!
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[User Picture]From: casanova_jaime
2006-10-06 03:15 am (UTC)
Great info! I'm making a comic book and this really is what I was looking for. I have a recently born web site where you can find different kinds of contests, there are comic strips and photography contests right now if you want to check at http://www.hamacaproductions.com/

Also the site has a forum for artists who create this kind of stuff and it will be great to have this tutorial in the comic books section!

Take a look at my site and let me know what you think, and soon you will se my comic book published there, hope you like it!

Thanks for this info!

Jaime Casanova
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From: (Anonymous)
2006-08-19 06:21 pm (UTC)

all caps

WOW great article, 10x a lot :)

but I have a question and am hoping that you'd know
Why are the letters all caps - is there some rule to it?
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From: (Anonymous)
2007-03-14 03:35 am (UTC)

Re: all caps

i would beleive this is because the cap's are easyly identifyed by the eye.
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From: swingalittle
2007-05-05 10:52 pm (UTC)

Re: all caps

It's tradion. I think it was just easiest to write excatly the same for pages. But lots of people now are trying both.
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From: (Anonymous)
2007-04-28 09:36 am (UTC)

Paneling, Pacing, and Layout in Comics and Manga: Part 3?

Wow... Your tutorials are really helpful, especially to newbies like me.
I really love them and I recommended my friends to read them.
BTW, you mentioned that there will be another installment for this tutorial series - dealing with doubled baloons, using sound FX for directing the eye, offsetting art in a panel or page, and knowing when to utilize same-sized sets of panels for special effects.
I'll be very pleased to know when it will be released.
Thanks ^^
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From: 7wrc
2007-05-02 09:26 pm (UTC)
Bookmarked. Thanks.
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From: (Anonymous)
2007-09-15 01:30 am (UTC)
Ive learned more in these 5 minutes about panneling and layout than I have in five years...seriously.
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From: (Anonymous)
2007-11-25 11:12 pm (UTC)

testing this one...

Very interesting... as always! Cheers from -Switzerland-.
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From: (Anonymous)
2010-01-27 03:17 am (UTC)

Re: testing this one...

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From: blueliath
2008-01-18 04:02 am (UTC)
very helpful! thank you :)
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From: (Anonymous)
2008-05-22 01:16 am (UTC)
Beautiful and brilliant! Thanks for this. I'm working on a manga right now and I've been told my composition is alittle off. Never understood what that meant. Hopefully after reading all these, I'll have a better grasp :) Have a great week Rivkah! ;)-GIO
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From: (Anonymous)
2008-06-18 02:12 pm (UTC)

This article (please reply)

I am writing a manga, a psychological thriller/action with the use of alot of dialog and with the use of a narrator. Thing is... I am having trouble actually writing it, all my ideas are there, all my charcerts are there the plots there and when it comes to panelling etc I am stuck. This helped a little but I am sorry to say it didnt help any more than I needed it to :( but thanks for your hard work it is appreciated.

I am writing from right to left btw. Any help?
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[User Picture]From: juannavarro
2009-03-25 03:04 pm (UTC)


Thanks this was kick-ass...
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[User Picture]From: maten_kyoumon
2011-11-22 07:00 am (UTC)
The two installments of this post are great. I thought I just needed to tell you that!
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