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B&N Week 10: Pacing

| March 1, 2011 | 10 Comments

I just checked the calendar, and it told me it’s Tuesday!

That means it’s Howdy Doody time! [Did I just date myself again? Do I hear a thunderous silence?]

Last week we talked more in depth about panel descriptions and camera angles, but that’s really only the beginning of actual scripting. Here’s where we begin talking about telling a story within a script. That starts with pacing.

What is pacing? Pacing covers a few moving parts, and they’re interconnected. If even one part is off, then it’ll be said that you’re pacing is off, and that can be very vague to say. Just like it takes a whole team to run a play in football, it takes all parts of pacing in order to get it right.

So what are the moving parts to pacing?

Pacing covers the number of words in a panel, the number of panels on a page, and the number of actions in the panel/page. Easy, right?

Wrong.

Pacing is a rabid, snarling beast that’s ready to chew you up, body and soul, and then spit you back out, laughing all the while, and never getting you caught in it’s teeth so that it needs a toothpick for a sticky bit. Lots of books aren’t going to delve much into pacing. Hell, the one book that I point beginners to all the time doesn’t really go into it. That book is The DC Guide to Writing Comics, and it’s a wonderful primer for beginners. However, as an editor, I find it sorely lacking in tons of spots. Again, I see it as just a primer, like a child given their first chapter book. It lays a great foundation, but it leaves a lot of work left out. These are things that I’m guessing the writer felt was best left to the editor working with new writers, and that’s all well and good. However, if you understand and implement the things I’m going to be telling you, you’re going to be ahead of the pack.

So, this week, we’re basically going to talk about Pacing.

I recently edited two scripts–one was for a friend, the other as a job–and these two scripts couldn’t have been more different than fire and water. The first script was pretty good with its pacing: the characters moved well from panel to panel and scene to scene, and I only had a little bit to do in the way of smoothing out some transitions. It started out kinda quietly, with a couple of flashbacks, and then went into action that rose steadily. Some implied violence, some guys getting thrown through windows, then guns, then a motorcycle fight with chainsaws. Yeah. My idea of a good time. As an editor, there was little to do with this script, which was amazing to me because this person had never written a comic in his life. He’s a full-time novelist by trade. (Aha! Novelist! Steven…) Wait. Before you get yourself all worked up, you have to understand that writing comics, while similar to writing a book in some respects, is still a totally different language. Not everyone can do it, and certainly not everyone can do it well their first time out. So, yes, I was impressed.

The other script I edited was different. The writer had the format down, but didn’t know how to effectively tell a story with it. This writer told a story in twenty eight pages that could have been done in sixteen, which leaves six pages for the standard twenty-two page story, which meant that he went an extra six pages from there, and in the end, nothing really happened. It started with an assassination, and then meandered all over the place: a strip club, the assassin’s home, someone else’s home, and then ended at a party where the assassin was to kill someone and they messed that up by talking to someone else while stalking their prey. At night. In a mostly deserted alley.

There was no pacing. [Hell, there was no plotting, which can help with the pacing.]

(Steven, you keep talking about it, just get to it already!)

Okay, okay.

Pacing. It’s going to be different for every story, but there are some guidelines you can follow. Signposts. There’s one thing you need to remember, though.

As a writer, the only thing you have COMPLETE mastery of is Time. You do this in a variety of ways: the number of panels on a page, the amount of time taken between panels, how large the panel itself is, whether or not there’s sound in the panel… Time in comics is HUGE, and only by thoroughly understanding it will you be able to utilize it well.

There are a lot of tricks with Time, but one of the most basic things you’re going to do is have a panel count. The more panels you have on a page, the slower your scene goes. The less panels you have on a page, the faster your scene goes.

Now, some may want to argue this point with me. (Argue with you, Steven? You don’t say…) They say that they’ve been told the opposite: the more panels, the faster it is, and the less panels, the slower because you have more time for reflection. (Yeah! What about that, huh?) I’m not going to say they’re wrong–that’s their reading experience–but I’m going to say that they’re not reading it correctly.

If you have a page that has ten panels on it, are you really going to tell me that it takes you a shorter time to read that than a page that has two or three panels on it? Let’s say you looked through each panel instead of just glancing at them. Is it still “reversed” for you?

I didn’t think so.

So, the more panels you have, the more you slow Time down, and the less panels, the more you speed it up. Scott McCloud goes into it a lot more in his treatise on comic book theory, Understanding Comics, which also happens to be the second book I tell every new writer to get. [And the order I mention them is the order I want you to read them, too. Understanding Comics comes after the DC Guide, not before. There are reasons for that. The DC Guide provides the “how”, Understanding Comics provides the “why.”]

Now, most comics you read are going to have roughly five to seven panels per page. Some ambitious writers will go the nine-panel grid route, but that’s advanced writing and hard to sustain [and hard on your artist, to boot]. Remember that the more panels you have on the page, the smaller each panel has to be, so the less space you’re actually going to have per panel.

Action scenes need a snappy pace. (Well, duh!) If that’s so obvious, why do I continually read scripts that have six and seven panel pages for an action scene? (Well, that’s not me.) No, not anymore. But it WAS you, and you’re the reason I’m making this point.

Generally speaking, action scenes should have about four panels per page, and it should be rising action. They can lead to a splash page, but the action to that should be faster and faster, and then get to the splash, and then go slower and slower.

Here’s an example:

You have a chase scene. It’s five pages long. The first page has four panels. The second page has two panels. The third page is a splash. The fourth page has three panels, and the fifth has five.

This is a decent formula that will rarely steer you wrong for an action scene. Sure, you can lengthen the page count, just remember your comics makeup when it comes to turning points and page counts, and knowing which page lays where.

Now, for non-action, its generally acceptable to have five to seven panels [or more, depending] per page. It’s talking heads, sure, but the conversation has to be riveting, not to mention have a point.

You want to have roughly three scenes in your book, at least. I wouldn’t say more than five, but at least three. Those scenes can be broken up any way you want, but I don’t suggest all talking or all action. A nice mix of both, definitely, but not all of one or the other. Why? An all action book is a fast read, and difficult to care about. Action has its place as counterpoint to drama. An all action issue will be breezed through quickly, and then the reader will feel like they haven’t gotten their money’s worth. An all talking book? That better be a damned good conversation.

The length of your scenes are going to be dependent on the story you’re telling–your objective for that particular issue. Remember when we spoke about plotting? That plot you wrote will help with your pacing immensely. It will give you a rough page count, and you should already be seeing particular panels in your head that you want to incorporate in those scenes.

A few words about splash pages.

Reading the DC Guide, it will tell you that a splash page is generally a page with the title and where the credits go, and that lots of writers today use the term “splash” page incorrectly, really meaning a full page shot. I’m not going to go against Denny. However, I’m going to say that the term “splash” is becoming more and more interchangeable with Full Page Shot.

When possible, unless you’re starting the book with one, these should be on the left hand side if possible. The reason? Because you have to turn the page to get there. A splash page/full page shot should be a dramatic, powerful image. You don’t want that image to be on the right-hand side if you can help it because it loses some impact if you don’t have to turn the page to get there. It’s a psychological thing that you’re probably not even aware of. The splash/fps [not first person shooter] should come as something of a surprise, even if you can feel it’s coming because of rising dramatic tension/action. Placing them on the left whenever possible will help with that.

Also, watch the amount of splash pages you use. One or two per issue is a great number, three can be okay, but anything over three should be a no-go. [There could be a small correlation between the number of scenes you have per issue and the number of splashes per issue, but it’s tenuous at best.] More than three will be seen [probably correctly] as padding, and that’s not something you want to do.

There’s also a double-page splash, and it means just what you think: a splash page over two pages. The most important thing to remember about this is to watch where they fall. It should always, always, ALWAYS be even-odd, and never odd-even. Why? Because of the page count.

Time for a quick counting lesson.

If P1 starts your book, and it’s on the right hand side, then when you turn the page, P2 falls on the left, and P3 on the right. So, even pages fall on the left, and odd pages fall on the right. With me so far? So, for a double-page splash, it HAS to start on the left and finish on the right. It has to start even and end odd. (I get it, but it sounds strange.) I know. Go with it.

Now, as a general rule, you shouldn’t have more than one double-page splash per issue. Your story more than likely won’t need it, and you’re eating up real estate [pages] that you can use to better effect, such as moving the story forward. The rules for leading up to a double-splash remain the same as for a regular splash page.

And now, I guess it’s time to talk a little bit about dialogue, but only as it pertains to pacing. Dialogue itself is another discussion totally. And yes, you’ll hear some of this again. Comics are a web, with each part dependent upon the next.

Words. When it comes to pacing, words are very important. I’m talking about the amount said, not what or how it’s said. This equation is overly simplistic, but the “rules” for dialogue are no longer absolutely sound. There used to be a guide for the amount of words per page, even per panel, but there’s been enough change with storytelling techniques that these can go out the window. Just know that it’s not a big window, which means we get to keep some of it.

Simply put, the more words you have, the more art you cover. I remember the first time I saw pages of my very first comic produced. It was awesome! The artwork was beautiful, and I didn’t want to cover it up with my drivel. However, this is the time when you first realize that it’s a comic book, and although you don’t want to cover the pretty pictures with mere words, you have to.

So, the more words you have, the more art you cover. Simple. Elegant. But there’s more!

The number of words you have should be in direct inverse proportion to the amount of panels you have on the page. The more panels, the less words per panel. (Duh, Steven. Boy, I say that a lot, don’t I?) Yes, you do, but if I didn’t have to say it, I wouldn’t.

New writers want to put fifteen panels on a page, and have Shakespearian soliloquies in each, and there just isn’t enough space for that. So you have to watch the amount of words you have both per panel and per page. Now, the opposite is also true–the less panels, the more words you can carry per page.

(So, Steven, what was the formula that you think no longer applies?)

Thirty-five words per panel. That’s a ton, but it’s also very easy to chew through. This paragraph alone has twenty-one words.

Something to think about.

Now, with thirty-five words per panel, the second rule was that no balloon should contain more than twenty-five of them. More than that, and it would look too big and cover artwork.

Now, if you have six panels, you’ve got a maximum of 210 [!] words per page. Slice and dice that any way you wish. [And these were DC standards given to Alan Moore by an editor there. Argue with the master about it if you wish.]

Even though I don’t hold tightly to this, I think it’s a great place for new writers to start. You get a nice mix of art and words. Balance, Writer-san.

I also promised one of my pet peeves, and I might as well go over it here. That pet peeve is silent opening pages.

I don’t advocate the use of a silent page to start a brand new series. You have WAY too much work ahead of you as the writer in setting up the series and the scenario than to try to start off a brand new Pen-Man series with a silent page. In the late 70s and early 80s, there was a saying going around that still holds true today, even though you don’t hear it often: every comic is someone’s first. Now if you, as the creator of Pen-Man, are trying to start his adventures out with a silent first page, I will say that you’re wrong, no matter how powerful the image is. If it’s that powerful, then save it for the end, when you’ve built something up to justify it.

So, that’s my own personal first rule of silent pages: no silent pages to start a brand new series. The reader hasn’t earned it yet. As the writer, neither have you.

Now, that isn’t to say that you shouldn’t do it with established characters.

Let’s say Marvel decided to start Web of Spider-Man up again [actually, I have a pretty good take on what that should be, but we’ll leave it for now]. I think it would be permissible to start the very first issue with a silent page. Even though every comic is someone’s first, it’s the rare person in America that hasn’t heard about Spider-Man and know at least a little something about him. So, you have to know what battle you’re fighting.

My second personal rule is that newbies shouldn’t try to start an issue with a silent page. This is VERY close to the first one, and the reason is simple: they don’t know what they’re doing.

Harsh, I know, however, it’s also true. Look around the ‘net and read some scripts, and you’ll see varying degrees of success. Most of them have their problems. I’d go so far as to say the bulk of them. Now, picture a newbie who’s already proven they don’t know what they’re doing, trying to start out a story with a silent page.

Yeah, gives me chills, too.

When to use silent pages? A great place [the best, in my opinion] is the very last page of the issue. However, you had to have earned it. You had to have built up to it, so that it pays off. If you haven’t, it’s just a waste of space, and I’ll call you on it every time.

Silent panels are good whenever you need them. They provide a nice beat in the story, letting whatever was said last sink in, or provide tension to build up what’s about to be said next, or because and emotionally fraught/something so awesome just happened/bombshell dropped that it doesn’t need words to convey it. See Ultimate Spider-Man for great uses of silent panels.

Basically, to paraphrase Kenny Rogers, you gotta know when to use ’em.

Okay, end of rant.

Homework: it’s counting. Easy, right? I want you to count a few things, because we spoke about a lot today. I want you to take a few comics and count the number of scenes in them, and how many pages each scene is. More importantly, I want you to count the panels per page in a few scenes for both action and drama. Then I want you to count the words both per panel and per page, for different scenes. Write all of these down.

Once you’ve done that, I want you to take a script you’ve written and do the same thing as above, and compare the two. Then we can come back and discuss your findings.

And you thought writing comics was easy…

Anyway, next week we’ll talk about dialogue in all of its forms. Until then, as my favorite chef used to say, “I bid you peace.”

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Category: Bolts & Nuts

About the Author ()

Steven is an editor/writer with such credits as Fallen Justice, the award nominated The Standard, and Bullet Time under his belt, as well as work published by DC Comics. Between he and his wife, there are 10 kids (!), so there is a lot of creativity all around him. Steven is also the editor in chief and co-creator of ComixTribe, whose mission statement is Creators Helping Creators Make Better Comics. If you're looking for editing, contact him at stevedforbes@gmail.com for rate inquiries.

Comments (10)

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  1. John_Lees says:

    Good article! Pacing is regularly one of my weak points, so I think this refresher on the subject was overdue for me. Reading it certainly got me thinking, and I’ll be trying to apply it to my work better.

    I’m not sure I fully agree with everything here, though. I can see the logic that more panels on a page will slow it down and less on a page will speed it up, and some of the time I think that yes, this is indeed the case. Especially in dialogue-heavy scenes. But I don’t think it appliies all the time, and in many cases – particularly in action scenes – I find the opposite to be true.

    For example, let’s imagine a big cimactic fight scene between Chilly Willy and The Golden Hemorrhoid. If I was writing this four page scene, I might start with a 4 panel page, showing both men facing each other down, then reaction shots of each man, before finishing up with them charging towards each other. I’m wanting this to be a slow moment, building up anticipation, and the larger, more detailed images encourage the eye to focus more on them, taking more time to dwell on the moment. I’d also probably make this an odd-numbered page, so the reader would have to turn the page to start reading the fight itself.

    With the second page, I’d be tempted to try using 8 or 9 panels. All with shots in quick succession. Panel one could be Willy punching the Hemorrhoid in the face, panel 2 the Hemmorrhoid poking Willy in the eye, panel 3 Willy giving Hemorrhoid a purple nurple, and so on and so forth. Generally, a series of snapshots of quick, blink-and-you’ll-miss them moments. All small panels, crammed together, encourage the eye to race through them. It’s like putting the reader in amidst the quick, frenzied atmosphere of a battle.

    By the third page, these two titans have grown exhausted from beating on each other, so the pace of the battle has slowed. Perhaps evil Chilly Willy has gained the advantage over our hero, The Golden Hemorrhoid, and so taunts him while he’s down, giving him a boot in the ribs while boasting about his superiority. But heroic Hemorrhoid is building up his strength, and regains the advantage, lecturing Willy on how evil will never prevail. There is motion here, so I’m not trying to create a sense of stillness like with the first page, but there is also dialogue, so the pace has slowed down a bit, and I want that reflected in the reading experience. So I’d probably use 5 or 6 panels here, with the reader taking a little time on each panel as they read the dialogue, but things are still moving forward. And with how I began the scene, page 3 also falls on an odd-numbered page, allowing for a page turn…

    The final page of the fight is a full-page splash, with The Golden Hemorrhoid blasting a massive fireball out of his anus, setting Chilly Willy ablaze and flying screaming into the air like one of Dhalsim’s opponents in a “Street Fighter” game. This is a big moment, where the whole fight is brought to a standstill, and much like the big slow-motion knockout punch in a film, I want the reader to dwell on this climactic moment. A big splash page, lots of detail, encourages the reader’s eye to settle on that moment for a little while, slowing down the scene in their head.

    So I think that more panels on a page CAN be said to speed up a scene, while less panels CAN slow it down. Though having said that, I’ve also done things the other way like Steve recommends, using 8 panels in a page to create a sense of slow motion, of a single moment being drawn out. It all depends on context.

    I’m also interested in the taboo of the silent opening page. It’s something I’ve never attempted, not feeling competent enough that I could pull it off, but I’m fascinated by the sheer ballsiness of the idea. The name of it escapes me, but I remember encountering one comic where the first FOUR pages are silent, and are taken up by nothing but sunrise in a city, as we see night give way to morning in intimate detail. I’d love the challenge of trying to grab someone’s attention without words.

    I’ve long dwelled on the idea of a haunted house comic: speaking of taboos, the idea came to me from Steven Forbes saying that it is impossible to make one scary. I’ve never went ahead with writing it because, as far as I can tell, Steve is right, and I at least can’t find the tools within the comic medium to tell a haunted house story effectively. But I’m going to keep trying to figure it out. The one idea I do have would be to open with several silent pages, filled with establishing shots of the various rooms of the house, culminating in a full-page splash of the exterior establishing shot of the house as a whole. Not something I think I can pull off yet. Hence why I’m sitting on the idea for now.

    Okay, so let’s look at how pacing works with the breaking down of scenes. I’ve been talking a lot about “Scalped” lately, so I’ll use the most recent issue, #46, as my case study. The issue can broken down into 5 scenes over its 20 pages.

    The first scene is 4 pages, the first and fourth of which are both splash pages. The setting is a cave, where one character is holding another captive. In the case of the first page, we have a close-up of the character in peril. I imagine this is going to be a recurring trend throughout the current arc (“You Gotta Sin to Get Saved”) as the first part began with a full-page close-up of another character. This is telling us that the issue will be told largely from that character’s perspective, slowing down as we dwell on getting into their mindset. The second page is 6 panels, and the third page is 5, both of which are dialogue based and move by pretty fast. The fourth page is another splash, in this case setting up a dangerous scenario, and drawing our eye across the page to explore said scenario in more detail. Again, slowing down.

    The second scene is five pages long, and is a talking heads scene, based around one character visiting another in prison. As opposed to the previous scene, the increased number of panels are used here to slow things down – the panel counts are 7, 6, 6, 7 and 6 respectively. Here, close-ups and silent beats are inserted in to create pregnant pauses between the conversation, slowing the scene down. In the final page, we see the prisoner walking back to his cell. This could have been done in one panel. But by taking four – one of him walking, one with the camera placed behind a cell of prisoners staring at him as he walks, one with a close-up of the prisoner’s eyes looking sideways, and another high-angle shot looking down at him walking, we dwell on the scene, thinking more about the character’s vulnerability.

    Now things get complicated, as the next 9 pages are shared by both the third and fourth scene of the comic, which us cutting back and forth between the two locations. Both are action scenes, of a sort. The first scene is of our kidnapped captive trying to escape from the cave, while the other returns to our prisoner, waiting anxiously for an attempted assassination in the showers he fears is coming his way. We’re four pages into scene three before scene four starts encroaching, and with both scenes jostling for space in the same page we get an increased page count, the page gets more crowded, and it feels like the pace is picking up, each scene building to a crescendo. But then scene 4 ends with a 7-panel page of its own and scene 3 ends with a 5-panel page, where the crescendo stops, and each ends surprisingly quietly. In the case of each scene conclusion, the panels on the top half of the page are packed tightly, before opening out into larger panels at the bottom of the page, when things get still. Again, larger panels slowing things down.

    The final scene is a 2-panel page, with one character confronting an unknown figure at gunpoint. The first page is 5 panels, and goes by slowly, building tension for the reveal of who the character is. We turn the page, and the last page of the issue is a full-page splash, revealing what character our assailant is talking to. Because it’s the last moment of the issue, we dwell on it.

    So I’m afraid I haven’t been very helpful here. Pages with lots of panels can be used to slow things down… or speed them up. With the same writer using it to do two different things within the same comic, no less!

    The art of pacing is a difficult thing to get right, and I know I have to work hard to get better mastery of it myself. But I find it interesting how it can be approached in different ways.

  2. John_Lees says:

    Thanks! I feel I’ve fallen behind a bit on doing the homework these past couple of weeks, so I wanted to make sure to try and get something worthwhile written this time round.

  3. John_Lees says:

    Also, typo alert above. I meant to say “the final scene is a 2-page panel”. Not “2-panel page”.

  4. John_Lees says:

    Wait a minute, that’s wrong too. “A 2-page SCENE”. Gah!

  5. Ruiz Moreno says:

    I’m curious about the pacing that seem to “bleed” over into multiple panels. For instance, a scene where a man’s face is shown in four split up panels or when the background of a page is used as a panel with others layered over it. I’ve seen this more and more lately in comics.

    What are your thoughts on the pacing for these scenes? Other than drama, I’m not sure they are always conveyed properly and seem to just take up space. Thoughts?

    • Have any samples you can post for me to see? Or send it to me. I have a vague idea of what you’re talking about, but I’d need to see it to make sure we’re on the same page.

      • Ruiz Moreno says:

        I’m trying to find one that will be worthy of scanning Steve, I’ve seen it during my recent in depth read of SCALPED titles. Basically, if you imagine a characters face and have it actually split up into three panels is one method I’ve seen. Another is having an entire background of a page be a panel and then having three panels on top of it in various spots, if that helps in the mean time.

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