Thursday, September 25, 2003

Writing for Comics 101: Part II

In assigning a number of panels to certain sequence, writers need to determine the amount of impact the sequence needs to give. If a writer is restricted by a fixed number of pages, then the task becomes a matter of checks and balances, and difficulties set in because, certainly, all sequences are important.

(Here, let me make a distinction between a scene and a sequence. While a scene occurs in one defined location, a sequence can occur in multiple locations; a running battle, for example, or a cut-to-cut of different scenes.)

I’ve mentioned previously that there are two factors that influence page budgeting – Level of Spectacle and Amount of Text. Auxillary factors connected to these are Intensity of Drama and Nature of Sequence, both of which tie in to determining the number of panels in a sequence.

Intensity of Drama. Drama involves emotional intensity, and the number of panels that can be used in a given sequence is based on the amount of tension a writer wants to evoke. One panel translates to a unit of the reader’s time. As a basic rule, barring any involvement of text and panel size for now, more panels used in a sequence translates to a higher tension build-up.

Put simply, let one panel evoke one level of tension. By the time a reader is done with panel two, the tension level goes up to two. After panel three, tension goes up to three levels, and so forth. The higher the number of panels used, the higher the tension level goes. By panel ten, a reader would have ten levels of tension in his system, which is a good time to drop a plot bomb. (Your babelicious heroine saying she was once a man, for example.)

The key here is not letting tension level go too high, because a reader can hold only so much. (“That rave scene was too long!!”) Conversely, too few panels in a pivotal sequence can clip the tension too early, reducing the sequence’s intended impact.

Nature of Sequence. Think of the effect of sequences as ascending and descending slopes in a mountain range. Over the course of a comics issue or chapter, the sequences should take a reader through carefully planned ascents and dips, building up to a cliffhanger or climax-denouement. And the number of panels a writer assigns to a sequence can contribute to this reading pattern.

Take a look at this:

XX XXXX XXXXX XXX XXXXXX XXXXXXXXX XXXX

The above pattern coul be a typical superhero adventure story. Here we assume that one X equates to a unit of the reader’s time. A series of X’s is a sequence in the story. The above pattern shows that there is an initial build-up of tension over the first three sequences before dipping at the fourth, then the tension builds again to the highest peak by the seventh sequence, then dipping again. In this case, there is an obvious introduction (Sequence 1), climax (Sequence 7), and denouement (Sequence 8). A story would go something like this.

XX
Dr. Deathroyer does some evil thing. Escapes.

XXXX
Hero headquarters. The Power Pinoys are going about their business (monitoring computers, laundering their costumes, feeding the super pet) until the alarm rings.

XXXXX
The Power Pinoys go to the heart of a city to destroy a giant robot. “Where could it have come from?” they ask. “We will get to the bottom of this!” they declare.

XXX
Goma Mella, the Power Pinoys’ rubbery floral-themed teammate, visits her estranged husband to talk about their daughter who has eloped. Husband tells her, “You said you could take care of her alone. So don’t come here for help.” Goma Mella leaves in tears.

XXXXXX
Cut-to-cut of the Power Pinoys investigating the origins of the giant robot. All clues point to Dr. Deathroyer. They go to the villain’s not-so-secret underground sanctum and are attacked by flame-breathing taho vendors. They are captured.

XXXXXXXXX
Dr. Deathroyer reveals world-domination plan. Power Pinoys are subjected to inescapable deathtrap. Goma Mella appears just in time and destroys deathtrap, freeing her teammates. Big battle. Heroes capture Dr. Deathroyer as underground sanctum collapses.

XXXX
Headquarters. Power Pinoys congratulate each other, patting each other’s backs and cracking corny lisp jokes. Hahahah. Goma Mella excuses herself and goes to balcony. Teammate and friend Barakomander follows and consoles her. She looks at him and says, “I may be a valuable member of the Power Pinoys. But I can’t even take care of my daughter. Why is that?” Barakomander falls silent. Sunset.


The sequence patterns take different forms, with the number of panels in each sequence influencing the relative rise and fall of tension across the story. Here are a few more sequence patterns and try to see how tension is treated in each, based on the amount of time assigned to each sequence.

Pattern 1:
XXXXXXXXXX XXXXXX XXX XXX XXX XXX XXXXXX XX

Pattern 2:
XXXXX XXX XXX XXX XXX XXX XXX XXX XXXXXXXXX

Pattern 3:
XXX XXX XXXXXXXX XXX XXX XXX XXXXXXXXX XXX

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