Pacing is critical to the comic reading experience and to the well executed script.
It’s the glue that binds the reader.
Too much, things get bogged down… attention spans wander, boredom sets in, you can lose your reader. Too little, things move too fast… details are missed, deeper engagement and subtext vanishes, readers get lost, you can lose your reader.
Like much of writing, pacing is an artform unto itself—there’s no one metric to govern it, pretty much everything in story development comes into play. I discuss various aspects of the topic in the books and elsewhere on the site, but today we’re going to talk about what I consider to be one of the most fundamental building blocks of pacing… escalation.
You don’t put the climatic end of the story first, then work towards the beginning. The literal end of that story would be anti-climatic. You’d be shrinking instead of escalating.
I know some of you smarty pants are saying, wait… I’ve seen a dozen movies where they show the ending first, then build back up to it… NO… you’ve seen a bunch of movies where they OPEN on the ending, then cut away, build up the story, then come back to FINISH the ending. The ending still goes at the end. (yeah I’m sure somebody, somewhere wrote a backwards story. There are always exceptions to every rule.)
The mantra I have repeated time and time again is, Big, Bigger, Biggest.
Big, big, big, comes across flat. “It never went anywhere…”
Big, big, bigger, comes across lacking. “Meh, the ending was just too soft.” And so on…
Escalating experience builds and is cumulative. An ascending ladder connects and puts emphasis on both the thing that came before and the thing that comes after. A ladder at any other angle, doesn’t get you to the apples.
Ultimately, the best stories are developed when ALL the story elements have escalation. Everything gets sharper, harder, faster, bigger toward the end. But often, a story will focus on the escalation of one primary element. (This element is closely tied to genre which we’ll talk about shortly.)
Ok, here’s where it gets good.
9 times out of 10, the primary story element writers rely on as their main vehicle of escalation is… violence and action.
You don’t believe me.
Go grab some random comics and take a look. I’ll do the same here, let’s see, first I have… Logan… Ahahahhaha. That’s too easy…
Next is DK 3 the Master Race, well seeing as Batman is strangling the joker on the cover, I’m thinkin’ that’s workin’ off violence and action (pretty much every superhero comic does)… Ok, leme open my secret comic cabinet and see if I can grab something more challenging.
Sin City, 100 Bullets, Godzilla, Lucifer, Star Wars… nope, nope, nope… all violence and action… Ok, I’ve got a comic here called The Blacklist (published by Titan), it’s a spy story (if I remember right)… maybe this one is more psychological thriller and doesn’t fallback on violence and action… Well, it’s got some people being burned to death in the first few pages and some gun fighting later on… guess this one doesn’t work either.
Actually, let’s stop for a second and take a closer look at The Blacklist. The two guys getting burned to death appear on page 5… They step in oil, get lit up and burn down to their bones (wicked gruesome)… apparently the writer likes to play with fire in this issue as on page 14, another character is getting his face violently shoved into a camp fire. And on the final two pages an entire house is going up in blazes in near full-page art, with some characters interacting inside. Notice, the fire action at the end is clearly significantly “bigger” than the previous two.
The middle fire action is actually “smaller” than the first scene where the two guys are totally burned alive. So in this instance, the escalation is off—the guy getting his face pushed in the fire is not as impressive and engaging as the two guys being burnt up earlier. The writer has gone bigger, big, biggest.
While it’s easy for me to take 2 seconds and make this judgemental distinction, in the context of the bigger picture of the issue’s story, this might not be a problem at all (for all I know it was even intentional)… we’ll discuss why this misaligned violence/action escalation might not impact the story significantly in a second.
So, you’re probably thinking at this point, not all stories rely on violence and action. Of course not. But there’s a few reasons, most do…
Violence and action are primal. We all understand them at a fundamental (lizard-brain) level. They connect directly to “universal stakes”—physical bodily harm, which eventually equates to: life and death.
Maybe the stakes of your story is young siblings separated and sent to live in foster homes, ok that’s potent… but maybe some readers don’t have kids and can’t relate… If those same siblings are facing kidnap and murder, suddenly, everbody relates.
Violence and action are also superficial and “easy”, in that they don’t require subtext, or explanation to understand.
Superman fist fighting with Doomsday… A high-speed car chase. The reader sees… the reader comprehends.
And often violence and action yield immediate results—instant gratification. The car gets out of line and slams into a bus, flipping over and landing in a river… WHOAA! Doomsday leaves Superman’s body lifeless in a crater, “oh snap, he just killed superman!”
Violence and action are so intrinsic to the human condition, these elements transfer over to almost every story. Go read through and watch some of your favorite drama, comedy, romantic books and movies… odds are at some point you’ll find violence and action in the mix.
While violence and action are almost always present in comics… they are not required as the story’s main vehicle of escalation.
Like I said earlier, the most engaging stories escalate all elements of the story. But many stories will focus on a single core story element (other than violence or action)—usually the element that defines the genre of the story.
This is pretty clear to see and capture (if you’re paying attention). Horror stories are likely to focus on the scares, or horror. Comedies will primarily focus on the laughs; funny beginning, funnier middle, hysterical ending. Romance, love and character relationships. Drama, character arcs and emotions. etc… (Working on the big genre article that goes into these points in more detail.)
As a comic writer, knowing the genre you’re working in. What makes it tick. What makes it special, is absolutely imperative.
Many novice comic writers, writing genre fiction and NOT using violence and action as their primary escalation, make a major mistake—they don’t MAKE A PURPOSEFUL SUBSTITUTION.
They rely on their plot or other story elements alone, bereft of focused escalation.
The key, when you’re not relying on violence and action, is to deliberately pick something else as your primary vehicle of escalation.
Any story element can do.
Want to focus on the character arc, no problem, but you better get into that character’s headspace HARD… Big in the first act, bigger in the second and in that third act, your reader better see some ultra-mondo-super-sized character transformation (psychologically speaking).
Oh you’re working on a horror story? A quiet, period, Lovecraftian piece… light on the action and violence, but heavy on the gore? No problem, but your reader better be squirming in act 1, ready to get out of his seat in act 2, and running for the toilet to expunge his lunch by act 3.
This is why the overall pacing in The Blacklist issue may not be off, despite the misaligned violence/action escalation. If the author is using another story element as the main escalation vehicle, it can compensate. And as I noted at the beginning of the article, Pacing is not defined or controlled by a single factor. There are other areas of story telling and the comic medium that affect pacing.
Your primary escalation focal point, is not the only influence on pacing… but it is an important one.
If you don’t escalate, you stagnate. ▪
About the Author —
Nick Macari is a full-time freelance story consultant, developmental editor and writer, working primarily in the independent gaming and comic markets. His first published comic appeared on shelves via Diamond in the late 90’s. Today you can find his comic work on comixology, amazon and in select stores around the U.S. Visit NickMacari.com for social media contacts and news on his latest releases.