You Can’t Turn the Page while you’re Hanging from a Cliff

If I had edited the current story the way I showed you in the previous post, this week’s page would have to be different, too. If you haven’t yet, take your time to read the first three pages according to the original script, then come back here and continue reading. (Of course, these are very rough five-minute cuts made from the original pages, so excuse the rawness.)

P. 3 of the old version, most of p. 4 now

You already know about the one big difference (Conny looking around in the house) and why I changed that. Today, I want to talk about something else that occurred to me when somebody wrote in to say the original version had better timing than the published one, because it created tension at the end of page 3 before you see the monsters.

That’s all true. Equally, the old page four (then three) ends on an intense moment, while the end of the published page stalls the action for a moment.  But, you know, here’s the thing:

I did that on purpose.

Conventional wisdom says every page should end with a cliffhanger, a moment of tension that makes you turn the page. Even more so in webcomics, when the task is not just to make people click to the next page, but to come back for the next installment. Actually, it’s not just conventional wisdom that says so, but also, for example, Chuck Dixon, and who am I to argue with Chuck Dixon? Nobody, that’s who. I’m gonna do it anyway.

I agree that each page needs a payoff. Especially in a webcomic like mine, where each page is a complete installment. Each installment should feel like a full (as in full-filling) read, advance the overall storyline AND leave you wanting more. I just don’t agree that there’s but one way to achieve the latter.

If you structure each page towards a last-image climax, your storytelling may get formulaic after a couple of pages. Of course, you can vary what the climax is (introduction to a revelation, peril, a gag), but the variations are limited, and the tension may suffer when you know that this week’s cliffhanger is gonna be resolved first thing next week anyway. (Remember ALIAS? I hated those fake cliffhangers. Made me stop watching. I hear they stopped doing that later, though.)

In comics, there’s another problem. The more visual the cliffhanger is, the more you literally see it coming. If it’s a printed book and the cliffhanger is on the right page, you see it coming two pages in advance, because that’s just the corner of the spread your eyes are looking at when you’re flipping the page. Depending on how much dialogue there is, two pages can take a long time, especially when you know what’s going to happen.

By showing the gremlins at the end of p. 3 (published version), I redirect the emphasis from “what’s waiting down there” to “what are those guys doing”.  It’s not about the peril, it’s about processing a strange situation you just saw. And about adding some absurd humor (my favorite kind). Creating suspense about the voices you hear and then relieving the tension the week after by showing the goblins fight about a stupid doll feels artificial to me. You can get away with that kind of fake. It can even be fun – remember that beautiful scene in BUFFY #11 when Twilight almost lifts the mask? It’s one of the best page turners ever, and it’s totally fake. But a cheat is a cheat, and each time you fake it you use up some of the trust the readers put in you. The trust that what happens, matters. I tend to keep that capital for when I really need it. Or until I can top that BUFFY joke.

P. 4 is not about tension, but still about intensity. The most intense moment is when Conny finishes her speech. It’s a promise, and we know it. I could have easily finished the page there, but I wanted that extra beat so the promise could sink in. The reaction shot even enhances the impact, or at least it’s supposed to.

In the upcoming NOT REALLY THERE, I use that “syncopated” type of rhythm a lot for scene changes. You can manipulate a scene’s impact by dragging it to the next page or starting it in advance. It never really occurred to me that scene changes traditionally seem to coincide with page turns in US comics until somebody in a forum pointed out how much Joss Whedon is NOT doing it that way in BUFFY. Maybe it’s my European frame of mind – European comics have more panels per page (traditionally), so trying to match the scenes to the pages can result in a giant waste of half-pages.

Traditional European comics come in albums, large paperbacks of 48 or 64 A4 pages. They used to be (and some still are) serialized in magazines, and each installment has its own structure. When you read the album, you can often tell where each installment begins and ends. When you can’t tell, the creators must have done something right because it’s less formulaic. That’s what I grew up with, and maybe it’s what I still do.

Try to beat the formula. Change the rhythm. Even if it means abandoning well-tested conventions.

Feel free to disagree in the comments. Even if you aren’t Chuck Dixon.