Three Very Basic Tips For Compact Storytelling In Comics

2017 Artwork Compact Storytelling In Comics

Well, since I was busy making some of the webcomic updates that will appear here early next month at the time of writing, I thought that I’d talk very briefly about compact storytelling in comics.

If you don’t know what “compact storytelling” is, it’s where you try to cram a decent amount of story into a relatively small number of comic panels. I’ve had some practice at this recently since, although my upcoming webcomics were originally envisaged as several mini series of small four-panel comics (each with a stand-alone joke), they quickly ended up having several storylines and sub-plots.

So, how can you tell a story in a relatively small number of comic panels. Here are some extremely basic tips:

1) Panel and page gaps: Although comics are a visual medium, they don’t take place in real time (unlike film or television). What this means is that the time gap between the events of each panel (or small group of panels) can be as large or as small as you want. Provided that your audience can still tell what is going on, you have a lot of freedom to only show the most important moments of your story in each panel of your comic.

For example, if you want to show someone going to the shops – you can just show a single panel of them in the shop (or several panels, each set in a different shop), before continuing on with the story. You don’t need to show them walking to or back from the shops, since your audience’s imaginations will “fill in the gaps”.

Likewise, if your comic is split up into several chapters and/or webcomic updates, then you can add time gaps between each chapter/update in order to save space. For example, if something dramatic happens the day after the events of the chapter you’ve finished making, then just start the next chapter at the most interesting part of the next day.

2) Implication: If you’ve ever read any of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Sherlock Holmes” stories, then you’ll know that Watson often makes brief references to cases that don’t actually appear in any of the actual Holmes stories. This implies that the characters have a life outside of the events depicted in the stories, and it makes each story seem like part of something greater (even if most of this isn’t actually shown).

This technique is perfect for compact storytelling. If you can hint at parts of the story that you don’t have space to show, then you can make your webcomic or comic seem a lot larger than it actually is.

Whilst this can be done through dialogue, it’s often best done through background details. The main advantage of using background details to do this is that it doesn’t clutter up the dialogue with references to things that new readers might find confusing (since they might think that these “unseen” events actually take place in a previous comic or something).

3) Characters: If possible, keep the number of main characters shown in your comic as low as possible. Personally, I find that a maximum of four is best (since you can show the characters doing different things in different places but, provided that you use character rotation, you won’t confuse the audience too much).

If you clutter up your comic with too many main characters, then this means that you won’t be able to tell a focused and compelling story (or stories) within a relatively small number of comic panels.

Likewise, use things like your character’s personality, speaking style, appearance etc.. for characterisation, rather than including too much character information in the dialogue. This will save room in your comic, whilst still allowing your audience to get to know your characters fairly quickly. Just be careful that you don’t end up turning any of your characters into clichés or stereotypes though.


Sorry for such a short and basic article, but I hope it was useful 🙂

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