How Many Panels Should Your Webcomic Updates Have?

2016 Artwork Webcomic panel length article sketch

Well, I’m still in the mood for writing about webcomics today, so I thought that I’d look at how long a webcomic update should be.

Traditionally, syndicated cartoons in newspapers have been three panels long. I’ve heard this format best described as “premise, set-up, punchline” or something like that. In newspapers, this format works reasonably well for the simple reason that it’s compact, it’s quick to read and having a fixed structure might also make the writing process slightly easier sometimes.

However, webcomics have none of the limitations that traditional syndicated newspaper cartoons do. After all, there aren’t really any limits on how long a webcomic update can be. The upside of this is that it can allow webcomic creators to include more sophisticated characterisation, more dialogue and more sophisticated jokes.

The downside is that it can be very easy for a webcomic update to become bloated and/or exhaustingly long if you aren’t careful. Keeping the number of panels in each update relatively low forces you to make each panel matter more and to pay more attention to the pacing of the comic.

Yes, this can make the writing process a bit more challenging if you have a frequent update schedule, but it has the advantage of ensuring that your webcomics are likely to be of a higher quality and that they will be more consistent to read.

My personal approach to this problem is to decide upon a general length for all of the updates to my occasional webcomic series, but to leave a small amount of room for flexibility too (if one particular comic needs slightly more panels).

Most of the time, I try to limit myself to four panels per update. This allows me to keep some of the fast pacing of traditional three-panel comics, whilst also giving me a bit more room to develop the premise, set-up and/or punchline as necessary. This reduces some of the writer’s block-related problems that can come with three-panel comics, without losing too much of the concise pacing.

In addition to this, a four-panel set up also allows me to do some cool things with the formatting too. With a three-panel comic, the natural layout for it is in a traditional rectangular comic strip. However, with four panels, they can also be arranged into a square too. This square format might look slightly bulky and unwieldily when seen on a printed page but, when placed online, it allows for a higher display resolution when seen on websites that automatically re-size images.

 "Damania Revived - Post Mortem" By C. A. Brown

“Damania Revived – Post Mortem” By C. A. Brown

In addition to this, the square format also allows me to easily fit in 1-2 extra panels (if necessary) without altering the overall size of the comic, in the way that it would do for a traditional rectangular comic. Like this:

"Damania Resurgence - Film Night" By C. A. Brown

“Damania Resurgence – Film Night” By C. A. Brown

At the end of the day, you need to find a comic length that works for you and allows you to tell the best jokes in the minimum possible amount of space. Personally, I’d recommend using just four panels most of the time, although this obviously depends on the type and style of comic that you are making.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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Things Are Too Long – A Ramble

2015 Artwork Things are too long article sketch

Although I’ve written about this subject before, I thought that I’d take another look at how most forms of entertainment these days are, well, longer than they used to be. This was mainly prompted by the film that I reviewed yesterday which, for a modern film, was refreshingly short at just 95 minutes in length.

The thing is, this used to be normal for films. In the 1980s and 1990s, a film was typically between an hour and a half and two hours long. These days, of course, films often clock in at a more corpulent two to three hours in length.

They tell similar types of stories to the ones films used to a couple of decades ago, but they’ve somehow almost doubled in length. It isn’t like modern blockbuster films are telling the kinds of complex stories that would be better suited to a TV series, they just somehow spend longer telling the same stories. In other words, they are wasting our time.

From some quick internet research, there seem to be lots of possible reasons for this – studios think that longer films are more prestigious, it’s easier to shoot longer films with digital cameras, films are just returning to the lengths that they were in the pre-video era, film directors have more influence than they used to etc… But the fact remains that films can often grab up to an hour and a half more of our time than they used to.

But, well, it’s not just films. After all, this isn’t a blog about films. Books are also a lot larger than they used to be. I remember buying old second-hand novels from the 1960s-90s from charity shops when I was a teenager and most of them were usually only 200-300 pages long. You could read them in a couple of days and they looked like, well, paperback books. These days, virtually every bestseller is a gigantic (and occasionally intimidatingly large) 400-600 page tome of some kind.

Don’t get me wrong, some stories are well-suited to this length – particularly in the science fiction and fantasy genres. If Frank Herbert had to cut 100 pages from “Dune” in the 60s, it would be a much poorer novel as a result. To use a more modern example, if G.R.R. Martin had to cut 100-200 pages from each of his “Song Of Ice And Fire” books, then they’d be a lot less atmospheric as a result.

I’m probably exaggerating here but, it seems like virtually every story in every genre now has to be almost saga-like in length. Don’t get me wrong, throughout history, every genre has had a mixture of longer and shorter stories in it – but longer stories seemed to be more of the exception than the rule in the 20th century.

Of course, if you go back far enough, you’ll find that the Victorians loved their gigantic novels. But, unlike us, they had the excuse that the television and the personal computer hadn’t been invented yet.

I have to wonder what the reasons for all of these longer novels are. On a practical level, it’s probably because of improved printing and bookbinding technology. Likewise, the prominence of e-books means that book length matters a lot less than it used to (which also helps out shorter works of fiction too – since print novellas are even more rare than tome-size books used to be). Maybe it’s because some publishers think that most readers feel that they get “more for their money” if the books are longer? Who knows?

But, well, some of it might just be down to the fact that authors who like to write longer stories, directors who like to make longer films etc… are getting more creative freedom than they used to.

The fact is that many creative people have a preferred length that they like to work at. Personally, mine is fairly short. After a lot of experimentation, I’ve found that I’m best at making narrative comics if they’re only 8-10 pages long at the most. Generally speaking, when I wrote a lot of fiction, my idea of a “long” story clocked in at about 20,000-30,000 words (that’s about 80-120 paperback pages).

However, the opposite seems to be true with these blog articles – I usually consider anything under 500 words to be unacceptably short and even my short reviews can be close to 1000 words long.

So, in a way, it’s great that people now have the freedom to make things as long as they want them to be. I just wish that both the film and the publishing industries would also give people the freedom to make things as short as they want them to be too.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

The Power Of Short Things

2015 Artwork Power of short things article

Although this is an article about writing and comics- I’m going to have to start by talking about the internet for a while. There’s a good reason for this and I’m not just rambling about the internet for the sake of it.

The day before I wrote this article, I was extremely tired and feeling quite unenthusiastic. In fact, I eventually just ended up sitting in front of my computer and watching random Youtube videos. After a while, it suddenly occurred to me that I’d spent something like half an hour looking at Youtube videos.

Then another question popped into my mind: “Would I have watched a single 30 minute Youtube video, rather than ten three-minute videos?

The answer was probably “No”. After all, I was tired and unenthusiastic and the idea of spending thirty minutes watching a single video seemed like too much effort. But, I still watched thirty minutes of video – just in smaller segments.

So, why am I rambling about this?

Well, the reason I mentioned it is because it raises some interesting points about the power of shortness and how shorter things can often be more attractive than longer ones.

This is when you don’t feel like spending half an hour reading a few chapters of a novel, but will quite happily spend an hour reading shorter non-fiction articles. This is when you feel like watching a two-hour film is too much of an effort, but will happily watch three 45-minute TV show episodes without a second thought.

So, why are shorter things inherently more appealing than longer things? Surely longer things would be more appealing – after all, you get more “value for money” and/or more stuff.

Well, this is true, but shorter things promise to save us something that is even more valuable than money. I am, of course, talking about time. Not only do shorter things take less time to enjoy, but they also allow us to feel like we have more control over our time. It isn’t that people’s attention spans have got shorter, it’s just that time can be at more of a premium than it perhaps was a few decades ago.

For example, if you’re watching a TV show on DVD – then you only have to work out how much time you want to spend watching it in 45 minute instalments. If you haven’t got that much time, you can just watch one episode. If you’ve got loads of time, you can watch three. Whereas, with a film, you usually have to set aside a single block of 90-180 minutes to watch it.

Another reason why shorter things are more appealing is because there’s less of a perceived barrier to entry. In other words, people are more interested in trying out new things if they feel that there’s less of a possible loss (in terms of time and/or money) if they don’t like it.

So, how does any of this apply to writing, comics and art?

Well, if you’re writing fiction or making comics – then it might be an idea to work on a few shorter projects or, at the very least, make sure your longer projects are made out of lots of smaller self-contained segments (like some TV shows, where each episode has a self-contained plot, but there are also long-running storylines in the background).

This might seem slightly counter-intuitive because, for decades, publishers have pushed full-length novels and long-running comic franchises (eg: most superhero comics) at the expense of shorter works (seriously, take a look in your nearest bookshop and see how many novellas are on the shelves).

But, now that we have the internet – there has never been a better time to work on shorter projects. For example, a 17,000 word e-book is just as easy to self-publish as a 400,000 word e-book is.

So, yes, although you might think that people aren’t that interested in shorter fiction projects and shorter comics – you couldn’t be further from the truth. Shorter things give us more control over our time and – if you’re smart – you can also use this fact to promote your work.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Four Basic Ways To Make Shorter Stories and Comics Appeal To Your Audience

2014 Artwork Shorter Comics and stories appeal sketch

As I’ve mentioned before in other articles (like this one), different writers have different story and/or comic lengths that they feel most comfortable working at.

These can be vastly different to the average lengths of the things we like to read (eg: I quite like longer stories and comics, but the longest stories I can write are novella-length ones) and there’s no real way to explain why this happens. It’s just one of those strange things.

Still if, like me, you can only ever seem to create short things then this can put you at a bit of a disadvantage. For example, most novels these days are 300-400 pages long (as opposed to 200-300 a couple of decades ago) and, if it wasn’t for e-books, then there would be next to no market whatsoever for novella-length stories.

So, for today, I thought that I’d offer a few tips about how to make shorter stories and comics appeal to your audience a lot more:

1) Make it episodic: Whilst your self-contained shorter story and/or comic should obviously have a satisfying ending (eg: don’t end it on a cliff-hanger!), it can be useful to leave it open for sequels. Why?

Because, if your readers really like it, then they will quite happily return for more if you create a sequel that is good enough. Not only that, because your self-contained story or comic is relatively short, then it’s almost like an episode of a TV show or part of a traditional comic series – so there’s more of an expectation that more will follow. In fact, promoting your shorter works as something more episodic than a typical fiction/graphic novel series can be a good way of drumming up interest in your work.

Not only that, once you’ve made a few “episodes”, you can also appeal to people who like longer books, e-books and/or comics by releasing collections of several of your stories or comics.

2) Focus on time: It’s a fact that shorter stories and comics usually take less time to read than longer ones and whilst this might not sound like a good thing at first glance (since, of course, it isn’t good “value for money” if you plan to sell your work), it is very easy to turn this to your advantage.

How? Well, brazenly use the short reading time as a “selling point” to your audience. The fact is that most of your audience will probably be fairly busy and they might not always feel interested in the prospect of devoting 6-8 hours to a full-length novel or 1-2 hours to a full-length graphic novel.

However, if your story can be read in 1-3 hours or if your comic can be read in 20 minutes, then it’s a lot easier for people to fit it into their busy schedules. So, capitalise on this and emphasise the fact that your story or comic can be read quickly.

3) Leave it open to fan fiction/ fan art: Generally speaking, if people like something – then they want more of it. But, of course, it takes quite a bit of time to write a novella or even to make a short comic.

So, what do you do to keep your fans happy in the long gaps between your stories and/or comics? Simple, you open your work up to fan fiction and/or fan art.

In other words, you let (or ever encourage) your fans make extra unofficial stuff based on your work for each other. Whilst this might sound counter-productive, it’s actually a really clever way to make sure that your fans are still interested in and still thinking regularly about your work in between publications.

As long as you make sure not to read any of it (so you can’t be accused of plagiarising your fans) and that your fans aren’t selling their fan fiction, then it can be a really smart move to encourage fan fiction.

To use a computer game analogy, take a look at “Doom“. So far (official add-ons and console ports aside), there have only been a few main instalments of this game series – one in 1993, another in 1994, another in 2004 and (hopefully) one next year. It’s a series which, unlike some modern games series, doesn’t get officially updated very often.

But the first two instalments of this series are still surprisingly popular even two decades later for the simple reason that they were made open-source later in the 1990s (allowing people to update the games for modern computer systems) and because fans also still make and share millions of user-generated levels for these two games over the internet.

Now, compare this to quite a few modern games which are indifferent to and/or hostile to fan modifications (because the games companies want to sell “downloadable content” instead) – will anyone still be playing those games twenty years later?

4) Free or cheap: Yes, you might have put a lot of time and/or effort into producing your novella and/or short comic. But, nonetheless, people might think less of it because of it’s length – you can spend all day arguing about this if you want to, but the fact remains.

As such, if you aren’t putting your work online for free, then you have to think a lot more carefully about pricing.

If you try to sell your novella and/or comic online at the same price as a full-length novel or graphic novel, then people are either going to look at the length and conclude that it isn’t good value for money. Or, possibly, they might not notice the length and then feel cheated because they expected something longer for the money that they’ve splashed out on your work.

So, yes, you need to make your novella or short comic significantly cheaper than it’s full-length counterparts. Yes, this might sound unfair but it both ensures that your readers won’t feel cheated and it also makes your work look like a bargain too – which may well attract more customers.

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Sorry that this article was so basic, but I hope that it was useful 🙂

If You Can Fill “Awkward Time”, Your Work Will Be Popular

2014 Artwork Awkward Time Sketch

This article was inspired by a time when I had about twenty minutes to spare between things – twenty minutes is kind of an awkward time.

It’s too long not to do anything, but it’s too short to watch an episode of a TV show, it’s too short to play a level of a decent FPS game, it’s too short to really immerse yourself in a good novel and it’s just too short to read a comic.

I’m sure that you’ve probably experienced periods of “awkward time” too. There’s nothing more annoying than having an amount of spare time that is both too long and too short to really do anything with.

This is probably why things like Youtube and casual mobile phone games are so immensely popular – they’re designed to fill these “awkward” periods of time.

Most Youtube videos are anything between two and ten minutes long, you can watch just one or two of them if you’ve got a few minutes to spare or you can watch entire playlists if you’ve got more time.

Plus, although I don’t really use mobile phones, all I’ve heard about casual phone games are that they’re the kind of thing which can easily be enjoyed for either three or thirty minutes.

The same is true for daily webcomics too – most daily webcomic updates take less than a minute to read. But, because people don’t always read them every day, it’s easy enough to amuse yourself for a few minutes by looking through all of the comics that have been previously posted on there.

Yes, some webcomics are more popular than others, but the fact that they can easily fill “awkward time” is probably one of the reasons why webcomics are so popular.

Likewise, people can browse the headlines of a newspaper fairly quickly or they can read every article in depth. People can glance at a painting quickly or they can study it closely for hours.

So, how is any of this useful to you?

Well, if you want to make something that will appeal to people, then it might be worth thinking about the time it takes for your audience to enjoy your work.

If you can find a way to make something that can both be enjoyed quickly and can also be enjoyed over a longer period of time, then this is probably ideal.

But, failing that, creating things which can be enjoyed in less than twenty minutes – things which can fill “awkward” periods of free time- is certainly one way to appeal to your audience.

So, how do you do this?

It’s really simple. You can either make lots of self-contained things or you can make something continuous which is split up into lots of shorter parts.

This is why, for example, Dan Brown’s thriller novels were so wildly popular as holiday novels last decade – since each chapter is only a few pages long and can be easily read in a couple of minutes.

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Sorry that this article was so short Hold on, this is the one time I don’t have to apologise for a short article. Anyway, I hope that it was useful 🙂