Boredom, Contrast And Progression In Fiction – A Ramble

Well, I felt like writing about storytelling again. This is mostly because both the last novel I read (“Grave Importance” by Vivian Shaw) before taking another break from books and the old computer game I’m playing at the time of writing (“The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind”) both handle contrast and progression in a similar way.

In other words, they don’t really start feeling truly epic until you’ve sunk quite a few hours into them. In order to increase the dramatic value of their best parts, they deliberately make everything a bit weaker, slower and/or smaller-scale in the earlier parts. This helps to stop the audience from becoming jaded and also gives their best parts an increased level of dramatic weight too – since they stand out more in comparison to everything that the audience has previously experienced.

Another way to think of this is that contrast is like lighting in a painting. If you want to make something in a painting look seriously light or dark, then that part of the painting should be the only place where you use pure black or white – everything else should be a slightly lighter or darker shade of another colour. Since you can’t get lighter or darker than those two colours, you need to use them sparingly if you want them to really stand out against the rest of the painting.

On a side-note, this is why a lot of “spectacular” modern CGI-filled blockbuster films really don’t feel that spectacular – despite featuring special effects that would have been almost impossible a decade or two ago. Because they overload the audience with these effects and keep using them at almost every possible opportunity – lest the audience get “bored” – they just quickly end up becoming an “ordinary” part of the film and don’t really carry much dramatic weight.

But, in order for the audience to feel truly amazed, they need to feel “bored” for a while. The gap between “This is a bit dull” and “Oh wow! That’s really cool!” is much larger than the gap between “This is cool” and “This is cool too”. Dramatic weight and dramatic impact relies on this gap.

A good literary example of this (SPOILERS ahoy! Seriously, this scene is best read unspoiled!) can be found in Walter M. Miller’s 1959 sci-fi novel “A Canticle For Liebowitz“.

The earlier parts of the novel are a very slow-paced and small-scale story about the everyday lives of a group of monks who live in a post-apocalyptic desert and meticulously archive the remnants of pre-apocalypse society. It seems like “science fiction” only in the sense that it is technically set in the future. This aside, it could almost be a work of historical fiction.

But about halfway through the novel you learn that, from the old documents they have discovered, some of the monks have worked out how to build a large and primitive arc lamp. Then they eventually test it out. This scene is one of the most spectacular, epic and memorable ones you’ll ever read. As the monks leap around to crank the machinery, they recite the opening passages of the book of Genesis in Latin – ending with the phrase “Fiat Lux” (“Let there be light”) just as the arc lamp sputters into life and bathes the room with bright light.

Most Hollywood blockbuster films can’t reach the level of spectacular “WOW!!” astonishment that this one scene in a book from the 1950s does when you’re actually reading it. This novel is able to make a piece of technology that would be considered laughably obsolete by the standards of ordinary fiction, let alone science fiction, feel stunningly futuristic and spectacular. It is a scene that you’ll never forget if you read it in context. And it works so well because of contrast. Whether it is the fact that this is the first piece of working electrical equipment that appears in the novel or even the fact that it is the first spectacular moment after quite a few pages of slow-paced, small-scale storytelling, it only “works” in comparison to everything that has come before it. Again, the audience needs to feel “bored” before they can feel “amazed”.

But, and this is the really important part, how do you keep the audience interested during these important “boring” parts?

There are several ways of doing this. The most obvious is to give the audience a small hint that amazing stuff will happen if they keep going – but this also runs the risk of ruining the surprise for the audience. So, the best ways of handling it usually involve giving the audience something else that is just about interesting enough to keep them going until they reach the really good bits.

This usually has to be something relatively subtle – but good – if you really want to keep your audience around for long enough to astonish them later. For example, Miller’s “A Canticle For Liebowitz” relies on a both a timelessly quirky sense of humour and an intriguing setting to keep everything interesting. Shaw’s “Grave Importance” relies on a few great character moments, a smaller-scale mystery, a good writing style and the fact that most readers have read the previous books in the series (and know how good the series can be) to keep the reader interested until the spectacular parts.

With a game like “Morrowind”, the earlier parts are kept interesting in two main ways. The first is that you are plonked into a large open world that very quickly begins to look intriguingly different from a typical medieval fantasy world:

This is a screenshot of the town of Balmora from “The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind” (2002). You’ll probably reach it after 10-30 minutes of playing the game. The “desert town”-style architecture here looks intriguingly different to the usual medieval towns and villages that you’d expect to see in a game like this.

Secondly, “Morrowind” also uses genre to keep the audience interested too. During the earlier parts of the game, walking anywhere outside of a town (which you’ll have to do for several early quests) turns the game into an absolutely terrifying survival horror game – because not only is your weak, slow and almost-defenceless early character easy prey for the local wildlife but, like in some of the early “Silent Hill” horror games, the background music suddenly turns ominous whenever something is nearby.

These parts of the game are genuinely scary! But, not only does this tense and suspenseful feeling of fear make these segments feel more interesting than the long walks you’d find in a typical open-world fantasy game, but it also subtly hints to the player that, one day, they won’t have to feel afraid. That, if they keep playing the game and become more powerful, then the “ominous” background music will evoke feelings of excitement (eg: a thrilling battle that they stand a good chance of winning) rather than abject dread.

So, yes, there are lots of creative and subtle ways to keep the “boring” earlier parts of something interesting. But, yes, your story needs to have “boring” parts if you want the “spectacular” parts to really stand out.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Pacing And Editing In Shorter Comics – A Ramble

Well, I thought that I’d talk about pacing and editing in shorter comics today. This is mostly because, after a sudden moment of inspiration, I ended up making a one-page videogame parody comic that I’ll possibly be posting here in November. Although I felt really impressed with it in the moments after I finished it, I suddenly realised that something was slightly “off” with it a day later.

The main problem was with the pacing. A “cutaway” panel that was meant to give the reader a better idea of what was happening in the background of the comic ended up breaking up a conversation between the two main characters. In the end, I had to remove this panel in order to make the comic flow better.

Although this edit probably wasn’t perfect, it at least meant that it was a lot easier for the reader to tell what is happening. Without the “cutaway” panel in the middle, the conversation between the two characters flowed a lot more naturally. The removed panel was also superfluous because the background details in the two panels beside it already imply everything that happens in it.

The main theme here is focus and pacing. Whilst some longer comics can use more complex pacing, extensive dialogue, high levels of background detail etc… to absolutely amazing effect, this often doesn’t work well in shorter comics. In shorter comics, simplicity and clarity matter a lot more than you might think.

If you are making a shorter comic, then every panel is important. Every word of dialogue is important. Every background detail is important. Your reader might not know the characters or the premise and it is up to you to establish all of these things and tell a short story or joke within a small number of panels. As such, you need to make sure that your comic is laser-focused on the main story that you are trying tell and that everything the reader notices during a first reading is important.

And, yes, the first reading matters the most. When someone reads a short comic for the first time, they will usually just skim-read it fairly quickly. As such, the main “point” of your comic needs to stand out and be instantly understandable. Yes, you can add interesting background details that the reader might notice upon a second reading but – with a short comic – you need to make something that is easily understandable in 5-10 seconds of reading time.

After all, if your short comic doesn’t interest, impress or amuse your readers within that 5-10 second window, then there’s much less of a chance that they’ll return to it for a longer, closer reading.

On a side note, this is one reason why traditional daily three-panel comics in newspapers often have very little in the way of background detail and will often follow a similar joke-like structure. Yes, the lack of detail means that they are quicker to make and the pre-made structure probably also makes them easier to write, but the main creative reasons for this style have to do with the fact that they are usually only designed for one quick reading. Whilst this format has got fairly stale over the years, it can at least provide some useful lessons on how to initially get a reader’s attention.

The trick here is to see your short comic as a whole. To try to see it in the same way that a reader will. To take a quick ten-second glance at it and see if it still makes sense or flows well. If it doesn’t, then try to look for unnecessary things that can be digitally or manually removed. Everything that remains in your comic should be too important to the whole comic to be removed.

You also need to have a basic understanding of some of the “rules” of comics. For example, speech bubbles are read from top to bottom. So, the first thing that is said should always be closest to the top of the panel, the second thing that is said should be below it, the third thing… well, I’m sure you get the idea. Likewise, handwritten dialogue in comics should always be in capital letters in order to make it easily-readable. These kinds of basic things make your comic a bit more “user friendly” and mean that your reader doesn’t have to slow down to work out what is going on.

Of course, the best way to avoid having to trim things that you’ve put time and effort into is to carefully plan your comic before you make it. It is a lot easier to trim things (and cover up the edits) during the sketching and planning stage than it is after you’ve made the comic.

For example, after making the edit I described at the beginning of the article, one of the remaining panels looked too narrow. You can only see half of one of the characters. This is because, when I originally made this panel, I had to cram it onto the end of a row of three panels. Space was at a premium. However, as soon as I removed the panel beside it, the panel became too thin for the remaining space. As you can probably guess, I really didn’t put enough time and effort into planning that comic (it was sort of a “spur of the moment” thing).

If I’d spent a bit more time planning, I would have not only saved myself the time and effort needed to draw the removed panel but I’d have also been able to easily and seamlessly expand the remaining panels too. So, yes, editing works best when it happens during the planning stage!

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

In Defence Of Slow Pacing In Novels And Films

Well, I thought that I’d talk about pacing today. In particular, why slow pacing in films and novels can actually be a good thing. Yes, the “right” type of pacing for any given story or movie will depend on a lot of different factors and there are good artistic reasons for using faster pacing sometimes. However, I thought that I’d talk about some of the benefits of slow pacing.

The first one is that it adds extra atmosphere to high-quality works. In novels, a slower pace gives the writer more time to describe interesting settings and characters in interesting ways. In films, a slower pace gives the audience more time to look at carefully-designed, well-lit and/or interesting set designs. By actually giving the audience time to drink in the atmosphere, not only does slower pacing immerse them more in the story but it adds an extra level of visual and/or narrative intrigue too.

However, as you’ve probably guessed from the previous paragraph, this only “works” in high-quality stories and films. For example, there’s a reason why the intricately-designed and highly-detailed set designs in a film like “Blade Runner” or “Only Lovers Left Alive” hold your interest during the slower-paced moments. They are beautiful works of visual art.

Likewise, the detailed and creative descriptions in a novel like Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting Of Hill House” are interesting to read because they add an extra level of atmosphere to the story, which you’ll probably want to take your time to appreciate.

Secondly, slower pacing feels more “natural”. Yes, this is something that you’ll probably only really notice if you’ve read novels before (which are usually slower paced than films) but slower pacing in films gives the audience a much more realistic feeling of time passing. After all, real life is usually fairly “slow paced” when compared to the rushed “highlight reel” editing found in some popular films. Real life is filled with slower moments of waiting, thought etc… and, of course, time itself passes at a rate of one second per second.

So, slower pacing feels a lot more natural for the simple reason that it is a lot closer to “real time”. Not only does this make films and novels “flow” a lot better – with the story events having a much more logical feeling of progression to them, but it automatically adds a feeling of realism too. This is most noticeable in slow-paced films where, without the typical hyper-fast Hollywood editing, everything feels a little bit more “documentary-like”. Seriously, if you want to add a feeling of realism to a film and set it apart from a typical Hollywood movie, then slow pacing is your friend.

Thirdly, slower pacing gives the audience time to think. Whether it is the beautifully quiet moment when you sit back after reading a slow-paced segment of a novel and try to make sense of the complex descriptions and ideas you’ve just experienced or whether it is a quiet moment in a film that gives you time to consider the subtleties and nuances of what is happening on screen, slow pacing actually gives the audience time to think.

But, like with the first point on this list, this only works in high-quality creative works. In other words, the audience actually needs something to think about during the slow moments. Complex characters, subtle details, underlying themes, intriguing ambiguity, detailed worldbuilding, multi-layered plots etc… are all things that are enhanced by actually giving the audience time to think about them. However, if your story or film has the intellectual depth of a sheet of paper, then slow pacing will be off-putting to the audience.

Finally, slow pacing builds a stronger connection between the audience and a creative work. We live in a culture that values bingeing creative works and, yes there are benefits to this – blazing through a thriller novel or an entire season of a TV show in a single weekend is a really intense and exhilarating experience. It’s like a distilled shot of atmosphere and storytelling. But, one of the problems with binge-reading or binge-watching regularly is that everything starts to feel a little bit less significant. Reading a novel in two days is really fun. Reading a novel every two days eventually starts to feel a bit like a chore (and can eventually temporarily put you off of reading).

Slower-paced creative works are a lot more resistant to bingeing. A slow-paced novel will take more “sessions” to read than a fast-paced one, meaning that you’ll be returning to it a lot more times and will build more of a connection with the story. This type of novel will feel more like an old friend than just “the book I’m reading the moment”. Because a slow-paced novel can’t easily be finished in a couple of days, you might even have to take a few notes in order to keep up with the plot. Not only does this mean that you’ll be thinking about the story more, but it also means that you’ll remember it in much more detail too.

Likewise, whilst it is possible to binge-watch slower paced films and TV shows (since they have a fixed running time), there’s less incentive to do so. Because they don’t rely on ultra-fast editing and other such things to forcibly grab your attention and push you forwards, you have more of an option to take your time with them. To enjoy them at a more relaxing pace that actually gives you time to appreciate them and to anticipate your next experience with them. I mean, when TV shows aired weekly and films in a series were released months or years apart from each other, this sort of thing was pretty much standard.

But, like with almost everything on this list, this only “works” with high-quality stories, television and films. Because you can’t use “gripping” fast pacing to hold the audience’s attention, then you have to create something unique, interesting, atmospheric etc… enough that people will want to return to it without being pushed into doing so.

In conclusion, slower pacing is something that makes great creative works even better and bad creative works even worse. With slower pacing, there’s nowhere to “hide” any imperfections. So, when a slow-paced book or film is good, then it is usually really good.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Think About Your Reader’s Experience – A Ramble

Although this is an article about writing fiction, I’m going to have to start by talking about computer games. Although I don’t know if I’ll review it or not, I recently started playing a slightly low-budget role-playing game from 2009 called “Venetica” and, compared to the classic 1990s first-person shooter games that I’ve been playing recently, I noticed how one crucial difference between these two genres completely changes their emotional tone.

Although both genres of game include exploration, puzzles and combat, the role-playing genre is much more of a “feel good” genre because there are also “side-quests” where you can help other characters with problems that they are having. These “side-quests” are totally optional and yet you’ll usually want to do them for the feeling of solving a problem or helping someone out, rather than for the coins, points or items that you are given afterwards.

But, what does any of this have to do with writing fiction?

Well, it is all to do with thinking about your reader’s experience of reading your story. Like how playing two different genres of game can evoke very different emotions in the player through something as simple as adding “side-quests”, being conscious of things like the writing style, characters, story structure etc… in your novel can have a huge impact on what your readers experience emotionally.

For example, shorter chapters (especially if they have cliffhanger endings), shorter sentences, descriptions of actions and/or a more “matter of fact” writing style all push the reader to read more quickly. This is perfect if you want to write an action-packed thriller story. If you try to write a similar story with more formal narration then, even though the story might be the same, the reader’s experience of it won’t be quite as good. They will still know that the story is supposed to be a fast-paced thriller, but the experience of reading a slower-paced story than they expected won’t evoke the feeling of reading a thrilling story.

To give another example, romance novels will almost always include some kind of conflict (eg: emotional turmoil, a love triangle, another character forbidding the relationship etc…) that gets between the story’s main couple. Although this conflict might seem counter-intuitive in a genre that is meant to give the reader the enjoyable vicarious experience of falling in love, it is there for a good reason.

For starters, it makes the inevitable happy ending feel even happier in comparison to the rest of the story. It can add a frisson of “forbidden romance” to the story too. It also adds enough “realism” to highly-stylised romance stories to keep the reader gripped and to allow them to fantasise about something like this actually happening to them.

Focusing on your reader’s experience of reading your novel can also help you to add a bit more originality to your story too. For example, the novel I’m reading at the moment is one called “Gun Machine” by Warren Ellis. This is a hardboiled detective novel, yet it feels very different to other works in the genre thanks to things like an eccentric cast of characters, a surreal transgressive sense of humour and a number of slightly quirky plot details.

By focusing on the reader’s experience – the journey as well as the destination – Ellis is able to write a hardboiled mystery that feels slightly different to most novels in the genre, despite having a lot of elements in common with them (eg: a cynical world-weary detective, a large city etc…). Again, this is all because he focuses as much on the “journey” (eg: descriptions, writing style, characters, humour etc…) as he does on the “destination” (eg: the plot).

So, what is the best way to learn how your reader will experience your story?

Well, the obvious way is to show your story to a few test readers and see what they think of it. But, this is something you can really only do after you’ve already finished your story. If you want to be conscious of your reader’s experience when you’re actually writing your story, then the only real way to do this is to regularly read lots of different books by lots of different authors.

Not only will regular reading give you all sorts of practical lessons about writing, but it also gives you something even more important – direct, recent experience of being a reader. If you pay attention to how you react to every novel that you read, then you’ll get a sense of the types of novels that you enjoy reading (and why). If you think about how the authors evoked these reactions in you, then it will give you more tools for doing the same thing for your own readers.

So, read regularly and pay attention to what emotions your readers will experience when they are reading your story.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Do Thriller Novels Have To Be Fast-Paced? – A Ramble

If there is one novel-related word that tends to get misunderstood, it is “thriller”. When you think of this, you’ll probably think of car chases, gunfights and, most importantly, writing so fast-paced that the book has to be a giant 400-600 page tome because it only takes as long to read as a typical 200-300 page novel does. Yet, the relatively slow-paced horror/detective novel that I reviewed yesterday includes the term “thriller” on the back cover blurb – and it is technically accurate.

Strange as it might sound, thriller stories can be either fast paced or slow paced and still fit into the same genre. Yes, they might differ in sub-genre (eg: action thriller, crime thriller, legal thriller, psychological thriller, tech thriller etc…) but even the slowest-paced thriller is still a thriller novel. But, why?

The essential elements of a thriller are suspense and mystery. Both of these things are well-suited to both fast and slow-paced stories. Whether suspense comes from lots of blisteringly fast danger-filled moments or is slowly built up over the course of several pages or chapters, it is still suspense. Likewise, an intriguing mystery is still an intriguing mystery regardless of whether there are any car chases or fight scenes.

To give you two contrasting examples, Matthew Reilly’s “Ice Station” is a really fast-paced action thriller novel that focuses on a group of US marines defending an Antarctic research base against several rival special forces groups, whilst also trying to understand the mysterious item that the researchers have found under the ice. This novel contains both suspense (eg: whenever the marines are endangered, outnumbered or outgunned) and mystery (what is under the ice and why is it there?). Ergo, it is a thriller novel.

Now take a look at Koji Suzuki’s “Ring“. This is a relatively slow-paced novel about a reporter who begins to investigate a series of strange deaths (mystery) and soon finds that he has been cursed to die within seven days unless he can figure out a way to save his life (suspense). Although this novel moves at a fairly slow pace when compared to “Ice Station”, it is focused on both mystery and suspense – and is therefore also a thriller novel.

So, the “thriller” description is less about pacing and more about the fact that a story will rely heavily on suspense and/or mystery in order to keep you – the reader – wanting to read more. In addition to this, it’ll also tell you to expect a story where the main focus is on the plot.

And because the plot matters so much in a thriller, it’ll usually be a relatively complex one filled with twists and turns – similar to what you’d expect from a detective story (since the two genres have a lot of common history), but not necessarily revolving around solving a murder. These types of complex, intricate plots can be found in both slow-paced and fast-paced thriller novels. So, if you see “thriller” on the back of a novel cover, then it is also about the type of plot that you can expect.

It means that the story isn’t a character-focused literary novel, a novel focused on a type of setting (eg: historical, futuristic etc..) or a more experimental plotless work. It is a story where the main attraction is a complex, well-planned plot. So, if you consider plot to be one of the most important parts of a novel, then seeing “thriller” on the cover of a book means that you’ll be more likely to enjoy it.

But, again, it has very little to do with the actual pacing of the novel.

If you want a fast-paced novel, then it’s often much better to do something like read the first few pages, read reviews and/or to do a bit of research into the author’s other books than it is to see whether or not the word “thriller” appears on the blurb. On the flip side, just because a book is described as a “thriller”, it doesn’t mean that it won’t tell a rich, substantial story that can be enjoyed at a leisurely pace.

The only thing that the term “thriller” will tell you is that the novel will include a complex plot and will use both suspense and mystery in order to keep you interested.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three Ways That Writers Make Stories Faster Or Slower To Read

Well, for today, I thought that I’d take a beginner-level look at the topic of pacing. In particular, I’ll be looking at some of the ways that writers make sure that a story is read quickly or slowly.

Whilst reading speed does depend on the skill of the reader, there are a lot of sneaky ways that writers can speed up or slow down the story that they are telling.

So, here are three of the more basic techniques.

1) Language and sentence length:
Simply put, longer sentences with more complex/formal language (and punctuation) slow a story down. Short, simple sentences speed it up.

To give you an example, here’s a single sentence from a slower-paced historical novel (“Bring Up The Bodies” by Hilary Mantel) that I’m reading at the moment: ‘You know there will not be many more days like these; so let us stand, the horseboys of Wolf Hall swarming around us, Wiltshire and the western counties stretching into a haze of blue; let us stand, the king’s hand on his shoulder, Henry’s face earnest as he talks his way back through the landscape of the day, the green copses and rushing streams, the alders by the water’s edge, the early haze that lifted by nine; the brief shower, the small wind that died and settled; the afternoon heat.’

Whew! That’s a long sentence! Although Mantel uses a few subtle techniques (eg: lists, repetition, using the present tense, breaking the sentence up into smaller chunks with semicolons etc..) to speed up the pace of this sentence a little bit, this is still a reasonably slow-paced segment of the book thanks to the formal language, the complex punctuation and the sheer length of this sentence.

Now, compare it to this paragraph from Ashley McConnell’s fast-paced novelisation of the first episode of “Stargate SG-1”: ‘O’ Neill shook his head. He thought about saying more and decided not to. That wound wasn’t healed. He didn’t deserve to have it heal.

As you can see, this paragraph contains four sentences and it’s still shorter than the longer sentence from Mantel’s “Bring Up The Bodies”. Likewise, the language is kept fairly simple, informal and “matter of fact”. Each sentence also contains very little punctuation too. It’ll take you less time to read this group of four sentences than it will take you to read the one sentence from “Bring Up The Bodies”.

Of course, most novels (including the two I’ve quoted from) will contain a mixture of longer, shorter, complex and simple sentences. Changing these things will change how fast each sentence will be read. And, overall, a novel with more long, complex sentences will be “slower” than a novel with more short, simple sentences will be.

2) Descriptions vs. Actions: Descriptions of scenery, people or objects will usually be slower to read than descriptions of actions will be. When a segment of a novel is devoted to actions, the reader is more likely to read quickly because they want to know what happens next. However, when a segment of a novel describes something, the reader has to take the time to picture what the writer is describing.

So, descriptions are more slow-paced than actions are. A story’s pacing depends on how the two are balanced. This is why, for example, a fast-paced thriller novel might occasionally include a few paragraphs of slow-paced descriptions in order to give their readers a short break from all of the fast-paced actions in the rest of the story. Whereas, a slower-paced novel will often make sure that descriptions appear frequently and consistently throughout the story.

Likewise, dialogue is often quicker to read than descriptions are. Although dialogue isn’t quite as fast-paced as actions, the rhythm of a back-and-forth conversation between two characters will often mean that these parts of the story will move slightly more quickly.

3) Curiosity and chapters:
Curiosity is the thing that makes people read stories. The more curious a reader feels, the faster they will plough through a story to find answers. As such, faster-paced stories will often include lots of mini-cliffhangers at the end of each chapter (eg: “John opened the door. He couldn’t believe what he saw…”).

Fast-paced stories will often keep their chapters reasonably short too, so that the reader feels like they’re progressing through the story faster than they actually are. And, of course, shorter chapters also mean more space for mini-cliffhangers too.

These mini-cliffhangers will often be resolved 2-3 chapters after they happen (usually by having 2-3 story threads/sub-plots), so that the reader is forced to plough through an extra chapter or two (with their own mini-cliffhangers) to get there. All of this adds up to a very fast-paced and gripping story.

On the other hand, a slower-paced novel will often control the pacing by keeping the chapters slightly longer and ensuring that the reader’s curiosity is about larger background things rather than smaller immediate events. This is usually achieved by focusing on other things like atmosphere, characterisation and intriguing ideas. Yes, slow-paced stories will usually include something that makes the reader feel curious, but it isn’t the central attraction in the way it usually is in faster-paced stories.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Adding “Rest Pages” To Your Comic

2017-artwork-rest-pages-article-sketch

Well, since I’m still busy preparing this year’s Halloween comic at the time of writing, I thought that I’d talk briefly about something that can make longer comics projects slightly easier.

As regular readers probably know, I tend to have something of a short creative attention span. It is, for example, why I release my occasional webcomics in mini series of 6-17 daily comic updates (well, more like 6-12 updates these days).

So, making a full-colour A4-size Halloween comic that will be 12 pages in length (including the cover) is something of a stretch for me. But, as I’m learning, it’s certainly possible. So, I thought that I’d talk about one of the techniques that I’m using to reduce the amount of effort that this project requires, in case it’s useful to you.

This technique is simply to include the occasional low-effort page within my comic. If this is done well, then it can be barely noticeable to the audience, whilst still giving you a chance to rest slightly at the same time.

For example, here’s a reduced-size preview of page three of my Halloween comic (which I made the day before writing this article):

The full-size comic update will be posted here on the 23rd October.

The full-size comic update will be posted here on the 23rd October.

This is an example of a low-effort comic page. One of the first things that you might notice is that it only contains six panels (page one contains seven panels and page two contains eight).

Likewise, as I discussed in yesterday’s article, many of the backgrounds are simple interior locations that contain a minimum of detail. There’s just enough detail to make the backgrounds look like convincing locations but, the overall detail level is still fairly low.

In addition to this, the dramatic-looking lighting in the third panel helps to distract from the low levels of detail in most of the artwork. This is further disguised by the fact that the comic features multiple background locations, which adds some visual variety to the page without using too much effort in the process.

Finally, there’s also the fact that it is – for the most part – a “talking head” comic. This is a comic update where the characters just stand around and talk to each other. If this isn’t done right, then it can look lazy or boring. But, I’ve disguised it somewhat by adding a couple of simple action-based panels to the comic (eg: the two panels showing the television screen) and by showing a close-up of a video player in the third panel.

So, although it might not look like it at first glance, this page was a lazy “rest page” that I created in order to conserve effort for other parts of the comic. If you’re making a longer comic and you tend to have a fairly short creative attention span, then learning how to do this kind of thing can be extremely useful.

There are lots of other ways to do something like this, and I don’t currently have time to list them all here, but hopefully this article will have at least pointed you in the right direction.

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Sorry for the short article, but I hope it was useful 🙂

Making Memorable Moments in Your Webcomic – A Ramble

2017 Artwork Memorable Moments Article sketch

Although this is a rambling article that is supposed to be about making webcomics, I’m going to have to start by talking about music for a while. As usual, there’s a good reason for this that I hope becomes obvious later.

A few days before writing this article, I stumbled across an old cover disc (frm 2007) from “Metal Hammer” magazine [Edit: This article was originally prepared before this magazine closed down in late 2016 😦 ] whilst looking through my CD collection.

I could probably write another article about these free CDs (and the really cool cover art that some of them have) but the reason that I mention it is because this particular CD contained a surprisingly cool song that I’d never actually bothered to listen to before. This song also contained an interesting feature that made me think about webcomics (and other creative mediums too).

If you’re interested, the song in question is one called “Burning Eden” by Carnal Forge. Most of it is the usual kind of shoutier metal that has become a lot more common over the past decade or two, and the song’s chorus is absolutely epic and the instrumental parts are really cool/ complex too. But, better than that, the song also contains what I like to call a “memorable moment”.

This is a super-dramatic part of a song (the part of “Burning Eden” is 30 seconds long, and it takes place at 3:43-4:13 ) that makes you instantly want to repeatedly listen to that one segment of the song at the loudest possible volume. In this case, the sound goes dead for a couple of seconds, as a heavily-distorted guitar briefly plays quietly in the distant background before the lead singer launches into an even louder and more passionate version of the already spectacular chorus. It really bowled me over the first time I heard it.

The interesting thing is that this sort of thing isn’t exactly restricted to music. I mean, if you think about some of your favourite comics, TV shows, games etc.. you can probably find stand-out moments that still seem ridiculously dramatic no matter how many times you see/ play/ read them. These are the things where, even if you’ve forgotten about the rest of the story, you can still remember that one part.

This is usually because that particular part is extremely emotionally-powerful, extremely funny, extremely scary/disturbing (in an inventive way), extremely inspirational, extremely profound, extremely cool-looking etc… Even if it’s just a webcomic update where you include twice as much artistic detail as usual, it still has the potential to become a memorable moment if you handle it correctly.

Still, it’s important to work out where you want to put them – near the beginning or the end is usually a good choice in a linear story. But, if your webcomic consists of lots of self-contained updates, then trying to include one every 1-20 updates is probably something that’s worth aiming for.

Of course, one of my first thoughts after thinking about memorable moments was something like “is it possible to make something that consists entirely of memorable moments?“. I soon realised that the answer was “no”.

These moments only stand out because they are significantly more dramatic than the other great stuff. It’s all relative. To go back to the Carnal Forge song I mentioned earlier – the “ordinary” chorus on it’s own would be a very memorable moment if it appeared in a different (and less good) song, but the reason why the final chorus is the only seriously memorable moment in the song is that it sounds three times more dramatic than the other dramatic parts of the song do.

So, you have to choose these moments carefully – since you’ll probably only get to use one or two of them in your webcomic (possibly more, depending on how long-running your webcomic is) before the dramatic value begins to wear off slightly. But, if this happens, then you can always get it back by coming up with something even more impressive – although this obviously gets progressively more difficult the more times you do it.

Still, you only have a limited number of memorable moments to work with, so use them carefully. But, if you include too many, then it’ll self-regulate anyway, since people will only really remember the best one or two of them. Not to mention that it’s also possible to unintentionally include memorable moments by accident too.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Three Reasons Why Some Novels Are Faster To Read Than Others

2015 Artwork quickly readable stories article sketch

After a conversation I had a few weeks ago, I started thinking about what exactly it is that makes some novels faster to read than others.

You know the kind of thing I’m talking about- you’ve got two books of roughly equal lengths by different authors and yet you can read one in a couple of days, but the other one takes at least a week to read.

Anyway, I thought about this for a minute or so and came up with some ideas about why this sort of thing happens. If you’re planning on writing a full-length novel or even just a short story, then these things might also be useful when it comes to working out how quickly-readable you want your story to be. But, I should point out that most of this stuff is probably fairly obvious though.

1) Action vs. Description: Generally speaking, the ratio of action (eg: things happening, drama, events etc…) to descriptions tends to be a lot higher in novels that are quicker to read. Likewise, if you want your novel to be enjoyed at a more leisurely pace, it may be worth ensuring that there are as many descriptions of things as there are dramatic events in your story.

In other words, the faster you want your novel to be read, the shorter the descriptions should be (because, if you can’t just describe things, then you’ll need to actually show things happening).

To give you an example of what I mean, I can usually read a 400-600 page Lee Child novel in a couple of days and these novels often feature relatively short descriptions, like this one from Lee Child’s “The Enemy”: “Made it through gloomy tiled corridors and came to a door with a pebble-glass window set in its upper half. The door had light behind it and Lt/Col. A. Norton stencilled on it. I knocked and went in. I saw a small and neat office. It was clean and it smelled feminine. I didn’t salute again. I figured we were past that point“.

Notice how, in this quote, every individual thing that is being described is only described using one or two short words. Likewise, the descriptions are interspersed with actions too (Eg: walking down corridors, knocking on doors, deciding not to salute). This means that this story is rather fast-paced.

Now, let’s look at an example from a much slower-paced novel. The novel I will be quoting from is a 661- page (including appendices) fantasy novel called “A Storm Of Swords: Steel And Snow” by George R. R. Martin which took me about a week or so to read. It’s the first half of a much longer novel, but it’s a roughly similar length to the Lee Child novel I mentioned earlier

Anyway, let’s take a look at a quote from it: “Two days’ ride to either side of the kingsroad, they passed through a wide swath of destruction, miles of blackened fields and orchards where the trunks of dead trees jutted into the air like archers’ stakes. The bridges were burnt as well, and the streams swollen by autumn rains, so they had to range along the banks in search of fords. The nights were alive with the howling of wolves, but they saw no people.

Notice how, although there are a couple of actions in this quote (eg: travelling by horse), most of these few sentences are taken up with detailed descriptions of the landscape around the characters. Due to the fact that this novel contains lots of passages like this, it’s a lot slower to read than the Lee Child novel was.

2) Language: If you want your novel to be quickly readable, then you need to make sure that you use slightly simpler and more informal language.

This doesn’t mean that you need to “dumb down” your story or anything like that, it just means that you should mostly use words that don’t sound too “fancy”.

If you use more basic descriptions and language, your readers can “process” it a lot more quickly and, therefore can read more of your story in a short amount of time.

Going back to the quotes I showed you earlier, the Lee Child quote uses fairly basic language like “a small and neat office” whereas the G R. R. Martin quote uses slightly more complex language like “a wide swath of destruction“.

3) Plotting: Another thing that can determine how fast your audience can read your story is what kind of plot your story has.

Generally, if your story has a plot that contains lots of mysteries (that make your readers curious and eager to read more) or lots of fighting (which makes your readers eager to see who will win and how they will win), then it will be a faster-paced story for the simple reason that your readers will want to read more of it as quickly as possible.

Of course, none of these factors exist in isolation – since the Lee Child novel and the G.R.R Martin novels I mentioned earlier both contain lots of mysteries and fighting. So, both of them contain things that make people want to read more quickly, but the reading time for these novels still differs quite a bit because of the two things I mentioned earlier.

Even so, I very much doubt that I’d have been able to read the G. R. R Martin novel in just a week if it wasn’t for the fact that it contained lots of battles, adventures, dramatic plot twists, intriguing mysteries and things like that. If, for example, it had been a comedy or a romance, then it would have probably taken me more than just a week to read it.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Showing The Passage Of Time In Stories And Comics

2015  Artwork Stories time passage dream sketch

Although this is an article about how to show the passage of time in stories and comics, I’m going to have to start by talking about my dreams (of all things) for a while.

Trust me, there’s a valid reason for this – although if you’re the kind of person who is bored by hearing about other people’s dreams, then you might want to skip the next few paragraphs.

Anyway, the day before I wrote this article, I had two of the most spectacular dreams that I’ve ever had. The first dream seemed to last for three months and it revolved around me going to live in a strange secret underwater city.

The second dream only seemed to last for three days and the only way that I can really describe it is that it involved me living in a strange parallel universe which was somehow both better and worse than this universe.

Of course, in actual terms, each of these dreams lasted for less than three hours (I know this because I woke up in between each of them – and because REM sleep phases are only something like twenty minutes long). But, in retrospect, I can understand how my dreams created the illusion of lasting for longer than three hours or just twenty minutes.

Basically, my dreams just did what most films and TV shows do and only “showed” me a few interesting moments from a much longer chain of events. They just showed me the “exciting” moments from a much longer series of events and let my imagination fill in what happened between these moments.

And, well, this made me think about storytelling and time.

You see, one of the great things about both comics and prose fiction is that, unlike film, they don’t take place in real time. You can describe two centuries in a few sentences (or a couple of comic panels) and you can spend twenty pages showing what happened within a single minute. In general, you are in complete control of how fast time passes in your story.

This is both a great thing and a terrible thing. On the one hand, it means that you can show everything in far more detail than a film ever can – but on the other hand, it also means that you have to be a lot more conscious about the passage of time in your story because, if it goes too slowly, then it will bore people and if it goes too quickly, then it will confuse people.

So, what do you do?

Well, if you’ve read enough books and/or comics, then you’ll have probably have already picked up an instinctive understanding of what does and doesn’t work when it comes to showing the passage of time in your story.

But, if you haven’t, then it’s important to remember that you should only show time in a “slow” way when something genuinely interesting is happening. The more boring parts of your story should be skipped over as quickly as possible or, if they’re not important to the story itself, left out of your story entirely.

I mean, if a new chapter of your story begins a day after the previous one, then most people are going to assume that nothing interesting happened between these two chapters. Their imaginations are going to “fill in the gaps” and imagine that your characters just went about their ordinary everyday lives in between the events of these chapters.

But, at the same time, try to make sure that the “gaps” between the interesting moments you show in your story aren’t too long. Whilst it’s ok to skip several years or months a couple of times in your story, if you do it in literally every chapter, then it might get kind of confusing after a while unless your story is exceptionally well-written.

Finally, and this probably should be fairly obvious, it’s always a good idea to signpost when your novel has “jumped ahead” in time. Usually, you can do this in a fairly subtle way – either through background details (if you’re writing a comic) or through a brief description like “later that afternoon…” or whatever.

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