The reader is your partner

Every so often I reread a wonderful book: Understanding Comics, by Scott McCloud. If you’ve never read it, stop reading this post right now and remedy the situation.

I’ll wait.

Don’t let the fact that he’s talking about illustrated work disturb you. His take on how to tell stories is directly related to the writing of fiction in all its forms.

Let me focus here on what he has to say about how the reader is your partner in story-telling.

As McCloud says about the above pair of panels (p. 66)…

Every act committed to paper by the comics artist is aided and abetted by a silent accomplice. An equal partner in crime known as the reader.

I may have drawn an axe being raised in this example, but I’m not the one who let it drop or decided how hard the blow, or who screamed, or why.

That, dear reader, was your special crime, each of you committing it your own style.

All of you participated in the murder. All of you held the axe and chose your spot.

To kill a man between panels is to condemn him to a thousand deaths.

Let me repeat that — the reader does the work; the artist merely sets it up. If you were writing a bedroom scene, think how little you actually need to show for the reader to fill in the details in ways far more vividly than you can conjure. It’s a very clear presentation of how less can be more.

McCloud goes on to discuss the craft of making this work. He identifies six types of panel-to-panel transitions (click to enlarge).

  1. Moment-to-moment.
  2. Action-to-action.
  3. Subject-to-subject.
  4. Scene-to-scene.
  5. Aspect-to-aspect.
  6. Non-sequitur.

The amount of work required by the reader varies for each of these.

Using Jack Kirby and his ilk as typical mainstream comics artists, he analyzes the proportions of these scenes in those works, Not surprisingly, #2 is by far the most frequent, and then roughly equal amounts of #3 and #4.

Comparing this to action genres in fiction, the resemblance is striking. #1 is reserved for special effects — you might show a slow moment-to-moment sequence when the hero is dealing with the effects of shock. #5 is reserved for setting mood, something which kills momentum in the story so it’s used sparingly. And #6 might come into play with a sudden scene transition to a new POV without context, perhaps the villain cackling over the success of his murder plans. The reader can’t help but draw relationships between two juxtaposed scenes, even if they don’t know what’s going on, and that’s one way to add suspense.

I find I use these techniques all the time, though I think of them as cinematic, not specifically related to comics. I set up my transitions in ways that call for (internal) responses from my readers, analogous to the gutters between panels in McCloud’s analysis.

McCloud has many fascinating insights that will be of interest to fiction writers, in particular his discussion of masks and identification for readers, near the beginning of the book.

Strongly recommended for fiction writers.

18 comments

  1. When I worked in a comic book store many years ago we always had a copy of this. A smarter me would have bought it and kept it in my library. The stupid actual version of me ignored it. I suppose I always could order one for Christmas. I added it to my want list at any rate.

  2. Question for the group. How long should a book be to be a book? Is there a particular word count you should aim for?

    1. 40K words for a novel.
      17.5K-39,999 words for a novella
      7.5K-17,499K words for a novelette
      >7.5K for a short story

      So, you know, I try to hit 40K.

    2. I seem to run about 60K to 80K, depending on which world I’m working in. Pulp-length novels, in other words. Some end up longer.

      The word-count definition of “book” is shrinking back to 40K to 60K, like it was before the 1960s or so.

      1. But preferred length (whether shorter or longer) is still heavily genre-specific. I don’t expect the term “goat gagger” to go anywhere for quite some time (as a description of a certain type of Epic Fantasy novel). 🙂

        Mine are somewhat shorter than that, but it’s still amusing that one “episode” in a Fantasy series is typically so very much longer than one stand-alone “Romance” novel, which arguably settles a person’s most important life moment.

          1. Depends entirely on the romance. Three are subgenres that are epics, there are subgenres that are short. Harlequin category romances had required word counts by the genre that ranged from 50K to 75K depending on the category, so that is what most people think of when they think “romances are short.”

            Indie has muddied the waters a great deal, because ebooks don’t have to fit a precise slot on a spinner rack, nor do they have to exactly match the spine of all the publisher’s offerings. So they can vary wildly from genre to genre, series to series, and even book to book within a series.

            That said, many of them still tend to be a lot shorter than the “we are charging a higher price, so we need to make the books fatter in order for the customer to feel they’re getting their money’s worth. Make the required miminum 120K” of fantasy and scifi in the 90’s.

            Then again, a lot of indie SF & F pulp is shorter, too, once it’s freed from the constraints of trad. It’s trending back to that 40-55K mark, from back when pocket books actually fit in a pocket, like with Louis L’amour and Edgar Rice Burroughs.

    3. The good news is that in indie, you don’t have to write to a limit.

      I have written stories too short to sell on their own, and put them solely in collections

  3. A friend of mine has written a novel and I’m trying to help edit it. It seemed a little long for a first book, and the narrative had a good stopping point midway through. His first draft was over 150k words and now it’s two books at about 75k each. That seems to be a good length.

    I like Japanese light novels, but the last one I read in a series I love felt criminally short. But I found out it’s 50k words, so maybe it’s just that I read too fast.

  4. I was thinking a novel would be about 20k words. But everyone seems to be saying 40k is a minimum.

    I looked up the “lester dent pulp fiction formula” and it says 6000 words. But it’s for “stories” not novels. Maybe that is where my confusion starts. I’ve been thinking for years that pulp novels where less than 10k words. I look it up and those novels were between 30 and 50 thousand words.

  5. So, I keep reading about book lengths. Back in the 50’s-60’s pulp novels were 30k-50k so they were compact for newsstands. In the 70’s-80’s 50k-60k was standard so you could fit 3-4 books per slot in a spinner rack then in the late 80’s/early 90’s through about the 00’s to 10’s it was 60-80 thousand words so that the spine would be about the same width (and visibility) as other books on the shelves at the big bookstores. But now that ebooks are exploding books are going back to a 40-50k word count which seems more convenient for a comfortable read.

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