In the Working Writer’s Guide to Comics and Graphic Novels I have a section dedicated to pacing. I cover the basics there, discussing the relevancy of panel counts, word counts and the content itself. One of the things I didn’t discuss is the more advanced concept of Decompression vs. Compression.
Whether or not you’re familiar with these two terms, if you’ve written any comics, you’ve already been implementing them.
As comics are not a complete look at an entire narrative, but rather glimpses of the most important (and hopefully entertaining) parts, comic scripting at its heart IS compression. Taking ten pounds of story and stuffing it into a one pound container.
Let’s look at the following scene breakdowns (not panel breakdowns).
Our cop hero is transporting a criminal. The criminal gets loose in the back and has a wicked fight with our hero. The car crashes, the fight continues outside. Our hero gets splattered with acid, burnt with a flame thrower and his clothes are mostly torn from his body, before the criminal escapes.
Scene 2: Our hero now cleaned up and bandaged, walks into his captain’s office where he’s quickly chewed out for screwing up big time.
There are distinct visual changes between the scenes. Our hero is no longer covered in acid (it must have been washed off somewhere). He secured bandages and applied them to his burns. And found (bought, stole or by some other means procured) a change of clothes. None of which is shown to the reader. The reader (who’s paying attention) knows this all happened because the elements have visually changed. From scene 1, to scene 2, the story’s been compressed.
Technically, any time you condense story you’re compressing and anytime you lengthen story you’re decompressing.
Think of it as a sliding scale with compression at one end and decompression at the other. When you’re in the middle, creating “standard scenes”—3-5 pages, 3-5 panels per page (see the Scene Sizes article) you’re writing is balanced. Creating shorter scenes pushes you over toward the compression end, whereas, longer scenes send you over to the decompression side.
Pacing in a comic is NOT governed by one aspect alone and content has a lot to do with it. But as a very general rule, we can say, Compression speeds up, Decompression slows.
Closer to the ends of the scale, in the more extreme cases, there are some specific situations we can recognize and pay attention to.