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The reader as partner

Posted in Just for Writers, and Readers

Understanding ComicsI'm rereading 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.

In this post, I'll focus 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.

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