Sep 22 2009
In most cases, a comic book writer will have the text describe what is visually shown in the panels. For example, if two characters are speaking, usually the panel will show the characters as they speak. But there are some great reasons you might want to consider using removed narration, where the speakers are out of the panel.
For example, Gotham Central includes a scene where an officer is describing a raid to Internal Affairs off-panel. On-panel, we see the raid happen in a totally different way. That’s effective storytelling because (short-answer) it shows us that the cop is lying about what happened. If we only saw the cop as he talked, it wouldn’t be as clear or as striking as seeing the truth.
Here are some reasons you might want to consider removed narration.
- You want the readers to know that someone is lying. Especially if the lying wouldn’t be obvious from the conversation alone and/or you want just the readers (and not the characters) to know about the lying. (If you’re okay with letting the other characters know, you can suggest dishonesty in-conversation with body language and/or weaselly words).
- Euphemism vs. reality. For example, a mom tells the kids that “Lassie got sent to a nice farm family” as you show the dog getting euthanized. Or a scientist tells his boss that “there’s been a situation in the containment unit” as you show a blood-soaked lab that’s been torn apart by some monster. (Scientists, here is some useful career advice: never work in the containment unit).
- You want to draw a connection between two events. For example, we might hear the eulogy from Uncle Ben’s funeral as we see Peter Parker getting suited up as Spiderman for the first time. The connection is obvious: Uncle Ben’s death convinces Peter to fight crime. Be careful with this sort of scene, though– if the connection isn’t clear to your readers, it may feel disorienting.
- The visual helps develop the conversation and/or a character’s mindset. For example, if you’re doing a conversation where a young boss fires a employee that has been with the company for decades, you might focus on a prop or a side-character instead of the protagonist. For example, you might focus in on a detail like a healthy ant eating an injured ant. That helps develop the boss’s mindset as primal and brutal. This can be cheesy, though– I’d recommend introducing the prop gradually so that it feels more connected to the conversation. (For example, first it shows up on the edge of the panel or in the background and gradually becomes more prominent).
- The visuals to the conversation are not particularly important to the core of the story. For example, the priest delivering the eulogy at Uncle Ben’s funeral is just a faceless extra. He doesn’t matter. Cutting away to Spiderman doing something is an effective way to make sure that your visuals are focused on the core of the story.
Here are some suggestions to keep in mind.
- Make it clear who is saying what. In addition to making sure that the voices and mindsets are unique, it might help to color-code your speech bubbles and boxes. If you’re interested in working color into speech bubbles and boxes, please see a gradient example here. Another possible tool: in rare circumstances, you might want to give each character his own font, as in Superman/Batman. If you give each character his own color or font, please use it consistently! Readers/editors will notice if you mess up.
- I recommend giving the reader the context of the speech before cutting out to the other visual. That will help readers understand what is going on. (“Oh, the cop is lying about what happened because he’s trying to fool the investigators”). Without the context, readers might be confused about why the text doesn’t seem to match up with what they’re seeing.
- Be careful with cutting back and forth between two different settings. I wouldn’t recommend doing more than 2 shifts over the course of a conversation.