The Syntax of Panels in Narrative Comics

NOTE: This started as a series of quick notes for a friend who’s a writer. I quickly realized that he shouldn't be bothering himself with things like dictating panels to an artist, but wanted to get the thoughts out of my head and clarify them a bit for myself, so I kept writing. I was about to apologize for it, but fuck it.

It seems like a small thing, but it’s important to be able to read the medium well if you really want to command it. If you want to design your pages to solve real storytelling problems—and you should if your medium is comics—then you need to know how to read and to think intelligently about how the elements work together on the page. It’s not just about the words, and it’s definitely not about the pictures.

The syntax of comics panels is interesting because the gutters can both join and separate. Transitions between panels can be internal or external, and I’m using those terms in reference to scenes and continuity. The transitions within scenes and those between scenes are analogous in a way to scenes and shots in film.

What is a scene?

So let’s talk about scenes. The scene (σκηνή) in Greek drama sat behind the stage, a physical building that housed the backstage area, where actors changed costume or provided offstage noises and the like. The skene’s facade was decorated with paintings that gave the impression of the physical setting demanded by the episode (ἐπεισόδιον). In reality we use scene by metonomy for episode, because the episodes were marked by changes to the decorations on the scene. This gets incredibly more complex when we move away from the physical stage and translate performance to film or to comics.

In these media, we can allow the audience to leave their seats and to view the drama from any angle, even from within a character’s skin. The scene (or episode) is no longer marked by the setting, limited as it is by a particular vantage point. In other words, transitions no longer signal episodic breaks, since transitions have become a part of the internal syntax of a scene.

A scene is a kind of narrative unit that may be a single, unbroken whole, like a long take or sequence shot in film. To do that in comics, to translate the long take to the syntax of the medium, would usually entail a monotony of panel design and a relatively consistent point of view. It’s much more common to build a scene, in whichever medium, of a variety of shots. The effects of shot repetition and shot variation are many, and along with panel shape, size, and number, accomplish an incredible range of things, from speeding up to slowing down time, from confusing events to making things clear, and all manner of things that serve particular narrative needs.

The panel’s the thing

Panels are varied by the viewing angles employed, by levels of focus, by variations in size and shape, and even by managing their juxtaposition with other panels. Artists can also break down the conventions of panels and gutters because the audience knows the language well enough. It’s a very different thing from working within the uniform frame of film, but it achieves the same ends in its own way.

Between scenes, there’s a break of some kind. While the gutters within a scene join, those between them separate, no matter how subtly or sharply they do so. It’s true that panels sometimes stand alone like snapshots, even when fitted together thematically to ground the reader. This is impressionistic storytelling. More often, though, panels have a clear sequence and fit together to make scenes. Within scenes the syntax is complex, like periodic sentences in classical prose. More than anywhere else in comics, it’s within a scene that the complexities of panel shape and size, the number of panels per page, the types and varieties of shots used, and the manipulation of the reader's perception of time is essential.

On Transitions

Transitions between panels, broadly speaking, are of three kinds:

  1. An establishing panel sets the mood, suggests a theme, or gives a general impression, most often as a setup for the panels that follow. In a series of establishing panels, you see aspect-to-aspect transitions. They’re like snapshots, connected thematically but without a clear narrative or temporal sequence. These often blend into scene or act as a sort of bridge between scenes. One variation is a panel or series of panels that suggest the sequel without giving an explicit narrative conclusion.
  2. Cuts occur whenever continuity breaks between panels. A cut generally marks a scene change (often referred to as a scene-to-scene transition) or a jump in time, but can also be a non sequitur, which has limited application.
  3. Within scenes, you find a wide variety of transitions that are analogous to shots in film. This is the most robust and complex kind of transition in comics. Panel transitions within a scene can either (a) move between shots or (b) show the progression of time within a single shot.

Transitions within a Scene:

This is where you really become a director, literally directing the reader’s focus through a scene. How you transition from one panel to the next can immerse the reader in the scene or remove them from it. You can let the reader follow the action from a given vantage point, move through the scene with the characters, or effectively watch it as if on a screen, sharply changing perspective or focus.

These types of internal transitions are often discussed in the following, simplified terms:

  • Moment-to-moment transitions tend to slow time, like slowing a film reel and seeing the individual frames.
  • Action-to-action transitions can show things like cause and effect or a series of quick actions, and tend to speed up time.
  • Subject-to-subject transitions move through a scene, focusing the reader’s attention with intentional shifts in point of view through the passage of time. (Not to be confused with aspect-to-aspect transitions between establishing panels.)

On the size and number of panels

Panel sizes and panels-per-page can also convey time.

  • A skinny panel is brief: a quick glance, a swift action, a sliver of time.
  • A wide panel takes time, which can mean one of two things:
    1. You can read the passage of time from left to right within the panel, or
    2. you can meditate on a single image.

Imagine a person in captivity. A single large panel conveys the long isolation.

A similar effect can be obtained from a series of smaller panels, square or wide, showing no changes or only subtle hints of change. Narrow panels, on the other hand, grab a slice of time. Showing the same shot with slight variations is equivalent to slow motion in film, but changing shots or showing wide variation in the action captured by narrow panels actually speeds up time and conveys rapid, sometimes confusing events.

This produces an apparent paradox:

  • The passage of time in comics is generally understood to be inversely proportional to the number of panels on the page.
    • More panels = slower pace.
    • Fewer panels = quicker pace.

But this isn’t entirely accurate, as we’ve seen, because there’s an interplay between the size and number of panels on the one hand, and the shots used on the other.

This isn't really difficult to understand when you think in terms of physical film, as noted above on moment-to-moment transitions. The reader's mind interacts with this medium in a similar way, but the syntax is its own. We have conventions for speeding up and slowing down, for focusing and confusing the audience.

We just have to think about panels properly as an important part of storytelling in comics.