What webcomic authors get wrong about pacing

23 Jul

One thing that’s different and interesting is pacing in long-form webcomics. They’re this continuous, seemingly never-ending story.  You might compare their pacing to a long-running series like Harry Potter, and there were always those parts in the middle where you were stuck reading about the Ministry of Magic characters and feeling really terrible.

Yes, we know, you're awful.  Can we get back to the magic duels now?

Yes, we know, you’re awful. Can we get back to the magic duels now?

As a reader of a physical book, what do you do?

  1. Turn your head, look at the side of the book. (100 more pages?  Okay, I can survive that.)
  2. Read faster.  Skip pages if necessary.  Just get through it.
  3. Press on through because you don’t want to leave a book unfinished.
  4. Remember the previous books ended okay.

Pacing in webcomics is harder. Especially when the story’s getting dark.

In webcomics, we don’t have physical copies to skim or reviews to trust.  We don’t know where the end is. All we know is that our heroes are outclassed and everything’s getting worse.

This was a comment that the creators of Namesake received from a reader, and a frustration that’s easy to encounter when you read a story that only updates a page at a time.

Another defeat for Calliope at the hands of the Rippers (www.namesakecomic.com)

Another defeat for Calliope at the hands of the Rippers (from Namesake)

As a reader of a webcomic, what do you do?

  1. Skim the pages until the story gets back on track (which might take years)
  2. Stop reading now and come back later (if you remember)
  3. Wait for the print version (again, requiring good memory and possibly physically meeting the author)
  4. Give up.  There’s lots of other webcomics out there, and it’s not like you paid money to read this one.

But the true fans will stick around, right?

As webcomic authors, we might ignore these reader reaction and say “Don’t let the door hit you on the way out”, so long as future readers can buzz through the archives or buy the print volume and be satisfied. We might devalue slow-release story satisfaction.

This is short-sighted, in my opinion.  I don’t think any of us want to make a reader who once loved our work start to hate it.  Plus, time and again, we’re reminded that your long-term relationship with an audience is what sells your stories and brand.  If your story is wearing your readers down instead of building them up, that’s going to affect your relationship with them, to the point where they might not want one at all.

So what, I can only tell stories about sunshine and kittens now?

No, but we can borrow techniques from the world of physical books.  We can build our readers up, even when the story is depressing. We can make our readers trust us. How?

Make your chapters a consistent length and have satisfying resolutions: To see this in action, look at the archive page of  Gunnerkrigg Court.  Even though Tom seems to introduce a lot of confusing mysteries, I will get a satisfying answer in each 20-30 page chapter, and at three pages a week, that’ll take a max of 10 weeks. Easy.

Snow-By-Night’s archives tell a similar story.  You could set a watch to the page count, and as I read, I learn something that feels important each chapter.  This goes a long way to building my confidence in the author.

Gunnerkrigg Court and Snow-By-Night, respectively.  (Read them both!)

Gunnerkrigg Court and Snow-By-Night, respectively. (Read them both!)

Establish yourself as an author with short stories first:  Similar to above, but easier to implement if your long stories don’t suit the webcomic slow-release format.  By giving readers confidence that you can end things as well as you start them, they establish trust in your abilities.  Plus, there are the added benefits of giving yourself a larger body of work and all that good stuff.

Write with the mindset that discovery is a happier feeling than confusion: I’ve started writing with the specific goal of making my readers say “So that’s how that works…” and “I know what the characters can do about this!” at the end of most pages, more often than “Why did that happen?”.  Does it make my story more predictable?  Some parts, yeah.  But I do it to build up my readers, and I find I still have quite a few secrets no matter what.

The takeaway

Not everyone’s going to like your story and your ultimate direction, and that’s okay.  But we face a different pacing challenge than writers of physical books, and we should be aware of it.  Do what you can to prevent the readers who love your work from disengaging.  Build trust that you can and will deliver a satisfying ending.  Help them get to the conclusion.

Read my webcomic:


One Response to “What webcomic authors get wrong about pacing”

  1. Jen July 23, 2013 at 11:11 am #

    Sounds like the idea is to make each chapter ‘episodic’, kind of like what happens in TV shows where each show is a separate story that may feed into a larger tale, but doesn’t have to. Most American cartoons do this, even those that have longer story arcs.

    I also think that moments of levity help. I had to stop reading A Song of Ice and Fire because it was getting too depressing and there was no levity to alleviate it. Having someone crack a joke in the middle of a tense scene to diffuse the tension does wonders; it’s what always happens in the Avengers. Or, even a visual pun or slapstick. Manga artists also do this.

    And maybe don’t do what I do which is the cliffhanger ending. XD Works fine in a novel, but episodically maybe not so much.

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