How to Layout Your Comic! Panels, Gutters, and Page Flow
Confidently guide readers through your comic with this collection of techniques by comic artist Steve Ellis on comic frames/panels, gutters, & page flow.
Dynamic Frames in Comics!
As a comic artist, I have come across many different ways to tell a story. A good story needs pacing, flow, and balance. We achieve this through character movement, character acting, and how and where we choose to begin or end scenes and sequences; but one of the overlooked tools of storytelling is the panel or frame, and it’s silent partner, the gutter.
The panel is the border that wraps around a single moment in a comic. Its job is to contain an illustration that puts forth an idea. The contents of each panel should be a complete thought, but sometimes the thought you need for a panel can fill a paragraph or be as short as a single word. Beyond the contents of a panel, it is a storytelling tool by itself. By containing that idea, it is separating that idea from the one previous and the one before. It’s literally a wall that says to the reader “here is a complete idea, read it and move onto the next.” When I lay out a page, I will think about:
- What are the beginning and endpoints of the page?
- What needs to happen between those two points to tell the progress from beginning to end?
- How many steps will tell that progression best and what needs to be included in each step?
- Translate those steps to panels/ frames.
- How do I expect the reader to move from one panel to the next?
- How does the last panel lead to the next page?
I begin with thumbnails that move me through the story of a page. I will often layout each panel as an individual so things that will later be insets or big panels will all be the same size. This allows me to see which ones should be bigger or smaller or insets, where I can get rid of the border, and decide what kinds of frames I want.
I make sure that the panels lead the reader from left to right and down to mimic the usual reading pattern of a western-style comic book. All the action within the panels leads you across the page or down to the next tier of panels.
The final page should read something like this:
Leading the reader through the page line through page image. Double page spread.
Leading the reader to the next page
There are different panel types which are useful tools to know for storytelling. They are pretty standard but they can be used in different ways and combinations to create drama in your story. Adding multiple panels to an action can draw out time, show detail, or show the steps of the action, otherwise unseen. Using progressions such as a “zoom in” can create excitement or tension when telling a story.
Some useful panel types:
- A close-in single Headshot
- A close up of character or object
- A distant shot for establishing scenes or showing wide action
- A silhouette shot gives an opportunity for drama
- A single character in backgrounds
- One character foreground, one character background
- Action shot
Organizing panels: The gutter
The space between the panels is called the gutter. If each panel is an idea, Its job is to be the space between ideas, to give the reader a moment to absorb the contents of the first panel before connecting that idea with the contents of the next panel. Traditionally a gutter is always the same width, which implies a fairly smooth transition from panel to panel with no accent or alteration to the reading. A wider panel border, leaving the reader more time and space to rest and think about the story can be a nice option for creating time in-between moments.
Gutter and no gutter examples:
Removing panel borders tends to make the contents of two panels bleed together either making them confusing to read, or creating a sense that two actions are happening at once. If I am looking to lead the reader from one picture to another or give the feeling that one or more panels are happening either simultaneously or directly after, I will overlap panels. But it’s a difficult trick because you need to make sure that elements of one panel don’t bleed into another panel making it hard to separate the beats of the page.
Varying Gutter Width:
Effective gutters usage can increase the realism of a scene.
Other ways panels can be used to tell a story
Panels can be used to tell the story simply through their shape and by the lines creating the panels. Switching scenes can be done using different style panel borders to allow a reader to understand that we are now in a different place. You can use different styles of borders to show that characters are in a new world, state of being, or even to represent a shift in time as in a memory or a premonition. With a memory or premonition or a change of state, you can choose many different styles of lines for panels, maybe wavy lines for a memory, or shocking broken up lines for a premonition, altering the shape of the line will help the reader know we are entering a different type of scene.
To frame or not to Frame:
Sometimes a powerful effect can be created by dropping out a frame from a page in order to accentuate a specific object or action. This pairs well with a standalone object, or a silhouette. These panels go to the edge of the paper beyond the “safe” area of the panels.
All of these types of panels go into building a strong and well story-told page like this.
Finally, these are all just ways of approaching storytelling. Creating your own sense of pacing and movement between panels will come to you as you work and develop your style. Trying all of these different types of panels in your layouts can be a good way to test run a device before committing to a final page layout.
Go out and tell some great stories!