This Magic Moment
Choosing the moment to illustrate in a panel is central to the success of a comic — and crucial to cartoonists working in single-panel formats like editorial cartoons and gag cartoons. You’ve brainstormed the who, what and where… now don’t drop the ball on the when.
Before the Action
Illustrating the moment before the action happens is an excellent way to increase the tension before the punchline. This is especially true if your scene include elements of visual tension (like a book teetering precariously on the edge of a shelf, seconds away from falling on the head of the person standing underneath).
In other instances, realizing what happens next is the punchline. The words provide the set-up and the reader’s ability to take the scene to the next step based on the illustration provides the actual humor.
Either way, illustrating before the moment means making sure the reader is able to easily take the narrative to the next step in her imagination — based primarily on how you’ve composed the elements in the scene.
In the Action
This is definitely the most direct method used by cartoonists. It’s a most logical and direct. But in terms of strytelling, it can also have such a diagram-like effect that it drains much of the life out of a scene.
Of course, sometimes there’s simply no alternative. For example, in the case of dialogue between two characters, there’s really very few options in terms of choosing your moment. You’re going to have to reach deeper into your bag of tricks to make that scene exciting.
I think the most important thing to keep in mind when illustrating action is to be mindful of the angle at which you’re presenting the scene. You can present so much subconscious information — so much attitude — in choosing a high angle or a low angle… a long shot or a close-up… It’s really a story/joke killer to stay at that standard waist-high, medium-range scene.
After the Action
So few cartoonists choose to represent a scene by its aftermath, and that’s a pity because you can really pull some neat tricks with this approach. For example, you can do the exact opposite of the fill-in-the-next-step approach we discussed earlier. You can show an unexpected outcome to an otherwise “normal” or ambiguous set-up. Or you can show a completely normal scene that occurred as the result of a bizarre lead-in.
Almost always, this approach to presenting a scene relies on playing on the reader’s expectations to deliver its drama/humor.
Let’s face it. It’s easy to get into the habit of illustrating the action of the scene — staying in the moment panel after panel. But as you’re planning your drawing, take a moment to slide forward or backward in time. It just might be that the best way of describing a moment is to describe the moment before (or after) the moment.