An artist friend of mine is working on writing his own comic and asked my advice on the following:
“There is a sequence I want to put in my comic, but it’s not essential to the main plot. It’s a scene that gives insight into the main character, his motivations and the world the story takes place in, but it’s not vital to the story. Do I keep it or cut it?”
Good question. And this will sound kinda like a cop-out, but that’s really part of your voice as a storyteller. What do you choose to keep in and take out?
How self-indulgent do you get? Do you go Mignola’s route and show lots of aspect-to-aspect panels — they help set the mood and establish location but don’t advance the plot at all. Do you go Tarantino’s route and show a scene of two characters talking just because they play off each other well and not because they advance the story? How cutthroat are you with your story and pacing?
My general approach is to see if I can’t take the idea you’re talking about (something that shows characterization and world) and add that into another “important” scene that DOES move the story along. I forget who called it this, but someone used the word “telescopic” storytelling. Like adding multiple storytelling functions, one on top of the other, so that a scene is doing like ten things at once. And that is really fucking hard to do as a creator, but I also feel it works great for reader participation and immersion.
Off the top of my head, I’m pretty sure that every single scene in The Happy Samurais #1 “turns”. There’s a point to every scene. Some value in the scene (trust, loyalty, love, hope) goes from positive to negative, or negative to positive. And once the scene turns (and I’ve made my point), I get the hell out of there (start the scene as late as possible, and end it as soon as possible).
If a scene DOESN’T turn, it better be really fucking interesting on SOME level. There is a super-popular series out there that used to piss me off with this constantly. I’d get done reading a scene and be like, “WTF?! Why did you even show me that? That scene had no point (except to piss me off) and had no bearing on the outcome of things.” If a scene is entertaining and you’ve got space for it, then fuck it and put it in there. Most monthly books don’t have the pages to spare on scenes non-essential to the plot.
When in doubt on what storytelling decision to make, I generally go back to Walt Simonson’s advice: “For every decision ask, ‘does it make the story better?”.