Crafting a Viewer’s Perceptions
What is the 180 degree rule? We see it in use the most in film. If a character enters from the right side of the screen, they stay on that side and face the same direction, even when the scene cuts from shot to shot. This helps create a sense of space for the viewer. If the line is crossed (ie, suddenly we see a new shot where that character is facing the opposite direction, or is on the other side of the screen) it becomes a “reverse angle” — and it can royally screw with our perception of the scene.
So how does all this apply to comics?
Comics are a visual media, and making sure characters don’t cross the line into a reverse angle can be just as important for us as a film! Being aware of how the eye and brain take in information will allow us to prevent (or, for effect, cause) confusion in readers. This may seem like a no-brainer concept, but I know from experience how easy this is to mess up!
The way I think of the 180 rule in comics is to consider two aspects of every page or scene: (1) When do characters speak? (2) Where are the characters?
Most of us start with a script in some form. I know I do, and usually for more than just one page at a time, so I know who says what and in what order. Since most western cultures are used to reading from left to right, top to bottom, they expect action and dialog to move through time in that order as well. The first person to speak should have their words at the left and/or top. This in turn determines where in the panel they should be. First person to speak? They should be on the left, and they should stay on the left for the rest of the comic page. This can get really complicated once I get into a scene, and if I’m not careful I can completely screw up the flow of the page. I’ll show you an example of how easy this is to get wrong in a little bit, but first let’s cover the second aspect…
I don’t just think about where a character is once they get on-panel, but also when they’re off-panel. If a character speaks from one side of the page or another, they should also appear from that side of the page. So if Chicken turns to look a specific way to speak to Dog, Chicken should always be looking that direction to talk to Dog, even when Dog is not visible in that particular panel. I might want to have a close-up panel of just Chicken’s eyes or face (I won’t here, lest those goggle-like orbs BURN INTO OUR SOULS) but even then, his eyes and face should remain looking in a consistent direction. Otherwise our brains get confused about where people are in the scene, and relative to one another. Kinda like what happens if we draw two right hands holding something. The brain might not catch it right away, but it’ll bother people even if they don’t know why.
Right and Wrong
To summarize, I’d like to break down two pages from my own work. In the first one, I screwed these concepts up. In the second, I got them right, even though I ran into some challenges because of speaking order in my scene.
Page the First, the mistake. On the left, you see the original page. Next to it, I’ve outlined each character in either blue or red. At the top, red speaks first, and is on the left. Blue speaks second, and is on the right. Yay! It works with the eye and brain! No confusion! However, in the middle panel I start shifting things around. Blue is left! He’s right! He’s light-speed wall-leaping ninja! And by the bottom, he ends up on the opposite side of the page than the one he started on. Even WORSE, even though he’s on the left, he doesn’t speak first! Red does, but he appears (as our eye/brain sees it) second. Whoops! I was so focused on what I wanted to put in the background that I forgot to pay attention to the scene, and the whole page suffers because of it. Fortunately, I got to redeem myself a few pages later.
This time, Blue speaks first, and appropriately appears on the left side of the page. Red is second to speak, and appears on the right. We have a cluster of panels on the right side, and in one of them Blue appears a second time, but even in this panel his position is consistent — he is on the left side of the panel, and he’s facing to the right. Red and blue maintain their locations in the last panel, with Blue in the left foreground and Red in the right background. But wait! Because of the pacing and paneling, in that particular shot, Red is speaking first, so shouldn’t their positions be reversed? But then they’ll have an inconsistent location again! Oh no! What should I do??
I solved this problem by doing two things. First, since the Where of the characters was set horizontally at this point, I knew I couldn’t rely on that plane for word balloon placement. So instead of a left/right flow of dialog, I changed it to a top/bottom flow. Vertically, “top” = “first” just like “left” does in the horizontal plane. The second thing I did was to push the balloons outside of the panel boarder. Although those words belong to the last shot, the brain doesn’t fully associate them with the image until it has crossed that border barrier. This way it becomes a continuation of the earlier shots and their arrangement (Blue left, Red right) so by the time the eye “enters” the final panel, the Where of the characters doesn’t seem disorienting, even if the order of their speech might be otherwise.
When to break the rules
As I’m sure you noticed with Dog & Chicken, messing with these rules can be quite disconcerting! No good if I’m trying to do a feel-good scene, but there is SERIOUS potential to raise the Creepy Factor in dream sequences or other strange, unusual settings. As with all rules, knowing how they work is a matter of learning how to break them in one’s favor!
Robin Dempsey is addicted to storytelling, despite all logical reasoning against this irrationally glorious pursuit. By day she works as a Mechanical Engineer, and in every spare moment outside of that she is making comics. Including in her sleep, on occasion. Addicted to world-building, character crafting, and language making, you can find the results of her sprawling storytelling pursuits at LeyLinesComic.com! Or drop a line on Twitter at RobinofLeyLines.