Yet in the midst of an incredibly talky script, the most powerful scene in Juno has no words at all.
And it needs none.
The power comes from the quiet– from the contrast.
The shot starts with two sets of feet sticking out at the end of Juno’s hospital bed– striped socks and grassy track shoes. Then it cuts to Juno being held by Bleeker as she smiles, she cries, then smiles again.
No words are needed because this moment is the cumulation of everything the viewer and Juno have been through together since the film began.
No words are needed between us any more than words were needed between the two of them.
We all now share a common experience. The emotions work because the writer held back and didn’t play the most valuable card until just the right time. You can master emotional payoffs in your writing, too.
Avoid Rushing or Lose the Payoff.
When writing comics, and especially webcomics, we must avoid a very real temptation to rush into our most powerful scenes.
At the beginning we’re trying to get our story off the ground and think we need to use our most gut-wrenching ammunition in order to hook readers and grow a devoted following or attract a publisher.
But there is a problem with this strategy.
The reason that scene in Juno works is precisely because the audience had to wait for it. By the time we get to Juno and Bleeker on the hospital bed, the writer has paid for it in full.
Doing this in comics can feel risky. A movie’s worth of story can take years in webcomic production time.
Will I still be writing this webcomic in two years? Will any of my readers still be following the story? Does holding off on these payoff moments mean no one will see my skills as a writer until then? And how will I grow a readership if the payoffs take forever to arrive?
The desire to rush into emotionally charged moments without building up to them is a dangerous one. It’s instant gratification to use them now.
And yet, without the proper build up, those scenes will not have the emotional impact they were meant to. Readers need to see your characters fail before they can succeed, or vice versa.
Put them on that journey with your character: rooting for them, fearing for them, being angry with them and celebrating with them along the way.
And then when that powerful moment finally arrives? It has every last drop of impact that you intended it to have.
Does this mean that you cannot use emotionally charged scenes until the end of your story? Definitely not.
Give your characters glimpses of that penultimate experience along the way. Let your reader see what it could mean if only your character got it– and what it would mean if they did not.
If you play that card too soon it’s forever out of your hand. Once it’s on the table, you can’t get it back.
So spend wisely and at precisely the right time.
Budget Scenes Like You Budget Money.
I like to think of emotional scenes in financial terms: certain types of scenes cost more than others. A kiss, a death, a victory, a betrayal, a reconciliation, a shocking reveal.
“Luke, I am your father!” costs much more in a script than an X-Wing/ TIE Fighter battle.
You only have so much money to spend in any given script and certain scenes “cost” more, so learn to budget how you spend.
The above example is so expensive, in fact, that script currency had to be saved up for two entire films before it could be cashed in.
But wow, what a payoff. One of of the greatest in film history!
Another way to think of this concept is in terms of composition: dominant, subdominant, subordinate.
We think about these things when creating visual art: everything in a drawing cannot be the subject. All of your colors cannot be given equal prominence.
Parts of an image must recede, must support, must hold up, must compliment, must contrast in order that others shine.
Writing is the same.
As soon as you use too many emotionally charged scenes, they begin to lose their impact. Everything has prominence. And so nothing does.
Don’t overuse your most emotionally charged scenes. Find ways to say more with less.
Find the beauty in the tension of the “what if” missed opportunity moments and use these to hook your readers and reel them in, slow and controlled until the payoff is just right to drop that explosive scene.
Don’t Listen to Your Fans.
If you are writing your comic as a webcomic, you will be tempted to try to maintain the same level of enthusiasm from your readership with every single update.
“Last week I had 36 comments. This week I only have 12.”
Readers will tell you want they want. Loudly. And often.
It sure is tempting to give them what they ask for, isn’t it? Every update can feel like a litmus test of the success or failure of your story.
Except, it is not.
If your comments ebb and flow with the pace of your story, you are probably doing something right.
I have only killed one character in the long run of my webcomic. That update shattered all previous comment records I had had on my site.
Don’t expect that kind of response to every update.
But when you do finally drop a bomb into your story, long time silent readers will rise up to comment because they are so upset, or surprised, or elated by what you have done.
This should happen.
You earned it.
Just don’t be upset when the buzz dies down and things return to normal.
Your readers have not gone anywhere. You’re just back to the grind of the day-to-dayness of your story.
Let the dust settle before you pull out another big punch.
I write a comic that has a strong romantic element to the story.
Yet I waited four years between my characters’ first kiss and their next. But when it finally did happen, I think my readers were ready to kiss me.
Don’t rush the slow build. Built up to it. Pay for it. And make sure that it makes sense.
It is possible to show off your skills as a writer through restraint.
In fact, I think this is the best way to shine and stand out as a comic writer.
Don’t let fear rush you into spending all of your biggest moments up front and short changing yourself in the end just for a quick payoff today. You hold the cards. So play them wisely.