Panel Transitions

Telling a Story with Pictures

There are six types of panel transitions that an artist can use when creating a comic book, some of which are more obvious than others, but all of which should be taken into consideration when you work as a cartoonist. So what are they? Read on and find out!

1. Moment to Moment

One Action Over Time

A moment to moment panel transition refers to one where a distinct action is expressed through a series of panels. These are typically the closest that a comic can come to mimicking the effect of a film's pacing, sort of like if a movie reel (remember those?) were to be unspooled and laid out in front of you. That way, you would see the action of a scene in a thousand tiny individual pictures, moving very slowly from one point of time to the next.

In comics, an artist would not want to use thousands of pictures to describe just one action, however. That sort of panel transition would be similar to a slow-motion replay, which is not always what the artist wants to achieve. Instead, a few panels, three or four, are perfectly adequate to describe most simple actions, such as pouring and drinking a cup of coffee, turning around, or raising a hand.

2. Action to Action

One Action Per Moment

With an action to action panel transition, a cartoonist is trying to achieve a measure of efficiency in the way they craft a scene. Strictly speaking, only one moment is chosen for each action shown in the comic, with the result that things tend to move along quickly within a scene. For example, a person shown driving their car might have the extended action split into panels that show, respectively and in order, the character grabbing his keys, turning the keys in the ignition, backing the car out of the driveway, and driving the car down the street. In another scene, a character making a game-winning basket in a friendly game of basketball could be described in a panel that shows him being passed the ball, being guarded in the next, breaking the guard in a third panel, and completing a fantastic jump shot in the fourth.

Since action to action panel transitions obviously describe, well, a series of actions, it should be clear that these types of panel transitions are often responsible for moving the plot of a comic book along at a brisk pace. They also tend to be the most common types of transitions that you are likely to see in an American comic, particularly the superhero comics published by Marvel and DC.

3. Subject to Subject

Changing Angles as a Scene Progresses

Subject to subject, like the previous type of panel transition, is an example of a panel transition that will continue to move a story and plot forward. The difference, however, is that the focus of the reader's attention will change with each panel. For example, in a scene that features a dinner table conversation with two or more characters, the subject of each panel may change as different characters take turns speaking.

4. Scene to Scene

Jumping to the Next Location

A scene to scene transition delivers on exactly what the name promises: a jump from one scene to the next in a story. The three big types of scene to scene transitions are those of a different time and same space, the same time and a different space, or a different time and a different space.

An example of the first type of scene transition might be a panel of a living room with a clock on the wall that reads 2 pm, followed by a panel of a dive bar that also features a clock on the wall that reads 2 pm, indicating to the read that we are seeing these different locales at roughly the same point in time.

The second type of scene to scene transition could be exemplified by a panel of a baseball stadium during a game, full of people. The next panel would then be the same baseball stadium after the game, devoid of anyone. Thus, the scene transition takes place in the same space, but a different time.

And for the third type? There are, of course, an infinite variety of options, but one example is a nighttime scene in the American Southwest, cacti and tumbleweeds in full view, followed by a panel that switches the scene to the other side of the world, so that now the reader is looking at a scene of the Australian Outback at dusk.

5. Aspect to Aspect

Time Stands Still as a Subject is Explored

Perhaps the most zen of all the types of transitions discussed here, aspect to aspect panel transitions help to provide a sense of atmosphere to a depicted scene. Essentially, time stands still as different panels explore the many aspects and angles of a given scene. For example, an aspect to aspect representation of a snowy day could show one panel of the snow falling on a quiet neighborhood, followed by a panel of a snowman, and then perhaps the window of a house that has been lightly frosted.

6. Non Sequitur

Does Not Compute

The non sequitur is a bit of the odd man out among all the various types of panel transitions. Essentially, it does not do anything to advance plot or story, describe an action, or create a mood. But if you know that non sequitur is a Latin phrase which means "It does not follow," you might have already guessed that.

Examples of non sequitur transitions are any panel transitions that simply do not follow from each other, and cannot be made to connect in any meaningful way. If you work as a cartoonist, you may end up using non sequitur transitions sparingly, and not at all, unless you simply like to experiment.

Using Panel Transitions

And Further Reading

To learn more about the various techniques of comic book art and cartooning, be sure to check out these articles on comic book panels and how to layout a page. We also highly recommend the books of comic book artist and teacher Scott McCloud, who has a number of interesting books on the subject of creating comic books.