Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Consistent reading time for comic pages?

I had a link sent to me recently asking about this blog post that claims all comic pages regardless of content are read at 3.75 seconds per page. A relevant section:

I read in one of Frederik Schodt’s excellent books on manga that a study concluded that readers spend an average of 3.75 seconds on a comic page. My own observations of myself and others has led me to believe that time frame to be fairly consistent, by which I mean not dependent on the contents of a page. Unless a writer really creates an absolutely confounding monologue or an artist completely botches an integral sequence, readers do not seem to change their flipping speed for “difficult,” wordy, nor beautiful pages. This yields somewhat counter-intuitive results, in my estimation. Single panel pages, which should ostensibly be flown through, allow one image to be lingered on or “drunk in” because that one drawing is granted the full 3.75 seconds. Pages with many panels, taken to the extreme above, should require a slower, more contemplative pace. But they do not. They seem to clock at the same 3.75, meaning the eyes need to whip through these images to make it in time.


He then goes on to advocate different strategies of layout based on the idea that readers will go through it at this magic time of 3.75 seconds. Since I wrote a lengthy counter-rebuttal to this claim, I figured I ought to post it here too.

According to the science I've seen, this does not seem to be the case. The amount of time people spend on each individual panel varies based on how much information is in it, it's order in the sequence, as well as possibly size of both panel and page, and a whole page time varies definitely the way the page layout is organized.

From a very general study of my own relating to times it takes 4 panel comic strips to be read, I found each panel at an average of 1.5 seconds per panel when readers press a button to advance through panels. But, it does vary per position and narrative structure — first panels are consistently slower, panels after major events much slower. However, if you just take that average and multiply it by 4, that gives you 6 seconds for one 4 panel Peanuts strip that has no words in it.

In my last study, I found reading times varying between .6 and 1.8 seconds per panel (small times for panels that had very little information, such as blank panels or those with just action stars), with the full 6 panel strips clocking in around 6 ±2.5 seconds.

Plus, the *uncited* study that was mentioned in the blog is for manga (and if I recall correctly, Schodt also doesn't cite the actual study), which consistently 1) use slightly less panels per page (my corpus study — "Cross Cultural Space" — showed both American and Japanese books to have 5 panels per page, but manga had a lower standard deviation), and 2) use less balloons per page. Furthermore, eye-tracking studies show that fluent readers skip over far more balloons than non-fluent readers — so, less balloons means less reading time, especially for fluent readers.

The poster here then says that he finds this time to be consistent to his own experience — but you can't know such a thing from anecdotal evidence. You would have to have measures to substantiate it.

And, even if it were true that on average pages are read at a pace of 3.75 seconds — which, I imagine there is some average time out there if one were to crunch all the numbers — there is no way that we would feel the need to allot different time to different panels based on some intuitive feeling that we "want" to read each page in a specified amount of time.

Rather, the time it takes to read a page all depends on its content and the fluency of the reader.

2 comments:

-Justin said...

First of all, I want to thank you, Neil, for a fantastic blog and research! Thank you for sharing your work. I found you through Scott McCloud's site, and I am impressed!

To comment on this post, I'm not entirely sure what the point to all of this is? I've found that I generally read an American single-issue comic in fifteen minutes, giving me a rough average of 1.47 minutes per page. I generally read at the pace the words would be spoken, because I want to ENJOY the work. I often go back and study the artwork after I've read the dialogue. Of course, I haven't done any clinical studies or anything, this is just an observation of myself.
And again, in the study of storytelling, what are we trying to prove or conclude from the average time a reader spends per page? Are we trying to determine how to slow a reader down? Speed them up? Or tell a compelling story?

Neil said...

Justin, thanks very much for the comment!

To be quite honest, I have no idea what quantifying an actual page length would do, which is why I was urged to debunk such a claim.

My guess is that the original author felt that if a page has a certain time that it's read in, then creators can manipulate the speed at which they read certain panels. The mentality is if a page is say, 10 seconds, if you have 2 panels that's 5 seconds per page, OR with 5 panels its two seconds per page.

As I tried to express, I don't think this is a particularly accurate or useful a perspective, and there are much better ways out there to manipulate a reader's pacing through a story.