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Writing a graphic novel is very different from writing a novel. Not only does it require a different set of skills and knowledge, but it also requires a different mindset. It’s a much more visual medium, and requires a different approach to pacing and storytelling. All you need is a little planning, some creativity, and an eye for detail. Luckily for you, we’ve got all the answers you’re looking for here.
Learn the conventions of comic book script writing
For novelists used to telling a story solely on the page, learning how to write a graphic novel can be difficult. Comic writers must add descriptive language to convey the setting, and to set up the action in a panel. Comics also follow panel structure conventions different from novels, creating page layouts with many panels and word balloons for each one. Start by reading your favorite comics, and study the script language in the word balloons — these instructions to the artist and colorist are essential for comics to work.
Scripting for comic books follows conventions of script writing that may be completely different from any format you’ve used before. Watch videos of comic book production to get a sense of how the panels go from script to artwork, and study the conventions. Is there a typographical distinction between written and spoken dialogue? Convention has superheroes in an all caps font and villains in a small font — but those choices are up to you, and to the artist who will interpret them. Where will you visually signal the shift in scene? While you might change the font or scene breaks to cue the reader, another convention is to draw a smaller panel below the one before, to signal a scene change.
Research before you write
Writing a graphic novel is a very different process than fiction writing, at least initially. For one thing, a novel doesn’t necessarily make a great graphic novel. Realize that you are one of many. Despite its growing mainstream appeal, the graphic novel industry is still relatively new and small, especially when compared to the comic book industry. There may be 100 graphic novel publishers out there with a drastically different distribution network, but they’re all making less money than Marvel or DC. Publishing a graphic novel is just as hard as submitting a fiction manuscript, and requires substantial networking and research.
The good news is, there are many excellent resources available for researching and researching how to write a graphic novel. Learn about the different genres, software requirements, distribution networks, and even celebrities and superheroes that make up the world of comic books. Subscribe to blogs in your genre and join fan forums to read beginner-friendly guides on their favourite stories or artists. Don’t be afraid to give constructive criticism, either—as electronic media makes the world smaller, fan forums can serve as a hub for artists to hone their styles. You may even partner with another writer interested in doing creator-owned works, especially if you’re not keen on carving out a niche that already has multiple large-scale market leaders. Jump in to forums and threads advocating for your preferred stories and artists to increase the visibility of your books after you’ve published them. Organize local comic book conventions and or sets up your own literary events with artists. While you’re at it, listen to industry veterans like Neil Gaiman and Kate Beaton, follow up on their recommendations, and ask your fellow writer friends to recommend their favourite books and creators.
Pick your concept
An entire market of writing contracts has grown up because of the increasing popularity of graphic novels. If you’ve ever thought you had an idea for a comic book masterpiece, then the easiest way to start writing a comic book story is to first figure out-what are you going to write about? Before you write a graphic novel, you need a concept. Your book doesn’t need to be 22-pages long, but pick something a bit more complete than “and then a big fight happens, and then there’s a twist at the end.” Take into consideration how you’re going to start your graphic novel. You may have realized that lots of iconic stories pair well with graphic form, so try to emulate the tone and feel of what you’re inspired by. You could also try to create an original story. Other times, you might just have an interesting new concept or idea on your hands.
Explore them and see what you come up with. Another thing to think about when you’re first thinking about how to write a graphic novel is how it’s going to feel to your readers. The best comic book stories are immersive. You want your readers to feel like you created a world they can lose themselves in. You don’t necessarily need to create an imaginary world, but you do need to think about how the world might have got to where it is in your comics. It might feel a bit strange at first, but it’s important to write a slight history, so that you can better dictate the layout when you’re planning your comic.
Choose a self-contained story
While a long-term serialized story is a great approach for authors whose readers have been following them for a long time, the average reader, especially in the graphic novel format, doesn’t have the patience for this. Find an individual story you want to tell, and tell only it. Oftentimes, this will take self-restraint on the part of the author who finds themselves following one thread for much longer than anticipated. If you find what you’re writing has become too lengthy or complex, take a look at how you can streamline the story and cut down on the unnecessary bits.
This does not mean that you only have one idea, and that you must follow it to the end. Rather, your idea is simply the main story you want to tell that gives structure and meaning to the book. It doesn’t preclude you from writing additional, shorter stories within it, and it surely doesn’t preclude you from working on more than one story. But when it comes down to putting actual words on paper, make sure that the story you’re telling is self-contained.
Make a long list of every element you need
Whether you’re coming up with a story from scratch, or adapting one from another medium, you’ll need to make a list of elements you’ll need to include in your graphic novel. Will you need a narrator? Do you need multiple characters’ speech and thought bubbles — or is your story better suited to just dialogue? Can you use some combination of both? Decisions like these may take time into account. To help you prioritize, you may need to bounce off other people — especially their preferences about which graphic novel elements you’re using. Are you going to tell your story in chronological order? Or will you use flashbacks or refreshers? If multiple characters will be narrating, you’re going to eventually have to consider which characters to use and how they’re speaking distinctively.
Perhaps the biggest question of all is the format of your graphic novel. You can use one, two, three, or even four realistic panel pages, two, four and six abstract image pages, pictured novel pages in varying arrangements, or even a combination of all five formats to create your book. Deciding what format you plan to use will markedly influence how people feel when they’re reading your graphic novel. Each format comes with excellent examples of graphic narratives.
Outline your main characters
The bulk of a graphic novel is a sequential series of images, which has advantages and disadvantages from the standard prose novel you may have been picturing. Because of the time it takes to create each frame, it’s not possible to include an enormous amount of detailed text. This makes it more challenging to establish setting and character. Fewer words means more time on creating images, which means the difference will come down to details. Can the color of the heroine’s hair change in reaction to her mood? Are there visual icons that could act as nonverbal dialogue or action? As you craft the images for your hero, heroines, and antagonists, keep in mind that attention to detail will be essential to helping your readers stay immersed in the plot. Use subtle changes to mood, personality, and appearance to show how each character grows and changes through your story.
Think about an iconic character and how he’s depicted. Now, think about revisions and reinventions of the same character. What makes them different and why? Characters who gain depth and complexity reveal more over time so think of the graphic novel as less of a summary and more of an epic. Because there are fewer words to tell the story, you may want to write a novel first and then go back and fill in the sketches later.
Create the world you’ll fight to keep safe
Imagine the world you’ll be writing about. Picture that world and run with it. Actually describe the characters and the settings in a novel — and don’t hold back. When you imagine the world, focus on what you love most about it and then make that the crux of your graphic novel’s plot. Is it high-tech? Low society? Futuristic? Then make sure that your plot is supported by the world you build around it. If it’s important that it’s a steampunk universe, have that be an important part of your plot. If you need your main characters to be nonhuman, bring your imagined world to the fore and add memorable characters. Immerse yourself firmly in your imagined world and decide that it matters, because it will.
Next is to refine the plot. This step can be the most difficult. Even after an author has created the right character to tell his story, it’s still sometimes not clear how to proceed in the plot. So when you start writing your graphic novel, begin with the want rather than the need. Imagine why someone would want it, not why they need it, and build from there. What do they want? Who motivates them? The better you can shape these elements, the more powerful will your plotting be during the writing process.
Make a timeline of events
Most graphic novels are structured episodically rather than in chapters. Remember that most episodes of tv shows are 21 minutes long, and they show 22 episodes a year — so don’t feel like your chapters need to be long. Check out the events before and after your story’s climax, and add them to your plot timeline. Then figure out how much space is in between those points in the story. What will happen in between, and how much time will elapse? What are the deadlines and obstacles the characters face? Knowing these things will help you finish your novel, and solve your plot holes.
Next, look at the goals you set out for your characters. Take a look at the characters’ conflict arcs to decide whether they’ll be able to resolve their problems by the end of the first book. How will your characters grow during each novel? Often, the resolution of one conflict will lead to a new problem, and by the second book your characters have grown and changed their minds, which creates an entirely different conflict until the arc closes in the third. Patterns in your characters’ development or overall theme are also good to anticipate in this way.
Create your script
Many new graphic novelists attempt to work directly from their story outline. This is hardly a recipe for success. Scripting is a time-consuming process that could easily bog down the narrative pace of your story. A work-in-progress comic will sit in your file drawer waiting to be finished, when you should be working on your next project instead. Don’t burn out early on. Scripting only becomes important when your story is done and you’re trying to find artists to help develop it further. Tell your story in a basic, bare bones way in your outline. You can flesh it out more in your script.
Rough out your plot, choosing a beginning, middle, and end for each part of your graphic novel. Don’t spend too much time devising your perfect ending at this stage, though. Stories often shift and evolve along the way, and sometimes your best ending is only possible if your characters go through some kind of terrible trial first. That would defeat your purpose. Just make sure you have a basic plot throughline and a sense of how your characters’ emotional journeys will affect the direction of the plot, as well as each other.
Make sure your dialogue is smooth and believable
Your written dialogue needs to flow well on the page, but how can you tell if it sounds right? One of the purposes of a good graphic novel is to tell the story in a new and interesting way, perhaps by bringing the reader into different perspectives through different characters. Dialogue is particularly important, then, for driving character traits or plot points without a narrator dragging everyone’s attention away from the visual narrative. Your dialogue does not need to be a literal transcript of how people speak, it just needs to sound like how your characters would naturally speak to each other.
Perhaps the most important quality of dialogue is that it is believable. Believability stems from words sounding like they would in real life, and it typically comes from reading your own words out loud to figure out if they make sense. If you don’t have access to a voice actor or recording program, a computer screen can do just fine. As much as you might want to skip over it as tedious, make sure that the dialogue reads naturally for every character in your cast, across genders and accents. As you do, ask yourself if it would sound authentically poignant, silly, or shocking.
Create your art
If you’re just getting started in writing for comics, the very first step should be to create your own story that you would actually draw yourself. This will get you into the mind of the artist, for whom writing is more than just arranging words — it’s arranging pictures too. To write a graphic novel, you need to know and understand visual storytelling, including what makes your chosen art style work, how real world art differs from sequential art, and how to create a layout that leads the reader on an exciting journey. If you can successfully make the most of the visual storytelling aspect in your graphic novel, then you’ll be ready to start calling other people to the project — and their appearance will be easy for you, because you’ll know what works and what sells in your work’s chosen genre.
Finally, presentation is everything. While you’re exploring comics and visual storytelling, keep in mind how comics are silently read. Until the artwork changes, the reader is filling in the action in their head, so try to put some hints into your writing about what the next panel may look like. As a convention of comics, some combinations of panel descriptions are avoided because they automatically direct the reader towards a cliche outcome, while some can be incredibly suspenseful to execute. When you do call in artists, keep all of this in mind, so your work grabs the reader visually just as it does verbally.
Make sure your art matches your style
Choosing the right artist for your work will hugely impact your project, and it can be hard to find the perfect fit. Some authors go the DIY route with someone they know, but generally, it’s a good idea to search for an artist with sequential art experience. That way, you know that they’ll understand the pacing and storytelling needs of a graphic novel. There are many graphic novel artists out there, so take your time finding the one that matches your style, but do make sure they’re confident in their skills — a good artist will be relatively transparent to your storytelling, serving only to clarify what you want to portray, not dominate the work.
Once you’ve found the right artist, sit down with them and create a style guide. There are a few things it should cover, including character designs, panel layout, and the intended tone of each scene. The guideline can be anything from short bullet points to a list of storyboards — include whatever’s necessary to clearly show the artist what you want them to portray in the book. Think of it as a reference document — they may not know and think of everything you do, so it’s best to lay it out. As much as you may love their character design, you may want to tweak a few key items for your comic. Michelangelo’s David has a less chiseled face than his original design — that’s you in the role of artist, keeping an educated eye on things.
Plot your layouts
When it comes to plot, writing a graphic novel differs from writing a conventional novel in several ways. You’ll have fewer words to describe scenes, and you’ll have to do more with them to make the most of the space you have. Pay particular attention to the page turns. Long, single-page spreads with few panels aren’t uncommon in graphic novels as you create dramatic moments amplified by your art. If you use fewer panels on a page, you’ll need to make the most of those panels by intricately plotting your layouts. To do so, start with traditional storyboard planning. Divide your page into frames without regard for which side each ‘box’ of the frame will peek out of. Once you’re ready to actually start drawing, you may be surprised by how often you’ll use larger frames in unusual places not dictated necessarily by traditional comic format — the end of the comic panel is actually a word-filled space, which becomes the inside of a frame when it appears alongside another on the opposite page!
After you’ve plotted your layouts, start writing sentences to capture character moments, reactions, and dialogue. Whether you’re handwriting your sentences or typing them, try to target all the elements of your panels in separate sentences. Plotting them in this way can help you better understand your comic’s pacing. Once you figure out how you’re going to proceed down the page, your frame-by-frame sentence planning becomes a lot easier.
If you’re going to break your story up into panels, it makes sense to make some sketches to figure out how you want each chapter to lay out in sequential art. Drawing panels for your own reference is a quick and helpful way of making sure you’re conveying the right story in a way that works for your audience. The advantage authors have over visual artists is that you can use words to describe exactly what you’re seeing, which will help your illustrator provide clarity as they work on each page. If you think you’ll need to draw proofs, you can also use it as a way of differentiating to the publisher some of the reasons you don’t want the illustrator interpreting your story too, um, creatively.
And while we’re talking to your illustrator now, remember that it’s just as important to speak to them as the author. They want to know the content you want illustrating as much as you, and you want to know how they interpret that work visually. There are cases where the author and the illustrator ended up so far apart in terms of the story that both produced very different projects that ended up confusing readers. Overall, it’s better for everyone to speak to each other early and often so you’re all creating the same type of product, even if the content is interpreted differently.
Check your page-to-page storytelling
Writing for graphic novels is very different from writing for a traditional novel. Part of the struggle stems from the fact that graphic novels have to be packed with a lot of content, while also having to be a comfortable length for readers. There’s also the matter of storytelling, done almost scene-by-scene in some cases, unlike the traditional novel, where readers have more of an ability to connect the dots on their own. To keep track of your story and make sure you have a cinematic experience for readers, use highlight pages to organize each page-to-page experience.
Go through your screenplay and take a short note about anything plot-related that happens on each page. If you need more space, you can leave it blank and do another round, or you can squeeze more into the same box. When you’re finished, you’ll have a corkboard with puzzle hints for each page. Once you have the first draft of your graphic novel safely tucked into the drawer of your desk, you’re going to look at that notebook again. Read through and find all the weak points. Where are the unconvincing scenes? Who were the flat secondary characters? And what is this awful slang that you can’t believe you used once?
Change as necessary
You’re the novelist, and that’s no less true when you’re writing a graphic novel. Drawing isn’t your forte, so don’t try to draw things out yourself. Instead, enlist the help of a skilled illustrator. Then step back and let them do their job. You both should be supported by a wordsmith, who will decide on your dialogue, if you’re not drawing the words yourself. If something isn’t clear, change it. If you object to seemingly inconsequential details, change them. If there’s sweat dripping down your forehead five minutes before your deadline, get it changed. Nothing annoying will aggravate a reader more than inconsistencies between drawings and dialogue in a graphic novel.
As the writer, you’re the one to decide on everything that the dialogue and drawings communicate, so yet again, it all falls back to decision making. If you feel that a plot or accent dialogue needs clarification, get it changed. If you don’t trust your illustrator’s taste, control the visual aesthetics as well as the plot. If you’re unsure how to maintain the pace, ask a copyeditor or even a separate self-publishing service to double-read the whole thing for you. You’re the author, so the buck stops with you, plotwise.
If you feel you’re up to the challenge of writing a graphic novel, there’s a lot you need to keep in mind as a writer. It doesn’t matter whether you’re writing comics or a graphic novel in prose, you still need to be able to tell a compelling story. Don’t be afraid to step outside your comfort zone, though. The key is learning to infuse your story with the right amount of action and venturing to make your characters compelling to readers. Writing a graphic novel may take more effort than writing a standard novel, but the satisfaction of completing the work, and its appeal to youth, may be enough to make it worthwhile.
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