‘KA-POW!’: The Basics of Writing for Graphic Novels

Ever thought about writing a graphic novel?

Not drawing one, but writing the script. Because graphic novels and comics need great writers. People who have never read them imagine that comic book plots doesn’t have to be as well-defined or as intricate as in a novel, and that any shortcomings in the story can be painted over by the artwork. Wrong. To be anything other than a noisy mess of colour, comics and graphic novels need a good solid script.

Here are the first things you need to know if you’re going to give graphic novel writing a go:

You and Your Audience

These days the graphic novels canon is aimed squarely at those aged 16-35, yet within that demographic there’s a kaleidoscope of variation so large that it looks almost limitless. It’s not just superheroes. Your protagonist can be anything from a talking cyborg dog (as in Grant Morrison’s We3) to an ordinary little girl (as in Persepolis) and live in any time, place or dimension. So don’t feel you have to write a Superman knock-off. It can be historical, comical or biographical. Be as imaginative as you can, just don’t lose sight of the fact you’re writing a piece of fiction just like any other and that your job is to engage the reader. The same rules of story apply – a solid structure, good dialogue, compelling characters.

The Layout

SCAN0489Every article on writing for a comic/graphic novel will tell you that it isn’t like writing a short story or novel. And it’s not. But please don’t let that put you off if you’ve never strayed beyond paragraphs and page-breaks before. It’s basically like a movie script in layout but more detailed, with the writer writing the words, actions, and yes even sound effects, that occur in each panel on the page. (Incidentally, there’s no greater fun than writing your own sound-effects.) The (very cheesy) example on the right is what this will look like.

Nothing to be scared of there. Each panel (the box the art is drawn in) is numbered, with action describing what happens and dialogue for what is said by characters in that panel. For all the basics, ScriptFrenzy.org have a fantastic one-page guide to formatting a comic. Have a look and you’ll see it’s dead easy. After you’ve written your first few pages it’ll be second nature.

Separate to the script you’ll also need to write a synopsis which covers all the plot details, as well as short biographical descriptions for the main characters. This is more for you and your understanding of your story than anyone else. If you’re used to writing novels this will already be familiar territory.

Reading

Just as as any writer reads a lot in order to better their style and broaden their knowledge, you’re going to have to read a lot of comic books and graphic novels. Hooray! Even better, you have a lot to choose from. As I mentioned before it’s not all just capes and tights, so don’t just go for the Batman and Superman titles. If you want a varied list of recommendations then I’d say read ‘All Star Superman‘, ‘Watchmen‘, ‘When the Wind Blows‘, ‘The New Frontier‘ and ‘Sandman‘. All are different but all are classics. And don’t just read, but study to get a feel for what a good comic should be. Read it once to absorb and enjoy the story, then go back and get forensic. As a writer you’ll be deciding how many panels fit on one page and the way they’ll fit, so see how others do it – there are a thousand different ways but not all of them work and some will suit what you’re writing better than others. Then examine the words. Take note of how often dialogue or narration is used, how much of it is used, and how each speech bubble and box fits with the artwork. Pick it apart to see what you like and what you don’t.

Talk/Don’t Talk

No matter how outlandish and fantastical your story, the dialogue and narration still has to be believable. The difference between dialogue and narration? Dialogue is what appears in speech bubbles, and narration is what occurs in separate boxes in or around the panels. Speech is what you’ll be editing the most throughout your drafts, because if you get it wrong it’ll take the whole book down with it, no matter how good the art. It’s a fine balance: dialogue has to be engaging and has to move the plot along, but can’t be so text-heavy that it causes the plot to drag under the weight of its own exposition or obstruct the artwork with enormous speech-bubbles. The general rule is that less is more. My advice: choose each word carefully.

Inevitably there’ll be panels and pages where you won’t need any dialogue at all. Some panels will be all action, or the artwork alone will do the talking. This is a graphic novel after all. For instance, you don’t want a character saying “Great Caesar’s ghost, I’m so sad!” if you have already described them as having a ‘pained expression’ or ‘ a sorrowful stare’ and the artist has drawn them as sad. That would just be a waste of words and look clumsy. You also don’t want them to say “Great Caesar’s ghost, I’m so sad!” because no one ever says that and it’s bad writing.

SCAN0487

Action!

Action is written to give the artist direction and to tell them what to draw. Hold back to the basics of description though. As with a movie script, you just need to put down the action: ‘It is raining. X crosses the street. They push open the door of the comic book shop’ etc. Don’t get too eager and go into too much detail. Unless the colour of a character’s clothing is of importance to the story, leave it out as that’ll be the artist’s job.Usually one to two pages of comic script (action, dialogue and all) equal one page of comic so keep in mind the space you’re using or the artist is going to have trouble squeezing everything in and the page will look crushed and complicated. You will need to script the sound effects (SFX) in the action and this is where you can have the sort of onomatopoeic fun novelists hardly ever get as you make up word like ‘Splot!’ and ‘Pang!’ and ‘Kraka-thoom!’.

“Why so serious?”

Above all, have fun, because there is no limit: graphic novels are a fluid art form, open to much interpretation and experimentation. They have a singular beauty to them in the way they blend words and pictures so intimately to tell stories in a way no other form of fiction can match. You can do anything. Anything. Things movies are too primitive to show and novels can’t quite be eloquent enough to have you imagine. They can be outlandishly imaginative and yet startlingly intimate. You can make an indigo elephant juggle moons made of cream cheese, or just show two lovers talking over coffee. This is one form of writing where you have no need to hold back. So don’t.

So that’s the basics. There’s a lot more to learn and hone, but hopefully this is enough to get you started. If you’re thinking of writing for graphic novels I hope it’s helped. To help you a little more, try Down The Tubes or Big Red Hair for more information.

If you have any further graphic novel writing tips, or further reading recommendation, please do share them in the comments!

Images courtesy of the author.

Robert Smedley is a TV Reviewer and Writer. When not staring at moving images or being creative with ink, he can be found at any bar that serves a good martini.

 

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