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So, You Wanna Write a Graphic Novel …

January 7, 2011 Fiction, Graphic Books, Guest Posts, Writing 5 Comments

Guest Post by Martha Sperry

Graphic novels are cool. There is no doubt about it. They rise above the floor where the lowly comic book resides and scrape their mohawked heads against the ceiling of respectable literature, with street cred intact. Unlike an individual comic book, the graphic novel’s length affords its creator the ability to tell a story with great depth and detail. Unlike the traditional novel, the creator can leverage more than one dimension when imparting the story – a true, book-bound multi-media experience. The ideal is to utilize words and images to full effect, to set a mood, communicate tensions and emotions, and to leave a lasting impression on the reader.

Like their picture-less counterparts, the top graphic novels translate well into movies, often shot panel by panel to create a moving piece of writing. For an example of a graphic novel that was turned, frame by frame, into a movie, check out Frank Miller’s Sin City.

I myself have never written a graphic novel. But I have been retained to illustrate a few. In my current project, Dawn Patrol, an historical piece on the Battle of Britain, I am working with the writer to craft the story as well as the illustrations. The process from my perspective varies markedly depending upon the writer’s own style. That style necessarily takes a different form when the illustrator and the writer are the same person. This post highlights a few strategies a writer might adopt if he or her is looking to write a graphic novel.

If the writer and the illustrator are one, the process can be broken down into visual and pictorial elements at the same time.  While some writers prefer to outline and plot out the entire story much the same way a traditional writer would approach a novel – setting up the story in words first and then hanging pictures on the rough, that is not the only method. When the writer is the illustrator, the draft process can actually be a mash-up of images and text, or thumbnails – rough little panels with the story woven through in the initial draft. Much like storyboarding your written story. While the thought of drawing out hundreds of pages of panels in roughs and then fine-tuning them on a second pass seems daunting, some writer / illustrators find this process works best for them, if for no other reason than it gives them a sense of accomplishment, helping them to move to the next step in the process.

If the writer and illustrator are different people, which is often the case, that initial thumbnail / story mash-up is not the most efficient alternative. Much depends upon how much of the responsibility for the writing is offered to the illustrator. In some of my projects, I was given a fairly detailed “script” of how the text was to be broken up, with cues on how the images were to be crafted and laid out. In other projects, the writer actively solicited my input on how to break up the story and text, or even sought my ideas on the substance of the story.

Writers will tell you that writing the story for a graphic novel feels more like writing a script than a story.  They have to pay attention to the economy of words, because too many words will literally and figuratively overwhelm the images.  A writer who is used to embellishing a piece with literary detail and flowing descriptions has to bend to the understanding that the images can and should carry the responsibility for the visuals. This leaves the writer to the task of paring down the written word to mostly dialogue and occasional, scene-setting phrases.  One way to look at the writing process is to use words only for aspects of the story that cannot be conveyed by the drawings. There is an financial aspect to this interest at play as well – the more words, the more panels and the greater the cost for the accompanying illustrations, if a separate illustrator is retained.

The most frequent form of writing I see as an illustrator is a series of scene descriptions, with the appropriate caption affixed to the scene description. For example, the beginning of the writing provided to me might look something like this:

[TITLE: The Vang]

Part One: The Invasion

Image of a vast alien landscape, sunset colors with multiple satellite moons overhead. Small, weather worn base in the foreground with digital light emanating from openings.

Caption: Outpost Gamma 7X-139 at Pax Plain, Southern Hemisphere. Evening Report:

Zoom into the station, looking through the smudged window to see a human figure, male, typing on an old-style terminal. Dressed in pseudo military clothing.

Caption: In type-style: Plains are quiet this evening. No activity, which is normal for this season. No unusual seismic or stellar data on the boxes.

Image of his face, as seen from perspective of screen, with digital glow

Caption: Still in type-style: no visitors since 56389:viso:28. Anticipate supply at juno:129.

You get the “picture.”

In my current novel, the written words actually come from lyrics my collaborator first wrote in connection with a song honoring the memory of the British fighter pilots during the Battle of Britain. Our intention is to use the song lyrics to script the novel’s prologue and then develop the story around a true account of a love story between one of the pilots and one of the women auxiliaries who directed the pilots from the ground during battle.  We have broken the lyrics into panels and have collaborated on the images to use for each phrase. Some of the drawings are included with this post. We have opted for a black and white color scheme to convey the feeling of wartime through grey-scale.  These visual decisions really add to the process of writing and, I feel, help catalyze new modes of creativity in a writer. Much the same way, I would imagine, it must feel for an author when his or her treasured book is turned into a movie.

In my mind, the biggest challenge for a writer working with an illustrator is trusting the illustrator to help refine the visuals to better communicate the story. I perceive the greatest difference between writing a traditional novel and a graphic novel is learning how to exercise the skill required to “think in pictures.” The writer has at least as much responsibility for framing the images as the illustrator, and that means envisioning and examining the images to ensure that they tell the story the writer intends to tell. A writer who can move easily between the words and the images has already planted the seeds for a great graphic novel.

Martha Sperry is a lawyer, web researcher, tech writer, blogger, musician, and artist – illustrator, with an apparent inability to focus on one endeavor.  You can read her tech blog at Advocate’s Studio and her art blog at Star Toe Studio, or connect with her on Twitter at @advocatesstudio or @startoestudio.


Currently there are "5 comments" on this Article:

  1. Thanks to both of you, Martha and Christiane, for this post. I love graphic novels, and am always disappointed to see how little attention they get in the literary world. I do find the quality of writing varies greatly, and some graphic novels that the GN community worships seem melodramatic, clumsy and even psychologically simplistic at times. But the best ones–where story, graphics and dialogue come together into a fresh and powerful novel–those can really take my breath away.

    I confess, too, that I’m fascinated by the textures and colors in graphic novels. Other than the old Technicolor movies and certain animation classics, I can’t think of any other medium that excites the eye so much.

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Colleen Lindsay, Elizabeth S Craig , Chris Abouzeid, Literary Clubhouse and others. Literary Clubhouse said: RT @gripemaster: Cool post by Martha Sperry on graphic novels and what it's like to be an illustrator for them: #wr … […]

  3. […] Dawn Patrol, a graphic novel about the Battle of Britain. So when she explains the process of writing graphic novels, as she did recently for Beyond the Margins, it is from the perspective of someone who has worked […]

  4. Suit says:

    Wow. Great article.

    I feel the best part of reading about graphic novels is getting the see the artist’s process. Also, it is nice to see a graphic novel based on a real group of people.

  5. UV says:

    Hey this article is apt and insightful. Especially cos of the Battle of Britain given as instance. I’m currently working on a graphic novel based on the civil war of the late 60s in my country. At finishing stage of writing, don’t have an illustrator yet but this sure helps to better relate the project to an illustrator when I find one.

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