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How to Write a Graphic Novel

A graphic novel carries much more meaning and substance compared to a simple comic book, contrary to what people think. A peep into the last decade reveals that graphic novels have entered and have become an integral part of mainstream culture. They have been able to successfully catch the fancy of readers of all ages. The stories get narrated through ‘sequential art’ — which we commonly identify as ‘comics’. The importance is felt by all because graphic novels have assumed the status of becoming the go-to medium for modern blockbuster hits. As the interest around this genre builds up, it is the right time to learn how to write an effective graphic novel.

So, let’s see how a graphic novel is different from any other novel? 

Graphic Novels are usually a longer, self-contained story; printed in ‘trade paperback’ format, just like any other book, and printed on high-quality, glossy paper.

How to Write a Graphic Novel?

If you’re an aspiring graphic novelist looking to write a successful and unique graphic novel, get started immediately!

  • Decide on the kind of story you are planning to tell

Graphic novels will have as much variety and choice as any other genre of novel. So you’ll obviously need to pin your preference about the type of graphic novel you aim to write. You might already have formed some idea about the story. But before you commit to a full graphic novel, it’s worth doing some market research and nailing down where your book will fit into the publishing landscape.

Graphic novels too will have readers with preconceived notions like other genres. The story line will shape up depending on the type of graphic artist you engage to depict the story you want to convey. So it is important that you understand what your audience expects from you even before you begin. An interesting twist in the tale can make your book grab attention. Contemporary ideas will appeal to the target audience more. Also, understand the mindset of the age group and their changing interests in the modern scenario to make an impact. 

  • Pick your visual style

Oddities stand apart because of their unique visual styles. That will draw your readers. But gaining that stunning visual effect is about hard work, creativity, brainstorming and a lot of thoughts that hover in and out of your head. Developing an engaging visual style that is apt for your book is a very conscious and gradual process.

A few things you’ll want to keep in mind when deciding on your visuals:

  1. The overall tone of your graphic novel – This will help you as you search for the right illustrator to collaborate with. After all, if you’re going for a gritty, urban feel with lots of monotones and washed-out colours, it’s not going to fit when you write half the story to happen in glittering new-age malls or institutions, offices or manicured urban parks.
  2. Theme of your story – Are you telling a story about determination or of the unconquerable human spirit, the essence of love, or the gruelling story of a modern man caught in the fray of life and living? Think about the style of images, colour coordination and design elements that will fit best to the scenario.
  • Your Target Audience

Graphic novels with children as the target audience will demand a different treatment compared to the ones written for adults looking for matured story line and intense action sequences with high-flown climax. Think of designs that will grab the attention of your target market and sync up with your visual artist to work towards a united vision for the book that you will create together.

  • Look for your artist

Graphic novels are expressed through a visual medium. It is a kind of collaborative craft similar to filmmaking, where the writer does the screenplay and the illustrator’s role is performed by the film director, editor, costume designer, prop setter and audio engineer and designer. The sooner you begin building a rapport with your artist, the quicker they will be able to bring their talents and experience to the process. Thus, ensure you pick the right artist as your ally. Once you’ve compiled a list of artists, reach out and talk to them. Go step by step. First, request for some sample drawing of a few pages with the same input to each artist. Go through them carefully and also take into cognizance how much feedback and direction or visualization is needed from you for creation of the graphics and engendering life and flow into the images. 

  • Get your first draft down

While drawing out the first draft, focus on your strengths. Don’t worry even if your first draft is in pieces. In case you are confident in envisioning the dialogues, write your first draft in a pure dialogue format. If you can out rightly visualize your story strongly, write about it in prose format and then chunk it in pieces later while you are writing your dialogues. The first draft is the time to explore, revisit or rethink the story and characters. It also tinkers your visual ideas. The exact angles of your ‘shots’ need not be finalised yet, the basic outline will work fine at this stage:

  1. How many characters will appear in a particular scene simultaneously
  2. What are the locations your scenes are set in
  3. How much action, dialogue or introspection will be needed
  4. How many scenes do you need to convey the plot effectively
  • Edge your pacing

Once you’ve got the basic structure of your story down, write a series of ‘thumbnails’ for each page. The thumbnails are akin to the outline of a novel. The author decides and indicates the number of panels needed for each page. The writer also decides what specific action happens in each panel and will estimate roughly the amount of text that is needed. This will show you how much space you’ll need to get your story across. If your scene takes too many panels, try rearranging things to convey the same meaning in less space. 

Thus, it may be safely concluded that the format may be different, but the fundamentals of storytelling remain the same for a graphic novel. 

  • Fine tune your visuals

Now that you’ve got your story down, it’s time to refine your vision. Go through your manuscript once more to further finetune your panel descriptions. 

“A writer should think of a graphic novel much in the same way you would script a silent movie, such that the story could still be understood even if all the word balloons and captions were to fall off. With that in mind, making sure each panel is a strong visual that moves the story along is job #1 in a graphic novel script; the words should come after.”

If you’re intimidated by this prospect, remember the old saying, ‘show, don’t tell’ rule, and consider the following questions:

  1. How would you convey that a scene is sad, joyous or righteous?
  2. What sort of images and settings feel like those moods?
  3. What actions are your characters indulging in to express their thoughts and feelings?

You are limited to depict one action in each panel. So picking the most relevant and effective ones is important. If your storytelling is effective, people will easily come to know what happens in between. Not every action needs to be visually engraved.

  • Tighten your dialogue

Before your manuscript reaches the illustrator, make sure your script is concise and focused. You don’t want to waste time telling out and explaining your storyline piece by piece to your illustrator. If not done in a focused manner, the illustrator might come back with clumsy looking cluttered pages. Learning to think in visual mode will help avoid this problem. Trim your dialogue as much as possible to bring in the exact effect.

As you’re drafting your script, ask yourself the following basic questions:

  1. Does your character need a proper dialogue, or is their expression enough to convey what you desire?
  2. Does each line move the story or character arcs forward?
  • Design your manuscript for a graphic artist

While there is no formal standard for comic scripts, there are a few templates that have gained popularity in recent years.

The basic phrases you should know:

  • Panel: This is the foundation of a comic’s page. Panels are the boxes that chunk your narrative into consumable pieces to be enjoyed by the reader. Sequence them in a flow to convey movement in the plot, to demonstrate the timeline and glorify all the highlights in the weave of a story.
  • Page: Whole page of panels, which are positioned either at the left or the right side of the book.
  • Spread: Both left and a right page taken together form the spread.
  • Border: The line that surrounds or goes around the panel boxes. Border is however optional depending on what is being conveyed. Panels can be displayed without a border to showcase certain feelings, themes or emotions.
  • Gutter: The white space that exists between panels.

Understanding your choice of format is important to communicate what you are expecting from your artist. Collaboration will be smoother and easier that ways.

Writing a graphic novel is a bit different from writing a novel. But the desired output is how well you convey your story to your readers. Ensure you cover the fundamentals of good storytelling and your artist is capable of conveying those in graphic format in interesting and innovative ways. Once the initial pieces fall into the puzzle, your graphic novel will be good to fascinate your readers and make them want more.

So, create a captivating graphic novel that your audience looks forward to reading!