Do You Have Advice for Graphic Novels?

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I’m trying to write a fantasy graphic novel, in the vein of Nimona or the Amulet series, and I desperately want to use the great advice on Mythcreants to write my story. Oren, I noticed in the FAQ section that you’ve got experience with graphic novels. Do you have any advice? How can I translate much of the helpful content on Mythcreants to a graphic medium? Things like foreshadowing, character development, orchestrating twists, and designing systems are much different when drawn.

– Bunny

Hey Bunny, thanks for writing in.

Most storytelling advice is fairly universal between prose stories and graphic novels. You still want to open with conflict, you still want to create a throughline in the beginning that resolves at the end, you still want to avoid problematic tropes and clichés, etc. Wordcraft advice won’t be as helpful, since you aren’t writing much description or narration, but the dialogue articles are still useful in most cases.

That said, I did learn a few things specific to graphic novels when I was experimenting with the format, and I will pass them on to you.

  • Don’t include what you (or your illustrator) can’t draw. Graphic novels are a visual medium. The only way they can include a six-headed dragon with jet engines for legs is if you can draw it. You know your own skill level, so keep this limit in mind unless you’re deliberately trying to push boundaries.
  • Keep dialogue short and sweet. Loquacious characters can be a problem in prose, too, but in graphic novels they obscure the artwork, which defeats the point. Trim dialogue whenever possible so the reader can get more of your artistic skills.
  • So long as you can draw it, graphic novels are a medium to add novelty in the form of exotic worlds, strange monsters, and unusual characters. It’s one thing to describe an elven city grown from quartz formations, but it’s another thing entirely to see it. So long as your skills are up to the task, you can get a lot of mileage out of setting your story in a truly alien world.
  • Keep the story smaller and simpler. Graphic novels have far less time to tell their story, because drawing a scene is much more labor-intensive than writing one. So unless you have a huge budget and lots of time, it’s best to work at the scale of a short story rather than a novel.
  • On a similar note, keep the number of characters as low as possible. This is already important in prose, but it’s doubly so in graphic novels. Each character makes the story longer, and they’re also more work in and of themselves to draw.

Hope that’s helpful,

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  1. Michael Campbell

    “Keep the story smaller and simpler. Graphic novels have far less time to tell their story, because drawing a scene is much more labor-intensive than writing one. So unless you have a huge budget and lots of time, it’s best to work at the scale of a short story rather than a novel.”
    Yes, you think that a comic book is 32 pages, but with the adds and the letter’s page and subscription page, it’s actually only 22 pages.
    With splashpages and the like, it averages out to roughly 100 panels.

    Comic book writers find it an incredible challenging in the art of brevity to create story that will go somewhere interesting enough to have “punters” buy next month’s issue, but get there in 100 panels or so.

  2. Michael Campbell

    At the risk of engaging in a plug.
    I gave a friend of mine, who is a film maker, two books. (http://www.maddfilms.com/)
    Those books were, How To Draw Comics The Marvel Way by Stan Lee and Joe Buscema, which is a book I wish all film makers would read.
    And the more recent, How To Write Comics The Marvel Way by Stan Lee.

    Stan Lee’s methodology for writing is a two step approach.
    Tell the artist what you want to have happen. And once that’s drawn, try to figure out dialogue that will suit the panel you’ve got.
    Still, I suspect that works best is when the other guy (usually Jack Kirby) has clicked with what you’re trying to achieve.

    • Greg

      Except when, as was often the case with Kirby and Ditko, the artist actually plots the entire book, and Stan’s contribution is strictly the script.

      • Michael Campbell

        Well Stan Lee once said that “the way to be prolific is to marry a woman who likes to spend.”

        But I suspect “Always work with people who are themselves; more than competent”, might have been omitted from his true thesis.

  3. Lucy

    As someone who’s been drawing comics in her spare time for several years now (and reading a lot of other people’s first time efforts at comics) I’m going to strongly second Oren’s advice about keeping the story simple and the cast list small.
    A whole lot of people starting their first graphic novel – myself included – start out putting in way too much stuff (plotlines, settings, characters) and then realise that they will be drawing for the next twenty years unless they ditch at least half of it. You don’t have to put all your great ideas in at once. Pick a couple, and store the rest away somewhere to use in your next project – at which point your drawing, layouts, dialogue and pacing will almost certainly be improved by the practice, anyway!
    As for things like foreshadowing and such, I’d argue that a lot of the articles here are still applicable – that’s why I read them! Still, if you want something that specifically discusses storytelling via comics, I’d recommend Scott McCloud’s book ‘Understanding Comics’. It was written a while ago, but it’s all still relevant and a great introduction to the basics.

    • Michael Campbell

      Be careful of doodling comics in your spare time. That’s exactly how Nicola Scott got hooked.

  4. Mae

    When you said keeping the number of characters low, how low do you suggest approximately should a cast be?

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      That’s always going to depend on the kind of story you want to tell, but I’d recommend no more than three regular characters for beginners. Three is enough to give you some flexibility without things getting out of hand.

      • Michael Campbell

        I’ld also say, remember that the narrator is frequently used in comics and graphic novels.
        A narrator lets you compress a story to just the exciting bits.

        And to quote Alfred Hitchcock; “Drama is just real life with the boring bits taken out.”

      • Michael Campbell

        That would be three central characters.
        Flash, Dale and Zarkov are the core of the Flash Gordon story.
        Zarkov is the science-guy.
        Flash is the hero whose HFY causes him to never quit.
        Dale is the love interest who frequently twists her ankle at the most inconvenient time.

        But also how each one of them interacts with various Mongo citizens that is the generator of drama.
        So you have a list of supporting characters.
        Ming. Baron. Thun. Vultan. Aura.
        Everybody else is just a red-shirt of one kind or another.

        And suddenly you’ve got enough to keep selling issues for decades.

    • Michael Campbell

      Well, to take a hint from Linda Seger.
      Compress characters wherever you can.
      Does the rich guy have; a receptionist, a bookkeeper, a cook and a butler?
      Not anymore, now his P.A. is a complete girl Friday.

      Do the “seemingly nogoodnic hillbilly smugglers” living under strict parole condition while fighting small-town corruption, also need to live up to family obligations?
      Great, now Beau & Luke can be cousins.
      Or maybe that should be Sam & Dean are brothers.

      Of Mice And Men only has about ten characters with actual names even though you think there are maybe 30 guys working on the farm (just to start with).

      Superman doesn’t need fifty contacts in the criminal underground.
      Jimmy, Louise, Perry and the teletype machine at the Daily Planet will be enough to fill in the blanks without anyone asking how the hero knows the score, even though he’s just arrived arrived at the villian’s volcano-lair!?!

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