These are a few of the things I have learned about writing by watching my roommate/sister work through her graphic novel class. Graphic novels are another form of storytelling, so it only makes sense that there would be endless overlaps between it and traditional writing.
Through talking with my roommate/sister, these are the main things we came up with.
1. Pick your focal point. If you put too much detail in an area of the picture, the reader’s eye will gravitate to it, whether it is important or not. I’ve heard artists gripe about this endlessly.
You want the environment to be engaging, but if you put too much detail into the trees, the house, the background characters, the reader will look at them instead of where they’re supposed to be looking: the main character and the action.
For writers, that means making sure that the main characters and plot are clear. Don’t put an unnecessary amount of detail into a side character or side-plot. You may like that character and side-plot, but if they’re more detailed than the main story, the reader will be confused.
I’ve been that reader. I’m reading along, and then all of a sudden, the main character or plot are forgotten and a side plot becomes front and center.
No matter how interesting that side plot is, I will always be wondering what is happening with the main story and when oh when we’re going to get back to the main character.
2. How you introduce the scene is important. When creating the panels, a graphic novelist has to decide the order of reveal. This creates a mood and frames the story.
Do you start from far away, and zoom to the main character? Do you start by watching the main character’s hands and zoom out to see all of them? Those choices matter.
Writers do the same thing. One of my favorite ways to introduce a character is to start deep in their head–their thoughts–and then pan outward, so you understand more of who this person is and what situation they are in.
3. Mood is everything! This is more obvious with visual art (color schemes, whether things are pristine or dirty, etc.), but it is important in writing, too.
Mood could be considered an element of world building. It’s easier to see in visual art. Take, for example, the Disney movie Tarzan, versus the movie Atlantis: The Lost Empire. They’re both Disney, both around the same time period, both adventurous, but their styles and moods are completely different.
Mood is like air: it’s hard to pin down, but it permeates everything.
Some examples of mood choices might be: do you want it to be clean or gritty? Are your characters highly stylized or painfully ordinary? Is the story dark or lighthearted? How do people dress? How do people speak? Are people generally nice to each other or awful? These kinds of decisions will determine the feel of your story.
4. Keep dialogue realistic but concise. Keep rambling about the weather to a minimum. Yes, we do it in real life, but it isn’t much fun to read about. Unless you’re trying to make a point with it.
In graphic novels, dialogue bubbles are precious space. You can’t afford to waste them. While writing gives the characters more space to be long-winded, still try to avoid rambling.
This is a precise art. If your characters talk about too many irrelevant things, the reader will be bored or confused. If your characters only say or do what is necessary to push the main plot along, the dialogue will feel canned.
5. Create distinct characters, with distinct personalities and features. The rule of thumb for character creation in graphic novels is that you should be able to tell who it is, just from their shadow.
6. Don’t set up false expectations. The first part of story teaches reader how things are going to go and what to expect. It gets your readers into the story and sets the momentum.
Some stories like to do that and then pull out the rug, such as having the story start with a long, realistic dream, and then having the character wake up from it. (Do this if you wish, but unless it’s integral to the story, it’s wasted time, in my opinion.)
By setting up false expectations, you not only disorient the reader and make them feel cheated, but then you also have to re-set up the environment and expectations.
Another example of these kinds of stories are ones that start as one kind of story (say, a pirate story), and then change genres and you never go back to the original story.
7. Each chapter is both its own composition, and part of something larger (the book). This concept is best understood through TV shows that tell an ongoing story, such as Avatar: The Last Airbender, or Legend of Korra.
Each episode has a beginning, middle, and end–each has it’s own little thing going on–but then, each feeds into the larger, overarching story with escalating tension.
In graphic novels, this means pulling back from the page to see if it’s balanced (aka, not too much black at the top, and no black in the bottom panels). In traditional writing, this means pulling back to look at how the chapter itself flows and making sure it fits well with the rest of the story. If it doesn’t fit, you may need to do some darling killing.
The further I go in writing (and other things), the more I realize how connected everything is, especially different forms of art and creation. There’s always something you can learn from another discipline, whether by talking to someone in that discipline, or by dabbling in it yourself. Inspiration and new ways of doing things really can come from anywhere.
A/N: Thank you so much to Sara Nutter for sharing her insight into graphic novel writing! She is both an artist and a writer and she makes some seriously cool stuff, including all the pictures in this post! She writes over at Introvertish. (She is also the genius behind most of the art on my blog.) If you haven’t already, go check her out!