Visual Writing in Graphic Novels

Writing a graphic novel for children may initially seem not all that different from writing a picture book or chapter book. You write the story, maybe put it into a screenwriting template to satisfy the format, throw in some panels and page turns, and then you pass it off to be illustrated by somebody who adds visuals. It’s just more pictures, right?

Not so fast! When you write a picture book or chapter book, the writing is self-contained. Take away the art, the prose alone still tells nearly all of your story.

But if you take away the prose from a picture book or chapter book, suddenly you have a collection of images but no context, no story.

credit: Green Eggs & Ham by Dr. Seuss

In picture books and chapter books, art complements the writing, but the writing still stands alone.

In a graphic novel, however, writing and art are interdependent. Take away the art, you lose your story. Take away the writing, you lose your story. Both art and writing exist in a back-and-forth tango that cannot be complete without the other. The artist “writes” the final story just as much as the writer: except their story is written in interpretive visuals, pacing, timing, page turns, and subtle nuances in camera choice instead of words.

credit: SPARKS! by Ian Boothby & Nina Matsumoto

Writing a graphic novel is really much more akin to writing a screenplay than a picture book or novel. A scriptwriter provides story, dialog, and essential directions. But a scriptwriter doesn’t tell the actors how to say their lines. The scriptwriter doesn’t control the camera. The scriptwriter doesn’t have a word over the final cut. The scriptwriter is there to provide the script that creates the story, but they do not create the final interpretation of the story itself. In the case of a graphic novel, that final interpretation comes from the artist, not the writer.

So how do you write a graphic novel script that avoids overdirecting the artist yet retains your original vision?

WRITING TOWARDS ACTION

You have a scene in mind. You have characters. You have dialog. You have story. And maybe you’ve written it something like this:

Notice how this is written entirely in feelings with zero specifics in action? The writing here doesn’t tell us what the boy is doing or how things look. It tells us how the character is feeling as well as some internal backstory (his recently lost parents) for context. 

When you write prose, you can get into the characters’ heads and see the world through their eyes, but in graphic novels (and screenwriting), there is no prose to give us a doorway into the inner workings of your characters. What we have instead is INTERPRETIVE ACTION. The reader must interpret how a character feels by interpreting feelings and intent through their actions instead.

Let’s rewrite this scene then:

Right here you have all action. The interpretation of what that action means, however, comes not from the writer but from the reader. Body language shows how the boy feels. The suitcase and plane ticket shows he’s come from somewhere possibly far far away. The litter around him shows he’s been waiting a while (but not too long, because he didn’t finish his sandwich completely, or that maybe he’s lost his appetite). The shadow falling on him shows how he notices somebody has arrived. The added note “indicating that maybe he’s been waiting a while” isn’t something that shows up in the final art, but it indicates to the artist some of what this action means in case the artist has other ideas for how to build the mood of this scene.

Because we are showing instead of telling, this leaves room for the reader to project their own experiences and feelings into the narrative. This is something that is unique to graphic novel storytelling.

Because we are showing instead of telling, this leaves room for the reader to project their own experiences and feelings into the narrative. This is something that is unique to graphic novel storytelling. In a prose novel, you are often riding along in the character’s head, seeing the world through their eyes, surrounded by the filter of their personal experiences. However, in graphic novels, the reader projects themselves into the character’s experiences: filling in the blanks that prose typically fills with their own experiences and views of the world. A character in prose may react to a lonely park bench one way because of the character’s backstory, but a reader may react to a lonely park bench another way because of the reader’s own personal backstory.

Cool huh?

The two approaches are very different, and it’s important to keep this in mind when writing for GN!

DRAWING TOWARDS STORY

But what about the art? 

Believe it or not, artists “write” a graphic novel, too. They may not be writing in words, but artists write…through visual storytelling. You mention a character sitting on their bed, typing, but the artist must choose what the bed, the room, the walls of that room, the character, and all the objects around them all look like and how those object elements interacts with the characters and they it. This is also VISUAL WRITING. When you write prose, you’d put all those descriptions into words. In graphic novels, the artist puts all that description into pictures instead.

credit: Laura Dean Keep Breaking Up With Me by Mariko Tamaki & Rosemary Valero O’Connell

Unfortunately, this is often where writers and artists bump heads. Visual writing means leaving a good 50% of your story in the hands of the artist! 

But a good visual storyteller knows to DRAW TOWARDS STORY.

What does this mean?

Drawing towards story means THE VISUALS ALWAYS SERVE THE STORY. As artists, sometimes we can get a little wrapped up in wanting to draw pretty, beautiful, awe-inspiring things. Our fingers itch for it! But it’s a matter of course that the major portion of drawing a graphic novel isn’t all that terribly exciting. Lots of talking heads. Lots of close-ups, midshots, full-body shots, and scenery…scenes were people don’t, if you take the dialog away, seem to be doing much of ANYTHING. Sitting and talking. Running and talking. But–unless your character is a superhero, ninja, or Olympic gymnast–not a whole lot of backflips and talking. If you’re going for a realistic vibe, then you also have to avoid accidentally over-posing your characters too, to make them feel natural (which also means: kind of boring! There can be immense power in subtlety however…but we’ll save that for another post!). 

An example: the scene with the boy on the park bench. You could have all sorts of pretty visuals here as he’s waiting, showing his environment, close-ups on objects, etc, but the body language here is very clear that he’s huddled on a bench, withdrawn, DOING nothing. 

In art class, especially if your background is animation, we are often taught that a strong profile creates a strong, clear visual image, but a body huddled on a bench isn’t a very strong profile. It’s a deceptively difficult pose to draw exactly because it doesn’t create a strong profile, and there’s a lot of subtlety in drawing just the right amount of dejection in that pose. It’s easy to go too heavy-handed, to exaggerate to the point of the unnecessary or even ridiculous. Or to go the opposite way, and in an effort to create a stronger profile, to draw out the pose so that the boy feels more…well, posed. Arm on the back of the bench, legs drawn out, head posed, just…so. This would be a more visually APPEALING pose, it’s true, but by drawing the character outwards, you lose the withdrawn inward body language of the story.

Then let’s say, this stranger arrives, and the two begin talking. Do you draw lots of cool variable shots because they are fun, interesting and dynamic, or do you stick to a static shot with very little camera movement because those are the shots that best serve the story?

These are the visuals where, as an artist, you have to choose what best serves the story rather than the artist’s itch to draw dynamic, interesting scenes. It is a difficult itch to resist, and this is how artists become visual writers because they know that in a graphic novel, good story trumps good aesthetics.

By the way, this doesn’t mean you can’t draw beautiful things in your graphic novel and have incredible, awe-inspiring scenes. Because you should! Making a book visually appealing can help to make a book that is more interesting to look at and certainly a miracle easier to sell…but if you start sacrificing story in the name of cool visuals, you end up creating an art book instead of a graphic novel. And while readers will pick up a book for the art, they are reading a graphic novel for the story too. Artists should never forget the writing just as writers should never forget the art.

THE DIVINE DETAIL

So how do we write/draw into the story JUST ENOUGH to show the story/scene without becoming burdened down by unnecessary description or detail? How do you put this into actual practice?

The answer is in the Divine Detail. 

Divine details are when you use a single strong modifier to summarize what was originally a very long, very lengthily descriptive sentence or scene. It is the essence of “Less is More.”

In a script, it means leaving out everything that is unnecessary and strengthening the verbs and adjectives in your writing in a way that adds pizzazz to your characters and story. “She sits on the chair, her shoulders drooping, her hands flopping at her sides, one foot out. Her shoes are untied. One of her hair ties is coming loose. There are streaks on her cheeks.” becomes, “She slouches in the chair.” Strong economy of word choice and leaving out unnecessary details that could be better handled by the artist anyway, not only make a shorter, more easily read script, they also make a more POWERFUL script. Always be thinking: “What’s the least I could write in the most powerful way possible?”

“She sits on the chair, her shoulders drooping, her hands flopping at her sides, one foot out. Her shoes are untied. One of her hair ties is coming loose. There are streaks on her cheeks.” becomes, “She slouches in the chair.”

As for artists, the Divine Detail is in what you choose to draw into the art and what you choose to leave out. Take drawing a house. How much do you draw in to indicate this is a house with brick siding? Do you draw EVERY single brick, or do you draw just enough brick-like texture to indicate brick without drawing every single block? The mind is VERY adept at “filling in the blanks” after all! What about characters? Do you need to draw every strand of hair, or could you draw enough strands to indicate motion in long hair without drawing every single one? This holds true for every panel you draw, and if you establish early in your book how much you choose to leave in and how much you choose to leave out, this also helps create a VISUAL PATTERN that makes it easier to be visually consistent. 

credit: Donut Feed the Squirrels by Mika Song
Draw enough. But just enough.

Drawing just enough without drawing it all helps to make a book that is both easier and faster to draw. But, in the end, it’s up to the artist and their personal tastes and style to figure where this leave-in/leave-out balance lies.

WHEN ART DIRECTS WRITING

Even though I’ve just told writers to write towards action and artists to draw towards story, there will be times the script HAS to change in order to accommodate art.

A major part of graphic novel storytelling is panels and page turns, and there are times the artist finds the perfect spot for a page turn that creates the perfect amount of tension, only to have the pacing ruined by the placement and timing of dialog or extra, unnecessary action.

A major part of graphic novel storytelling is panels and page turns, and there are times the artist finds the perfect spot for a page turn that creates the perfect amount of tension, only to have the pacing ruined by the placement and timing of dialog or extra, unnecessary action. Or maybe the timing feels off between panels and the artists feels that moving dialog around or cutting a bit here or there with the right images creates a better story. Or maybe the artist realizes a scene is better without dialog entirely because the mood can be more effectively shown through art. It should be a general rule that if a visual can do the work more effectively than dialog, then to leave the dialog out. 

An actor may subtly alter their lines in order to better suit their characters. For an artist to do the same while drawing a character…it really isn’t all that different.

Artists often draw their own insights into the story in ways that you may never have originally imagined. This is part of all collaborative projects. When it comes to graphic novels, artists are writers too, and the writer and the artist are collaborating on creating something that couldn’t exist without the other.

If you’re a writer, trust your artist. Try not to overdirect. Provide the divine details but leave the non-essential extras up to the artist. You don’t need to write what goes where in what panels on which page. Write your script and leave the panels, page turns, camera angles, and layouts to the artist. You’ll be surprised how well a script without these directions lends itself to direction anyway!

If you are an artist, don’t be afraid to subtly alter a scene to better fit the consistency of the visual pacing and tension throughout the story. But make sure to always draw to the story. It’s tempting to draw something cool or beautiful or magnificent for the sake of satisfying our craving for strong visual aesthetics. But if it doesn’t serve the story, leave it be. It’s possible to get TOO creative when drawing a story, too!

As long as writers remember that their script follows the action and artists remember that their art serves the story, these two can mutually meet in the middle and create beautiful magic together!

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Rivkah Lafille

Rivkah LaFille (pronounced “lah-fee”) is a children’s writer, illustrator, and graphic novelist who specializes in slice-of-life type stories with HEART. Currently, she is working on a graphic novel about creative writing with First Second and a YA literary GN with Candlewick. She teaches the art of writing and illustrating children’s comics at Kids Comics Unite and is an active member of the SCBWI.

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