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Writing: Putting Together A Story For A Graphic Novel

Updated on May 24, 2012

Bringing Your Graphic Novel Or Comic To Life

The problem I have seen so far in my start for my little project, is I have been a hobby novelist (never published) for a long time now. Almost 25 years, to be honest. I have never really thought about being published and mostly just write for myself. For practice, for exercise of my imagination (like I need that!), for the love of building my characters. I have also been at the same level of art for longer than I have been writing.

The problem lies in the fact, that most traditional artists see the graphic novel as a toy, a coloring book that you draw your own lines. Most writers know that it still takes the same attention to detail to create compelling character arcs and that a good plot should be woven into a graphic novel as any other written work, but they also see the comic world as a ruse.

So, walking in to the comic/graphic novel community as an artist and a novelist, is a bad thing. Especially since I have never been serious about either hobby. Because they are used to being in a pocket of their own. Several that I have met are very skeptical of people who have not created anything noteworthy since high school 20 years ago.

But, I'm not here to tell you about my troubles. I'm here to help bring the best of art, writing, and comic together so you can make one of your own. With this page I will tell you the importance of story structure and why you should have everything planned out before you start.

The image shown here is the cover that I created for my novel that I am working on as a graphic novel now.

My First Step

For creating a story of any kind

Once I have an idea, it has to be cultivated. I usually use a technique by a writer known as the Snowflake Guy. His method suggests that we can use the Snowflake Method to "grow" our story the same way a snowflake's ice crystals are formed. Randy Ingermanson does this in four big steps, but it can be done in larger or smaller steps, depending on your story.

Starting with the beginning sentence. Now not your "hook" sentence. This is more of how you would describe the whole story to someone else in one short sentence. Most of the places to post your story or even once the book is written to be published, this sentence will describe your story. See how important it is?

Your first descriptive sentence should have a sense of the plot arc but should offer no spoilers. Typically, literary agents do not even want to see character's names in this description.

"But I'm creating a graphic novel. Most of my story is visually oriented!"

Yes, but that is why it is important to have the whole frame of your story written. You could write it in a script form, especially if you are not going to be doing the artwork yourself. But you need a starting point even with a script.

Part Two

Of your first step

Now that you have a basis for your story to begin, you have a premise for at least one or two of the main concepts of your story.

You ask, "Why do I need all of this stuff? I already have my plot and my character, why do I need all of this other fluff?"

If you are planning to sell this story, written or drawn, you need a solid plot, solid character, solid conflict, solid theme, solid concept, solid structure, solid voice, and solid scenes. If you do not have these hammered out to a point that you have no holes in your "What if?"'s for the story, you will not have a solid story. If you plan on just throwing words on a paper (or screen) like I used to do (Still do for short stories), then you are setting yourself up for many rewrites of your manuscript. This is why one book can take some authors many years to complete to satisfy a publisher. By using a solid framework, in other words, doing all of your homework before you ever start writing, you could possibly set up to write an entire book in a month or two, that will catch the eye of an editor enough to at least get in the door. From there they may only have one or two things for you to change.

Now, changing a manuscript is one thing, changing a few pages of a comic or graphic novel could be devastating if you have to hire the artist to come back and fix story flaws. So, lets get this right the first time!

Part two, actually refers to a written outline of the story. Larry Brooks is the best at this, because every story that has ever hit the big time be it literary classic, comic classic, or movie classic, has to answer Larry's questions:

"What is the conceptual hook/appeal of your story?

What is the theme(s) of your story?

How does your story open? Is there an immediate hook? And then:

* what is the hero doing in their life before the first plot point?

* what stakes are established prior to the first plot point?

* what is your character's backstory?

* what inner demons show up here that will come to bear on the hero later in the story?

* what is foreshadowed prior to the first plot point?

What is the first plot point in your story?

* is it located properly within the story sequence?

* how does it change the hero's agenda going forward?

* what is the nature of the hero's new need/quest?

* what is at stake relative to meeting that need?

* what opposes the hero in meeting that need?

* what does the antagonistic force have at stake?

* why will the reader empathize with the hero at this point?

* how does the hero respond to the antagonistic force?

What is the mid-point contextual shift/twist in your story?

* how does it part the curtain of superior knowledge?

* for the hero? and/or, for the reader?

* how does this shift the context of the story?

* how does this pump up dramatic tension and pace?

How does your hero begin to successfully attack their need/quest?

* how does the antagonistic force respond to this attack?

* how do the hero's inner demons come to bear on this attack?

What is the all-is-lost lull just before the second plot point?

What is the second plot point in your story?

* how does this change or affect the hero's proactive role?

How is your hero the primary catalyst for the successful resolution of the central problem or issue in this story?

* how does it meet the hero's need and fulfill the quest?

* how does the hero demonstrate the conquering of inner demons?

* how are the stakes of the story paid off?

* what will be the reader's emotional experience as the story concludes?

And how, upon closer examination, the list envelopes all of the four elemental components of the Six Core Competencies (concept, theme, character and structure), leaving the other two (scenes and writing voice) to your brilliant execution."

Larry's awesome writing blog is a definite starting point for anyone who wishes to learn more about the craft of writing.

Now that you have answered those questions, you are almost ready to begin.

The Second Step

The actual writing

Now that about a week or two worth of planning is out of the way, you should be able to run through your story with ease. You already know what all of the plot points are. You should not encounter any blank page syndrome or writer's block because you already have a plan all the way to the end. Most importantly you should already have that all important connection to your characters.

So the next thing, and it has already been mentioned, is to create your character sheets. Which means you should know their back stories. Why they are like they are. Your characters could explore this in side chapters in your story. Or there could be room for a spin off sequel when this graphic novel is finished. If your story is involved enough, you should be able to think of your core characters as your friends. You should create the back stories as well as the character arc for the story. This should be performed for the main character and the antihero and any other core characters that this story will affect. The point of nearly every story is to show the change that the struggle of the story brings about in the character.

You do not after all, want just a series of diary entries. There has to be a reason to compel us to read it. If the characters do not connect with you, how are we supposed to feel anything, empathize with them, relate to them?

I remember reading about Jerry Jenkins, the writer of the Left Behind series, saying that when he started killing off the main characters, it felt like his friends were dying. Because he had lived with these people in his head for all of those years during his writing of the series.

I can relate. It was not so horrible when I had Apryl shot in Neighbor's Basement because that had been a major plot point, but when Caitlyn died in the car accident in Stage, even though it had been a plot point for me, it was like the sister I never had, died.

That is where you will need to be. If you want you characters to be memorable, that is.

Do you want your story to stand above all of the others in your genre?

Do you want your story to have enough credibility to stand on it's own with out extra fluff that will only serve to hurt it's integrity as a story?

Build strong characters.

Now I do not mean they all have to be Superman. That was not what I meant by strong. In fact, in most graphic novels these days, the main character has so many flaws, you wonder if they will ever amount to anything. But, create reasons for those flaws. Do not just say they exist because that is the way he/she is. Like the analogy Larry and other writers have used: You write about a guy and a girl having a date and she orders the desert first, "Because that's the way she likes it." Quirky for quirkiness sake is fluff that distracts from the story. It would be better not to have that part in there than to have it confuse the story.

In my story, The Unbeaten Path, William Barcho is a brilliant scientist who experimented with using electronic scanning to try to "see"other dimensions. But, he woke something that our dimension isn't supposed to even understand, much less even be able to see. That something attacked his family on a fishing trip and sank the boat. Killing all but he and his daughter Meegan. Meegan is now confined to a wheelchair. He blames himself. Psychologically, he is completely broken. He is Obsessive Compulsive and is living in seclusion on the Nevada desert keeping himself and his daughter alive with a garden that he tends according to his Lakota upbringing in the "old" ways.

He is not a main character. Although he acts in a mentoring archetype, he actually ends up being a unwilling trickster archetype in most of the story, because of his unwillingness to confront, or allow anyone else to, the creature he and the triplet's mother helped to unleash. Yet another of my stories that I would love to see in Graphic Novel form!

The Difference In Writing A Novel

And a graphic novel

A good novel is based on descriptives. How good you are at describing something without being too boringly fluffy, is the key to writing a good story for print.

A good Graphic Novel is not based on description. You do not need it. Narrative is for scene placement and explaining backstory only. It also comes in handy to translating what someone says in another language. Which happens a lot in my story Maraude where several of the characters have a Cyrillic background. You will need to be able to convey your descriptions in your artwork. Body language, facial expression, action lines, and little comic tricks like Vanishing Point Perspective and Strobe Movements are all very important to create these descriptions.

So how do you approach bringing a novel/story that is already written to a Graphic Novel viewpoint?

That is a question that I am posing here because it took one of my Comic Artist friends to slap me over the head and say, "Don't tell me he walks with animal abandon, draw it!" And I respect her for saying so.

Yeah it hurt.

I completely had to redraw page two because of it.

But I feel much better about it now! Now, Neighbor's Basement has no words until Kennedy storms into Miss Bradley's classroom late, over on page three. No introductions, no narrative, no comments, no dialogue. And I like it much better this way!

So, if you are coming from a novel based story to a Graphic Novel, your story board is the time to think about each paragraph in your novel. What can you leave out without sacrificing the story? What has to be there to advance the plot? What has to be there to tell the story of the character, especially what actions can convey their personality without saying anything?

And sketch those panels on your storyboard.

Drawing Your StoryBoard

This is not that tricky. You do not have to be a good artist for this part. Stick figures are fine. In fact, I do not even like to do page layouts just yet. Lay out a page in little three or four inch squares. Then read your story and draw each scene panel. You can even make little notations as to which stick figure is which by labeling.

This is not going to be your final artwork. Doodle to your heart's content. But this is where decisions are made. I even draw my thumbnails in red pencil so that, should I decide to scan them to use as a placement marker for the final artwork. Then I do the line work in blue pencil to distinguish the two, if I use a resized print of the thumbnail.

Look over your panels when you finish your page. Are you offering enough camera angles? Are your characters too static? Do you need to add some filler panels to set a better scene? Are your movements confusing? Are your characters on the stage properly? Do not forget placement!

If you do not like a panel, draw a new on and tape it in to sequence over the one it's replacing, or draw an addendum sheet, or even use a Post-

It note. At this point, we are not worried about the art. We are getting a feel for the flow of the Graphic Novel. If the theme and flow are not working well, neither will your graphic novel. You need to solidly set your scenes. And this story board may not be your final decision either. You may get to pencils or even inks before really having a solid feel for your flow.

If you have a lot of dialogue, make sure to shift camera shots. As long as we know who is talking, you do not even have to show the characters. Draw a panel of a clock on the wall or other elements of the scene, and arrange your balloons accordingly.

Perspective is also king here. Your scene has to make sense. You might know that an evil demon is hovering above the ground in front of your hero, but if he is drawn so that his feet are touching your hero's hand? The demon is now held by the feet in the hero's hand instead of the intentions you had in the first place.

It's a good idea to have a friend look over the page to objectively find inconsistencies. Or another idea is to set your pencils aside once finished and move to the next page before committing to a decision on the panels. Once finished with the next page, go back make make sure they make sense together.

A Word About Lettering

The fastest way to get laughed out of the comic artist community is the use of MS Comic Sans. You will get this every where you ask, so I am going to save you a ton of embarrassment right now.

When deciding to use a font, I recommend blambot as a resource. They have several different styles to choose from for the genre and theme that you are wanting to use. And they are free fonts.

The reason for not using Comic Sans are mostly that you can not make distinctions between the different capitol letters. The letter "i" is the biggest culprit. Nearly all comics are in all capitol letters, which, I know goes against popular convention on the internet, but nobody said the comics and the internet were that intertwined. The 'i' in most comic conventions has two capitals because of this. The lowercase-capital that looks like the lowercase letter L, and the uppercase capital that has the cross bars at the top and bottom. Used to capitalize the first of sentences and the pronoun "i" all of the others use the lowercase version. MS Comic Sans goes against other comic convention as well but that is the main one. A comic artist can tell Comic Sans from a mile away, and will laugh about it for weeks, even after it is changed.

Please save yourself the embarrassment of another embarrassing moment in Microsoft history.

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    • DuCiel LM profile image

      DuCiel LM 6 years ago

      Love this. I'm also a graphic novel writer, and I'm always looking for ideas on how to streamline the process.

    • profile image

      anonymous 7 years ago

      Gorgeous lens .. Sirkey :) I really love this lens. Thanks for sharing. Favorite and give you 5 graphic novel loving stars. HAve a wonderful times ;)

    • sirkeystone lm profile image

      sirkeystone lm 7 years ago

      @sylviavanbruggen: Wow, thanks!

    • profile image

      sylviavanbruggen 7 years ago

      great lens! just gave it a thumbs up :)

    • sirkeystone lm profile image

      sirkeystone lm 7 years ago

      @anonymous: Thanks for stopping by! It's a very rewarding thing to do. I only have to ask why someone has not started yet! ;)

    • sirkeystone lm profile image

      sirkeystone lm 7 years ago

      @photofk3: Thanks!

    • photofk3 profile image

      photofk3 7 years ago

      Thanks for the useful tips. I wish you lots of success with your graphic novel.

    • profile image

      anonymous 7 years ago

      This is very useful tips, I love to write and maybe someday I'll have my own graphic novel