Writing for Graphic Novels

Edwin is a bacteriologist. He loves bacteria. He finds all processes involving bacteria absolutely fascinating. One day, he decides to attend a cheese making workshop. He can’t wait to get hands on experience of the amazing transformation of milk  sugars into lactic acid by nature’s most wonderous creation, bacteria. But then, just as the workshop is about to start, the teacher walks up to Edwin and jabs an accuasatory finger in his face. “Edwin, you fraud!” he yells. “This workshop is for cheese lovers but I know for a fact that no morsel of cheese has passed your lips since you were a little boy.” You see, Edwin is lactose intolerant. He hangs his head in shame. All he wanted was to enjoy a little bit of bacteria in action but since he cannot even name three different types of cheese to save his life, he feels like he does not belong.

Poor Edwin. I can sympathise. I went to Dundee Literary Festival on Sunday for their Comics Programme. As you know, I love writing and everything to do with writing, and although I haven’t read a comic since 1993 when I used to subscribe to Mandy & Judy … OK, I think you can see where this is going. To be fair, none of the speakers at the event went so far as to  jab a finger in my face, but several of them said, “if you are here then you must love reading comics.” No no no no no! You do not have to be an avid reader of graphic novels to be interested in finding out about how they are made. I am going to prove this to you by sharing with you some of the exciting things that I learned during David Bishop‘s Writing for Graphic Novels workshop and Emma Vieceli‘s talk on Approaching Sequential Art and Adaptation.

The most important point to come out of the workshop was that you need to choose very carefully which moments best tell your story. In graphic novels this is because you may be restricted to only 30 panels in which to create a protagonist the reader cares about, establish their world and detail their journey. Similarly, in screenwriting and fiction writing choosing which scenes scenes to include and which to omit is crucial because you may be working with a time limit or word limit.

The transitions between  moments are also important. “The gaps between the panels in a graphic novel are brilliant story telling tools,” David Bishop told us, explaining that they can slow time down to a complete standstill, speed it up, advance the plot, misdirect the reader and create suspense.

The advantage of graphic novels over other mediums is that “they can tell stories of great density in far fewer pages than it would take if writing in prose.” It’s that old adage, a picture tells 1000 words. You can collaborate with an artist so that you have two brains working on one story to create something that is better than the sum of its parts.

David Bishop’s tip for people wanting to write graphic novels is to read as many as you can get your hands on. “Think about what works and what doesn’t. You need to think visually if you want to write graphic novels.” He said there are no hard and fast rules on how the manuscript should look but it resembles a script. He personally believes that less is more when it comes to writing panel descriptions but “it depends on how much control you want to give to the artist. They can probably tell the story better than you visually because that is their job.” Finding an artist is easier than it used to be thanks to the internet and he suggested looking on ComicSpace. He recommended self-publishing but “do it online so that you don’t lose any money.”

Emma Vieceli is a comic artist and she illustrated her talk with examples from Much Ado About Nothing, the Manga Shakespeare volume, which she did the artwork for. She told us that she incorporated images of the Italian town where her family comes from into the book because they are important to her and she wanted to share something personal with the reader. She researched period fashion and used elements of it in her illustrations. She did not adhere strictly to the dress code of the period, explaining that “what’s historically accurate is not necessarily visually appealing” and pointing out that the Manga Shakespeare books have a contemporary setting. She showed us how she made use of metaphor by designing panels that looked like shards of broken glass to signify a character’s world shattering and explained how she tries to make Shakespeare’s meaning clear to the reader through her illustrations, for example, in Hamlet she drew a picture of two Hamlets wrestling each other during the famous “to be or not to be” speech.

I’m not an artist myself (as anyone who saw my attempts at drawing during David Bishop’s workshop will testify), but I really enjoyed Emma Vieceli’s account of her illustrating  process and thought that some of the things she said applied to any kind of creative work. I do try to  incorporate personal experiences in my writing to make it truthful and I think it is very important to be selective about what research you include in your stories.

I hope I have convinced you that comic conferences are good fun not just for Comic Book Geeks (even self-styled ones like Emma Vieceli) but for everyone. I will leave you now with one final quote of the day, courtesy of David Bishop, which applies to everyone who has ever put down a disappointing comic/novel/poem/script and said “I can do better than this!”:

“Don’t aim to be a little bit better than the worst thing you have ever read, aim to be as good as the best thing you have ever read.”

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5 thoughts on “Writing for Graphic Novels

  1. Interesting storyline, indeed, graphic novels are extremely well done and some have extraordinary plots.
    I’m not an extreme lover of graphic novels, but I’ve read some that are quite well done.
    What you said, quoted, at the end:
    “Don’t aim to be a little bit better than the worst thing you have ever read, aim to be as good as the best thing you have ever read.”
    It’s true, aim to be the best.
    Great Blog.

    http://xxhawkeyexx.wordpress.com/

  2. I’m not an extreme lover of graphic novels either (as you probably guessed) but it’s always interesting to find out about other mediums and writing workshops in general are a great place to get inspiration. I like that quote too. From now on I’m going to aim a little higher 🙂

  3. Pingback: Sam Kelly and David Bishop Q&A « My Writing Life

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