writing graphic novels

Tips for Writing Graphic Novels

Ann O'Brien

June 23, 2022

Writing graphic novels is different than writing regular novels. Writing one can be easier than authoring a novel because you don’t need to spend time describing settings, character descriptions, or extended dialogue. On the other hand, it requires illustrations that capture the reader’s attention. Here are some graphic novel tips to get you started.

What Is a Graphic Novel?

If you think of a graphic novel as a comic book, you’re close, but you’re not quite there. A graphic novel uses pictures and a few limited lines of dialogue to tell a story, but it’s usually not tied to a specific genre or to well-known superhero universes like those of DC Comics or Marvel. Many people think graphic novels are only fantasy and sci-fi, but they can and do include many story types.

A graphic novel can be in any genre, including fantasy, romance, realism, horror, or historical fiction. Since the 1980s, graphic novels have become extremely popular and highly respected as legitimate works of art.

Types of Graphic Novels

Most graphic book publishers divide the audience for graphic novels into three age groups.

  • Young readers aged 8 to 12
  • Young adults  aged 12 to 18
  • Adult

Before you start writing graphic novels, decide which age group you’re targeting with your novel.

Next, decide what genre you will be writing. A graphic novel can be fiction or nonfiction. There are illustrated novels that explain historical events or personal memoirs. Most, however, are fictional.

Well-Known Graphic Novels

Although graphic novels have been around for a long time, the first adult “comic book” to reach best-selling status outside the superhero genre was “A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories” by Will Eisner. Published in 1978, the book told the stories of poor Jewish people living in a New York City tenement. Eisner was an established illustrator for comic book publishers, but he insisted that his book was a novel and not a comic book. He wanted it to be published by a book publisher and sold in bookstores.

Eisner’s success led to a renewed interest in the art form, and the 1980s were something of a “golden age” for graphic novels. In 1986, Frank Miller published “The Dark Knight Returns,” a retelling of the Batman story that was darker and more literary than the well-known comics about the superhero.

In the same year, DC Comics published “Watchmen,” written by Alan Moore, illustrated by Dave Gibbons, and colored by John Higgins. It featured a set of original superhero characters in an alternate-history universe. The book featured a story within a story and a nonlinear narrative. It was an enormous success among comic book readers and led to several sequels. Today, it is regarded as a classic graphic novel.

The same decade saw the publication of “Maus: A Survivor’s Tale” by Art Spiegelman. This nonfiction book, written and illustrated by Spiegelman, tells the story of how Spiegelman’s father survived the Nazi holocaust. The book received enormous critical praise, including a National Book Critics Circle Award in 1991 and a Pulitzer Prize in 1992.

Since then, there have been many graphic novels that captured the public’s imagination. You are probably familiar with the Walking Dead series by Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore. This post-apocalyptic comic book about zombies first appeared in 1993 and ran for almost 200 issues. It was also made into a successful TV series in 2010.

The Sandman series by well-known fantasy writer Neil Gaiman was a massive cult hit. Gaiman’s series about a group of immortals known as the Endless was published by DC Comics and appeared from 1989 to 1996. One of the Sandman volumes has a short story that won the World Fantasy Award for best short story, which was the first time that honor went to a graphic novel. The series included crossovers with John Constantine, a DC comics character who appeared in several Sandman episodes.

If you’re looking for more graphic novels to spark your ideas, consider these:

  • “Through the Woods” by Emily Carroll
  • “Stitches: A Memoir” by David Small
  • “Run for It: Stories of Slaves Who Fought for Their Freedom” by Marcelo D’Salete
  • “Sheets” by Brenna Thummler (for children)
  • “Phoebe and Her Unicorn” by Dana Simpson (for children)

Elements of a Graphic Novel

A graphic novel has elements that set it apart from other literary genres:

  • Artwork and illustrations that tell a narrative story
  • Word balloons that tell you what a speaker is saying
  • Captions or text boxes under the illustration
  • Sound effects in written form

How to Write a Graphic Novel?

Seven Steps to Writing Graphic Novels

Do you need help writing graphic novels? Here are some graphic novel tips for going from idea to final publication.

1. Start with an outline

Decide on your story’s general idea, setting, characters, and plot. Like a novel, a graphic novel has certain core elements that you must use to tell your story.

  • Setting and exposition: This is the starting point of your story. Set up where your character lives and what they do regularly.
  • Inciting incident: This is the action or incident that sets the plot in motion.
  • Rising action: The rising action follows from the inciting incident. What does your character do in response to the inciting incident?
  • Climax: This is the high point of the story. It’s when characters make major decisions and try to resolve their conflicts. It often leads to what’s called the failing action, which is when the character experiences the consequences of their decisions.
  • Resolution: Wrap up the story and tell the reader what happens to the main characters.

2. Visualize the setting

The setting is critical to your novel. Detailed settings are part of the comic book world, and the right one will be a major part of the story. Does the action happen in one place, or do characters move around from place to place? Intricately detailed backgrounds will tell half the story for you, so spend time visualizing the places your characters live, work, shop, and play.

3. Find an artist

Some graphic novelists do their own illustrations, but others work with illustrators. If you already have someone you plan to work with, you’re in luck. If not, you’ll have to find someone. You can find freelance illustrators who specialize in comic books through freelance boards and comic book conventions. There are thousands of illustrators out there, and you’re sure to find one who can work in the style you want.

4. Create a storyboard

Graphic novels have an extra step that novels don’t. Like a movie, a graphic novel needs a storyboard, which is an outline of what you’ll show in each scene. To create a storyboard, draw several small squares on paper. Think about your story, and then begin making notes about what you want to depict in each panel.

5. Draw the panels

Before you begin drafting the novel, draw your characters and chief backgrounds. These drawings will give you a reference point when you draw the panels. Use a pencil for the first panels. This allows you to go back and revise them if necessary. Once you have created the final version of your book, you can color them.

5. Write a first draft

Write your story. Look at each panel and decide what you want to include on each one. Typically, a graphic novel features characters talking in speech bubbles that you draw above or near their heads. The space under the panel is used to express a character’s inner thoughts or write helpful texts that further the plot.

Dialogue should be limited in a graphic novel. Since you’re using your setting and the plot as major parts of the story, you don’t need the extensive speeches or conversations that a novel requires. To be sure your dialogue sounds natural, try reading it aloud.

6. Polish your novel

Once you’ve written your first draft from beginning to end, it’s time to show your novel to a trusted reader. Ask someone to read it and give you their honest feedback. If you get constructive advice, consider refining your novel in some way.

Read it again while asking yourself the following:

  • Does the story move smoothly? Is it believable?
  • Are the settings and characters visually interesting?
  • Do your characters and settings look consistent from scene to scene?
  • Have you provided a plot with all the elements of inciting incident, climax, and resolution?

7. Color your illustrations

This is the last step in writing graphic novels. Coloring your drawings will bring your book to life. You can do this online or on paper. If you’re publishing your novel through a printing company, talk to your printer about the best format for your illustrations and pages.

8. Print your novel

The ultimate step in your road to becoming a published graphic novelist is to produce a printed version of your book. Work with a printing company that specializes in book printing. You want your novel to be as vividly colored as possible. Your printer can help you choose the right processes, papers, and cover stock.

Get Graphic with Publishing Xpress

We hope you’ve enjoyed these graphic novel tips. At Publishing Xpress, we work with self-published authors who want to get their novels in print. We offer affordable options for self-published authors and others who need fast, expert printing. If you’d like to estimate the cost of printing your graphic novel, check out our online pricing calculators.

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