Intro to Graphic Novels

So you think you’ve got the next WATCHMEN percolating in your brain? Itching to bring your very own X-MEN to life? Or maybe there’s simply a RICHIE RICH story burning a hole in your skull. Well then, it’s GRAPHIC NOVEL TIME!

Writing graphic novel scripts is very similar to writing TV and Feature scripts, and in many ways, is a fun mash-up of the two styles. By following these simple rules, you’ll be well on your way to working for Stan Lee, true believers!

Here are the basics to get you started:

1. SOME SIMPLE GUIDELINES TO ALWAYS KEEP IN MIND…

  • A “Splash Page” is a 1-panel page in a graphic novel (also referred to as a comic book), meaning the art inside the panel takes up the entire page. This nifty page is usually reserved for a big reveal or giant action sequence.
  • Most “splash pages” take place on even numbered graphic novel pages (i.e. the page on the other side of the page you turn). This is to keep the element of surprise in tact.
  • That said, your “splash page” can occur anywhere you want in the story, but the best bet is to save it for the most dramatic effect to give your reader (and the artist drawing it) the most bang for their buck!
  • Most graphic novels range anywhere from 21 to 30 pages in length.
  • Most non-splash pages contain 4-6 panels, but you can play with this depending on how much is shown in each panel.
  • That said, you’ll probably never write more than 8 panels per page, as it’s simply impossible for the artist to properly depict images inside panels that get that tiny once you go past 8. Plus, the artist will HATE you for trying to cram so much into such limited space!
  • Whenever introducing a new character, BOLD and CAPITALIZE that character’s name the first time it appears to make it easy for the artist to see. This signifies that this character is someone who is important to the story and the action therein.
  • If you are creating new characters, you have to write every detail you want the artist to convey. If you are writing established characters, the only time you need to write the details out is if there is a change to their appearance or behavior in that scene.
  • When creating your own universe, write as much or little as you want in order to define who the characters are, what they look like, and what the world that the story lives in is like. Err on the side of “more is better” to give your artist a fool-proof template with which to create what you see in your mind’s eye.
  • The comic book medium defines the very essence of “SHOW, DON’T TELL”. Which means if you can propel your story through the art rather than a bunch of expository dialogue, THEN DO IT! Don’t you hate it on TV or in movies when the character begins to explain everything that’s happening? Diligently apply the same principle here.
  • Lastly, there is no right or wrong word processing program to write your script in. Personally, I love and use Final Draft because of its automatic character pop-up capability in all of its script-based formats. But there is no “industry standard” that will make or break getting someone to read your script if you get so lucky.

Now that you have the basics laid out, time to prep for the writing of your script!

2. READ, READ, THEN READ SOME MORE.

First and foremost, you will never have "read enough" to prepare for your graphic novel writing career. There are as many genres of graphic novels as there are music, TV, and film, from your simple kid-friendly humor books to hard-core, adult-targeted, graphic novel fare. Before you attempt to create the next Spidey, read everything you can get your hands on, because whether you know it or not, ALL of it will inform your story-telling ability, open your mind to new story-telling techniques, and worst-case scenario, entertain you for a half hour. Even after you begin the writing process, keep reading. Let the pros show how they do it and do it well (or not).

Also, study how many panels there are per page. How much dialogue is in each panel? How much does the art tell the story as opposed to the words? Which conveniently brings us to our next tip…

3. RESPECT THE ARTIST

So you think you’ve got the next IRON MAN ready to roll off your fingertips and onto the keyboard—great! But just because you saw the movie version doesn’t mean that style of story-telling is anywhere NEAR the comic book script format. Check out some "Iron Man" comics and study how the art dominates more than the words. THIS IS TRUE FOR EVERY GRAPHIC NOVEL YOU WILL EVER READ. Comic book writing is an artist’s format above all else, so respect the fact that once you've finished building a skeleton, they’ve got to cover it with blood, organs, and skin, and bring your baby to LIFE. Think about when you open a comic book—what’s the first thing you see? THE ART. So when writing, always remember that your story is the canvas the artist needs to paint on. Don’t fill up your script with so much character yapping and exposition that the artist won’t get a proper chance to do what they are great at. Plus, they won’t want to work with you again because you are literally cramping their style!

So now you know what your story will be and that the artist needs some breathing room… What next?

4. OUTLINE YOUR STORY

I can’t stress enough how important this is. Because this is such an artist’s medium, you MUST know what is going to happen page-by-page, panel-by-panel, before you start to write in earnest. I can guarantee if you don’t, you will cram too many panels into one page, or you will fall short of (or balloon past) your page count. Because you are writing inside of specific space constraints, you must have a specific idea for how each page will propel your story, and how each panel (and how many are on said page) will aid in that process.