The sheer number of storytelling formats is pretty impressive when you think about it. Stories make up so much of our lives, which explains why we have so many ways to create and disseminate them. Among the most challenging and rewarding of these is the graphic novel.
Whether you want to work with an illustrator or you want to tackle both writing and illustrating a story yourself, this article will help you learn how to write a graphic novel.
- Difference between a graphic novel and a comic book.
- Graphic novel definitions to know.
- Step-by-step guide on how to write your graphic novel.
- Tips for publishing when you're done.
Table of contents
- Graphic Novel vs Comic
- Common Graphic Novel Definitions
- Read Before You Write
- How to Write a Graphic Novel: Step by Step
- Alternatives to Hiring an Illustrator Outright
- A Note About Traditional Publishing
- How to Write a Graphic Novel: Conclusion
Graphic Novel vs Comic
Graphic novels and comics are very similar in many respects. They both fall under the heading of sequential art, a term coined by Will Eisner. In fact, many graphic novels are a compilation of previously published comic books that form a complete story.
This is the main difference between the two. Whereas a comic book is usually a single chapter in a story, a graphic novel is a full narrative.
Instead of going out and buying the individual comics as they release, you can wait for the graphic novel to come out. But not every graphic novel is made of previously released comics. In fact, a lot of them are written and released only as graphic novels.
And just like a traditional novel series, you can have more than one graphic novel in a series. But each one needs to tell a complete story with a narrative arc—even if you do end up having some sort of continuation at the end to encourage readers to purchase the next in the series.
For the purposes of this article, we'll assume that you want to write your story as a full graphic novel instead of a series of comics.
Common Graphic Novel Definitions
Before we dive into the step-by-step process of writing a graphic narrative, it's important to get the lingo down. The following list is by no means exhaustive, but it covers the basic definitions you'll need to know to write and plan your novel.
- Panel – A box that contains the visual elements that convey pertinent information. Your entire graphic novel will happen in panels that show environment, action, emotion, and character development. The number of panels per page will vary, and they don't always have to be box-shaped.
- Speech Bubbles – Also known as word balloons, speech balloons, dialogue bubbles, and dialogue balloons. These are where your characters' dialogue appears within the panel.
- Caption – A box that appears on the page to provide exposition about the scene. This is usually the narrator speaking directly to the reader, but it can also be a way to share a character's thoughts.
- Page – A single page made up of panels, word balloons, captions, and illustrations. Not every page will have all of these. Some pages will consist of only illustrations and as few as two panels.
- Splash Page – A single-panel page. Since a splash page is made up of a single large illustration, they are used sparingly for impactful moments in the story.
- Spread – A two-page scene viewed together. Like splash pages, spreads are incredibly impactful and therefore are sparingly used in a graphic novel.
Read Before You Write
It's always a good idea to look at the giants of the industry to see how things are done. So anytime on your graphic novel-writing journey, pick up a copy of one or more of the following to see how masters of their craft create graphic novels:
- Batman: Year One by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli
- Watchmen by Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, and John Higgins
- Maus: A Survivor's Tale by Art Spiegelman
- Blankets by Craig Thompson
- A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories by Will Eisner
- Pashmina by Nidhi Chanani
- Heartstopper by Alice Oseman
And you may want to check these books on craft out, as well:
- Making Comics by Scott McCloud
- Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud
- Alan Moore's Writing for Comics by Alan Moore and Peter David
- The DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics by Dennis O'Neil
- Comics and Sequential Art by Will Eisner
How to Write a Graphic Novel: Step by Step
As we go through this section, keep in mind that there's no single way you must write your graphic novel. Just like there's no one way you must write any other type of story. What works for you is the best way to do it.
The following is designed to give you a useful guide so you can avoid making common mistakes as you write your graphic novel.
Step 1: Decide on Your Idea
Like every other work of fiction, a graphic novel starts with a story idea. Although the graphic novel is a form of visual storytelling, I would suggest that you don't focus so much on that aspect of it at the idea development stage.
Instead, work on making sure you have a compelling and commercially viable story. To do this, answer the following questions:
- What Age Range is Your Audience? – The graphic novel market is split into three age ranges. These are Middle Grade (ages 7 to 12), Young Adult (ages 13 to 18), and Adult (ages 18+). If you're writing for children under 7, you'll probably want to check out our article on how to write a picture book.
- What Genre is Your Story? – There's a wide range of commercially viable graphic novel genres. In fact, they're not too different from traditional novel genres. Of course, the age range you're aiming for may narrow your options somewhat. Whether it be horror, romance, science fiction, fantasy, or some more narrow subgenre, having a genre is important.
- Is There a Beginning, Middle, and End? – Readers want much the same thing out of a graphic novel as they do out of a regular novel. It needs to have a compelling protagonist, a clear goal and stakes, conflict, and a character arc for the main character.
Once you know the genre and have a good idea of the main conflict and structure, you can move on to the next step. If you first want to write an outline of the graphic novel to solidify your idea, I suggest you do it now. You can also do the same with a short story that you can expand upon later in the writing process.
Step 2: Decide on Your Illustration Style
Some graphic novelists do both the scriptwriting and the illustrations, but many do not. If you're an artist and you want to tackle the whole project yourself, you may already know the illustration style you want to use. If not, now's a good time to nail it down.
Once you know the style you'd like to go for, it becomes easier for the story to take shape in your mind. Because it's such a visual medium, this is a huge part of it.
Nailing down the style will also help you choose an artist, if you're not doing the whole graphic novel project yourself. To do this, look to other graphic novels in your genre for inspiration. You can then make a list of graphic novels with artwork you like to help you inform your choice of illustrator when the time comes.
Just keep in mind that working with an artist is a collaboration. Expect to give your artist some creative freedom within the bounds of your creative vision.
Step 3: Write Your First-Draft Script
Writing a graphic novel (or comic book) is not quite the same as writing a novel or short story. In fact, it's closer in many ways to writing a screenplay.
However, unlike the industry-standard screenplay format, there are different ways to write your graphic novel script. If you have access to software like Final Draft, you can certainly write your script there. But you can just as easily do it in something like Microsoft Word or Atticus.
Googling “Graphic Novel Script Template” can bring you many options to choose from. But here's an example of a simple script.
Graphic Novel Script Example
Here's where you would describe your opening scene. If it's in a city, describe the buildings and the people. If it's in a room, describe the furnishings. If it's in a spaceship, describe the bridge, the characters, and the uniforms.
CAPTION: Here's where you would provide any crucial information, like the date, the name of the city, the stardate, etc. (You don't have to have a caption if the image speaks for itself.)
Here's where you would describe your first scene. Perhaps it's a medium shot of the ship captain stepping onto the bridge. Maybe it's an explosion rocking the city. Let's go with the captain stepping onto the bridge for this example.
The XO, a man with a shaved head and pointed eyebrows, sees the captain step onto the bridge from his spot next to the helmswoman.
Atten-shun! Captain on deck!
Wide shot. The deck crew snaps to attention, all of them looking nervous.
At ease! Thank you, XO. I have the conn.
Close up on a young man at the communications hub, the captain just visible in the background over his shoulder. This is ENSIGN JED. He's looking ill. Sweat dots his forehead under his unruly hair. His eyes are hollow. He's hiding something.
ENSIGN JED screams, jumping up from his seat and producing a dagger from somewhere on his person. The rest of the crew is caught off-guard.
ENSIGN JED lunges toward the captain. His teeth are clamped together and his face is twisted with rage.
Note: This example script is in italics to differentiate it from the rest of the article. The rest of the formatting is common in graphic novel scripts.
The above is a very barebones example. And to reiterate, this isn't the only format out there. There's no industry standard script format for graphic novels. It's also worth noting that it's common to write graphic novel scripts in the present tense.
The more detail you put into describing each panel, the more your illustrator will have to work with. But keep in mind that trying to do too much in one panel is never a good idea.
Also, if you trust your illustrator and are on the same page, then providing less description will allow him or her to fill in the blanks, effectively giving them more artistic freedom.
But before we move on, remember that this is only your first draft. You'll probably do a few more before you actually give your script over to the artist.
Step 4: Refine Your Script
Writing the first draft will help you think like a graphic novelist. It will get you in the habit of picturing the panel, how many characters will be in it, what kind of background it will have, and what dialogue (if any) will need to fit inside.
There's a lot going on in any given panel in a graphic novel or comic book. Which is why refining your script after you finish your first draft is extremely useful.
While there's no set number of panels you have to have per page, there is only a finite amount of room to work with on a given page. And in order for everything to be clear to the reader, each panel has to be big enough for that story beat to come across.
So you may find that you narrow your focus as you go through your script for a second, third, fourth, or fifth time. You may change the focus of a panel. Or eliminate some minor conversation between two characters because it doesn't really move the story forward.
If it helps you, draw some rough-and-ready panels to get a better idea of what you're looking at. Even if you just put some stick figures there as representation, it can still be a beneficial exercise.
As you refine your story, think about how tight you can get your script. And also keep in mind that you will likely need to refine it again after your illustrator sees it.
Step 5: Find an Illustrator
It's important to note here that most traditionally published graphic novels are made with a team of people. There are letterers, inkers, and colorists. But with that in mind, it's possible to find an illustrator that will do all these things. It just takes time to do it all. And it's often not the cheapest thing in the world if you want an experienced illustrator.
There are plenty of options for finding freelance graphic novel illustrators out there. Here are some well-known options:
You can also search for artists on DeviantArt, check out Facebook comics communities, and search for artists on other social media sites.
If you decide to post a job on a forum like Upwork, there are some things you need to include to avoid confusion and be clear about what you're looking for.
What to Include in Your Hiring Post
Be sure to include the following in your post to save you and potential illustrators time:
- A One Sheet – This is a one-page flier for your graphic novel. It should “sell” your story. It's good to include the age range, genre, and approximate number of pages. Even if you can't include an attachment, you can still put all this information into your job posting.
- The Style You're Looking For – You can do this in a few ways, depending on the limitations of the platform you're using to post the job. One is to include pictures of artwork you like for the graphic novel. Another is to include links to pictures. And a third is to drop the name of a couple of graphic novels you would like to use as inspiration for the look you're seeking.
- What You Expect – If you're looking for one person to do everything from character design and illustrating to lettering and coloring, make sure you're clear about this in your posting. Since most graphic novels use different people for these jobs, it's important to be upfront about your expectations so you're both on the same page.
- Your Budget – It can be hard to nail down a budget for a graphic novel. There are a lot of factors at play, including the number of pages, the complexity of the artwork, black-and-white vs color, and the going rate for the artist. Most artists charge a per-page rate instead of a flat fee per project. And at the very low end of the spectrum, you can expect to pay at least $100 per page. Keep this in mind and budget accordingly.
Once you come to an agreement with an illustrator, you will work together to bring the script to life. This usually involves several more script revisions, so be prepared to take and give feedback to your illustrator. It's a collaborative effort, which can be a challenge for some writers.
It's important to work under a contract, as this protects both you the writer, and the illustrator. It's also a good way to set deadlines to keep you both on track. You can come to an agreement that works for both of you after a little back-and-forth. And many of the job forums above also offer protection and serve as mediators if any problems arise.
Step 6: Publish!
Once you have the final product, you'll need to get it formatted for print and digital. This may or may not be a service your illustrator includes. Chances are, you'll need to do it yourself or hire someone. If you're familiar with Adobe InDesign, you could do it yourself.
There are also tools available for formatting your graphic novel for reading on eBooks. Amazon KDP even offers one for free called Kindle Create.
Before you publish, you'll need to have a cover made for both print and eBook. Then you'll need to decide on whether you want to go wide or go exclusively by putting your graphic novel in the Kindle Unlimited program. To learn more about the intricacies of self-publishing, check out our self-publishing hub here.
Alternatives to Hiring an Illustrator Outright
Since hiring an illustrator can be an expensive proposition, there are some alternatives to consider.
First, there's crowdfunding. Sites like Kickstarter could be a good option if you don't have an immediate budget. Of course, you'll probably want to show proof of concept to potential supporters in the form of artwork done by an illustrator who has agreed to do the job provided the project gets funded.
Luckily, paying an illustrator for proof-of-concept artwork is much more affordable than hiring one for the entire graphic novel. And you may even be able to find an illustrator who will do the artwork for free, but by no means should you expect this.
You could also potentially get an illustrator with a royalty-share agreement. This usually involves signing a contract that spells out the agreement. And most illustrators will want you to show that you already have an audience that’s willing to pay for the project once done before they will put in the many hours of up-front work to bring your script to life.
Still, these are two viable options for those who don't have the money lying around for hiring an illustrator outright.
A Note About Traditional Publishing
If you're hoping to get a traditional book deal for your graphic novel, it's entirely possible. This way, you can have a publishing company foot the bill for the out-of-pocket costs. And you can get paid in the process. But this is easier said than done.
Here's a very simple breakdown of how to get a publishing deal for a graphic novel:
- Write a Query Letter – This is an art in itself, so it takes some learning if you've never done it before. Essentially, this breaks down your story idea in less than a page. The idea is to get the reader hooked so they want to know more.
- Send Your Letter to Literary Agents – Landing a literary agent is the most effective way to land a book deal. Your agent's job is to sell your graphic novel to a publishing company.
- Wait and Refine – If you don't hear back after you've sent your query to as many suitable literary agents as possible, you may want to refine your letter and/or your idea before starting again in a year or so. Then repeat!
How to Write a Graphic Novel: Conclusion
Turning an entire story into graphic novel form takes time, patience, and money to hire an illustrator. If you're an artist and proficient in programs like Adobe Illustrator and InDesign, you may want to do the artwork yourself. But while that will save you money, it will still take significant time, depending on your skill level and your vision for the work.
Of course, I would be remiss if I didn't mention the possibility of using AI tools to help make your graphic novel. However, given the potential legal issues surrounding many of the image-generating artificial intelligence tools, I can't recommend that you go this route since you could end up with a product that unintentionally plagiarizes another artist's work.
Still, creating a graphic novel is a challenging and worthwhile endeavor. And it can certainly make you a better creative writer in the process. So I hope this article has helped guide you through the process effectively and efficiently.