Why Write a Graphic Novel?

For a long time now, I’ve been sitting on a partially-completed script for a graphic novel. I won’t go into the details of the plot.  As the title would suggest, I’m interested here in talking about why a person might choose to write and illustrate a graphic novel.

I don’t pretend to be an expert on these matters–as I said, I haven’t even finished my script yet.  However, I’ve sought out information on the Internet, stirred it into the pot of my own experience, and developed a perspective that may (or may not) be worth sharing.  After I’ve provided a definition of the graphic novel, I will ask the question, “Why write a graphic novel (as opposed to writing using the more standard novel or short story format)?”

The What
A graphic novel is basically a story that is told using a combination of images and text.  It differs from a standard novel in that it more closely resembles a comic strip (and in some cases may actually be a compiled comic strip series).  A quick look at a few examples will show that there is no set format for illustration style or quantity of text.  The graphic novel is a wide-open landscape, and the writer/illustrator can set up camp wherever she or he chooses.

The Why
An appropriate answer to why a person would want to create a graphic novel might easily be, “Because they’re cool.”  However, in terms of the overall process of taking an idea from your brain and realizing it in a completed work, decisions should probably be made according to more criteria than whether or not something is “cool”.

When the germ of an idea first sprouts from your brain, it may be helpful to ask yourself, “How can I best express this idea to others?”  If it is a story idea, it may be that the best way to share that story is through the spoken word–the classic campfire story that, when written down, is flat and lifeless.  The storyteller’s voice becomes a tool, not only for sharing the details of the story, but also for conveying emotion.

When a story is written down, however, it is able to explore abstract or emotional ideas in ways that a spoken story often cannot.  It can also be much longer.  Because a written story can be picked up and put down at the reader’s convenience, it can afford to take a route that is more circuitous than a spoken story.  Even books-on-tape are recorded and listened to over a period of time.  (The speaker would probably lose his or her voice permanently if they read Crime and Punishment aloud in one straight shot, and their listeners would almost certainly be asleep by the last page.)

A graphic novel expresses a story using words and images.  Here, words and pictures become inseparable–without one or the other, the reader would be lost.  For example, try reading Tintin in Tibet or Watchmen aloud to someone without letting them see the pictures, and you’ll quickly realize how much the story depends upon the illustrations.  On the other hand, erase all of the text from the speech bubbles of those two stories, and the reader is left guessing what the heck is going on.

The total amount of text contained in a graphic novel is typically less than in a standard novel.  Nevertheless, the amount of information contained within both types may not be all that different.  To return to two of my previous examples, the amount of text in Crime and Punishment is enormous–about 208,000 words. The word-count of Tintin in Tibet is only a fraction of that amount.  Even so, a graphic novel can provide the reader with information that is not written anywhere on its pages–a raised eyebrow to show incredulity, a squiggle rising from someone’s head to show dizziness, a musical note to show that someone is singing, and so on.  The graphic novel does not need to describe a forest or a city or the interior of a submarine, because it can show these things.

Consider how much information is contained in the image below, from Tintin in Tibet.  (I’m not obsessed with this story, honest!)  How much text would be required to describe this scene accurately?

One of the strengths of the graphic novel is its ability to make information accessible to readers who may not ever sit down and read a book about the same subject.  In fact, the readers may not be able to understand the information if it was presented in a more conventional book format.  For example, the classic graphic novel, Maus: A survivor’s tale, by Art Spiegelman, presents a story about the Holocaust and its effects on individuals in a way that may be better understood by some readers than, say, Night, by Elie Wiesel.  Both books are often required reading for students, and Night pushes the reader deeper into the writer’s experience, but Maus has pictures.  And the impact that those pictures can have on the reader cannot be overstated.

Of course, it is the pictures that make creating a graphic novel so difficult.  In addition to writing the script–that is, developing the story, deciding what text will accompany what drawings, and what order those drawings will be presented in–you have to actually create visual images.

If drawing is not your strong suit, there may still be hope for your graphic novel.  There is software available that can help you create images.  You can also think outside the “pencil box” completely, and go with images that are not drawn (by hand or by software).  Some graphic novels make use of photographs or other images (check out this example).

For some, even settling on a style of drawing might be difficult.  This database is a good resource for would-be graphic novelists, showcasing the work of about 11,000 different comic artists.  If you’re looking for inspiration, there’s bound to be something in there that catches your fancy.

I enjoy drawing, so it would be within the realm of possibility to create the graphic novel I have in mind.  However, it will take a very long time.  This isn’t the worst thing in the world.  I just have to remember that it took Art Spiegelman 13 years to complete Maus (although that was also due to the amount of research involved).  Hergé, the creator of Tintin, eventually created a studio, with a team of artists inking and colouring images, because the work was too much for one individual.

I probably won’t be hiring a team to work for me anytime soon, but at least I can take comfort in the fact that it’s OK (and normal) if it takes me a long time to complete my graphic novel.

So, to recap my main points:

  • Choose the “story vehicle” that best suits the story you’re trying to tell
  • A text-only novel may allow you to explore ideas, characters, and emotions in a deeper way than a graphic novel
  • A graphic novel is (or at least, can be) rich with visual information, and does not require as much text as a standard novel
  • A graphic novel may be more accessible to some readers
  • There are different tools available to create the images that will comprise your graphic novel
  • Don’t worry if it takes a long time to complete your work

In the future, I may share a bit about my script writing process.  Until then, toodles.

About jackfrey
Jack Frey lives somewhere in Northeast Asia with his wife and two young boys. He finds the letter K to be the most aesthetically pleasing of all the consonants, in both its upper and lowercase forms. Like many of us, he is currently seeking publication of his first novel.

One Response to Why Write a Graphic Novel?

  1. Bori Crisp says:

    YESSSSSS!!! It would be awesome if you would write a graphic novel. I look forward to it!

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