How to Write a Graphic Novel from Start to Finish

According to an annual report released by ICv2 and Comichron, graphic novel and comic sales hit $1.21 billion in 2019, which is significant.

Graphic novels and comics have been gaining popularity in the past 20 years due to various factors, which we’ll get into below. Most importantly, though, they are getting more shelf time at comic book stores and book stores.

Additionally, kids love them (I can attest to the popularity of Dav Pilkey’s Dog Man and Captain Underpants and Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid graphic novel series from my time at Indigo. Seriously, all the kids wanted to know where the books were).

And with a market that’s growing stronger each year, doesn’t it make sense to try writing one yourself. Or you can do it for the fun of it. It’s something that I’ve considered. Before we jump in with both feet, let’s define what a graphic novel is and its history.

What is a Graphic Novel?

The term “graphic novel” is not as straightforward as one might think. It means a lot of different things to different people and is a hotly discussed topic in academia. Let’s make it easy on us and stick with this definition:

Graphic Novel: a full-length (primarily, science fiction or fantasy) story published as a book in comic-strip format.

I want to make it clear that graphic novels aren’t exclusively science fiction or fantasy books and can cover various genres.

The Characteristics of a Graphic Novel

According to Masterclass, graphic novels share all the key characteristics of traditional novels. These include:

  • A clear beginning, middle, and end
  • A central narrative (or A-story) supplemented by optional B-stories
  • Character development and personal journeys
  • Thematic messaging
  • Precise, carefully considered dialogue and narration

The apparent distinction between graphic novels and text-based novels is that graphic novels permit their images to do the vast majority of the storytelling, with dialogue bubbles and narration boxes to elaborate the story.

How Is It Different than a Comic Book?

Let’s start with a definition of a comic book:

A comic book is an excerpt from a larger serialized narrative told via illustration.

Most of these serialized narratives are released weekly or monthly as books or comic strips in magazines and newspapers. These comics contain excerpts from long-running stories that can last for years or even decades.

Clear as mud, right?

If you’re still unsure, take a look at these identifiers to help you discern the difference:

  • Graphic novels are longer than comic books.
  • Graphic novels cover a wide array of genres and subject matters. Comic books may as well, but the subjects are often associated with or explained through the lens of superheroes or heightened realities.
  • Graphic novels contain complete narratives, whether or not they are part of a larger series.
  • Comic books contain excerpts of serialized narratives. It can be difficult to read a comic book if you haven’t read the comic that comes directly before it.
  • Both comics and graphic novels can contain complex characters with detailed backstories and inner conflict.
  • Comic books are produced with greater frequency than graphic novels, often arriving weekly or monthly.

A Brief History of the Graphic Novel

As we know from my post on comics, comic strips have been around for thousands of years. However, they didn’t gain popularity until the 20th century.

According to Britannica, the “first” graphic novel didn’t hit the stands until 1978 in the US. Will Eisner’s A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories is considered by many to be the first graphic novel, mainly due to Eisner’s use of the term “graphic novel.” However, the phrase wasn’t a new one and had been used by others starting in December 1971.

It sparked a boom in the graphic novel movement in the mid to late 1980s. The uptick was centered around three works: Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (1986), Alan Moore’s Watchmen (1986–87), and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus (1980–86) by Art Spiegelman.

These three pieces brought formal control to the medium as well as artistic innovation and literary quality. The new graphics on the page made these books seem unique and distinct from mainstream comics.

The 21st Century

So far, the 21st century has been a golden period for comics and graphic novels. Public opinion for the genre is up, along with sales, thanks to big blockbuster hits and TV shows, like Wonder Woman and The Big Bang Theory, which have gone a long way towards putting superheroes front and center in the minds of the public.

Additionally, graphic novels have been gaining critical acclaim outside of the comic world due to the medium’s ability to use art to transcend the traditional novel structure’s limitations. There was also a significant influx of talent from outside comics, such as contemporary art and graphic design.

Graphic novels also received a boost from the creation of the direct-sales market and the acceptance of comics and graphic novels into bookshops.

However, the appearance of webcomics poses “a threat” to the graphic novel. Web publishing sparks more creative freedom, but it also contains shorter, serialized narratives, which go against the graphic novel’s basis.

How to Write a Graphic Novel

Whether you can draw or not, you can write a graphic novel. According to Masterclass, you need these four things to write a graphic novel:

  • People to help you out. Perhaps you can both write and draw. If not, you’ll need to find a partner. You’ll also need to hire a colorist and a letterer.
  • A good narrative with a compelling storyline. You’ll want to center it around a three-dimensional main character and set it in a detailed world. In this way, creating a graphic story is no different from novel writing.
  • A visual style guide to tell your artist how to draw the characters and settings.
  • A graphic storyboard (filmmakers use these) to plot each panel of sequential art in your graphic novel. A storyboard can be formally drawn on large panels or written informally in an artist’s sketchbook.

I’m glad to hear that you already have these or are working on getting them sorted out. In the meantime, let’s look at things in a bit more depth.

Infographic explaining how to write a graphic novel.

Start with an Idea and Some Research

Like any great work of art, you need to have an idea of the story that you’d like to put on paper. There are many ways to come up with one if you don’t have one already, but one of the best ways to find an idea is to do some research into your topic and genre.

Pro-tip: pick a visually-appealing setting because every graphic novel contains two forms of illustration: foregrounds and backgrounds. The background reveals your setting, so make sure they are interesting enough to sustain a book-length story.

But if you’re a novel-writer, your research process isn’t just going to be about the latest in science fiction, romance, or fantasy. It will be spent learning how to write a graphic novel and what’s happening in the market.

I know, I know. You’re going to have to do some reading that you might not want to do. But it’ll help you out in the end, so don’t skip over this step!

Write Your Script Outline

Through my research for today’s post, the big piece of advice that kept popping up is the need for an outline. My pantser soul recoiled from that suggestion with disgust, but it makes a lot of sense if you stop to think about it.

If you’re able to draw, this might not be such a big deal, but those of us who can’t we’ll need to work with others to make our vision a reality. It means that we will need to write things down, so the rest of the team knows what we want.

The Other Benefits

Aside from keeping everyone on the same page, this approach to writing a graphic novel also has some other benefits. One such advantage is that it keeps the “filler” words to a minimum.

In this case, the filler words are the meat of the story that goes into a novel. It’s all of the words that are describing the setting, character descriptions, etc. You don’t need as many of these things in a graphic novel because the reader sees the world as your character moves through it.

It also makes you more aware of how much space you’ll have in a panel, which affects your dialogue. You can’t throw a bunch of words on the page. You want to choose the right ones to move the story along and give context to what’s going on.

An example

Here’s an example of Marissa Meyer‘s process for writing a graphic novel outline:

I set about writing a page-by-page outline, detailing exactly what needed to happen on each and every page that would move the story forward.

It essentially looked like:

1: Establish scene – somewhere in Australia
2: Iko scaling cliff
3: Iko arrives outside abandoned mine
4-5: Preparing to enter mine, Iko explains how she is hunting wolf soldiers
6: Enters the mine; show how she is alone
7: Searching the mine, establish creepy setting
8: A wolf soldier sneaks up behind her
9: Fight!
10: Iko tries to get soldier to surrender
11: Iko shoots soldier and misses; he discovers that she’s an android
12: Soldier runs away; Iko chases him.

Etc. […]

I found myself having to pause before writing every. Single. Panel. Pause and ask myself:

What is happening in this panel?
Okay, what does that look like?
Picture it in my mind…
Okay, how do I convey that to the artist?
Type type type…
Okay, now what are the characters saying here?
Type type type…
Umm, okay, that’s pretty good. Do we need any sound effects? Yes? Well, what does that sound like?
Think think think…
Type type type…
I think I like that. Good job. *pats self on back*
Moves on to next panel.
So… what is happening in this panel?

So every step of the way would require me to stop and consider the story, panel-by-panel, action-by-action, line-by-line.

The Art

Again, if you can’t draw, you’ll work with others to help you bring your graphic novel to life. It is recommended that along with a script outline of your book, you should also create a style guide for your author to follow.

You can do this by giving your writer instructions on portraying certain character traits, facial expressions, and body language. Or you can leave it up to their discretion.

Besides your artist, you’ll also be working with a colorist, who takes the black and white sketches your artist comes up with and adds color to it. You’ll also work with a letterer, who adds the captions and dialogue to the panel.

graphic novel art

Edit, Edit, Edit

As with everything else in the creative writing world, you need to edit your work. With graphic novels, you don’t want until the end to hammer out all the kinks, though.

It would be best if you were editing before sending your panels to the colorist and letterer. As Steve Kissing puts it:

Perhaps needless to say, we made edits and changes along the way, though we always worked hard to get each stage right before moving on to the next, as it’s much more efficient to make changes to visuals before they are colored and the lettering is added.

Graphic novels are a booming business, and it would be a shame not to capitalize on the market and talent out there to create a one-of-a-kind narrative. They are also a good starting point if you ever want to jump into the film industry, as you utilize some of the tools that scriptwriters use.

Regardless of which path you choose to go down, the adventure will provide you with new opportunities and networking opportunities. It’s also an exciting way to tell a story, coming with its unique challenges and triumphs.

What’s your favorite graphic novel? Is anyone thinking about writing a graphic novel? If you’ve written one, how did it go? Any advice you’d like to give?

Stay safe, everyone.

Until next time.



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Danielle Adams

Danielle Adams

Danielle Adams is a writer and editor for a local marketing agency. She has formerly worked as a writer for the Investing News Network and as an editor for Whetstone, a bi-annually published literary magazine. Aside from writing, Danielle has an unabiding love for all marine life and the outdoors. She loves taking long hikes with her husband and cooking delicious meals in the kitchen.


8 Responses

  1. This is what I see from my vantage point, and I’m aware that others may have a different philosophy: If you’re writing an ongoing story on the internet, you’re actually writing two stories. I think of one as live TV and the other as the movie. No matter how well you prepare, you’ll have scenes, and even episodes, that you wish you had done differently, but they’re already published and consumed (live TV). However, your work as a whole (the movie) needs to be polished, and the artist in me is compelled to go back and correct, or cut out, the imperfections.

    1. That’s definitely true. You will have things you want to cut at all stages of the process, but at some point you do have to push something live. It doesn’t stop the need to cut out the imperfections, though.

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