When and How to Go Graphic
Comics and graphic novels are more popular than ever. At every comic convention that I exhibit Flutter, my graphic series, I meet more and more people who are exploring the world of comics for the first time. At those conventions the response to Flutter has been wonderful by comic fans new and old. Currently, I’m doing a Kickstarter for the upcoming release of Flutter Volume. 2, and the response to that has also been amazing.
I’m often asked what led me to write Flutter as a graphic novel. Like many people, I grew up reading comics. Getting lost in a world of superheroes, especially outsiders and misfits such as X-Men, became a way to escape the reality of my conservative small town and broken home. I felt powerful instead of powerless while reading them.
Also, like a lot of readers, I stopped reading comics when I got to college. I found my way back later on in the form of graphic novels such as Brian K. Vaughan’s Y: The Last Man, Craig Thompson’s Blankets, and the Scott Pilgrim series by Bryan Lee O’Malley. Around that same time, I began working on a short story. The premise of the story was simple: A girl shape-shifts into a boy to get her dream girl, because her dream girl likes boys. Chaos ensues.
However, the short story format wasn’t working for me. The prose felt flat, static. I felt like Goldilocks. The porridge was cold. Having studied screenwriting in college, I attempted it next as a screenplay, but my mind kept seeing bad shape-shifting special effects. I glanced over at the growing stack of graphic novels on my desk and a light bulb went off.
The first thing I had to do was find out how to write a comic script so I could share the idea with an artist. The format for comics has evolved since the days when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby would meet and discuss their work. Kirby would leave that meeting and draw the story out. Lee would add the dialogue.
Perhaps because a lot of writers and artists now work long distance, and use tools like Scrivener, a standard comic script format has evolved and it resembles a screenplay. Here’s a brief example of that current standard from the Flutter script:
PAGE TEN (6 Panels)
Panel 4 – Lily on the ground, looking up at Saffron with stars and hearts in her eyes.
Yeah, that’s the problem.
Panel 5 – Lily is now sitting up, totally fine from the crash. Her bike, next to her, is messed up.
You shouldn’t be riding your bike so fast.
Panel 6 – Close up on Saffron from Lily’s point of view. We see Saffron as Lily sees her – a vision of beauty. Lily has fallen, instantly smitten with Saffron.
Are you trying to kill yourself?
As you can see from this brief excerpt, panel descriptions resemble a screenplay’s camera shot / scene descriptions. Dialogue is written in much the same way, including reactions or intentions in parenthesis. OP means off panel in a comic script, similar to OC meaning off camera in a screenplay.
However, there are nuances to writing comic and graphic novel scripts that you don’t find in other genres. In comics, every page has a beginning, middle, and an end. The end of every page should have a reveal or cliffhanger. Those reveals are usually minor until we get to the end of a chapter. That’s when the big reveals, cliffhangers, and teases come, such as an explosion or the return of a lost love.
Panel variation is something else that a comic / graphic novel writer must keep in mind. An artist will vary the layout of the pages, too, but the writer can help by making sure that every page doesn’t have the same number of panels. Varying the panels also varies the pace.
Going graphic is just that – unleashing your story in a visual medium. The focus is on the pictures. The words should dance with those images. A great example of a graphic novel series where the words and images form a perfect marriage is M3 by writer Erica Schultz and artist Vicente Alcazar. Two minds, two artists working as one.
The great thing about the comic / graphic novel format is that it works for superhero, sci-fi, and fantasy epics as well as deeply personal, intimate stories such as Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home. If you have a story that’s burning pictures in your head and you feel boxed in when you write it as prose, try unleashing it as a graphic novel or comic series. See what happens.
For more you can check out my comic and graphic novel writing course, which I’m currently offering as one of the rewards for the Flutter Kickstarter, running until May 12. I’m also teaching Going Graphic: Comics and Graphic Novels at GrubStreet on Thursday, June 18th, 6:00-9:00pm.
Jennie Wood is the creator of Flutter, a graphic novel series published by 215 Ink. The Advocate calls Flutter one of the best LGBT graphic novels of 2013. Bleeding Cool’s Shawn Perry lists it as one of the 15 best indie comics of 2014. Jennie is also the author of the YA novel, A Boy Like Me, a 2014 INDIEFAB Book of the Year finalist and one of Foreword Reviews' 10 best indie YA novels of 2014. She is an ongoing contributor to the award-winning, New York Times best-selling FUBAR comic anthologies. She writes non-fiction features for infoplease.com and teaches at Grub Street, Boston's independent writing center. For more: jenniewood.com