“Ask an Editor” is a forum wherein SCBWI members submit questions that are answered as part of our quarterly Kite Tales blog.
Hi Andy – I enjoy graphic novels and want to write one but don’t know how to make the jump. (I write YA.) Any suggestions? I’m not an illustrator.
—Will, Los Angeles
You’ve already made an excellent first step in writing graphics novels, reading and enjoying them. (Me too!) Now on to the next step, writing a graphic novel script (also called a comic script).
So, what’s a graphic novel script look like? Unlike screenplays or novels, there’s no universally accepted standard. There are examples of different types of formats here. This site has both sample scripts and a traditional comic script template, and this site has a template for a newer type of comic script format inspired by the standard screenplay format. You’ll notice that, despite stylistic differences, all comic scripts list each page and then describe the action, captions, dialogue and sound effects found in each panel. Some scripts open with descriptions of major characters, or use art notes describing the style or layout, or link to visual references. Others don’t. So feel free to experiment and find what works for you. That said, remember your job is not to impress the artist with the breadth of your knowledge, but give them enough detail so that they know what the page should look like.
And something to keep in mind: You know how great prose can conjure vivid, powerful imagery using only words? Well, great graphic novels create a sense of movement using only static images. Yes, it seems obvious that pictures can’t move, but it’s often tempting to have a character pick something up and hand it to someone else, or get in a car and drive away, or take a big bite of a double fudgalicious brownie and then wash it down with a mighty quaff of milk, but none of these can be shown in a single image.
On the business side, because of the enormous success graphic novels have been enjoying, both comic and traditional book publishers are eager to get in the game. However, both come to graphic novels with differing business practices. Traditional publishers usually sign a contract with a writer, then start work on selecting an artist with limited or no input from the writer. Comic publishers, however, don’t do contracts until both the writer and artist are hired, which takes more time, but in return, they are often open to input from the writer when selecting an artist.
There are some books that talk about writing for graphic novels, but honestly, I’d focus on reading actual comic scripts by working professionals. Different writers use different strategies for communicating their vision, and reading a wide array will give you a better sense of all the tricks and tools at your disposal.
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Answers by Christine Van Zandt, literary editor and writer, and owner of Write for Success Editing Services.
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Andy Narwhal (né Nordvall) graduated from Wesleyan University, where he was also the lead singer and lyricist for the Viking metal band Nördvall. After college, Andy worked as a music journalist and movie critic for Flagpole magazine. Then he worked as an actor, voice actor, and travel writer in Chengdu, China, and Taiwan. Upon returning to America, Andy completed UCLA’s MFA Screenwriting program, where he won a Professional Program Screenwriting Award, UCLA Showcase, a Screenwriting Expo award. Andy writes the weekly webcomic My Roommate, The Internet, which Reddit has called “sorta funny, I guess,” and published the Kindle Young Adult best seller, Siren’s Song, about a pirate cabin boy who befriends a siren.
Images provided by Andy Narwhal.