Let’s be out with it immediately: writing a comic book or graphic novel script is not the same as writing a novel. The process, the mental state you bring to creating the story, is different. Creating a comic or a graphic novel is a harmony of writing and art that demands a ton of work.
How do you write a comic?
In the beginning, it is a lot like writing a novel. You start with your idea. The message you want to share or the characters you feel compelled to realize.
How you plan your story is up to you, but my personal method is to do a brief (relatively brief anyway) overview of the entire story. Almost like a miniature short story version of your overall story. I’ll do a statement or two with some backstory. Then I bullet out or write in full sentences the major points of the story.
Once you have that outline established you can start writing the actual script for you comic.
I say script here and not manuscript because you’ll want to think of your story more along the lines of a play or movie script than a full novel. Just grab your favorite graphic novel and read a few pages. The vast majority of the words are dialog.
That’s not a rule set in stone by any means. Just look at this panel from Frank Miller’s famous graphic novel 300:
A full spread with no dialog and a lot of narration. But there’s a lesson here too. Consider Rachel Gluckstern’s comment on using captions in her article from Reedsy:
Essentially, the more you rely on captions, the more you’re telling, not showing.
Certainly, a masterful storyteller like Frank Miller can break the rules and make it work. And you can too. But it’s best to stick with the tried and true methods first.
Show, don’t tell. Speak, don’t explain.
Know Your Role
With the first solid draft done, you can start to think about how you’ll design the book. Are you a writer/artist or just a writer? If you don’t plan to illustrate the comic yourself, now is the time to find and start working with an artist.
Are your a writer…
…or an artist?
Without a doubt, finding the right artist to work with (if you’re going that route) is a major turning point for your story. Even if you thought up the idea and drafted the outline and script, your artist will play a huge role in creating this story. I would go so far as to say that the roles take at least a 60/40 split on responsibility for the book’s success. And for some books, it might even be a down the middle split.
Because the artist has the challenging job of not only interpreting and understanding your story but then finding a way to bring it to life on the page. Do not undervalue the importance of your artist.
Designing Your Comic
This phase of the game comes in four segments; storyboarding, drawing, ink & color, and lettering. All of these pieces fit together in a similar way to laying out a novel: if you don’t do them in the right order, you’ll be making more work for yourself.
I’ve personally only worked on one comic book project. And I have to say that the storyboarding part was far and away the most fun and exciting part.
There are lots of tools out there for online storyboarding. HubSpot compiled a respectable list so I won’t try to reinvent the wheel. I will say that their top pick, Storyboarder, is one I’ve used a little and enjoyed working with.
Or you can go old school and storyboard on paper.
However you do it, the goal is to lay down the panels you’ll include in the comic.
The actual art in the storyboards can be rough. It could even be stick-figures and direction. The goal is to begin to sequentially imagine and realize the story so that images can be paired to the script.
Imagine this exchange:
Character #1: “What are we going to do?”
Character #2: “We’re going to jump in my spaceship and fly out of here.”
Ch#1: “That seems like a terrible idea.”
Ch#2: “Maybe, but it’s what we’re doing. Come on.”
<Ch#2 walks off>
Ch#1: <after a pause> “Hey, wait up.”
Simple exchange (sort of) between two characters. And relatively easy to imagine as images. Now imagine it as comic panels:
Very rough, but you can kind of see how I imagine the action flowing. Would you do it the same?
I’m guessing not. This is why it is so key to develop with a storyboard.
After you establish the storyboard and have a visual guide to the layout and design of the comic, it’s time for your artist (or you if you’re taking on both roles) to go to work.
Today, many artists will use a computer-assisted design tool like Adobe Illustrator or similar tools to create comic book art. Alternatives like the open source Inkscape or Affinity Designer exist too. (To learn more about Affinity software, check out this article on Affinity Publisher).
Or maybe everything will be done by hand. That’s fine too. Just get the designs finished up and ready to be finalized.
Color & Ink
This part of the process is different than in years past. Historically, a hand-drawn comic or graphic novel would then require an ‘inker’ to highlight the drawings with detailed ink work (it’s not tracing). Likewise, the inked drawings would need to be colored and any final touches to add depth, shading, and definition would be made to get the panels looking pristine.
Today, software handles a lot of these complex tasks. The color & ink phase is more about tweaking the color palette to be sure everything is shaded and shadowed fully and ensuring that the images are vibrant and will render well when printed.
The last part of this phase involves controlling the negative space on each panel so the final step can be achieved.
Again, since we’re in the digital world here, it seems simple enough to select a font and add text into bubbles over the finished images. And of course, it is more complex than that. Selecting a font is a job itself. And making distinctions about how characters will ‘speak’ to each other is important.
Take Neil Gaiman’s Sandman for example:
These two characters each have distinct speech bubble styles and fonts. While your comic likely doesn’t need to be this unique, you do have to spend some time considering how you’ll handle the laying out of the dialog. Gaiman has masterfully used distinct speech styles, bubbles, and fonts to key us into each character.
You might not need to go that far, but considering how you’ll visually represent speech is important. Is the character a shouter? Or do they tend to whisper? You can’t use text references like he shouted or she whispered to let us know. The art and design will have to clue the reader in so they understand the context and tone of your characters.
The Finished Product
Panels drawn. Check. Colored and inked. Check. Speech bubbles added. Check. Cover designed. Check.
You’ve created a comic book!
Now you just need to publish it.
How do you Publish a Comic Book?
Traditional publishers like Marvel and DC both have smaller imprints that take on new authors. And of course, there are independent publishers who might take on your work.
Or you could go the self-publishing route and use print-on-demand to create your books.
For longer graphic novels, avoiding bigger publishing companies and using print-on-demand might be a perfect solution. The cost of a full-color book can be steep, so keeping books in stock really adds up. But print-on-demand means no inventory. And you can easily sell your books through your own online store with a number of ecommerce tools, then use a print-on-demand provider to fulfill orders.
Or you could even go digital and just sell your comic as an ebook. The Writer’s Relief published a great piece looking into some of those details. I encourage you to give it a read and think about how you can get the most from your comic book; maximizing book sales and exposure without paying for a ton of print books upfront.
I’m not a comic book author. But I am an avid reader of comic books. And I did have the good fortune to work on a comic book project some years ago. In doing so, I realized how completely unique the experience and process of writing a comic or graphic novel really is.
So, whether you are in the first stages or finalizing the design, be sure that you are approaching your comic book project as a comic author and not a novel author. They are similar, but distinct. And that distinction can be the difference that makes your book truly amazing.
Paul is the Senior Copywriter at Lulu, writing weekly blog posts and helping guide content for the company’s marketing. When he’s not deeply entrenched in the publishing and print-on-demand world, he likes to hike the scenic North Carolina landscape, read, sample the fanciest micro-brewed beer, and collect fountain pens. Paul is a dog person, but considers himself cat tolerant.