10 Writing Lessons Learned from Graphic Novels (So Far)
My expertise in books takes a screeching halt when it comes to graphic novels. The closest I’ve come to the comic world has been DC and Marvel movies and reading the occasional comic as a bedtime story to my son when he was young.
But recently, I’ve had a comic hankering. In my quest to read more books and begin serious edits on my superhero novel, Adam, I longed for something that would put me in a villain-bashing, darkly heroic mood. So…
A woman in her late forties with a comic IQ of ZERO walks into a comic book store…
Yes, it sounds like the start of a joke, but the only thing funny was my perceived awkwardness. Perhaps I’ve been jaded by The Big Bang Theory, where women entering Stuart’s comic book store create a mouth-gaping anomaly—it’s not like that. At least not for us non-Kaley-Cuoco-types. If my asking the two clerks for help finding “realistic, contemporary graphic novels with a mystery and perhaps speculative elements” was awkward, they never let on. They were quick to recommend titles—the guys at Fanboy Comics know their stuff—and frankly, if left to my own devices, I never would’ve found what I was looking for, and this would’ve been a sad-funny story about me getting lost in a comic book store.
I took home Kill or Be Killed by Brubaker, Phillips, and Breitweiser, Scene of the Crime by Brubaker, Lark, and Phillips, and That Texas Blood by Condon and J. Phillips. They cost $9.99, $17.99, and $5.00, respectively. That Texas Blood was a special deal, and, like Scene of the Crime, it was a complete story. I’ll have to buy Volume Two of Kill or Be Killed to find out what happens next in that tale. And I will because…
BAM! I’m a budding graphic novel fan!
I enjoyed cozying up on the couch with hot tea and high-powered reading glasses for a few hours in the comic world. And—BONUS—I got way more out of it than I expected. Though I don’t write graphic novels, I discovered skills I’ll apply to my writing.
Here are my 10 Writing Lessons Learned from Graphic Novels (so far):
#1 – Slow down & look at the pictures.
The first lesson learned in reading a graphic novel was to slow (the fuck) down and look at the pictures. I’m a word girl; this was hard for me. I read like The Flash runs because I’ve trained my brain to devour words. Maybe that’s my superpower (smirk).
My word speed applies to reading and writing. The first draft of a 100,000-word novel is a race to finish getting the story written. But the real work comes in the second (and third, and fourth, and so on) draft. Slowing down to picture the scenes, as you must do to enjoy a graphic novel, is imperative for novelists, too. In slowing down, you enjoy and create the nuances, pops of color, perspective shifts, and detail work a great story needs.
#2 – Show, don’t tell.
A frequent buzz phrase of the writing world, it’s not bad advice… just not always true. It should be Show, don’t tell, unless telling is better. Science fiction and fantasy writers create entire worlds that, if explained via action only, might confuse and frustrate readers. Not every event needs a scene. I’ve often summarized background info and small events in my mysteries to keep the word count low and interest high.
Where the show, don’t tell advice matters most is when we get carried away with our explanations and descriptions, paragraph after paragraph, page after page. Readers don’t like bloated, long-winded stints without action or dialogue. It hurts the eyes!
It’s best to show what you can and tell the rest. That’s what graphic novelists do. Yes, their pictures are worth a thousand words, but they also use words. Word bubbles and blocks tell us what the picture cannot say. Likewise, novelists should enhance scenes with small blocks of information that develop the story.
MEANWHILE… onto number three.
#3 – Use less words.
Scene of the Crime came out in the late 90s. My copy is a new edition featuring The Untold Story by Ed Brubaker—a behind-the-scenes look at the story’s creation by the writer. SHAZAM! A lucky bonus for me! In it, he describes with the sheepish chagrin of someone revisiting his work after two decades cringing over the extra-large text bubbles. His experience has taught him to break them up and use less words.
Graphic novelists must use fewer words, anyway. But saying more with less is a skill all writers should develop. Long gone are the days of Charles Dickens, who got paid per word for his serialized novels. Pff, lucky duck. Now, agents and publishers won’t consider anything that doesn’t adhere to their strict (low) word counts. And is it fair to say that we have shorter attention spans now, anyway?
Like Brubaker, I often cringe over old work when one-hundred words could’ve been trimmed to ten… or five… or, hell, one. Though novelists have the luxury of 100,000 words, using them is a privilege, not a right. Less is always, always more (unless emphasis is needed, smirk).
#4 – Use Power Words.
Comic book writers have mastered onomatopoeia—using words that sound like the noises they’re describing. POW! BANG! SPLAT! Words like this stand out. You can almost feel the fist hit the face or the gun reverberate in someone’s hand. With one word, we get it.
When writing, KRAACCK open your powerful words. Novelists should use less words and stronger ones like graphic novelists do. This advice extends beyond onomatopoeia to smart word choice in general. Readers love writing they can feel. Here are many excellent examples to action-pack your writing.
#5 – Build suspense.
Creating tension that keeps readers flipping pages is necessary for any genre. Is it harder or easier for graphic novels and comic writers? I don’t know. They have less time to romance a reader, more overhead (that is, people to pay), and probably a more substantial need (slightly) to engage readers enough to buy more of their work since it's often serialized.
Regardless, they use the same tricks to build suspense that we do (or should do). Impregnated chapter endings (or cliffhangers), the measured release of information, action-packed scenes driving the plot forward, and dropping clues that keep us guessing what might happen next.
No matter what we’re writing, we should instill a sense of urgency for our main character to reach his or her goal and steadily raise the stakes in accomplishing it.
#6 – Know your audience to discover your formula.
In my limited graphic novel experience, I believe the authors, perhaps more than most, really know their audience. They have an in-depth understanding of who’s buying their books and what will sell.
Going into it, I expected rough and tough male characters, fight scenes, car chases, guns, bars, and sex. (Because it’s a “graphic” novel, right?). Got it. In that way, all three books were similar. But formulaic writing gives readers what they want and has made many authors very wealthy. Reading three unique and enjoyable graphic novels with the same formula reminds me to develop my formula, too, as I’ve done in my mystery series. There are things readers expect, and it’s the writer’s job to deliver.
#7 – Paint a picture, drawing readers to what’s important.
Comic drawings tend to centralize the crucial elements of a scene and give them the most detail. Backgrounds aren’t as crisp. Nor do they contain extra clutter for no reason. A city scene will show buildings but nothing in the windows, for instance. Likewise, clothes are typically nondescript and solid-colored. It’s beautifully efficient and to the point.
Some novelists spend too much time describing superfluous details, like what everyone’s wearing. Like Rembrandt and graphic novelists, writers should only highlight what needs to be seen for the story. The story is what matters most.
#8 – Use color with purpose.
Graphic novel art features a distinctive color palette. Pages will use the same handful of colors and then switch suddenly to create a different mood. Black, blue, and gray for a cold and somber tone. Reds for blood and violence. There is more color variety in neutral, warm scenes than in intense ones.
Likewise, authors use colors to express a scene’s mood or significant symbols. M. Night Shyamalan features a color in every movie—a visual signal of importance to the viewer. In The Sixth Sense, that color was red. In Old, it was purple. It’s an artsy touch with meaning.
In Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death, a nobleman and his wealthy friends hide from a plague by partying in a strange seven-roomed abbey. Each room is a different color, ending in black, and is said to represent the stages of life. Of course, the Red Death shows up, and the party’s over when he reaches the seventh room. It’s a fun read and a fascinating study in color.
Using colors in novels can be just as effective as in a graphic novel. Creating images in your readers’ heads can’t be done without it.
#9 – Collaborate.
Many talented people create a single graphic novel. A writer. Penciller. Inkers. Colorists. Letterer. And editors. A great project simply cannot be done alone. And for any project in any industry, it’s the same. Projects are team-based.
Writers are often the curmudgeonly outsiders to this truth, loners working in (preferred) solitude. I once felt this way—it’s my story, my creation, my words. And this attitude made it difficult for me not to take helpful advice personally. How dare you criticize my baby!
But books aren’t babies. They’re projects.
Collaborating with others, even in the idea stages, creates better work. And every writer needs first-readers to offer insights, find mistakes, and make suggestions. Hell, can you name one superhero without a sidekick or partner-in-stopping-crime? If they needed assistance beyond what their money and powers provided, then so do we.
Once I got over myself, my work continuously improved with outside feedback and constructive criticism. Now, I love “fixing” as much as writing because honest criticisms make me stretch my creative muscles. Ah, that feels good! If more writers viewed their work as team-based, the happier they’d be with their well-polished masterpieces.
#10 – Happily ever after? Or not?
My graphic novel sampling featured intriguing stories but not happily-ever-afters. A neatly tied up, cheerful ending simply wouldn’t do for their storylines or readers (it's not their formula).
In my genre, HEA’s are a necessity. It’s a hallmark of most women’s fiction. And frankly, if I were reading a lighthearted romance or cozy mystery that didn’t end with the mystery solved and the couple together, I’d be pissed. That’s the formula I forked over money for.
But reading books without HEAs still felt satisfying because there was closure (except for the to-be-continued one). And that was enough.
Perhaps it’s our innate need to see everyone happy—our spouses, kids, relatives, neighbors, friends—that insists on HEAs in our books.
But these graphic novels reminded me that real life is messy, incomplete, imperfect, and often pretty shitty. Perhaps it wouldn’t be such a bad thing to write more realistically.
… and still keep my HEA’s because… duh, I must. I simply must.
I wonder if the guys at Fanboy Comics will be surprised to see me again… if they remember me. Hmm.
Please share your writing tips and graphic novel recommendations below. I’ll also accept opinions on HEAs and fun onomatopoeia. KABLAM!!!