Writing

How to Create a Graphic Novel: Examples, Tips, and Complete Guide

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Nov 14, 2019 • 7 min read

Humankind has long told stories via image, beginning, perhaps, with the cave paintings of ancient civilizations. It was the twentieth century, though, that saw the rise in the medium of comic books, which experienced a golden age during the Great Depression and World War II with the ascendance of Marvel and DC Comics. The Cold War era saw comic books and novels emerge into what is now known as a graphic novel.

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What Is a Graphic Novel?

A graphic novel, as its name suggests, is a novel that tells a complete story via illustrations. A graphic novel will offer the type of resolution that one expects from a novel, even if it is part of a series. Effectively, this makes a graphic novel longer and more substantive than a comic book, which is a serialized excerpt from a larger narrative.

The term “graphic novel” traces back to an essay written by Richard Kyle in the comic book fanzine Capa-Alpha (although to this day there is no one fixed definition of “graphic novel”). The term is thought to have become mainstream with the publication of Will Eisner's A Contract with God in 1978. Comic historians acknowledge that works we might today consider graphic novels existed long before such terminology existed. Works like 1919’s Passionate Journey by the Belgian Frans Masereel utilized woodcut tradition to tell full stories via imagery. Lynd Ward was similarly influential, printing wordless novels using woodcuts in the 1930s.

What Are the Characteristics of a Graphic Novel?

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 obvious 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 help elaborate the story.

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13 Classic Graphic Novels

Graphic novels began to gain traction in literary circles in the late twentieth century, and they continue to flourish well into the twenty-first century. Here are some landmark books of the genre:

  1. Maus by Art Spiegelman (which won the Pulitzer Prize)
  2. Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
  3. Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
  4. Ghost World by Daniel Clowes
  5. Ice Haven by Daniel Clowes
  6. Daddy's Girl by Debbie Drechsler
  7. The Diary of a Teenage Girl by Phoebe Gloeckner
  8. 100 Bullets by Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso
  9. Locke & Key by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez
  10. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller
  11. Violent Cases by Neil Gaiman
  12. The Sculptor by Scott McCloud
  13. Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware

5 Types of Graphic Novels

Collectors of graphic novels tend to group them into one of five categories:

  1. Superhero stories: Graphic novels focused on protagonists with superhuman, paranormal, or magical or technological powers (like Spider-Man, or Batman)
  2. Non-superhero stories: Graphic novels grounded in the realities of the real world
  3. Personal narratives: Graphic novels that tell a story from their author’s life, ranging from focused memoir to full autobiography
  4. Manga: Graphic novels conforming to the aesthetics of Japanese comic culture
  5. Non-fiction: Graphic novels that recount real events in history and are rooted in provable fact

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What Is the Difference Between a Graphic Novel and Comic Book?

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While an untrained reader may not be able to discern a graphic novel from a comic book, fans of both genres have strong opinions about what distinguishes one from the other. Each is an art form in its own right. As a general rule:

  • Graphic novels are longer than comic books. They correlate more closely with full-length novels while comic books correlate more closely with short stories.
  • Graphic novels contain complete narratives. Whether or not they are part of a larger series, an individual graphic novel stands alone as a story. Individual comic books are pieces of a larger whole.
  • 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 in series. For this reason, comics will sometimes be reissued as a trade paperback, where many issues are bound together in a single book. In this sense, short-form comics suddenly become long-form.
  • Both comics and graphic novels can contain complex characters. These characters have detailed backstories and inner conflict.
  • Comic books are produced with greater frequency than graphic novels. They often arrive on a weekly or monthly schedule. Learn how to create a comic book with Neil Gaiman here.

Comic-style illustration is also popular in other countries. For example, anime and manga, both of which originated in Japan, are popular worldwide. Anime is most analogous to American comic books while manga aligns more closely with graphic novels. Italy is another country that produces comic books, called fumetti, which are translated and exported worldwide.

What Do You Need Before Making a Graphic Novel?

Authors wishing to delve into the world of graphic novels need many of the same things that a traditional writer needs. Some are practical and some are stylistic. They include:

  • Both a writer and an illustrator. Perhaps you can both write and draw. If not, you’ll need to find a partner.
  • 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.
  • Strong creative writing skills. You’ll need to show equal facility with dialogue and narration.
  • A visual style guide. This informs how characters and settings will be drawn.
  • A graphic storyboard. Much like a storyboard in filmmaking, this will help you 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.

5 Tips on How to Write a Graphic Novel

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When you set off to make a graphic novel, you draw on your creative writing skills, your illustration and storyboarding skills, and (most likely) your collaborative skills. If you have a background in writing comics, that can certainly help, but typically the graphic novel format is longer and more detailed than the comic book format. Whether you’re writing your first graphic novel or your tenth, here are some writing tips to make the process as productive as possible:

  1. Study other comics and graphic novels. It’s hard to delve into a graphic format for the first time without understanding comics as a medium. There’s a reason that certain stories jump off the page in a graphic format.
  2. Pick a visually interesting setting for your graphic novel. Every graphic novel page contains two forms of illustration: foregrounds and backgrounds. The backgrounds reveal your setting; make sure these are interesting enough to sustain a book-length story. Many a graphic novelist has chosen New York City as a setting, perhaps due to its stark and arresting skyline. Meanwhile, science fiction writers find outer space a rich setting for graphic novels.
  3. Give your graphic novel just as much textured detail as you’d give a traditional novel. If you’re writing your first graphic novel after completing prior prose novels, approach the writing process the same way. You’ll need a compelling protagonist with a well-considered backstory, a cadre of supporting characters, an antagonistic villain (or supervillain) who’s at the source of the main conflict. But note that graphic novels don’t limit writers to two-dimensional stock villains. The “villain” of a graphic novel could be something as abstract as systemic injustice.
  4. As you outline, storyboard, and write, start thinking about sequels. Graphic novels rarely exist a la carte; most are part of limited series. Some can span longer than that, but they rarely continue on forever like the comic strips of famous cartoonists. As you plan your graphic novel, consider ways to make it a much larger graphic story told in installments.
  5. Write for a graphic novel audience. During the writing process, it’s important to keep in mind that the people who voraciously consume graphic novels are not necessarily the same people who read traditional prose novels. They might not even read short-form comic books. If you don’t know graphic novel readers, seek them out. Many major cities host conventions geared toward various fan communities; graphic novel fans are well represented at these. Of course the easiest way to understand a fan’s mentality is to become a fan yourself. Then write the kind of stories that you, as a fan, would like to read.

Want to Learn More About Writing?

Whether you’re creating a story as an artistic exercise or trying to get the attention of publishing houses, making comics is an iterative and collaborative process. Award-winning author of The Sandman series Neil Gaiman has spent decades honing his comic book-writing craft. In Neil Gaiman’s MasterClass on the art of storytelling, he shares all he’s learned on how to make a comic book, including finding inspiration, drawing panels, and collaborating with other creatives.

Want to become a better writer? The MasterClass All-Access Pass provides exclusive video lessons on plot, character development, creating suspense, and more, all taught by literary masters, including Neil Gaiman, Dan Brown, Margaret Atwood, David Baldacci, and more.

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