Spending some time talking books with elementary school kids, and it won’t be long before the topic turns to graphic novels. It’s a favorite form among young readers, and for good reason. The interplay of text and illustrations appeals to readers of all levels and allows for some incredibly creative storytelling. Nonfiction writers can create in this world, too. Whether you’re hoping to craft an entire narrative told through comics or just include some graphic sequences as interludes, here are some things to think about when you’re researching and getting ready to write.
1. Think visually. Writing graphic nonfiction is a lot like writing the script for a documentary. For each panel of the art, you’ll want to think not only about what information you’re sharing with readers but what they’ll see on the page. When you’re researching a subject, look for scenes in the person’s life or moments in the story that are particularly visual. What mix of long shots, medium shots, and close-ups might best tell that part of the story?
2. Research with the art in mind. My History Smashers series, which is illustrated MG nonfiction, aimed at unraveling historical myths, incorporates graphic sequences as part of the storytelling. When I’m doing research for this series – whether I’m collecting details about suffragists, Pearl Harbor, or the Titanic – I’m always thinking about those sequences. Which scenes will be the most exciting and the most visually interesting for an illustrator to draw?
3. Keep the narration tight. Economy of words is essential when you’re writing in a graphic format. There’s only so much space for narrative at the top of a comic panel, so plan on a sentence or two at most for each illustration. One way to keep the word count down is to think about what information can be told through the illustrations instead of through text. You don’t need to write, “He stood at the podium and gave a speech that historians would always remember.” In the art, we’ll see him at the podium. You can just write, “The speech made history” and let the drama of the illustration tell the rest of the story.
4. Don’t forget about the speech bubbles. Those speech bubbles in graphic nonfiction provide an amazing and accessible way for kids to engage with primary sources, such as historical speeches. When you’re doing your research, keep an eye out for those opportunities. Here’s an example of one of Frederick Douglass’s speeches, portrayed in one of the graphic panels of History Smashers: Women’s Right to Vote.
5. Oral histories are especially great sources for graphic nonfiction. When I was working on History Smashers: Pearl Harbor, I spent hours poring over the National Park Service’s online collection of oral histories surrounding the attack. Often, these included not only historical details of an event but also snippets of recalled dialogue and even sound effects. Here’s one of the scenes that illustrator Dylan Meconis and I crafted, based on the memories of survivors from the USS Oklahoma.
In manuscript form, it looked like this:
Graphic sequence: (Illus note: AH Mortensen was a skinny guy - 144 lbs – I’m sharing a photo of him when he’s a little older, but it might help? In the illustrations he should be wearing pajama pants & no shirt)
Panel 1 narration: AH Mortensen was a sailor on the USS Oklahoma. He woke up to the air raid warning that morning.
Panel 1 des: Mortensen getting out of an upper bunk w/ words “This is not a drill!” in air.
Panel 2 top narration: Within minutes, the first torpedo hit.
Panel 2 des: Oklahoma being hit. BOOM!
Panel 2 bottom narration: It lifted the ship right out of the water.
Panel 3 narration: When the second and third tornadoes blasted into the ship, Mortensen hit the deck. There were even more to come. “It just seemed to be a swarm. It was just one after the other.”
Panel 3 des: Mortensen, other men on deck, heads covered w/ hands.
Panel 4 narration: Right away, the ship started to list. It was going to capsize!
Panel 4 des: Oklahoma tipping to port side.
Panel 5 narration: The compartment Mortensen was in began to fill with water.
Panel 5 des: Water streaming in through a porthole.
Panel 6 top narration: He and some fellow sailors treaded water as the ship rotated around them. They were trapped…upside down…
Panel 6 des: Mortensen treading water in tilted compartment.
Panel 6 bottom narration: …and running out of time.
Panel 7 narration: Their only hope was the porthole, now underwater. So Mortensen took a deep breath and dove….
Panel 7 des: Mortensen diving.
Panel 8 des: CU Mortensen’s hands wrenching open porthole - holding up the cover.
Panel 9 des: Mortensen motioning other man to go out.
Panel 10 narration: One by one, Mortensen and ship’s carpenter John Austin helped their fellow sailors escape, until they were the only two left.
Panel 10 des: Skinny Mortensen & bigger guy - about 215 pounds - with faces just above water
And here’s what the spread looked like with Dylan’s final art:
Want to experiment with writing your own nonfiction graphic sequence? Choose one of the Pearl Harbor oral histories from the National Park Service: https://www.nps.gov/valr/learn/historyculture/oral-history-interviews.htm. (Or a different oral history of your choice!) Take some notes, and then write up a script for how it might look as a script for a graphic sequence.
ABOUT THE AUTHORKate Messner is passionately curious and writes books for kids who wonder, too. Her award-winning titles include picture books like Over and Under the Snow and How to Write a Story; novels like All the Answers, Breakout, and Chirp; engaging nonfiction like The Next President and Tracking Pythons; the Fergus and Zeke easy reader series, the popular Ranger in Time chapter books, and the new History Smashers illustrated nonfiction series, aimed at unraveling historical myths and sharing hidden truths. Learn more at her website, www.katemessner.com.
Fascinating article, thank you for sharing.ReplyDelete
I have to admit, I don't know much about graphic work as I don't read them, but now I am motivated to pick one up & will look at them differently in how they are laid out.
Ramadan is coming up, it might be fun to try the graphic sequence activity on how to get ready.
This is fantastic! Thanks for sharing, Kate! I love seeing the plan behind the finished product. I didn't know the National Parks had oral history records either--I can't wait to dig in!ReplyDelete
Oh, Kate Messner, you are gifted. Kate Messner, you are a gift-to writers, illustrators, teachers, parents, and most of all children. You always seem to stay ahead of the writing game and keeping up with what the kids want while teaching them. Thank you for sharing.ReplyDelete
Thank you, Kate. I appreciate the explanation followed by showing us a sample of your work in this category - one I hope someday to try. The History Smashers series is a fantastic addition to the other wonderful books you write!ReplyDelete
Kate ~ Thanks so much for showing us how to set up a manuscript for a graphic book!ReplyDelete
Thanks for the valuable information!ReplyDelete
Thanks for the insight into writing a graphic nonfiction.ReplyDelete
There are graphic NF books about dinosaurs and STEMy topics, too. I've always wondered what a manuscript for those might look like. THANKS, Kate, for showing that!ReplyDelete
Thank you so much for sharing this manuscript excerpt - it's incredibly helpful!!ReplyDelete
Thank you for sharing your manuscript notes. Very useful! I'm off to read through oral histories.ReplyDelete
Wow. Wow. Wow! So much to think about (and do) in this post. Thanks, Kate Messner.ReplyDelete
Thanks so much for this! I actually recently came across an oral history transcript I found interesting, so I think I'll give this exercise a go!ReplyDelete
What a fun topic! I know nothing about Graphic Novels so really enjoyed this!ReplyDelete
Thanks for sharing a bit of your manuscript with us! Graphic novels seem intimidating, but my own two boys are loving that format, so I'm intrigued.ReplyDelete
I love everything you do so it's awesome to get direct instruction from you. I never planned to write a graphic novel although I can testify to it's popularity (retired teacher). That said, practicing script for a graphic would certainly tighten a narrative.ReplyDelete
From someone who knows nothing about graphic novels, this was extremely useful. Thank you, Kate!ReplyDelete
LIGHTBULB MOMENT, because of this post, I went looking for oral histories for a current project I'm working on. Just found a university's digital collections and am listening to an oral history from two women about their grandfather who made the land run of 1889. Such great research tools!ReplyDelete
Thank you, Kate, for helping us look closely at this mode of storytelling. It's hard even to imagine all the creative wheels that must turn at once to accomplish this. You offer great tips on what to look for.ReplyDelete
What a helpful post from a master! Thanks so much. I will add that it takes practice reading/critiquing GN scripts, as well as writing them. My CPs have been very patient so far with my efforts at writing GN.ReplyDelete
I have not tried to write like this but I will do your activities. Thanks.ReplyDelete
So interesting to see the manuscript! I assume “des” is description? This looks like a really fun form to write.ReplyDelete
This is so incredibly helpful! I’d love to explore GNs and science topics, but I had absolutely no idea where to begin. Thank you, thank you, thank you for showing us the manuscript and final product!ReplyDelete
I never cease to learn something new from you, Kate! Thanks for this great post and helpful ideas.ReplyDelete
This was really informative and so helpful! I love the tip "researching with the art in mind" and the idea of using "speech bubbles"! thank you for the tips!ReplyDelete
Kate, I have to admit, I'd never paid much attention to graphic nonfiction before, but now I'm intrigued! I'm going to check out HISTORY SMASHERS and other graphic nonfiction titles!ReplyDelete
Thank you so much for this great and informative post, Kate. I write biographies for MG/YA. I plan on playing with the graphic format for interludes to replace text boxes. Great work!ReplyDelete
This is wonderful information. I have been toying with the idea of a graphic novel, now I have some great insight about the realities. Thank you!ReplyDelete
When I first started seeing graphic novels in school elementary libraries, I wondered if they could really find a home there. Now I realize there is room enough for ALL types of books...as long as they tell a great story. Thanks for sharing your insight...ReplyDelete
Oh my! Thank you, Kate, for sharing the graphic form for creating kid relatable books. Seeing the text and illustrations really brings everything to the front of the imagination.ReplyDelete
Love this post, I've been into NF graphic novels for some time. Thanks, Kate!ReplyDelete
What an amazing post! Thank you!ReplyDelete
I've just started reading NF graphic novels, and have been curious about their formatting. Thanks for the fantastic detailed post!ReplyDelete
Kate Messner, I like how you showed us your text and descriptions of the vision you are seeking for that spread for formatting it into the manuscript.ReplyDelete
Thank you for sharing your graphic novel tutorial! You are amazing and I look forward to sharing more of your books with my grands. Thanks so much!
Kate, I love the idea of trying to create my own non-fiction graphic novel. I tend to think in pictures as I write so it is a fun assignment. Maybe even try to draw it?? Thanks!ReplyDelete
Oral histories sound like a great way to research and enrich all kinds of nonfiction for kids. Great idea!ReplyDelete
Very helpful tips, Kate--thank you! I'm in the process of thinking/writing STEM NF, so this is perfect timing!ReplyDelete
This was fascinating! I don’t know much about graphic novels so this was in enlightening. Thank you!ReplyDelete
Kate, thanks for the examples! Learning curve indeed. But I agree with you, it's totally intriguing. Maybe something that could work - or a hybrid as you mentioned - for a PB I'm working on. You're amazing.ReplyDelete
Thank you for the inspiration to try a graphic novel approach, Kate. I'm going to try researching oral histories and see if it sparks an idea!ReplyDelete
This is a very helpful post for the visual me. Thank you!ReplyDelete
Great post! Thank you for sharing a portion of your manuscript - so interesting to see how the scene plays out in text. I had not ever considered attempting a graphic novel, but your article provides great inspiration - I look forward to doing the activity and having some fun trying it out!ReplyDelete
I'm motivated to read some graphic novels,but had given no thought to non-fiction graphic novels. What a great way to motivate reluctant readers and those with special needs!ReplyDelete
This was an interesting post because I didn't know much about graphic nonfiction.ReplyDelete
So timely for me...I'm about to write 2 nonfiction graphic novels. Thanks!ReplyDelete
Thanks Kate! Love to see actual examples! So helpful.ReplyDelete
i love your History Smashers series. Breaking it down how you construct a graphic novel is so helpful. I loved how in the Suffragist you gave us so many examples of women who worked to get the vote. The black women's movement was long overdue.
i'm just starting a new NF project and will conside doing it in the graphic novel format. Can that work for a pB?
Thank you for sharing your process and how you go from manuscript to final sketches. Very insightful.ReplyDelete
I'm going to be honest and admit I'm not a fan of Graphic Novels. Never have been even when they were in their infancy - and called Comic books. My brain can't process all the info on the page. But - I do know that kids love them and some people relate to that format. So I read Kate's post thinking it wouldn't really apply to my work. But I have to now admit I'm intrigued and may give the graphic format a try. I'm especially excited to check out the oral history link. Thanks Kate!ReplyDelete
I'm a visual learner and so are many young readers, so thank goodness for graphic novels and storytelling. It's amazing how much emotion, action, and info can be conveyed on a graphic nonfiction page or spread. So many possibilities!ReplyDelete
Wow! How did I not look at graphic novels before? Thank you, Kate, for sharing your tips and a little bit of your creative process. Very inspiring.ReplyDelete
In my search on the NPS website, I came across an interesting article entitled, "Harriet Tubman and the 54th Massachusetts". I was excited to be able to walk on a partial path of the Underground Railroad while visiting my daughter when she lived in Boston, so this article caught my attention. Well, needless to say, after a few hours of reading, printing out photos of Harriet, the regime, and others, I have compiled a rough-draft dummy graphic sequence, I think, in book form, possibly a graphic nonfiction in the making...?! Wow! talk about inspiring! This post has power to motivate! Thanks!ReplyDelete
That was so cool! Thanks for sharing an example of how a graphic NF story can be written!ReplyDelete
It helps to know how to integrate oral histories into a narrative. Thanks for showing the formatting!ReplyDelete
I had one book show up to me in the form of a graphic novel. I drew the (highly amateur) illustrations and everything. I've never done anything with it, probably because it is so different from everything else I've done. After reading this post, maybe I should dust it off and take another look.ReplyDelete
This is just so fascinating, Kate. Thanks so much for sharing what the manuscript looks like and it's progression to the illustrated page. And all the work behind the scenes getting the primary quotes and storytelling in place is daunting, but necessary. Fabulous!ReplyDelete
Thanks for providing the reveal of script to spread.ReplyDelete
I attended so many of your webinars last year, and I still learned a LOT from this blog. You really are a wealth of information and share it so generously. Thank you, Kate!ReplyDelete
Kate, this is such an interesting comparison between graphic NF and documentaries. Wow! This is certainly a unique form of art!ReplyDelete