By Teresa Robeson
You may have heard that the graphic novel (GN) is a hot category that’s growing by leaps and bounds, and you want in on the action. Or, like me, you’ve always loved the format and now want to write it as well.
“But,” you might wonder, “I write nonfiction; can that work as a comic book?”
The answer is a resounding yes because all genres can be rendered in graphic format.
historical fiction in graphic format
Let me reassure you of a couple of things as you transform your nonfiction idea into comic form:
1) It’s not difficult to get started.
Research as thoroughly as you would for any other format. I recommend you meticulously record images since your editor could ask you to provide a photo file for the illustrator, as I had to when writing Who Is Tibet's Exiled Leader? Not to be confused with a graphic biography; my BGN has some made-up dialog.
After that, instead of writing your manuscript as prose or free verse poetry like you would for a picture book, middle grade, or young adult book, you need to conceptualize the story idea as a script.
So, yeah, graphic novels/nonfiction have to be written like a movie or television script. Because that’s an unfamiliar structure to many, people fret about the exact way to do it. I was the same hot mess when I had to write my first one. But relax, there’s no one right way and therefore no wrong way.
In fact, the conventions I used in my BGN changed from the first draft I sent my editor to the third and final draft! Here are examples of other styles people have used (all from the book Panel One: Comic Book Scripts by Top Writers, edited by Matt Gertler):
To help you conceptualize the story as a script, try the following reverse-construction exercise.
Give It a Try
The best way to learn how to do something is to deconstruct it to see how it was put together. Take a graphic novel—I recommend ones that aren’t as visually complex, e.g. Older Than Dirt by Don Brown or El Deafo by Cece Bell.
Pick one page. Pretend the scene and dialogue before you are in your head. Now write a script (following any of the examples above) the way you would want an illustrator to draw that scene you envision.
When you’re done, have a critique partner read your script and imagine what it looks like. Then show them the actual page from the book and see if that’s the way they thought it would be. If so, congrats! You’re doing a great job of stage-directing what’s in your mind.
If not, revise your script and corner another unsuspecting CP to do the same exercise. Rinse and repeat until you’ve nailed it. This will train you to not only think visually but also to be able to convey it well.
Panel One: Comic Book Scripts by Top Writers edited by Matt Gertler. About Comics, 2002.
The Art of Comic Book Writing by Mark Kneece. Watson-Guptill, 2015.
KidLit411 Graphic Novel info and links
Meet the Author
Teresa Robeson (teresarobeson.com) is the APALA Picture Book Award-winning author of Queen of Physics (also ILA Nonfiction PB Honor and NCTE Orbis Pictus Nonfiction Recommended Book). Other publications include Two Bicycles in Beijing and an essay in Nonfiction Writers Dig Deep, edited by Melissa Stewart. Some of her upcoming works are a nonfiction poem in No World Too Big: Young People Fighting Climate Change edited by Bradley, Dawson, and Metcalf (Charlesbridge), two biographical graphic novels with Penguin Workshop, and Clouds in Space: The Nebula Story, a NF picture book with MIT Kids/Candlewick.
This is great, Teresa. Graphic novels was one of last nights conversations in our crit group. Forward this to them and I bet we'll have more conversation! Thank you for such an informative post.ReplyDelete
That's great, Mona! I'm glad I could help spark further conversation about GNs. They are such fun to read and write.Delete
I love this so much! I just wrote my first NF book which was really fun and I, like so many others, have really wanted to try my hand at a GN. I never thought to put the two together but the GN format would actually be PERFECT for my Nf! Thank you so much!! :)ReplyDelete
Brenna, so glad you liked this post! I hope it'll help you with making your NF into a GN. Good luck!Delete
Thanks, Teresa. I haven't considered a GN format for nonfiction. You've got me thinking, and your tips and sample script are helpful! (And by the way, I'm a huge fan of your PBs.)ReplyDelete
Awww, Robin, thanks for your kind words about my PBs! I hope you'll give writing the graphic form a try. It might be the perfect vehicle for your NF idea!Delete
TERESA: I am MEGA visual (seeing my stories like movies/cartoons in my mind), so I'm EXCITED to try your suggestions. I ESPECIALLY APPRECIATE your ENCOURAGEMENT: "But relax, there’s no one right way and therefore no wrong way." I am writing that down and posting it where I will see it for CONTINUED support. THANK YOU!!! I LOVE the unique storytelling of your "Two Bicycles in Beijing."ReplyDelete
Natalie, thanks so much for your compliment! And I'm glad that I could help you to not be so nervous about trying out this format.Delete
By the way, there was to be a giveaway associated with this post; maybe it'll edited to add the prizes soon.ReplyDelete
I like to write some of my first drafts as dialog (with "stage direction" notes) - I'd never thought of continuing that to the Panel stage. Thanks for the post.ReplyDelete
You're already ahead of the game, then, Sue. :)Delete
Thank you for your post, Teresa. So interesting to think about writing a script. The examples helped to visualize what it might look like.ReplyDelete
I'm so glad this helped you in the visualization, Rose. :)Delete
Teresa, your post is timely for me. I'm taking a graphic course over at Storyteller Academy. Thank you for your insight, examples, and resources!ReplyDelete
Charlotte, that's great! SA offers such terrific classes.Delete
This is intriguing. I never would have considered it before, but after reading the script examples I can see doable it is. And btw, The Queen of Physics is absolutely marvelous and an excellent example of a STEM book that's completely accessible and fascinating to people who don't think they're very science-y.ReplyDelete
Thanks so much for your kind words about Queen of Physics! That means so much to me. And the graphic form is absolutely doable. I hope you'll give it a try!Delete
Thank you for your helpful post. I love your can-do spirit and humor!ReplyDelete
LOL! Thank you! Glad you enjoyed it.Delete
My ten year old granddaughter loves comic books! She would be so surprised and happy if grandma (me) wrote comic books. A new challenge. Something to think about! Thanks for the idea.ReplyDelete
Dianne, I hope you will get one (or more!) published so your granddaughter can brag to all her friends!Delete
Graphic novels blow my mind. They are so amazingly detailed. Can't imagine how long it takes to illustrate. Something to think about though.ReplyDelete
They really are quite involved. My illustrators for the 64-page GNs are given one year to do the illustrations, but it varies with the size of the project and the publisher's timeline.Delete
Great piece, Teresa! I love the advice about keeping a meticulous photo file. It's also an important point to not let the search for the "correct" format keep you from writing a script. Just get the thing written!ReplyDelete
Mike, yes! It's like the Nike slogan: Just do it! :DDelete
This is so helpful. So many people wonder how to do it. It's good to know there is no one way. You can always reformat for the publisher. They key is to make sure it's clear when they read it so they buy it. Great advice!ReplyDelete
Thanks, Debbie; glad you found it helpful!Delete
This is wonderful. I think you have given me the courage to try this format. Why not? What have I got to lose? Thanks!ReplyDelete
Absolutely, Marilyn! It's like what Kwame Alexander and others have said: always say yes to opportunities to try something new.Delete
Wonderful insights Teresa!ReplyDelete
Thanks, Cathy! Maybe you'll write on next?Delete
Thank you Teresa for sharing your thoughts and tips to write a nonfiction story in graphic form.ReplyDelete
Hope it inspired you to give it a try, Suzy. :)Delete
Great post, Teresa. I have been working on a NF GN (and the proposal to go with it) for most of a year. I am not finding it easy to get an agent interested, though, because mine is science rather than an historical narrative. Any thoughts?ReplyDelete
Linden, that's odd that agents haven't been as interested because science GNs are pretty popular. Older Than Dirt is a science book in graphic form. I hear First Second (Macmillan) is interested in science graphic form. If you get a chance to submit to them, give it a try! (and feel free to PM me with any questions)Delete
Wow! Thank you Teresa for making the GN format not feel so scary. Your resources and examples are wonderful!ReplyDelete
Oh, I'm so glad to hear that, Nicki!Delete
You've distilled this down so clearly, it makes me think maybe I actually could do a graphic novel one day! Thanks for the inspiration and helpful tips! :)ReplyDelete
Traci, you totally can write a GN! You are talented!Delete
Teresa, you have a way with putting people at ease and making great things feel surmountable! I'm not personally considering GN but I am a *huge* fan and a lot of my favorites are NF-ish- Persepolis, We Are On Our Own (for adults), When Stars Are Scattered... Thanks for sharing!ReplyDelete
Danya, I love that you adore the form even if you're not considering writing it yourself!Delete
Teresa, thank you for making a daunting format accessible. I appreciate you saying that there is "no wrong" way and the examples and resources you provided. Maybe one day, I'll take a tumble into this genre.ReplyDelete
Maria, I hope this was helpful! I encourage you to give it a try when the mood strikes you.Delete
Hi Teresa! Thanks for sharing examples of scripts. I fall into the "hot mess" group of feeling overwhelmed by the structure of GNs. Posts like this one really help.ReplyDelete
Manju, as someone who's been on the ledge a lot, I'm always happy help talk others off of it!Delete
Thanks, Teresa--something to think about!ReplyDelete
Hope you'll give it try, Peggy...just for fun if nothing else!Delete
You know . . . I actually have an idea this format might work well with. Thank you! THANK YOU!ReplyDelete
Oh, excellent, Kerry! Good luck!Delete
Never thought about doing this! Maybe I will give it a try! Thank you!ReplyDelete
I hope you will it a try, Denise! At the very least, you'll have some practice on how graphic format creators think. :)Delete
Loved this, Teresa! Thanks for the tips.ReplyDelete
Cheryl, you're so welcome! Hope it gave you some food for thought.Delete
Thanks for the tips!ReplyDelete
You're welcome, Angela! Hope some of it was helpful.Delete
Thanks so much! I appreciate the references.ReplyDelete
You're welcome, Diane1 I love getting references when I attend a talk or read a post, so I wanted to share some here, too.Delete
Thank you for this eye opening post.ReplyDelete
Bettie, you're welcome; hope you'll give the graphic format a try!Delete
Thank you, Teresa. I have yet to read a graphic novel and now inspired to do so. I will try out some of these techniques. And I think one of my WIP might be a good fit.ReplyDelete
Oh, yay, Krissy! I hope you'll have fun trying out your WIP in graphic form!Delete
This is great, Teresa. George Takei's They Called Us Enemy opened my eyes to the possibilities of graphic novels. Thanks for the post!ReplyDelete
Isn't that an amazing GN, Kamalani? I had the pleasure of listening to the team talk about their process during the APALA virtual awards (it won the same year my Queen of Physics did...sadly that was 2020 when the pandemic started so it was all virtual and I couldn't meet them in person).Delete
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So timely for me Teresa! Just starting to play with a GN. Thanks for the great tips!ReplyDelete
That's great to hear, Kirsten! Enjoy the learning process and good luck with using it on your ideas!Delete
I have never considered graphic novel format but this post has made me curious to try it out. Thanks for the insights.ReplyDelete
You're welcome, Cecilia! Hopefully, this post and Kirsten Larson's post will give you enough background to give it a go.Delete
Thanks for this helpful information and insight!ReplyDelete
Glad you found it helpful, Melissa! I hope you'll give the graphic format a try!Delete
WOW. What a lovely plethora of GN info.ReplyDelete
Aww, thanks! I'm so glad you liked the info; I hope it'll be helpful to you in your writing.Delete
SO excited to see what your graphic novels!ReplyDelete
Thanks, Lauri! I can't wait to see them myself...LOL!Delete
Thank you for this post.ReplyDelete
I hope you found it helpful, Sue. :)Delete
These are practical and informative exercises for try out a new structure format. Thank you.ReplyDelete