As someone who writes both comics and novels, this is a topic that comes up a lot. But, just because you can write one does not necessarily mean you will have the same luck with the other. They are very different types of prose, and thus have to be approached differently. Just because comics get grouped into “graphic novels” when they go into thicker print forms does not make them novels. I won’t spend too much time with this blog post and bore you will all the details, but I will talk a bit about the differences for how to tell the stories and outline a bit of how I work on each.
The simplest difference between the two mediums is how the story is told. In all writing, you don’t want to tell your readers about what’s going on, you want to show them. In novels, fierce description and character reactions are the simplest ways to do so. You have to use your words to show what is going on, simple as that. In comics, you are visually showing what is going on. You don’t stop to explain things, unless it’s throw dialogue, but excessive dialogue also bogs down the story. Wide frames are extremely useful for building setting and really showing the reader just where the story is taking place. But your characters can also carry the entire feel of the story just by their faces alone. Facial expressions and body language are extremely important. You can have some narration, but not to the extent of what you would get with standard prose. The way scenes are laid out and illustrated is crucial to tell the story properly.
Dialogue can move both along, but it is done quite differently. In prose, sometimes pages with nonstop dialogue and little action can get slow and tedious to read. Dialogue is often broken up with small paragraphs of action, even if it’s just simply brushing hair back or shrugging shoulders. This obviously is because in real life, people don’t just stand still when they are talking. They are always moving, even if it’s small, little motions that are often overlooked. But it makes the dialogue seem more human, and it’s easier to follow. Dialogue in comics however is often used in lo of that lack of description. Why is a character upset? It’s very common in third person omniscient writing to have this narrated out in the prose. In comics, you have to really explain it without making the dialogue seem boring. Dialogue is the only real writing you see in comics (including spoken, thought, or narration). Just like with prose, it gets boring to see just two characters talking though, so you have to make it creative. Different angles, different movements, even sometimes showing frames that don’t involve either of the characters in conversation directly. The subtlety of character expression and body language comes into play greatly in regards to dialogue. It’s not uncommon to find entire chapters with dialogue on every page in comics. But it’s the easiest way to get across characters’ ideals and motives. Sometimes, the dialogue has to be a bit more obvious to really make the story progress.
Sound effects. They show up in prose, and while they aren’t unimportant, they don’t carry the same weight they do with comics. That bang that can be represented in prose as “the statue crashed to the floor,” but in comics, you can’t do that. Sound effects become the only way to really get across how the world sounds. Someone getting hit…is it hard, is it soft, or is it brutal? The sound used with this has an impact. The entire point of sound effects in comics is to enhance the action. Fight scenes especially use an abundance of these, but even mundane scenes need some to keep it feeling like there is “life” to the narrative. There is sound around us all the time. It’s easy to forget about that when you are deep in paragraphs of prose, but much more likely to enhance rather than distract when all you are doing is looking at pictures with dialogue bubbles.
How I Go About My Work
The obvious first stage for both is to come up with an idea. That’s simple enough. It’s where we all start. From there, it’s time to move onto outlining.
Prose– I actually keep this super brief while working with prose.I usually write a handful of paragraphs or just short sentences of events that I want to happen. My more formal outline is actually build while I am writing my story. I keep a file I call “author stuff” as I write and outline specific events and elements that are important to the story.
Comics – This outline is much more intense. While I think of the novel as the whole piece, I think of comics more by story arc by story arc, and chapter by chapter. I usually have an overall idea of what I want to happen in each story arc, then it’s broken down from there. For example, Zos Kias has reached what I like to call the “vampire” story arc. Elements that had to happen in it were: vampires, witches, and Lillian (to keep it spoiler free since it’s still ongoing). I have rough sentence outline for what events need to happen and what order, but as I go through the chapters, I break it up as “this specifically has to happen in this chapter” and help pace the story better. Pacing can be a difficult thing to get right in comics, and I’m the first to admit it took me years to really get it right.
Prose– It’s not entirely uncommon for me to have characters not fully developed before I throw them into a story. It can be much easier to develop the character as you write than to start with them fully fleshed out. My reasoning for this is simply because my characters tend to do their own thing often, and it can greatly change character dynamic. I like it to be fluid so the story flows better. Most of my characters don’t have any visual cues I use for their description/appearance until after they’ve entered the story. Inktober has broken this on a few occasions. As I write, their full description and bios are added to my “Author stuff” file.
Comics– It’s much more important to have more of the character developed ahead of time with comics. With comics obviously relying on visual, their appearance and design are important. I do character sheets (often time just lazy sketching) and keep short bios on them. Costume changes require updated sheets. Many of my characters have some kind of magical ability, so it’s important that all that information is outlined in their sheet as well. (To note, most of my magical structure set up is done in the initially story outling)
Prose– Simply put, I just start writing. I have the idea and concepts I want to get down, so I just let myself go. There’s no real special process I use. I just type away. My outline may get tweaked as I go, so I have to update it as I write. I pretty much update my “author stuff” file after even page of writing is finished, or any major event happens.
Comics– My rough drafts are my storyboarding phase of comics. Unlike prose where I can just write randomly, I have to spend a lot of time studying the outline and deciding on the best pacing. Sketching out frame layout and other elements puts them all into perspective. I do my rough drafts on loose leaf paper as I’m not concerned with the quality, but rather than content. It’s my first draft of the chapter, so it’s important that every element I need is represented, even if crudely. Dialogue bubbles and sound effects are even drawn into it. Sometimes I look back and squint at my hand writing and wonder just what they were trying to say. My storyboards can get a bit messy, especially for stories like Zos Kias that I’ve spent over a decade with. My rough draft makes sense to no one else but me really. That blob with pigtails I see as Lillian, while others will see it as just a blob. In rare instances, some of the elements will change, usually just dialogue bubble placement, but sometimes even the location or angle of a character.
Prose– Hey, rough draft is already done! I just go back and re-read it, editing as I go. For the most part, it’s rare that I make a major change to the story. It’s usually just grammar cleanup, and removing sentences or even adding them where it becomes weirdly paced. Sometimes it will involve a huge overhaul. The Fall of the Dragon Trilogy: Beyond the Dancing Flames (book 1) had three rewrites for the final chapter. I wasn’t entirely sure how I wanted to go with it, even though I know how I wanted it to end. With prose, I usually do at least two series of my own edits before I hand it off to an outside beta and editor. Final formatting for print can take a while as well, but at that point, it’s mostly done.
Comics– Time to get to drawing! Where prose is basically done at this point beside fine tuning, my comics are just getting started. I redraw the rough draft pages with straighter and more solid lines. Once the pencil lines are done, I ink them in and erase them. No dialogue is added at this point, though sound effects are usually draw in with them (to keep the style of them, especially since I primarily use Japanese sound effects). I still do most of my line work with pen and paper initially. I scan it in when it’s done. I tend to typeset it right away (add the dialogue bubbles and actual text), but then hide those layers while I clean it up. I straighten any lines that are horrendously off, remove stray debris, and fix messed up lines. From there, most of my comics get screen tone added in, while Zos Kias gets the full color treatment. I work primarily in Photoshop. If a release is scheduled to happen soon, sometimes I send off the unfinished pages with just the typesetting to my editor to get them looked over while I work on the pages. Most of my chapters are around 25 pages, and each page takes about 5-10 hours to complete, sometimes even much longer. Once everything is done and edited, then it’s properly formatted for print.
I definitely say comics take a much longer time for me than novels, but I enjoy them both tremendously. I hope this post helps explain a bit how the work involved in each differs.