July 13, 2011

Assessing a Graphic Novel From an Editor’s Point of View

A previous post introduced the idea of developmental editing for graphic novels, many of which are self-published. This post discusses ways to approach a graphic story as a developmental editor.

In reviewing how well a graphic story works, remember that this format tells a story visually. The story is conveyed as a combination of art and words, complementary but not redundant, and while both are essential and must work together, the primary communication is visual. That means each panel should show something—preferably an action—whenever possible. Whether the dialogue is used for reinforcement, contrast, subtext, or conveying information that can’t be explained in an illustration, the overall effect should be synergistic.

Most graphic novels that require structural or developmental editing will be in script format, quite simply because it’s too expensive to redo the art to fix the story. It’s possible some rewriting will be needed after illustration, because frequently an artist will add or remove a panel, or will illustrate one in such a way that there’s not enough room to include dialogue balloons containing the amount of text in the draft. Sometimes the nuances added in the art will prompt revision of dialogue, too, for more effect. But chances are, a developmental editor will be editing a script and won’t see the art, since it won’t be developed until the script is finalized.

A graphic novel or comic script is similar to a screenplay, though a variety of styles abound. What all have in common is the two types of information that the writer contributes: panel descriptions, which tell the artist what to portray in each panel, and captions and dialogue, which specify the text that will be placed on the illustrated page.

The scripts tell the story page by page as it will be illustrated, with the number of panels to be included usually given at the top of each page. Scripts may also include information up front about the setting and characters—like objects, costumes, or a feel that the story should have, as well as character bios. Some writers include far more information for the artist than others. Some scripts are very descriptive, with little to no dialogue, and may even include sketches. But these are often working documents for stories developed through a close collaboration with an artist, and this extreme script format is unlikely to be reviewed by a developmental editor. For a useful reference showing a variety of formats for comic scripts, see Panel One: Comic Book Scripts by Top Writers, edited by Nat Gertler. It’s informative to compare the scripts to the finished version; one of the scripts in the book is accompanied by the final comic.

Art: The Need to Think Visually
Given that the most likely format to be edited is a script, it’s important to visualize the story as described in the panels. In reviewing panel descriptions, one of the elements to focus on is whether anything is missing that needs to be conveyed to the artist. Check panel descriptions to make sure they include any critical details on costume, character or object positioning, specific actions, emotions, and anything else the artist must show. Conversely, a panel description shouldn’t cram in too much visual information. Other content to review in panel descriptions is ensuring that the first character to speak in a panel is placed on the left, in keeping with the order in which the text will be read (left to right and top to bottom in English publications). Each panel is intended to convey a single action; a common mistake is to try to show more than one action in the same panel, such as a punch and the reaction of the person punched.

The text to appear in a graphic novel includes dialogue and accompanying captions, which may convey information such as location and time or sound effects.
  • Captions, sometimes even entire panels, may need to be added to make a setting clear. A common device in graphic novels is an establishing shot, which shows a setting, usually from a distance, to provide context for later action.
  • Dialogue needs to do a lot of work, advancing the plot, showing conflict, and revealing individual character as well as backstory and motivations essential to understanding the story—in as natural a way as possible.
The captions and dialogue not only need to work with the art, they need to be succinct and clear. The more text on the page, the more art will be covered up.

Story Structure and Pacing
Like any story, a graphic novel should be assessed for how effectively it tells a story and how well the story conveys a theme, setting, characterization, and series of events that convey conflict and move along at an appropriate pace.

Pacing is influenced by a number of factors, including:
  • Panel density (the number of panels per page).
  • The size and arrangement of the panels, what they portray, and the style in which they’re drawn. Key moments tend to deserve large panels.
  • Qualities of the dialogue, including the actual words, the length of the lines, and how they are broken up into individual balloons.
A rule of thumb for panel density is no more than 6 per page, fewer if some panels need to be large, and no more than 25 words per panel (panels with no dialogue may be quite effective).

Look for plenty of hooks, including a strong one at the beginning of the story, which should preferably start in the middle of an action. Another important consideration for pacing in graphic novels is the so-called page turn: the last panel of the page should create a sense of expectation in readers, to motivate them to turn the page.

Finally, graphic stories differ in length. Stories originally released as single-issue comics may end up as bound collections of multi-issue volumes containing, at the publisher’s whim, different numbers of issues. The story needs to work at all levels: individual issues, full volumes, and complete graphic novels.

Resources for More Information
This is only an overview of the main ways in which editing a graphic novel differs from a conventional manuscript. Familiarity with the expectations of a specific genre, such as young adult fantasy, classic superhero, or gritty realism, is also important when assessing a script targeted to that genre’s typical audience. The best way to gain the necessary familiarity is to read examples. Local comic book stores often have knowledgeable sales staff who can make appropriate recommendations. If you happen upon a comics convention, that’s another place to check out a cross-section of what’s available.

Few workshops or classes teach writing skills suited to graphic novels, but those who live in New York or Los Angeles might be lucky enough to find one. A solid online writing class is offered through Comics Experience, founded by Andy Schmidt, a former editor at IDW and Marvel.

For self-teaching, I’ve found books on the craft of developing comics and graphic novels useful. Most focus on the interaction between art and text, valuable for gaining more insight into conventions and why they work. Few references focus on approaches for effective writing. I particularly like Writing for Comics & Graphic Novels with Peter David (revised edition) and The DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics by Dennis O’Neil, which is especially good for defining story arcs suited to different book lengths, whether single-issue comics, miniseries, ongoing series, or graphic novels.

For a couple of online resources that provide more background on a writer’s perspective, check out Writing Comic Books and Visual Language: Writing for Comics.

—Marta Tanrikulu

1 comment:

  1. good. right now, i am editing a graphic novel. the problem is it has lot of narration, and many a time it appears necessary to go with the narration to explain the story. dialogue/captions and narration are fifty-fifty. do u think that playing with fonts, typesize in the narration would make it more synergic to a graphic novel. it is a prestigious work for my house, and though i know editing per se is a quite subjective, still i was looking for some sugggestions. and i do not have more than 3 days to complete the work!