Adapting to prose, adapting to comics

I’ve been a cartoonist since I was 18, but I’d always thought I wanted to write prose novels as well. Finally, back in 2003 or so, I decided to try it. It would be a YA book (“young adult,” i.e. tweens), a fairly light, funny adventure, a cross between the X-files and Veronica Mars, or something. I sat down to write a proposal and part of the manuscript—and this should have been a red flag—did something like four or five versions before my agent deemed it sellable. Then I sold it, and when I finally got the marked-up pages back from the editor the sea of red ink on that first draft of the “partial” (as they call it) could float a battleship.

It turned out that, while I’m pretty decent at writing comics, when it came to prose fiction I had no idea what I was doing. Not only that, I didn’t particularly like writing prose. Maybe that will change, but I’m not tempted to dive back in. So consider that a word or warning if you’re thinking of jumping the prose-comics fence in either direction.

On the other hand, I’ve had a number of students in comics classes who are prose writers first, and they all tend to hit certain sticking points.

So, a few observations about turning from comics to prose or vice versa.


There’s an old saying about description in prose writing: “Show, don’t tell.” Of course, when you’re writing words, this saying is metaphorical. It means something like this: Don’t say, “John was a kind man,” instead, write a scene in which John acts kindly, so that readers understand his character intuitively. This sense of the saying applies equally to comics. Don’t tell us “Nate Krusher is tortured by memories of his years in Iraq,” write a scene where we see this play out.

However, that’s where the similarity ends. Krusher’s history with the war will be most effective if it’s literally seen, perhaps without any narrative at all. No “I remember I was in Falluja when…,” or even, “the rubble was littered with unexploded ordinance.” Show us, literally. Draw pictures of it. Set the scene with, perhaps, a large establishing panel, and then some closeups of shells and so on in piles of broken concrete (I’d use The Hurt Locker for reference if I were drawing this…).

As a cartoonist writing prose, I needed to turn that way of working off, and I found it like writing with one brain hemisphere tied behind my back, if you know what I mean. To have to say, in words, that a character stared at another, if that’s important, felt so very clumsy.

Of course, prose writers do (and should) also simply describe things, places, and people: “A brilliant orange leaf fluttered out of the clear blue sky and landed silently on Rusty’s plaid cap.” This, in a comic, you simply draw.

But beyond that, prose writers generally need to learn to figure out what and how much they can put into the images. Ask yourself: is there a way to make this paragraph of description of a place or event fully visual, to tell it with no words whatsoever? If you find yourself writing a lot of long chunks of narrative, step back and reassess. Learn to let go of your most precious sentences; sometimes they just won’t make the page. And trust your readers to figure out what you want them to know from the images.

Which leads me to another thing.

Non-verbal communication:

As a cartoonist, I’m accustomed to thinking about all kinds of visual input, and especially, facial expressions and body language. But when writing prose, you can’t go around describing each character in detail corresponding to the information you’d be able to convey in an image. “Rodney glowered at Paul, lowering his head just slightly while raising his lip in a proto-sneer, perhaps unconscious. His hair still mussed, he half-turned his body away, protecting the book from view. The fingers of his left hand pressed on the desktop for emphasis. Paul, seated, pushed himself back from the desk slightly, his eyes half shut, and his chin jutted slightly forward. One hand clutched his vest collar, while the other rested lightly on his cheek in a pose of faux-distractedness…” YAWN! Bo-ring. And way overwritten. Readers (of prose) don’t want to hear all this, and if you’re doing your job, they don’t need to in order to understand the subtext of a scene.

However, in comics, you absolutely want to think about all those details of the pose, and what they’ll communicate subconsciously to the reader (of comics). Of course, if you’re writing for a collaborator, not drawing yourself, you’ll need to keep notes to a minimum, but you’ll do well to picture the pose in an much detail as possible so that you can figure out what’s essential to communicate to your artist. Physically acting it out is a great way to do this.

What does prose have that comics don’t in this realm? Interior voice, narration, authorial voice, monologue, any type of communication where the writer tells a reader what’s going on in non-literal space. As a prose writer, you might describe memories, associations, thought processes, split-second impressions, ruminations, or theoretical constructs. It’s not that these things are impossible in comics, but it’s so easy to overdo it with vast acreage of  text overwhelming drawing. The extent to which you can directly depict the contents of a character’s mind is very limited. So what does a prose writer wanting to make comics do with this information? You either put it into visual non-verbal information (“Annie felt uncomfortable,” for example, is easily depicted visually), you cut it down to snippets and use it as narrative, or you cut it entirely.

Some reading and activities you might try in DWWP that will help to get you prose-oriented would-be cartoonists thinking in images:


Chapters 1-4, which lay out the basics of comics language.

60 panels that just might work, which show how panel composition and mise-en-scene contribute to storytelling. (Pages 150-13)


Sum of its parts: learn about the power of images to inflect words’ meaning when juxtaposed. (Page 23)

Pictureless comic: learn the use and utility of comics non-pictorial elements (Page 95)

More, much more related to this topic to come in Mastering Comics (DWWP2).

N.b. I think the novel turned out all right, but some people clearly still think I don’t know what I’m doing: my editor for one. Don’t expect a novel by me on your bookshelves any time soon!


5 Comments to Adapting to prose, adapting to comics

  • by phil yeh

    On October 13, 2010 at 11:43 pm

    Dear Jessica:

    I really enjoyed reading this piece. It’s good to know that someone who actually understands the graphic novel process is offering their advice and insight to others.

    I have written a few children’s books myself but for the most part, I enjoy telling stories in a graphic novel form.


  • by Anne Panning

    On October 14, 2010 at 1:19 pm

    This is great! I’d like to have my students in Writer’s Craft read this before you come next spring.

  • by Jessica Abel

    On October 14, 2010 at 2:16 pm

    I’m looking forward to my visit. I do enjoy working with prose writers on comics, even if it’s a battle to get them to cut down on what they want to say in words.

  • by J T Guerrero

    On October 18, 2010 at 3:39 pm

    I apologize for stopping at Chapter 2 in your book – I need to pick up again!

    Anyway, for me the hardest part is the writing. When I was at UT (X years ago), I wrote in a dialogue form. In my comic, I struggle to minimize the amount of dialogue. I find that it really doesn’t take away from the characters. I have to remember that each 4 panel strip will reveal a little more about each character(development). What I am doing now is writing a draft script before I draw. For me, the mechanics of drawing are coming back from my youth. I set aside time to practice drawing too.

    Great encouragement!

  • by nancy ethiel

    On December 18, 2010 at 8:51 pm

    What a thoughtful, well-written, and useful article. And, as you know, this editor thinks your novel has a lot going for it.

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