Writing a Graphic Novel by Mo O’Hara

Firstly, I should say that the ‘writing’ of the graphic novel is not the main part. The illustrating of a graphic novel is the bulk of the creation of the work. (And that’s not me.) The amazing Jess Bradley illustrates the Agent Moose books. 😊

The entire process of creating a graphic novel is the work of a whole team of creatives. The illustrator, the writer, the art director, and the editor all work together from the beginning to make a story that is told though both words and pictures. 

The aspect I can talk to you about though is the writing.  Think of writing the text for a graphic novel as writing a script. In fact, it’s called a script. 

I usually write manuscripts for fiction series. Agent Moose was the first script I wrote for a graphic novel, but it wasn’t my first script.  You see, before I was a children’s writer I wrote for radio and for stage, so I am used to writing scripts.  It felt really at home to me to go back to telling the story mostly through dialogue and action. 

Lots of the same rules of storytelling apply regardless of which medium you use. You still need three main things for a story… 

Who… Characters

What …Plot

When/Where… Setting 

It’s just that with a graphic novel you jointly tell the story through the words and the images.  You can’t write a book that’s too heavy on dialogue without enough action. And you can’t just have a beautiful book with characters that you just don’t care about.  It truly needs to be a sharing of the storytelling for it to work. 

Another tip I would have for graphic novels (besides saying please go out and read lots and lots of graphic novels before you write one) is that you might want to learn a bit about scriptwriting.  Many of the techniques you will find on a scriptwriting course you will be able to apply to graphic novels. 

For example… take ‘the establishing shot.’ This is the shot in the movie that sets the scene.  Boy playing with this dog on the front lawn.  Girl climbing a mountain, just about to reach the summit. Crowded NYC ice rink in winter with couple skating hand in hand.  You’ve seen hundreds of these shots. What they do is give you information about the setting and introduce the main characters. In Agent Moose the start of every chapter is an establishing shot.  It is important to set the scene and say where we are for the chapter. This first panel is given a larger size and although the other panels throughout the chapter vary according to many factors like pace and plot, the establishing shot is consistent. It grounds the reader and set things up.   

The first panel of chapter one of AGENT MOOSE. Illustration credit Jess Bradley. 

Looking at your story as a film (especially as an animated film) is extremely helpful.  Storyboard your story as you write. Think about where there would be a wide shot or a close-up. Think about how the images would tell the story.  

Read lots. Watch cartoons. Talk to illustrators and other writers. Learn as much as you can. Then have fun with it. Look at writing a graphic novel as a chance to actively collaborate with other fantastically talented people and seize that opportunity. I have learned so much from everyone on the team that created Agent Moose together. Writing a graphic novel is a challenge, but it’s a hugely rewarding experience. Why not give it a try? 

Agent Moose by Mo O’Hara and Jess Bradley is out now!

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