Graphic Novel Best Practices: 4 Ways to Blend Text and Art to Create a Storyline

If you're writing a graphic novel or a comic, you need to consider how your images and text work together to spin the story. Here are a few ways to play with combining words and pictures in sequential art from author-illustrator Whitney Gardner.
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A vast range of experiences can be portrayed through the combination of words and pictures. Nothing takes better advantage of this than sequential art. Of course, words and pictures can act independently of each other to provoke emotional responses, but when creators utilize both, their powers for storytelling are almost unlimited.

The different ways you can combine words and pictures in sequential art feels infinite, but there are some recognizable patterns commonly used in comics that we can learn from and use in our own work. I’ll use some characters from FAKE BLOOD to help me illustrate these concepts.

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There are picture specific combinations where the text in the panels provides more ambiance than information. The pictures do all the heavy lifting.

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Here we see Hunter toss his stone into the river without the text telling us what he’s doing. If we were read the text alone, we’d have no idea what he is boasting about. The illustrations are doing the storytelling.

There are also word specific parings where the pictures don’t add to the message of the text.

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Here we see AJ running through Pier Park, but the text is doing the heavy lifting and revealing his inner monologue. The illustration shows us what AJ is doing but doesn’t literally translate the text.

Then there are additive pairings where the words and pictures work in tandem to intensify or exaggerate an idea.

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We can see how AJ feels about his vampire disguise from his posture and projected confidence. The text amplifies this idea for us.

And there are inter-dependent pairings. Parings where the words and pictures convey two different ideas at the same time.

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Here, in the text, Ivy agrees that AJ’s disguise is very good. But the illustration of her facial expression could lead us to believe she actually thinks otherwise.

These are just a few ways to play with combining words and pictures in sequential art. The best comics use a variety of these approaches throughout, and aim to strike a good balance between the two. Don't be afraid to experiment and find the balance that best suits your storytelling style.

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Whitney Gardner is an author, illustrator, and coffee addict whose books include the Middle Grade graphic novel, FAKE BLOOD (September 4, 2018; Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers); and the Young Adult illustrated novels, CHAOTIC GOOD (March 13, 2018; Knopf Books for Young Readers) and YOU’RE WELCOME, UNIVERSE (March 7, 2017; Knopf Books for Young Readers). Originally from New York, she studied design and worked as an art teacher and school librarian before moving to Victoria, British Columbia, where she lives by the Salish Sea with her husband and two pugs. In the rare moment Whitney isn’t writing or drawing, she’s likely to be reading comics, knitting, or roasting coffee. You can visit her online at heywhitney.com.

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