Well, although I’m busy making this year’s Halloween comic at the time of writing, I thought that I’d talk about some of the differences between making comics and writing fiction.
Although I come from a writing background (eg: I’ve studied creative writing etc..), most of the storytelling that I’ve done over the past few years has been in comic form. Even though I got back into writing short fiction last year and wrote an interactive novella the year before, I’ve probably had more webcomic-making experience than writing experience within the past couple of years. Still, I’d like to think that I know enough about both mediums to be able to compare them.
So, here are a few of the major differences:
1) Art vs written descriptions: Whilst this sounds like a really obvious difference, it’s worth looking at. This is mostly because art and written descriptions both have their fair share of strengths and weaknesses. Although they fulfil the same role (eg: letting the reader know what everything looks like), they can do this in radically different ways.
The main strength of art in comics is that it allows the audience to instantly see what is happening. In addition to this, it also allows you to give your comic a unique atmosphere by using an “unrealistic” art style. When people read books, they usually tend to imagine the settings and characters in a fairly “realistic” way – regardless of how unique the author’s narrative voice might be. But, with art, you have the freedom to make everything and everyone look a bit more stylised.
Likewise, being able to alternate between art and dialogue in a comic gives you a greater level of control over the pacing of your story. If you want a scene in your comic to be slightly slower-paced, then you can add lots of dialogue and/or intricate art. If you want a scene to be faster, you can cut back on the dialogue and background detail slightly, and focus the reader’s attention on the actions that are taking place.
The only downside to all of this stuff is that, unless you hire an artist, you’ll actually have to learn how to draw and/or paint. This is worth doing, but it can take quite a bit of practice to get even close to good at it. In addition to this, you need to be at least vaguely competent at visual storytelling (eg: hinting at a story through visual details) because art lacks one of the strengths that written descriptions have.
That strength is that written descriptions can contain a lot more depth than art does.
For example, if you see a painting of a city, then you can only see whatever is in the painting. If you read a good written description of a city, then you might learn some of the city’s history, you’ll be told what life in that city is like, you might meet a couple of people who live there and/or you’ll get to take a close look at a few parts of it. In other words, you’ll get a much deeper understanding of the city.
Another strength of written descriptions is that they allow a lot more room for audience interpretation. A painting looks like whatever the artist wants it to look like. A description “looks” like whatever the audience imagines it to look like. By giving the audience a bit more control, it means that they are more emotionally invested in the story that you are trying to tell. After all, even though they might be following your instructions, they’re still building it for themselves within their own imaginations.
2) Dialogue: Dialogue in comics and dialogue in prose fiction might seem similar on the surface, but they are two radically different things that require two radically different skills to write well.
Due to the limited space in each comic panel, comic dialogue often has to be a lot shorter and more “functional” than dialogue in fiction does. Whilst there are some notable exceptions to this rule (eg: a webcomic called “Subnormality” by Winston Rowntree), most lines of dialogue in comics are often only about 1-3 sentences long.
You need to be able to do things like showing a character’s personality through phrasing and word choice (eg: the difference between “That was good!” and “Absolutely splendid!”) within a relatively small space. Likewise, you can sometimes use the dialogue for storytelling too (but beware of wordy descriptions standing in for things that should be shown via the artwork).
Comic dialogue is short, minimalist and functional. It has to be almost haiku-like in order to work well. After all, it’s only there to tell part of the story since you can also use the art for storytelling too, In many ways, it’s probably closer to writing the dialogue in a movie or a TV show than writing dialogue in prose fiction.
Prose fiction, on the other hand, gives you a lot more freedom with the dialogue. As long as it’s relevant to the plot in some way, your characters can have much longer and more naturalistic conversations. It’s easier to show a character’s personality through the dialogue and there’s a lot more freedom to use the dialogue to convey background information and story information. It’s easier and more intuitive to write than comic dialogue is.
On the other hand, unlike comics, prose fiction is read one word at a time. A comic panel might allow the reader to, say, read a line of dialogue and look at the art at the same time. With fiction, the reader can only read dialogue or descriptions at any one time. So, you have to pay a bit more attention to getting the mixture of dialogue and descriptions right.
3) Time and complexity: Comics are designed to be read quickly. A single webcomic update can be read in seconds, whereas a short story might take a few minutes to read. Since comics have less of a time cost, they can often be more attractive to audiences.
For example, last Christmas, I read a really cool 50-100 page graphic novel called “Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? Dust To Dust” by Philip K. Dick, Chris Roberson & Robert Adler. It was the second half of a longer story and I blazed through the whole thing in the space of about twenty minutes.
That Christmas, I also read a 243-page novel called “Brighton Belle” by Sara Sheridan. It took me about 4-6 hours, spread across several days, to read it. Even accounting for length differences, the comic was a much quicker read.
The irony is, of course, is that the time differences are reversed when you are actually making comics or writing fiction. A single webcomic page that shows a small part of a slightly simpler story might take you 1-2 hours to make if you’re inspired. A 500 word segment of a written story (that tells a slightly more complicated story) might only take you 20-30 minutes to write if you’re feeling inspired.
Likewise, because of all of the things that I’ve mentioned earlier in this article, prose fiction is more well-suited to telling more complex stories. Comics, on the other hand, are at their best when they are telling slightly more focused and streamlined stories.
Both mediums require at least a slightly different approach to storytelling and, like with writing dialogue, these two types of storytelling require surprisingly different skills. A story that works well in a novel might not work well in a comic and vice versa. They really are astonishingly different mediums, despite some similarities.
Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂