Three Basic Tips For Storytelling In Wordless Comics

Well, at the time of writing, I’m busy making a mini series of wordless comics that will appear here in March. Although they’re somewhat different to most of my comics, they’re certainly fun to make and, to my surprise, I’ve found that they are both easier and more difficult to make than I expected. Here’s a preview of one of the comics:

The full comic update will be posted here on the 21st March.

So, here are some basic tips for making this type of comic:

1) Show, Don’t Tell: If you’ve ever even vaguely wanted to be a writer, then you’ve probably heard the old adage of “show, don’t tell” at least a few times. In writing, this refers to getting story and character information across to the reader by describing things rather than just “telling” the reader everything. It’s an example of storytelling through implication, rather than through explicit explanation.

However, the usual rule with webcomics is that the dialogue matters more than the art. After all, webcomics are designed to be made quickly and posted online regularly. So, undetailed backgrounds and simple character designs are often a necessary part of actually making a webcomic. This is why, for example, a comic like XKCD can still have a huge audience despite the fact that the characters are basically stick figures.

But, of course, you can’t do this with wordless comics. So, you have to rely on telling a story by implication. You have to show the audience things that hint at a story. As such, background details matter a lot more.

For example, one of my wordless comics is set in Britain during the mid-2000s. This isn’t an essential part of the comic, but it emerged from the original idea I’d had for the comic.

But, since the comic can’t include any words, I can’t exactly say “on one day in 2004…“, so I had to get this information across to the reader through implication. I did this in several ways – indistinct newspaper covers in the background show pictures of Tony Blair and a speed camera, the people use slightly older and chunkier mobile phones, some of the clothing designs hint at fashions of the time etc…. These details are all fairly easy to miss, but they get story information across without using words.

Good detailed artwork is also important for the simple reason that if, like me, you’re slightly new to wordless comics then you might not get it right. Some of your wordless comics might be a random, confusing mess that makes sense to you but doesn’t make sense to anyone else. Still, if the art is detailed and interesting, then at least your audience’s time won’t have been completely wasted, and they will have a reason to look at your comics.

2) Do some research: You’ve probably seen more examples of wordless storytelling than you think you have. But, even so, it’s worth looking at or remembering as many examples of it as you can.

There are probably very few guides out there for making wordless comics and there are no guides for the one specific comic that you want to make, so what this means is that you’re going to have to work it out yourself.

In addition to good old trial and error, the other way to work out how to make these types of comics is simply to look at as many examples as you can and try to work out what they have in common, what “rules” they follow etc.. and then try to apply them to your own work.

3) Simplicity and complexity: Thinking of comic ideas that don’t require words is slightly different to thinking of ones that do. In short, the idea has to be simpler and more complex than an “ordinary” comic idea. You have to come up with a simple, short series of events that also makes some kind of grander point about something.

You have to come up with a story that can be read on several different levels, either as a basic sequence of events that can be “read” in less than a second or as something that will reward people who are willing to look at it closely.

This means that once you’ve thought of the grand point that you want to make, you have to find a way to distil it into a simple series of “silent” events. Then, you have to do lots of other stuff (that casual readers might not consciously notice) in order to add as much complexity as you can.

This can include things like consciously choosing the colour scheme that you use for your comic (to create a particular mood), carefully choosing the panel layout of each comic (eg: one of the themes in my mini series is “cycles”, so they include things like repeated panels, mirrored layouts etc…) or even, as I mentioned earlier, clever use of background details.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂