Holy Genre, Batman! What Prose Writers Can Learn from Comics

Devil and angel eggsFor those who group literature into ‘serious genres’ and ‘non-serious genres,’ comics (or graphic novels, or manga, or visual novels, etc. etc.) tend to fall into the second category. However, even these literary mavens might find that they have a thing or two to learn from stories that are presented in a more visual format than the typical novel.

The most noticeable lesson we learn from graphic novels is one of dialogue. Writers of comics, like writers of prose, are tasked with developing characters, developing a plot, and building the realism of their story’s world. Unlike prose writers, their ‘finished product’ appears almost entirely as dialogue. The result is that comic books contain some of the strongest, hardest-working exchanges between characters in literature today.

In addition to being a gold mine of excellent dialogue technique, comics provide us with the most literal example of that famous maxim, “Show, don’t tell.” The style and composition of comic book art is typically the work of a visual artist. However, it is the writer’s responsibility to decide which images will illustrate which scene and to communicate these desires with the artist.

This process can be a great exercise for prose writers. You need only find a page from a comic you enjoy and copy down the lines on a page (this works best on a word processor). Annotate the dialogue with your best description of the accompanying image. This might feel awkward and stilted at first, but keep at it; soon enough, you’ll find that you have an easier time crafting elegant, efficient descriptions of narrative scenes.

From the whimsically-illustrated historical scenes of Hark! a Vagrant to the intellectual fantasy adventures of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, comics make a wonderful addition to a number of literary genres.¬†Whether or not you want to develop a comic of your own, practicing writing as a comic writer does can help you tighten your dialogue and use stronger imagery in your prose.