Adapting Prose to Comics
Beloved patrons! For a while now, I’ve wanted to write a series of posts about comics-making subjects near and dear to my heart. I have a few minutes between books, and for some reason it is impossible for me to lie down and take a heckin’ break, so here we are.

Today’s post is a quick primer on something I’ve been doing for the last few years: adapting prose to comics! 

(Disclaimer: there are a million ways to do anything, and this is just based on my own experience!) 

As with any cross-media adaptation, it’s important to keep in mind that this is not a one-to-one process. Some story moments just don’t translate well, and others won’t fit the pacing of the new format; or maybe you’ll want to add things for clarity! Adapting work from one medium to another requires a variety of skills: you have to be able to critically read your source text, while also effectively translating it for its new audience.

When choosing a book to adapt, consider:

  • Why this book? What excites you about this story?
    • Making comics takes a lot of time! If you know what’s driving you, you can remind yourself of this in Times of Need.
  • Why would this make a good comic?
    • Maybe you want to make your story more accessible, or share it with a different audience! Maybe you just really want to draw it! Take some time to think about the ways in which it could be a cool comic, so you can focus your energy on making that happen.
  • What might I have to change in order to make it work? What could pose problems down the road?
    • Complex locations? Too much dialogue? Extensive narration? We’ll talk about this a little more later, but if you know there are going to be challenges right off the bat, it’ll be good to keep them in mind as you read the book.

Now that you have your book, let’s get started!

First: read the book.

Then read it again! This time, make notes. (I scribble in the margins because I’m a monster.) Highlight parts that you know you’ll want to show in your comic, or write down questions for later if anything seems unclear. (If you’re just doing an excerpt, focus on that, but it’ll be helpful for you to have the context of the full book in mind while you adapt.)

You might also want to make a list of important characters and locations, as well as their descriptions, and which pages you can find all of these details on for future reference.

Once you’ve got that out of the way, it’s time to start writing! What I like to do first is put together a short summary of the book. What happens in each chapter? 

While you’re doing this, remember to ask yourself:

  • What’s the core message? What’s this story really about?
    • What is absolutely necessary to keep? What can, or should, be cut for clarity or brevity?  
    • This can vary depending on the length of your project, as well as your target audience! Are you making a full-length graphic novel, splitting it into issues, or doing a minicomic excerpt? Is it for kids, grownups, grownup kids…?
    • But seriously, scenes that take a page in prose could span multiple comic pages. Best to pick and choose your battles.

Now it’s time to break your outline down into tighter chapter outlines. What you’re doing here is digging back into the book for key moments that’ll support the overall story. It's okay to rearrange some stuff if that makes it read more clearly!

I use Scrivener! Here you can see my bullet-point summary, on the left, next to my meatier outline.

When you’ve finished your outline, consider running it by a friend. (You can do this for every step! Feedback is great, and tends to save you a bunch of time down the line.)

Then, once you feel good about your chapter outlines, you can start breaking them down into pages. The format here really depends on how you like to make comics - some people like to make very detailed scripts, while others prefer to work more loosely.  What I like to do is split my paragraphs apart, depending on how many comic pages I think a scene will need, and then elaborate from there.

Remember: sometimes, dialogue simply must be adjusted to fit on a comic page. Focus on keeping the voice and message, rather than preserving large blocks of text.

Questions you can ask yourself:

  • What visual style fits with this story? What mode of storytelling works with this prose?
    • You can also choose to adapt your text in an unexpected way, but as with all decisions, it’s best to be conscious of your choices. Are you doing it for humor? To provide commentary on the original text? To make the work more accessible to a different audience? Know your goals and let all of your decisions support them.
  • What are the key moments in each chapter? Where can you put page turns for the most impact?
    • Sometimes, pacing in prose doesn’t translate well to comics (like during long conversations) - find ways to add visual interest or direct the reader’s attention.  
    • One thing that happens a lot: "She flipped her hair and put on her  gloves." Do you want to show both of these, or just one? Which is more important?
    • Knowing which moments are most vital to the story helps you pace out your chapters - you might want to spend more pages on a dramatic conversation, and cut down a side gag to a few panels. Or vice versa?!
  • Is this scene entertaining? Is it clear?
    • It’s easy to start feeling bogged down by all the details you want to include - but the reader always has to come first!

And then, once that’s done, it’s time to start drawing the comic! I’ll discuss comics-craft in other posts, but hopefully this was a helpful jumping-off point.

Here's an example of how I go about it!

I cut a lot - and changed a few things from my own script when I drew it, too!! 

  • Having Buddy and his mom talk in the beginning would have taken an extra page, and his mom made him cry in another scene, so I felt comfortable cutting this one. This way, I got to add a bit more context while saving time.
  • Putting Buddy face-down on the bed would have meant I needed to take time to show him rolling over, and also that would've been annoying to draw? 
  • RIP Buddy's Monologue

 That's all for now! Thanks for reading - and let me know if you have any questions! I love talking shop. c:

recommended reading:

  • Kristy's Great Idea - Raina Telgemeier 
  • A Wrinkle in Time - Hope Larson
  • Prince of Cats - Ronald Wimberly
  • Richard Stark's Parker - Darwyn Cooke

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