Writing a graphic memoir can be a powerful and rewarding experience. Combining a written narrative with art is powerful enough on its own, but make it a true story written by the author, and you’ve got a potentially very impactful piece of work on your hands.
A graphic memoir can bring your story to life in a tangible, unforgettable way. But how do you get started? Let’s look at the process and a few tips for writing your graphic memoir.
This guide on how to write a graphic memoir covers:
What is a graphic memoir?
A graphic memoir is pretty much exactly what it sounds like—you’re writing a memoir, but with visuals to accompany the text. Instead of relying solely on written language to tell the story, graphic memoirs use illustrations, comics, and other forms of graphic storytelling.
The format of a graphic memoir can vary, but it generally includes a combination of written text and images that work together to create a cohesive narrative. It might take the form of a traditional comic, or simply incorporate some form of illustration, sketch, or visual art. The author might use different styles of art to convey different moods and emotions throughout the story.
Graphic memoirs can cover a wide range of topics—anything from personal relationships and family history to political and social issues. Graphic memoirs have recently grown in popularity as a way for authors and artists to share their stories in a unique and engaging way. Most people who create graphic memoirs act as both the writer and the illustrator/visual artist, though they are sometimes the product of collaboration.
How to write a graphic memoir
To create a graphic memoir, you need to combine a personal narrative with some element of visual storytelling. Here are the general steps you would take, assuming you’re doing the artwork yourself.
Any good creative project starts with a brainstorm sesh. Set aside some time to write down every idea you have about the project. Stories, tones, themes, quotes, picture ideas, concepts—everything. Think of moments in your life that were in some way transformative or memorable. If you realize some theme between two or more stories, write that down, too—it might end up the overarching theme of your memoir. This article can remind you how to mindmap well.
If you were able to grab onto a theme you’d like to use in the brainstorm(s), list every story or anecdote you’d like to include to adhere to that theme, and put them in a logical order. This will help you identify the overall structure and shape of your story. Add notes about where you’d like certain images. Don’t underestimate how important outlining a memoir is. It will be a lifesaver as you move through this process.
Now you need to actually write the thing. Script out the first draft of your memoir, including dialogue, narration, and descriptions of the visual elements you’d like to include.
4. Sketch your storyboard
After dividing the story into chapters or sections, you can begin sketching out rough thumbnails of each panel or page. Feel free to use stick figures and other stand-ins. It’s better to iron out exactly what you want and where, that way you’re not spending too much time on illustrations and panels that won’t even make it into your final product.
Try to be very detailed here—include the placement of characters, POV, objects in frame, the background, and the text to be included. Don’t worry too much about how it looks. Just get a rough draft of your visual layout before continuing to the next step.
5. Decide on the visual style
Once you’ve finalized your storyboard, it’s time to really nail down the visual style (if you haven’t yet). Will your images be cartoony? Realistic? Sketchy? Very colorful, or low saturation? Think of your story’s themes, setting, and characters to help you decide on a cohesive visual style that would best suit the story.
6. Finish artwork
When you’ve got your script, storyboard, and visual style nailed down, it’s time to do it properly. The method you use to put your actual graphic memoir together will depend on your preferences and medium of choice.
The popular options include:
- Adobe Photoshop
- Adobe Illustrator
- Clip Studio Paint
If you aren’t creating the art yourself, your designer will take your storyboard and turn it into the finished product.
7. Refine and edit
Send your graphic memoir around for opinions on both the story and the artwork. You’ll likely find several bits to trim from your final draft for a tighter narrative.
You might hire a professional editor at this point, or you can seek an agent/publisher for the next steps.
Once you’ve chosen between self-publishing or third-party publishing, it’s time to actually do the thing! If you’re publishing through a third party, they’ll take over from here and let you know what you need to do.
If you’re self-publishing, the decisions from here fall to you. How much you will sell it for, where you will sell it, in which formats, on what type of paper, etc., etc., etc. are up to you! Be sure to do your research, and perhaps speak with some printing professionals before making any decisions, because the paper, ink, and other such materials will make a big difference in the overall product for a book so image-heavy. Don’t go the cheapest route! It’s easy to make a graphic novel look so poor that you lose sales.
Examples of successful graphic memoirs
Here are a few strong examples of successful graphic memoirs that you might want to check out before planning your own.
This is a brutal memoir about the author’s account of his relationship with his father, threaded with the story of his father’s survival in the Holocaust, where Jews are drawn as mice and Nazis as cats.
This cover is a very strong marketing component. If you glance at this in a bookstore, it will absolutely grab your attention.
This graphic memoir is about Satrapi’s coming of age during the Islamic Revolution.
You’ve probably heard of the Bechdel Test, and yes, this is that Bechdel. Fun Home is a graphic memoir from the perspective of Alison Bechdel, as she grows up as a closeted queer child in a family-owned funeral home business with her closeted queer dad.
This graphic memoir is a collection of personal essays accompanied by little comics from author-illustrator ND Stevenson. The essays cover eight years of their young adult life.
Unlikely by Jeffrey Brown
Unlikely is a bittersweet story about how Jeffrey Brown lost his virginity.
Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh
This graphic memoir started as an online comic before Allie Brosh compiled and added new content to publish it as a book. It is composed of stories from the author’s life, told in silly style cartoons.
Writing and releasing a graphic memoir can be deeply personal.
By combining your story with images, you can create a work of art that tells your life story in a way that is both intimate and universally understandable. Whether you’re an aspiring artist, a burgeoning writer, or just a person who has lived an incredible life worth talking about, a graphic novel might be the medium for you to tell your story.