4: Leading stories Narrative inspiration

Comics and sequential narrative

Sequential illustration responds to narrative through a sequence of images, visualising it over time through cartoon strips and graphic novels, storyboards and animations. Although writing may exist within cartoons, the images are more dominant.Visually, sequential illustrations make use of the idea of the frame and camera lens and construct the story by careful use of different types of edits.
Will Eisner ‘Theory of Comics and Sequential Art’ downloadable pdf

Types of narrative

Simple narratives have a beginning, middle and end: the protagonist has a problem at the start, encounters conflict through the middle and reaches resolution at the end….What makes the story complex, wonderful, entertaining or tragic are the details of the characters, the setting, the plot of the narrative and the genre in which it’s set. ‘ Course text p87.

In some cases genre codes and conventions may provide the reader/viewer with some certainty as to what they’re about to experience. On the other hand, genres may be deliberately mixed to spice things up.

Framing and storyboards

All forms of sequential illustration use the idea of the frame or panel in some way to move the narrative along. This uses visual language from film and TV – varying close-ups, mid or long shots of what’s going on. Like film, distinct grammars may be used in different genres.

Action:Sequential illustrations, unlike moving image or animation, have to represent movement and action via the static medium of drawing. Action has to be implied. This is often done through association, showing people mid-walk, cars moving, actions taking place, but it can also be
done through careful use of editing, jump cutting from scene to scene.

Sounds: Like actions, sounds have to be implied in sequential illustrations. Speech bubbles do the job of conveying the spoken word in a number of different ways, but actual sounds are often represented onomatopoeically, or as they sound. These KAPOWs, BRRRRRMs and WHOOOOSHs are further enhanced through the use of visual typography, creating fractured words, letters falling downwards or bursting out, anything that helps bring that sound to life.

Narrative research

Cartoon strip

Cartoon strips are perhaps the simplest form of sequential illustration. They may be said to originate in the stone carving narratives of many ancient civilisations. Early Renaissance examples had narratives running across panels.

Very simple cartoons may consist of just 3 frames using a very tight narrative of simple beginning, middle, end. Other cartoons are longer with more space to develop the story, either with more panels or a continuous story over several episodes.

Comic books

The comic book extends the cartoon strip into a publication, with longer pieces and more specific content. Fashions come and go and they vary in their drawing complexity. Comics include:

  • Weekly and annual comics for children and ‘would-still-be’ children: DC and Marvel comics of the 40s and 50s, The Beano, Dan Dare
  • Japanese Manga
  • 1960s counterculture with artists like Robert Crumb
  • 1970s punk with artists like Gary Painter
  • 1980s Viz comics for adults
Graphic novels

In the graphic novel, the basic form of the cartoon is extended to cover longer narratives. Often graphic novelists focus on more complex forms of narrative and, as the term ‘novel’ suggests,see themselves more as a part of the world of literature than comics. Graphic novels can be created by an illustrator-author or be a collaboration between an illustrator and an author.


The image remains free of any speech bubbles, descriptions or sounds; instead,this information is presented at the bottom of each frame, with additional information on the type of edit being used and how long for. Storyboards are more functional than other forms of sequential illustration; they’re a form of visual idea development specifically for the moving image.

Research:Pick some examples of comic book, cartoon and graphic novel artists:

  • What’s the relationship between the narrative and the style of drawing being used?
  • Which is most important in making the story work?

Graphic novels: Dave McKean

Graphic novels:Shaun Tan

Comics: Chris Ware


Frans Masereel and Lynd Ward from my Printmaking blog

The Photo Essay

  • A simple series: each image has something unique, unifying quality that makes the viewer want to see more. Eg Kate Kirkwood Cow Spines.
  • Highlight photo essays: journalistic and centres on an interesting event. Focus on key characters and stages that may or may not be in linear sequence. EgThe Year of the Horse
  • Time-sequence photo essays: a series of events or a process
  • Location photo essays: can be thematic or linear
  • Idea photo essays: a series of photos around a more abstract idea. This is more difficult to sequence.

What is the concept?

write this in one sentence.

  • portrait series
  • linear sequence
  • First edits: narrow down to 100 shots. It is more important that these should work in the context of your essay rather than being the best images. Print these out and experiment with different sequences.
  • Second edit: 20 images. Again experiment with different sequencing.
  • Final edit 10-15. Be ruthless, make sure you are aware of the implications of each image and do not duplicate information.

Creating a series

  • lead photo: needs to be a strong image in terms of composition because it is the shot that will ‘sell the story’ and draw the reader in.
  • scene-setting shot: shows where the story is and the main characters and other core elements.
  • sequential shots: form the main core of the story. These do not necessarily have to be in time sequence.
  • portrait shots: portraits of individuals and groups important to the story – mix of posed and candid shots. Or environmental shots.
  • panoramic shots: with context shots stitched together
  • interactive shots: include incidental information and broadens the understanding of the story.
  • detail shots: close-up shots that help to round things out and add drama.
  • summing up shot: pulls things together and shows the final result. Not necessarily the most important shot, but it needs to be clear.
  • concluding shot: an image that says definitively ‘the end’.

Narrative structure Gustav Freytag (1816-1895)

  • Exposition – shows us who the main characters are, something about their lives. Shows the main character and their goal within the story. There is then an inciting incident that causes conflict .
  • Rising action: is a build up of events as the main character moves towards their goal. Conflict occurs when there is a disagreement with one or more people.
  • Climax: the crunch point
  • Falling Action:
  • Resolution: happy or sad ending. Gives a feeling that this is the end, all strands have been drawn together and everything that needs to be explained has been explained.

Adding text

Not to tell a story but to give some facts. May be image titles single words, captions or short narrative at the beginning and/or end.