Jen Wang’s SCBWI Graphic Novel Intensive: Writing with Pictures

The second I learned Jen Wang would be teaching a graphic novel intensive at the 2023 SCBWI winter conference, I booked a ticket. Not only is Jen Wang the creator of my favorite graphic novel, The Prince and the Dressmaker, but her work has been a constant inspiration for me. Below, you will find some highlights of Wang’s graphic novel intensive including her graphic novel process and key composition techniques she uses throughout her books.

Process: Bringing the Graphic Novel to Life

“Your unique voice and your life experiences define you as a cartoonist, not the medium.”

Jen Wang

Old Process

Jen Wang talking about designing her webcomic, Strings of Fate

Wang mentioned that everything she learned about creating graphic novels comes from her webcomic experience making Strings of Fate. Back then, she thumbnailed everything without a script before final inks. It wasn’t until she got an editor that she started scripting everything before thumbnailing (creating rough, paneled comic pages).

Current Process

Jen Wang talking about her penciling process
  1. Coming up with ideas:
    Wang makes stories she wants to read and mentioned that “the more personal [you make your story], the more you can reach a reader.” In Stargazing, she wanted to share her experience growing up in an Asian-American community while for The Prince and the Dressmaker, she focused on things she enjoyed reading when she was younger (fairytales), what she cared about (gender identity), and what she liked to draw (outfits, sewing).
  2. The pitch:
    Because Wang is already established in the graphic novel world, she only submits character bios with an outline. Typically, her outlines are around 8-10 pages, however, she mentioned 5 pages of outline for her is equivalent to approximately 100 pages of the book. She prefers super detailed outlines before she gets started writing the script to help her stay on track and know where she is in the story.
  3. Script:
    Writes out all dialogue and description for her script.
  4. Thumbnails:
    She will print off her script and thumbnail around the script to come up with the best way to panel. Usually, she doesn’t submit the thumbnailed script to the editor, but uses it to help her plan out her pages and pencils.
  5. Pencils:
    For penciling, Wang typically uses mechanical pencils on 9”x12” Bristol vellum paper. Her pencils are fairly detailed and are typically what she would show her editor after the script phase. She also includes the word balloons with text at this stage of the process.
  6. Inks:
    Looks similar to pencils, but crisper. Wang varies up the pens she uses based on the project. For The Prince and the Dressmaker and In Real Life, she used india ink and a Raphael Kolinsky or Winsor Newton Series 7 brush while for Stargazing, she used ballpoint pens to give it a more natural look.
  7. Colors:
    Usually goes with flatter colors, using shadows sparingly to convey emotion. Her colors are typically applied in Photoshop after she’s scanned her inks.

Working with Others

Whenever she’s collaborated with an author, she prefers to have an outline to lead where she is in the story. Wang also talked about her experience working with colorists before. She mentioned that describing the feeling of a scene and explaining what’s happening in the story helps her colorist get a vision for what she’s going for.

Composition Techniques: From Film to Comics

Jen’s work is heavily influenced by film and design composition techniques including Rule of Thirds, Flow, 180 Degree Rule, Pacing, Word Balloons, and Mood.

Jen Wang talking about how you can reposition images with “Rule of Thirds” to convey different emotions
  • Rule of Thirds
    • The technique where you divide an image by thirds horizontally and vertically, then focus your subject in the third quadrant.
    • Where you focus your content can say a lot about that moment of your story.
  • Flow
    • Typically, the flow of panels goes in the direction your audience reads in. For western audiences, that’s from left to right, top to down.
    • To create conflict, Jen breaks this pattern and will make her panels flow opposite of her natural reading direction (right to left).
  • 180 Degree Rule
    • Imagine a camera filming a scene; the camera should only show 180 degrees of the subject materials in the scene. This establishes and maintains the direction of characters or actions. 
    • You don’t want to go beyond 180 degrees because it’s difficult to know what’s happening in the scene. This is especially true for scenes with a lot of action and/or characters.
  • Pacing
    • “Space does for comics what time does for film.” In other words, pacing is the passage of time in comics.
    • Taken from manga: Wang will break away from panels to focus more on the character.
  • Word Balloons
    • Visual identifier to know who’s talking.
    • Saying less does more.
    • Let the art do the storytelling; you don’t need as much dialogue.
    • Cut out the extra details.
    • Play with the balloons. If they’re shouting, consider adding spikes while if they’re whispering, consider making the balloons smaller.
  • Environments and Mood
    • Wang enjoyed drawing characters above settings when she started out but now, really enjoys drawing backgrounds too.
    • Things like what kind of room or car the parents have says a lot about the character.
    • Use reference materials to help with settings such as 3D models. Here are a few 3D modeling software
      • Sketchfab, Sketchup
      • Google Street/Earth/3D
      • Flickr (high res images)

Final Thoughts

Not only did Jen Wang provide a deep overview of her process, but she was also a delight to talk to. I encourage anyone who wants to get into graphic novels to try The Prince in the Dressmaker; it’s one of the most beautifully paced, heart-tugging stories I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading.