Writing a graphic novel is hard. There are a lot of things to juggle; afterall, you’re making the equivalent of both a film AND a novel! Fortunately, now there are a lot of resources, suited for different genres and needs. Back then, in the olde Wild West days, when I was a newbie, I didn’t have any tips that explained how to make the kind of graphic novels I wanted to make. So I made my own, deliciously called the Onion Method.
Fair warning: I’m not sure how applicable this writing method is to other forms of story writing, since I write 1) graphic novels 2) that explore big themes 3) and this method is personal, homemade and tailored to produce the kinds of books I enjoy creating (and hopefully, emulate the ones I enjoy reading too).
This Onion Method is not the end-all, be-all of all methods. I don’t claim this to be the right method for every book. What it is though, is my method. I hope it gives you insight to how I make graphic novels.
Similar in principle to the Snowflake Method (recommended read), but with an entirely different process.
The Onion Method is a outline method that consists of two major elements (Character-Driven Plot, and Thematic Thesis) riffing off each other. One informs the other, vice versa, creating multiple alternating layers in conversation.
Now you see where the onion metaphor came from.
These two elements together will create an Onion Story – a character-based story that when cut open, reveals layers upon layers of character motivation and story themes, ideas, topics, messages in conversation with each other.
The main goal of an Onion Story is to create an emotional response in the reader that correlates with its intellectual response. For example, if you want to make a book that thematically critiques Orientalism, you may also want to provoke empathy from the reader towards the character who experiences Orientalism, so they can feel hurt when the character is viewed falsely; disgust when the character encounters Orientalist stereotypes; and a sense of gleeful spite shared with the character when the antagonist gets their comeuppance. This empathy is itself a critique of Orientalism, because it puts the reader in the emotional and mental headspace of the character, therefore disproving the entire premise of the Other as the Unknowable, Foreign Non-Person.
It sounds very dry and cut laid out like that. But this is how I wrote The Carpet Merchant of Konstantiniyya, Volumes I and II (which, from what I hear, are digestible and emotional books to the average person).
See how the emotional response in my example enhances the theme (the thesis), and how the thesis prompts the emotional response.
Who is the agent of the emotional response? Where should the reader experience emotions from? Strictly the character.
At The Carpet Merchant’s core is an emotional story about one guy and how his becoming a vampire forces him to part ways with the community that loved him, then his transmission to another community that sees his life and his old community as a theatre for play-pretend. This means spending time fleshing out his upbringing, his personality, and the life-changing relationship with our deuratogonist, his wife, to build that emotional foundation. Only then can we let loose our dastardly writerly schemes.
The plot of The Carpet Merchant is very much based on the character — you can’t switch him easily for anybody else, even if it’s a small change, because it’d mean changing the historical context, the angle of critique, the emotional stakes, the thesis even. When you remove him specifically, the entire book no longer exist – its structure collapses. The onion unravels.
Character is the foundation of every Onion Story.
But why all this fuss?
If you’re like me and a typical Aquarius and/or INTP, you love analysis. You love patterns and systems. You like reading something and going ‘Oh, this is about the anxiety of a capitalist society failing to care for its sick and disabled when they no longer are useful in said society’ (in the case of Kafka’s Metamorphosis) and that singular thought fueling you to explore more of the book.
Basically, you’re a Big Dumb Nerd.
A lot of people like writing stories that start from this systemic cerebral standpoint. A lot of people like to analyse stories from that standpoint too. What a lot of people fail to recognise is how important the human component is to storytelling, and the effectiveness of said storytelling.
There’s a reason why mythology and classical literature stand the test of time. Because it appeals to the heart. It recognises the human exists, and the human is human. And still, it has something to say about power dynamics, the importance of filial pithy, sexuality and gender, etc, big themes.
All this intellectual fluff is well and good, but… let’s be honest, intellectual fluff is boring, dry and abstract. If you do it wrong, it can come off as pretentious and out-of-touch.
However, if you approach your topics from a human standpoint, if you consider how people respond to things, if you remember people, if you apply empathy to your method, if you accept that “intellectual topics” cannot be divorced from their social context, because afterall, everything in the end is a personal issue (whether it affects you or your community), then… you stop writing a dissertation, and start writing a story.
If you like books that explore big themes using characters as the point of conversation, and if you’re a big fan of empathy in storytelling, then this Onion Method may be of use to you.
I’m only speaking for myself, but, the Onion Method is best used on graphic novels that are:
The Onion Method is less effective — in fact it’s not necessary — for graphic novels that are autobiographical, slice-of-life, educational, or anything for fun. If you want to make a self-indulgent book about monster biker girls having fun, please do you! But the Onion Method is probably not the best method to work with it.
The Onion Method is also the opposite of automated, formulaic writing. As I will explain in the process below, the Onion Method forces you to treat each book individually. It requires a lot of back and forth thinking. While I think the Onion Method can be adapted for a pipeline, the rush of a deadline, or the lack of creative coordination between an author and artist (if they are not the same person), may stifle the true potential of an Onion Story.
Finally, this is just based on me alone, but the Onion Method is best for comics creators who both write and draw their comics. While an Onion Story has to be grown and harvested from writing, and can be eaten raw, it’s not as delicious as when it’s cooked aka when it’s drawn to life as a comic. The better you understand the ingredient and the process to get that ingredient, the better your cooking is. (so many food metaphors…)
Whether the Onion Method makes sense for you depends on your goals for your book, how you work, and if you want to engage deeply in thematic ideas. Luckily there are a lot of advice and alternative methods available, so you don’t even have to listen to me. My Onion Method is how I write my own graphic novels, and is therefore well-tailored to produce a particular type of graphic novel.
Ready to find out how to make an Onion Story? Let’s go.
As mentioned, there are two components of an Onion Story: character-driven plot, and thematic thesis. I’ll define the terms for both components, then jump in with a practical example.
I will be using my kids graphic novel, Seance Tea Party as a practical example (don’t worry, it doesn’t contain any spoilers).
Please note that the nature of the Onion Method means each book must be approached individually.
It teaches you the skills to make a custom-tailored shirt for each unique body, rather than provide you a one-size-fits-all shirt to place everybody into. Seance Tea Party is different than The Carpet Merchant than Alexander Comic.
That’s both the joy and tragedy of making an Onion Story.
So how I do this is: I begin with the character first.
Character-Driven Plot: Lora is 12 years old. She is afraid of growing up and becoming a teenager.
Then I ask myself: “Why?” I keep digging as deep as possible about my character, even sometimes going off-tangent to their family background and hobbies and most ridiculous habits. I just let the character grow naturally. Most times this means having to put the book aside, in the background of your mind as you work on other things. I call this stage the ‘brain stew’.
I keep digging and stewing until…
Character-Driven Plot: Because growing up means moving on from her childhood.
I find the starting point of a thesis.
Thesis: Growing up is scary.
And I let the thesis talk with the character-driven plot.
Character-Driven Plot: But Lora can’t avoid growing up forever. She’ll have to, sooner or later.
Thesis: Yes, and growing up can happen suddenly that you don’t even know you have done it.
Character-Driven Plot: But it doesn’t mean she gets over being scared.
Thesis: Ok, so what is the real problem then? What is the fear actually about?
Character-Driven Plot: Maybe Lora is afraid of growing up because she actually doesn’t want to become old. Afterall, becoming a teenager is one step closer to becoming an adult with responsibilities.
Thesis: Yeah, but what’s so bad about becoming an adult?
Character-Driven Plot: Lora feels like becoming an adult means losing who she is. As a child, this makes sense, because up till this point, her entire identity is constructed around being an imaginative, carefree child. She neither has the hindsight or foresight to comprehend this.
Thesis: Is becoming an adult really the loss of who you are though?
Character-Driven Plot: No. Lora will have mentors and friends who will show her that being older still means being yourself, just different. (This is where I add the secondary characters in the draft)
Thesis: Exactly. Because the freedom is still there right?
Character-Driven Plot: Yeah, that’s what I want Lora to understand. Like, it’s ok to be scared of growing up. In fact, even adults are scared of growing up.
Thesis: Because what that fear actually is, is not knowing what to do with the sudden freedom to do anything and be anyone. What do we want to say about this, to the kids who will be reading this story?
Character-Driven Plot and Thesis: That this freedom – vis a vis growing up – is something to celebrate. That this freedom means you’ll never be robbed of yourself, because you always have the choice to stay true to who you are. Growing up stops becoming scary.
Me: OMG, there it is!
At this point, once I’ve gotten into the heart of the story, I can start going wild. I do that fancy writer thing of letting the story flow from my head to the page. I engineer everything to cater to that heart. This means story, this means panels, this means colours and dialogue and pacing and all the parts that make up a graphic novel. The book becomes driven and purposeful, and naturally has confidence, because as the author, I know exactly what I want to do. I have already grown and harvested my onion and can finally cook it.
While it can look like The Onion Method doesn’t make room for spontaneous writing, the thing is: it kinda still is spontaneous writing, but it’s all during the brain stew stage. Additionally, in my experience, even after that stage, when I’ve gotten the heart of the story, I still have surprises to be delighted by.
Because of the continual interaction with the character-driven plot, the thesis will continue to grow, expand, mature, improve, etc. And vice versa. Your character will somehow end up doing something that will change the narrative, and this might have implications for the thesis. Should you amend? Should you keep? Should you revamp? And what options does the reformed thesis offer for us and our characters?
The Onion Method is a dynamic process, that starts from the moment you have the idea in your head and ends when you finish that last page. What you end up with can be different than what you started.
Seance Tea Party’s final thesis actually included new elements that I can’t spoil. Yet the core remains: growing up is freedom worth celebrating.
And for The Carpet Merchant, the original thesis is how a faithful person will react to becoming a “cursed” creature of the night. The final thesis is finding strength in the compassion of your faith, and to pass on that compassion from yourself to others (the faithful person will not see themselves as a curse, but as a testament to God’s belief in their inner strength). That’s just a thesis out of many related ones in The Carpet Merchant.
The possibilities are endless!
So have fun! Make discovering your story an adventure. Dive deep! Go big! As a wise green ogre once said:
Ogres have layers. Onions have layers. You get it? We both have layers.
That’s my Onion Method! I hope it has given some insight to my craft, and that it has given you help on your own craft too.
I will be writing a sequel to this post soon. It’s called “Cooking The Onion”, where I’ll talk specifically about how to use art direction, research and the visual elements of graphic novels to turn that Onion Story into a Delicious Feast for the Eyes, the Mind and the Heart. Cooking is how more than half of a comic comes to life.
Reimena Yee is a graphic novelist, artist and flamingo enthusiast.
She creates the webcomics The World in Deeper Inspection, and The Carpet Merchant of Konstantiniyya; the latter of which is the first Malaysian graphic novel to be Eisner-nominated.
Currently writing and drawing a whole bunch of stuff. Is a nerd for all things spooky and historical.
Melbourne / Kuala Lumpur
PANEL: Longform Webcomics in Southeast Asia
9 August 2020
15 August 2020, 2pm
PANEL: The Value of Research in Storytelling
16 August 2020
A Weekend of Comics and Illustration