Assignment 3: A graphic short story

The purpose of this exercise was to start thinking about and experiment with writing and structuring a short story and creation of a final piece of work in a mini graphic novel format.

Key words from the brief:

  • Choose a short story and turn it into a mini graphic novel
  • Aim to work over two or three pages
  • Think about how you edit the story, the kinds of shots you take, the relationship between the dialogue and the characters
  • Design a cover for your graphic novel that includes the name of the short story, the author’s details and your own
  • Reflect on the experience


I’d drawn a 4-page strip An unknown intimacy as a personal project during Illustration 1 and wanted to use this assignment to learn the lessons from that experience and see how I could improve both the structuring of story and the visual design/style.

One of the weaknesses I noted at that time was my lack of ability of drawing characters, particularly pose and expression and whilst the story flowed quite well on the page (this was through luck not judgement), I didn’t understand the importance of story arc and hadn’t really done any planning of structuring of scenes or panels.

It also took a long time to draw-up. This was a combination of my drawing ability and confidence at the time and the visual style that required that I draw figures and backgrounds to a high degree of resolution and accuracy. Additionally there was a fair amount of post production colouring using Photoshop.

Based on this insight I decided my new mini graphic novel would need to:

  • Be based on an existing story with a clear narrative arc;
  • have a small set of characters; with
  • a limited number of scenes; and
  • a visual style that would enable me to work quickly without getting too hung up on highly finished drawing or the need for post production.

Two possibilities sprang to mind.

  1. I could revisit the Hans Christian Andersen story, On the Last Day, that I’d illustrated for 3.5 Once upon a time, or one of his other short stories.
  2. I could build on the Greek Theseus and the Minotaur myth I’d used as my subject in 1.4 Mixing and matching.

Given that the concept of a narrative arc was developed through analysis of Greek writing and Shakespeare’s five-act plays, I chose the Greek myth because it seemed to me that it would fit very neatly into a tight story arc.


There were two excellent references that I revisited to help me to think through the process of writing and structuring the narrative.

The excellent Drawing Words and Writing Pictures by Jessica Abel and Matt Madden is packed full of insightful information about the whole process, and Palle Schmidt’s Youtube series on how to draw comic books is equally helpful.

My reference for the story was taken from Edith Hamilton’s Mythology: Timeless tales of gods and heroes.

Story arc

I used the story arc template from Illustration Sketchbooks for my initial analysis.

No Stage Description  
1 Stasis The ‘normal world’ or everyday scenario: Introduce the “everyday” scenario in which the story is set / Introduce your character in their unsuspecting situation A terrible curse hangs over Athens. Each year 14 young men and maidens are offered as a sacrifice to the terrible Minotaur that is imprisoned in a labyrinth on the island of Minos.
2 Trigger Provide a catalyst to start the story moving away from what is normal and fine towards a problem (something which is often beyond control) It was time to pick this year’s tributes.
3 Quest Your trigger should result in a quest. This image should define the goal of the story and add some tension Theseus volunteers himself as one of the victims

His secret intent was to kill the terrible Minotaur

He tells his father the king who makes him promise that if he succeeded in his quest, he would change the black sail on his ship to white so that the king would know before the boat reached land that his son was safe

4 A surprise Introduce turns in the story which show the elements which might get in the way of the quest and your character’s response. (These could include pleasant events, obstacles, complications or trouble for your hero) Ariadne, daughter of Minos falls in love with Theseus and makes a bargain with him. She would bring about his escape from the labyrinth if he agreed to take her to Athens and marry her.


5 A critical choice The hero makes a crucial or critical decision about how they will respond He instantly agrees, and she explains that he should tie one end of a large ball of thread to the inside of the entrance door and then unravel it as he made his way through the labyrinth


6 The climax This image should be a penultimate cliff-hanger before we discover whether the quest has been a success Theseus and the other tributes are forced into the maze.

Theseus walks boldly in and searches for the Minotaur. He comes across the sleeping beast and falls upon it battering it to death with his bare fists in a terrible struggle

7 The reversal The goals have changed (the hero has been changed by the experience and has transformed) The hero finds the ball of thread and frees himself and the other tributes from the labyrinth and they flee to the ship with Ariadne to make their escape.

After many adventures the boat finally see landfall; Athens in the distance.

In his excitement Theseus forgets to change the black sail.

His father the king who had be eagerly watching the horizon for weeks spotted the black sail. Thinking the worst, he threw himself off a high cliff and was dashed to pieces on the jagged rocks below.

8 The resolution A return to a new status quo / everyday scenario Theseus was crowned King of Athens

Scene breakdown

Scene by scene
Scenes drawn out from story arc analysis

Script & thumbnails

I wrote an initial script using the scene breakdown using a format suggested by Palle Schmidt. This was really an exercise in editing – much of the story had to be edited out or simplified in order to cut the story down to a manageable length.

Once I was happy with the draft script I printed it out and started thumbnailing ideas to start to think through page layout and refine the story. This was a great exercise and I used it in parallel with my visual research to find reference for backgrounds and awkward figures, hands and feet. I found working at this  ‘low resolution’ helped me refine the story and spot gaps. For example, shifting from one scene to another required additional text to provide the reader with context.

Initial thumbnails page 01
Script breakdown – page 01
Initial thumbnails page 02
Script breakdown – page 02
Initial thumbnails page 03
Script breakdown – page 03
Initial thumbnails page 04
Script breakdown – page 04

Panel layout

The design process Palle Schmidt describes is one of visual refinement. He starts from thumbnails, scales these up in size and then works on top of them using a lightbox. I decided to try the same approach.

I used basic grid system to layout the panels that allowed enough flexibility to accommodate the needs of the images.

The first set of pages with resized thumbnails gave a good feel for the flow of the story, where I’d need to create or amend images and how the text would fit.

At this point there was enough to test out the pages on a couple of people. This was very valuable and their feedback resulted in a number of changes:

  1. The fight scene which was a key point in the plot was too abrupt. I extended this by adding an additional page that included more action/reaction images to give more of an idea of a battle between the two characters.
  2. The transition between the death of the king and the final couple of panels was also too abrupt so I added a additional bridging panel to give some space between scenes.

Once I’d completed this I felt like I was in a position to move onto the visual design.

Visual design

Character design

The story has 3 characters that need to be recognisable.

  1. Theseus
  2. Ariadne
  3. The Minotaur

It was important they had distinguishable features to help readers identify them.

Theseus is the main character who appears the most. I made him well built with black curly hair, a short straight beard and ringlets of hair hanging by his ears.

Ariadne appears in only 4 x panels. Having her hair tied in a bob was her key feature. This meant she was recognisable from most angles.

The Minotaur was easy and I’d already drawn this character several times in 1.4 Mixing and matching.

Cover design

The cover was the last thing I did.

The story was based around the curse of the Minotaur, so the cover image needed to reflect this. I wanted the image to be dark and menacing and I used the same process that I’d used to create individual panels to create the cover image.

I started with a tiny thumbnail, scaled this up, printed it out and then work back on top of it.

The title text was hand drawn using a brush pen in a fairly convention comic book style.



Individual panels/pages

Individual pages were iterated out using the thumbnail rough layouts as a starting point.

I started by adding speech bubbles, text callouts and text layers as editable reference layers. This allowed me to refine and adjust the layouts, and in a small number of cases split large amounts of dialogue onto two panels.

Final artwork was drawn on photocopy paper on a lightbox using the ‘low resolution’ thumbnails as reference. I created separate artwork for the panels, text callouts and speech bubbles.

Adding sound effects.jpg
Adding a sound effects layer

Because everything was created at the same A4 size the final artwork was simply dropped back into the layered Photoshop document to replace the thumbnails.

Each page took about 3-hours to artwork and composite.

Finished pages

I think the final artwork is best printed out and read as a short comic rather that on screen. You can download a copy in PDF format here (the file is 7.5MB size): Theseus and the Minotaur

Here are the individual pages…

Theseus finished artwork coverTheseus finished artwork page01Theseus finished artwork page02Theseus finished artwork page03Theseus finished artwork page04Theseus finished artwork page05Theseus finished artwork page06

Questions from the brief

What did you learn from this experience?

  • I tested and proved a very process driven approach
  • I used the 8-stage story arc as a key tool to arrange the narrative
  • Breaking the story into scenes allowed me to rapidly scope out the work and turn the script into a series of panels
  • Working on the script before starting any drawing to avoid wasted time and rework
  • Thumbnailing against the script was a fun creative process that formed the basis for structuring the pages
  • Iteratively working and reworking and refining pages using a lightbox and then building out all the layers in Photoshop was excellent and time saving
  • Testing the rough draft of the pages uncovered weaknesses in the story/pacing that I was able to address
  • My confidence and drawing ability has improved. I can evidence this by looking back at An unknown intimacy

How have your illustrations developed to accommodate the demands of the narrative?

I started the project by thinking that I might save time or be able to extend the length of the story by using a very loose painted style copied from Javier Montesol in his book El Idilio, so that I could work without the need to add too much detail.

I did at test using liquid watercolour.

Visual style test01

Once I started thumbnailing I realised I wanted to draw with more definition.

I also experimented with a method copied from Palle Schmidt that uses Photoshop overlays to add colour to tonal images to give  a painted feel. The example below shows the different stages.

In the end I decided to go with a fairly conventional comic style using black and white pen.


What went well

I was pleased with the way I approached this exercise. It was very process driven; following a set of logical steps to break down a problem and design a solution

I like the end result. I think the story flows well and is supported by the visuals

What I could do differently/better

It would have been better to have tested the flow of the story earlier so that structural changes could have been made before I’d spent too much time working on layout

It would have been really nice to have inked up the artwork using a dip pen on Bristol Board but I just didn’t have the time. One for the future…

Assessment Criteria – self assessment of PART 3 – Narrative illustration

After a slow start I’ve enjoyed this section of the course and felt my confidence grow as I worked through the research and exercises.

It did take longer to complete than planned because I spent more time on some of the exercises than I had anticipated.

My personal assessment against the assessment criteria:

Assessment criteria How my work meets the assessment criteria
Demonstration of technical and visual skills – materials, techniques, observational skills, visual awareness, design and compositional skills It feels like I’m developing a distinctive personal voice.

I’m feeling more confident in my own approach and capabilities; I’ve noticed a change in my figure drawing (I’m starting to look for pose/expression) during this part of the course, partly driven by the demands of narrative illustration and partly by my observational sketching that I’ve been doing as research for my final Critical Review.

I’ve continued to attend the London Urban Sketch events (Ref: Urban Sketching) as well as developing my own daily sketchbook.

Quality of outcome – content, application of knowledge, presentation of work in a coherent manner, discernment, conceptualisation of thoughts, communication of ideas Use of a process driven approach is evidenced in Assignment 3: A graphic short story – this includes scriptwriting and application of narrative arc, storyboarding, visual design, character design and user testing to validate/test the storyline and flow during the development of the work.

I particularly like the finished 7-page short story because it feels like a fairly rounded piece that works well on a number of levels.

Demonstration of creativity – imagination, experimentation, invention, development of a personal voice The exercises show continued experimentation with new techniques and development of existing ones.

I’ve continued to explore different/new media (use of scratch board in 3.5 Once upon a time, vector animation in 3.11 Flick-books & animated gifs) and built on previous exercises in developing 3.8 Girl meets boy and Assignment 3: A graphic short story.

My analysis and research for the final Critical Review is leading me to think more about my own personal voice, what I need to do to develop it and how to push my creative boundaries.

Context reflection – research, critical thinking (learning logs and, for second and third level courses, critical reviews and essays). The increased level of research in this unit has fed directly into the practical exercises. 3.2 Metamorphosis and 3.4 Illustrators who define a story visually directly fed into the narrative illustrations with cross-referencing directly back to the visual styles of other practitioners.

I continue to spend time and care to present my work and reflections in a structured and consistent manner in my Learning Log.

I’m currently committed to completely the sketch-a-day challenge during January and publishing this on Instagram. This is also primary research for my Critical Review that is exploring the visual language of urban sketching.



Abel, J., Madden, M. (2008) Drawing Words & Writing Pictures (1st ed.) New York: First Second

Hamilton, E. (2017) Mythology: Timeless tales of gods and heroes (Anniversary edition) New York: Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers. pp.162-167


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