Creating and Illustrating a Story

A How-to Guide

Each month, on the Bookshelf Gargoyle website, Bruce challenges his readers to post a 50-word story based on a topic of his choice. I have been participating in his challenges for the past year and have enjoyed the experience of being brief-and-to-the-point.

This past January I posted a story that piqued the interest of several readers, who then encouraged me to continue the thread of the story month-by-month. I was at first hesitant to agree. Write a continuing story 50 words at a time? Really? Why? Why not, really?

I am so happy that I chose to listen to their kind words and raise my literary bar a notch higher. It is fun to ponder the fate of the characters each month as they respond to the next stimulus.

After posting my second episode in February I got the idea that at some point it might be fun to tell the story in a cartoon form, perhaps as a comic strip of three or four panels with captions. I reviewed the facts: I don’t draw very well, I have no experience with comics (other than reading them), and have never captioned a story. This idea appeared to be completely feasible—I had no bad habits to break.


Concurrent with this desire to create an illustrated story was a day spent with friends taking photographs at Mare Island in Vallejo, CA. We had a wonderful day and when it was over I realized that I had some photos that could provide a foundation for the comic strip story that I wanted to tell.

The photo that started it all © Allan G. Smorra, All Rights Reserved

The photo that started it all
© Allan G. Smorra, All Rights Reserved

The next day I began to sort through my photos and found one at a maintenance building that once housed a steam boiler. There was debris and asbestos insulation strewn about and I had opted not to enter the building, but to remain outside and take some black and white photos through a broken window.

This image inspired me to continue with my new story © Allan G. Smorra, All Rights Reserved

This image inspired me to continue with my new story-telling format
© Allan G. Smorra, All Rights Reserved

The flat dim lighting was a challenge for my iPhone, but I knew that I could use the ToonCamera app to convert the dull photos into something more vibrant, if I worked at it. Some experimentation was involved with several more apps—Pixlr, Snapseed, CameraBag2 and ImageBlender— before I was satisfied with the results.

Chicken or Egg?

Now that I had an idea of the look that I wanted to use for the cartoon panels I faced my real challenge. Should I write the story and then find photos to accompany the prose, or should I start with the photos and write a story around them? This was uncharted territory for me and the clock in my head was ticking.

I had some idea of the direction of the story so I spent time arranging the photos in various combinations to best reflect the future narrative. 50 words had to be divided up and put into captions that would not take away from the images. I ruled out using three panels of images and settled on a single strip of four images.

We’ve only just begun

I made use of the HalfTone2 app on the larger screen of my iPad to assemble my four images into a single strip. Over the course of the next 4 days I tweaked the images and composed a story in my mind.

Original 4-panel strip © Allan G. Smorra, All Rights Reserved

Original 4-panel strip
© Allan G. Smorra, All Rights Reserved


One night, during a break in a Mad Men Marathon on Netflix, I looked at my cartoon strip and asked myself “What Would Don Draper Do?” The answer? “Make it simple, but significant.” I ditched the in-line strip for a five-panel layout. Yeah, I know, I heard the “significant ” part…stay with me here.

An Epiphany in 5 parts © Allan G. Smorra, All Rights Reserved

An Epiphany in 5 parts
© Allan G. Smorra, All Rights Reserved

The fifth panel in the middle of the layout was a challenge to me. I didn’t have another photo that I felt like using. After staring at the blank trapezoid and I decided to insert/re-crop the image in the upper left corner into the middle panel.

My second “Don Draper” moment was when I decided to delete the image in the corner after I was satisfied with the look of the middle image. When I inserted the image it was almost aligned with the one above. A little zoom here and a little click-drag-release there and I was looking at the original image as if through a broken window—the exact way that I took the photo originally!

Wrap it up, I’ll take it!

All that I needed to do was to write a story to go along with this collection of mobile art that I had assembled. The words flowed and a story developed. Edits were made to break the prose down into “separate” chunks that could stand alone as captions, but would fit together as a complete story.

As I look back at this experience I wonder whether I should have written the story first and picked out the images afterwards. I may give that a try if I do this again.

The Finished Product

Fiction in 50 April 2015 © Allan G. Smorra, All Rights Reserved

Fiction in 50
April 2015
© Allan G. Smorra, All Rights Reserved


Start at the beginning:
Ohm Sweet Ohm’s Fiction in 50: The 2015 Anthology Page

It’s all about you

Have you had any experience with illustrating a story, drawing a cartoon/comic strip? If so, can you provide some tips for the rest of us?

Thanks in advance for your comments.  Ω


  4 comments for “Creating and Illustrating a Story

  1. April 27, 2015 at 10:15 AM

    You’re a Renaissance Man, Allan!



  2. Sue
    April 27, 2015 at 5:16 AM

    I meant to comment yesterday but saw a squirrel and something shiny (aka – got distracted). I love the comic book layout with your 50 word story. Very creative and it fits the story form perfectly. I was also going to ask you how you did it and here you are today, explaining it! I guess getting distracted had its advantages this time. 🙂


    • April 27, 2015 at 6:02 AM

      Thanks, Sue—look, an angel!—I understand what you are saying about yesterday. I needed to write my Multimedia Monday post and the thought occurred to me that someone was bound to ask me how I made the cartoon. That’s how this post came about. Ω

      Liked by 1 person

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