Simple Graphic Narrative Structure


A simple narrative structure has four essential parts or stages, each distinguished by its place in the sequence and by the story information it conveys.

  • The first stage describes a situation and introduces the main characters.
  • The second stage introduces a problem or complication into the situation, a change that is a problem for at least one of the main characters.
  • The third stage presents a resolution in the form of a partial or complete response to the problem by one or more of the characters, typically a solving action or longer process and its effect(s).
  • The fourth stage presents the denouement, the aftermath of the response that makes clear the success, partial success, non-success, or uncertain success of the response, often through the reactions of the main characters. The fourth stage may also show how the original situation has changed due to what has taken place in the Complication and Resolution stages of the narrative.

In sum, then:



Note: ^ = "is followed by" and the subscript n indicates that multiple iterations of the Resolution stage are possible.

Each of the four stages is obligatory, and each usually needs at least one panel of presentation. However, other kinds of graphic container (captions, word or thought balloons, inset panels) can be used in-panel to do the work of an absent panel. For example, dialogue in a word balloon, or words or images in a thought balloon, can be used to convey the denouement content from within the last of the resolution panels. Moreover, as I show below, overlapping or overflowing stages are not impossible; and, in some cases, a stage may be strongly implied rather than explicitly presented (e.g., a Resolution by the Denouement, although this is harder to do in a simple narrative than in, say, a gag strip).

The Situation establishes the location, time, and circumstances of the story (basically, what's going on before the Complication). It also introduces the character(s) who will suffer from, or otherwise be affected by, the complication, and the character(s) who will respond to the complication. (Note: These roles may or may not belong to the same character[s].)

What the Situation presents may be good or bad for some or all of the characters; it may be dull or exciting. And it may be full of complications of all kinds. But it does not present the complication that will advance the story.

The following are two exciting situations. Despite their excitement and comlexity, however, they still lack a story-advancing complication.


Monsieur Jeannot is a butcher. His wife stays alone in the apartment all day long. Below, in his shop, Monsieur Jeannot watches the opposite windows looking for men with binoculars who might spy on his lascivious wife. Tonight, after closing time, he will hurry upstairs and jump her.


Gérard Duchamps is an office clerk. He's a very nice young man. This morning, he bought a rifle equipped with a sight and went back home. Today, he's spending the whole day looking out of the window and lying in wait for the people across the street. Tonight, he will pick his target.

Source: Text by Anne Baraou, from her collaboration with the illustrator Pascale Bougeault, "Facing Faces," Drawn and Quarterly 10 (1992), inside back cover.

The complication in the Monsieur Jeannot story will arrive, we gather, when he hurries upstairs after work to "jump" his wife ("only to find . . . "). Similarly, in (2), the complication will arrive when, after a day of waiting, Gérard Duchamps tries to pick his target.

The Denouement puts the solution in perspective – for example, by showing character reactions to the solution (satisfaction, uncertainty) or by describning a new or modified situation that results from the solution.

In a simple narrative, the four stages appear in order. That is, the sequence of the telling or presentation follows the chronology of the told. In a more complex story, the order of the telling may vary. For instance, such a story may begin with the Denouement and then present the Situation, Complication, and Resolution in a flashback. But this is not the case with a simple narrative.


Two Examples of Simple Narrative Structure in Comics

Here is an eight-panel simple story by Gilbert Henrandez.


Gilbert Hernandez, "Pipowear!"

The first four panels present the Situation. The fifth panel presents the Complication. The sixth and seventh panels present the Solution. The eighth panel presents the Denouement.

Color Function Panels Sub-Function Focus Other
Situation 1 intro:context Context
2 elab:context Context
3 intro:agent + elab:context Agent
4 intro:patient Patient
Complication 5 - Patient Reaction to problem
Solution 6 solving action Agent
7 solving action + effect Patient
Denouement 8 - Agent Reaction to solution
Pipowear! - Four main parts

The four parts of "Pipowear!"

The length of each part is, of course, flexible. Here is a second, differently weighted eight-panel narrative also by Hernandez: "Mosquito," from this week's reading. It has a 3-1-3-1 division.


Gilbert Hernandez, "Mosquito" (Brunetti 74)



Participant Roles

In addition to its four standard parts or stages, a simple narrative has several standard features. Some of these are essential features, some optional.

Time, location, and circumstance of the story action. These contextual features can be single or multiple, continuous or discontinuous. In our first example, the location and circumstance are multiple: the story events are split between the Pipowear fashion show, hosted by Doralis, and the living room where Fritz and Casimira watch the show on television. If the fashion show is being broadcast live, then the time is singular; otherwise, the context consists of two distinct, if fantastically connecting, durations.
Character(s), object(s), and/or event(s) responsible for creating the problem or complication. In "Pipowear!" the yellow dress getting stuck in Pipo's white underwear is the complicating event. In "Mosquito" the vampire dwarf is a complicating character (or: his arrival is the complicating event).
Character(s) who suffer the complication. In "Pipowear!" Pipo is the patient. In "Mosquito" it is the two spear-bearing heroes who must deal with the blood-sucking dwarf.
Character(s) who respond to, attempt to resolve, the complication. In "Pipowear!" Fritz is the agent.
Character(s) or prop(s) that contribute to the presentation of a situation, the creation of a problem, or its solution. In "Pipowear!" the television set is a situation-, problem-, and solution-facilitator.
Character(s) or prop(s) that reflect and amplify the affects (emotional states) of the complicator, patient, and/or agent. In "Pipowear!" Casimira is a mirror (for Fritz).
Contextual Characters
Characters who are neither complicator, patient, agent, mirror, or facilitator are part of the context. They play no active role in the unfolding of the story (which is not to say that they are extraneous). In "Pipowear!" Doralis and the models are contextual, rather than primary or secondary, characters.

Context, Complicator, Patient, and Agent are essential elements in a simple narrative. Mirrors, Props, and Contextual Characters are optional elements.

Participant Roles in "Pipowear!"

Primary Roles complicator
Secondary Roles TV set
Contextual Roles Doralis
Contextual Character
Contextual Characters

From Pipowear! to Chris Ware

Here is a final example, a one-page comic by Chris Ware. Once again a television set plays the part of Facilitator.

God by Chris Ware

Chris Ware, "God" (Brunetti 13)

This example arrives with is parts already color-coded. The Situation (God at home watching TV) and the Complication (the car commercial playing the part of Complicator) share one color, the Solution and Denouement each have their own.

Participant Roles in "God"

Primary Roles Car Ad
Secondary Roles TV set
TV set
TV set
Contextual Roles Driver
Contextual Character
Contextual Character
Contextual Character

Recursion in the Simple Narrative Structure

Ware's "God" is also an example of recursion in a simple narrative. That is, one of the parts (the Denouement) repeats in miniature the four-part structure. In the comic as a whole the parts follow a 2-2-5-5 ratio. (I'm excluding the first panel, which is an eponymous title in pictographic form.) In the Denouement the parts manifest a 1-1-2-1 ratio.

God by Chris Ware

Chris Ware, "God": Denouement as Simple Narrative

The first panel presents the initial situation: God has reached the countryside ("Nature") by car and relieves himself by the roadside. The second (four-unit) panel introduces a complication into the situation: God is hungry but far from his familiar source of (fast) easy food. The third (five-unit) panel introduces a solution: God spots a deer and decides to chase it. The fourth (two-unit) panel completes the solution: God catches, kills, and begins to eat the deer. The fifth panel, like the first a single unit, presents the denouement: the satsified reaction of an atavistic God, a modified situation. In the first panel, God has returned to nature. In the final panel, God has really returned to nature.

Function Panels Summary
Situation 1 Context
Complication 2 Context
Solution 3 Solving action begins
4 Solving action concludes
Denouement 5 modified situation

Comparison with Other Graphic Narrative Structures

Finally, we should compare the simple narrative structure with some other structures that we've looked at so far this semester. For instance: Daily gag comics like Bushmiller's Nancy tend always to have the same situation: e.g., Nancy's daily life. The strip presents problem and solution, with at most an encapsulated or implied denoument (if any).

Twist-ending tales, such as Wrong Planet, are not (yet) simple stories. The Wrong Planet plot, for instance, is mainly a Situation with a Complication given in the final sequence (i.e., the astronaut has returned to the wrong plant). Solution and Denouement are missing altogether. The going to the moon, landing, planting the flag, and leaving are without complication. They are scene-setting, situational.

(Of course, as we saw in the exercise, in each of these moments of the a complication and response can be added. The flag-planting can have its problems; and what about the astronaut getting back inside his ship?)

Tomine's "Hazel Eyes" is a short story but it is not a simple narrative in the sense described above. Much of what Tomine presents is a BAD situation (the unhappy life of the protagonist). Or a picture of her life as an ongoing BAD response to a Complication in her past. However: Are there simple narratives within the story? Can Tara's telling the dream to her friends be seen as a response to a local complication? If so, what is the complication? how does Tomine present it (get us to recognize it as a complication)? and what is the effect of Tara's response?