A Very Brief Introduction to Hybrid Novels
Updated: Sep 24, 2020
Within my research of books with unique narratives, I stumbled on “hybrid novels”—novels with graphic elements such as photographs, drawings and diagrams integrated into the written text. Hybrid novels are not interactive artifacts but their distinctive style have the ability to stop a reader in their tracks to observe or understand the art facing them. They are a great tool to capture people's attention and for writers they are also an inspiring way to create unique stories that play with the traditional narrative formats we all know by heart.
As they say "an image is worth a thousand words". So to give you an idea of what I am talking about here are a few examples.
Hybrid Novels originally meant novels that mixed pictures with text. This type of literature was born in he late 19th century, supposedly through the Belgian book Bruges-La-Morte by Georges Rodenback. Two of the more notable examples that came later are André Breton’s surrealist romance, Nadja and Virgina Woolf’s fantasy autobiography Orlando (both published in 1928). The images in these books are not essential to understand the story, they enhance it yes but a reader would have a similar experience if the book did not have the pictures. Nadja's pictures particularly give us a glimpse in the world the author sees because he chose the angle and location of the picture, the camera lens attempts to reproduce his gaze. However Breton always writes about the locations seen in the pictures.
In the 1940s the enormous popularity of comics books was sure to influence other forms of storytelling. The natural evolution for the Hybrid Novel was to take elements from comics and mix it with traditional novels. This is how the graphic novel is born. Graphic novels are books made up of comics content. They distinguishes themselves from the term "comic book", which is generally used for comics periodicals but it is essentially structured similarly.
The examples I will cite are sometimes very close to be themselves graphic novels in their pure form but they often have something that distinguishes themselves from comics such as mature topics and of course texts mixed with images.
Two of my favourite graphic novel writers are David Almond and Neil Gaiman.
David Almond mixes fantasy and reality with works such as The Savage (2008 ) and Slog's Dad (2010). Both books are about grief, death and growing up.
The Savage (2008, Vavid Almond & Dave McKean) is a graphic novel within a novel. It follows Blu Baker as he is writing a comic book to cope with his father's death. His comic book is about about the savage, a wild boy living in the woods. When the savage pays a nighttime visit to Hopper, Blue starts to wonder where he ends and his creation begins. Click here to see a great BBC video explaining the creation process of the savage here.
Neil Gaiman's books The Day I swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish (1997) and The Wolves In The Walls (2003) incorporate unusual narrative and illustrative art styles. The pages are intermixed by amalgamations of cartoons, photographs and drawings, with words dispersed all over the page, ranging from going down and up to across the page. This creates a mix of fantasy and reality that will carry viewer's imaginations. The fonts and position of the words in The Wolves in the Walls enhances the feelings of fear or the protagonist.
Today the idea of illustrated novels is not as surprising than before but it is mostly associated with graphic novels. I am particularly interested in novels that incorporate pictures in unique a way that truly enhances the narrative such as The Myterious Flame of Queen Loana (2006, Umberto Eco) and Chopsticks (2012, Jessica Anthony) . The latter is a fascinating and unique novel - told through fractured memories, in various visual mediums; photographs, memorabilia and notes. The images require a good looking over and the authors almost encourage you to flick back through as the same images are used more than you think. This is a perfect example of how Hybrid Novels can inspire us for interactive stories as the reader has to understand the story through the pictures and artifacts presented to them.
One of the most unique forms of Hybrid novels more common to poetry than novels is narratives with calligrams. A calligran is a a design or layout made of words whose meaning relates to the visual image created. Guillaume Appolinaire's collection of poems called Caligrammes is the perfect example of the beauty and power of this form. It is however rarely used as part of a bigger story. There are however exceptions such as Incredibly Close and extremely loud a graphic novel about a little boy post 9/11.
Most of the time Hybrid Novels play with the book format by adding drawings and unique elements but sometimes it enhance the narrative by deleting elements. In Salvador Plascencia’s People of Paper, there is a missing name. Lope de Vega (16th century) omitted one vowel; Laurence Sterne’s The life and opinion of Tristam Shandy, Gentleman (1759) used hyphens, dashes, and asterisks, left blank pages, and published entire pages in black to denote a character’s death;
Another type of hybrid novel that I particularly enjoy are novels playing with other existing formats such as the screenplay (Monster, Walter Dean Myers, 1999), or the powerpoint (A visit From the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan, 2011) or social media (TTYL by Lauren Myracle, 2004 & ChaseR by Michael J. Rosen, 2002 ).
A Visit From the Goon Squad explores how to make graphics and powerpoints touching and full of emotion in its unique 76 pages chapter. The book is a set of thirteen interrelated stories with a large set of characters all connected to Bennie Salazar, a record company executive, and his assistant, Sasha. It is all written conventionally a part from this one chapter exploring 12-year-old Alison Blake as she records her life in her PowerPoint slides.
You can read the chapter (it works as a short story) here.
Monster follows 16 year old African American Steve as he is in prison waiting for his murder trial. In this story, Steve retells the events leading up to the crime and narrates the prison and courtroom drama in his diary but also in screenplay form while trying to determine if what the prosecutor said about him is true. Using the screenplay format is a wonderful way to create doubt as this is a romanticised version of events written by Steve. The character is the not only the narrator, he is the writer and even star of this story. Is he really a monster?
Many other books use social media as a writing form but I found them less innovative because they are mostly modern epistolary novels, a form that exists since the 15th century.
All these examples give a mere glimpse into the world of hybrid novels and that is why I find that format so interesting. It covers many different forms of stories and I feel that the best is yet to come!