Mental events in visual narratives

Stories often show us not only what happens in the storyworld, but also what happens in a character’s mind

Look at the comic on this page: It shows a PhD candidate working day in, day out; busy writing, teaching, reading, and then, graduating! But wait – that event turns out to be just a dream.

While the graduation event appears abruptly, it can make sense when readers see it as a character’s thoughts or mental experience (such as a dream!). So, we have to combine two storyworld domains: a physical domain that all characters can see and a mental domain, that happens only in the mind.

How do visual narratives show these mental domains? How well do readers understand these? And what kind of cues help readers realize that mental events do not physically take place? 

These are the questions that I investigate in my (upcoming) publications.

Planned publications

Coming out this January, this theory shows how readers understand mental events in stories, and what cues help readers to notice that there is a mental domain. This work shows it is not only about meaning: graphic and structural cues are just as important. Changes in colour, panel borders, layout, morphology, and grammar all help readers to infer a mental domain.

Also in progress, this experiment tests how readers respond to these mental domains in visual narratives. The results show that readers need a bit more time to get through these stories, but understand them very well. Moreover, similarity across panels helps readers to process mental domains, which supports our theory’s idea that graphic features play an important role.


Next up will be a corpus study that looks at mental domains in comics from over the whole world. It will investigate how often these occur and how these panels differ from other panels (that show the ‘normal’ physical storyworld). We will also see whether mental domains are used differently by different regions in the world, by different comic book styles, or by books in different languages.