A Writer’s Reflections: On Light Novel Inserts

A Writer’s Reflections

Originally Posted: March 16, 2021

“With springtime coming ever nearer, a certain budding writer hopes to blossom into new opportunities. Success rides upon her hard work, but she can’t shake the weariness from her heavy eyes. The coffee from the morning has run dry as well.
As her will cracked, a delusion-induced beckoning echoed from her bedroom. Though it was a few doors from her study, it was as obnoxious as it was tempting. The writer leaned back into her chair and stretched. I suppose an hour or two wouldn’t hurt. Few steps preceded a soft fwump; silence then soon filled the house. ” – Haruka Naruji, on the topic of midday naps.
Hey! It’s your favourite spring-flower(?) writer here again, and welcome to my third featured post! After reading and reviewing my first non-fantasy title, we had a short discussion about the placement of light novel illustrations, namely the coloured-inserts. The opinions and results then inspired me to make a ‘Reflections’ post about it.

Before we jump into the discussions, let’s clarify what we mean by ‘insert’. An insert is simply any addition to a light novel’s contents (read: main text). This can take a variety of forms and is normally visual in form. Inserts have been around for a long time in other industries too – fold-out posters come to my mind. And if you’re just starting you’ve likely seen a few used as promotional material or just under the covers of something you’re interested in.
Nowadays, light novel inserts tend to serve as the illustrator’s contribution to the book: depicting climactic scenes, breathing life to the characters, and adding detail to the world. Done well, their work can greatly amplify the experience, whether that is excitement, tension, or horror. However, we’ll quickly find that it is not only the quality that matters but what they mean to communicate.

For this post, we’ll talk about some notable and creative uses of light novel inserts I’ve seen in my light novel journey and more. (Any series mentioned will be linked, of course!) I’ll also include the results of external discussions regarding the placement of such inserts. Hopefully, this post will inform you on what to expect and look out for when perusing the light novel libraries. And there’ll be no spoilers in this post! So, with that out of the way, let’s get into it!

The first and most basic example for this post is the ‘black-and-white illustrations’ or the ‘black-and-white inserts’. These typically manga-style illustrations have become synonymous with the light novel industry due to their prevalence and quality. As an example, an introductory scene where Roxy Hart employs Fate Graphite from Berserk of Gluttony is shown above.
Although the style, detail, and quantity per book may vary, the black-and-white insert is almost exclusively used to illustrate a particular moment. And due to this, they are placed near their depicted scene rather than concentrated at the front or the back. However, this also means electronic previews may not show them if they aren’t reached. (Add that to the list of reasons why I prefer shopping in-person!)

There’s not much more to say, so let me talk a little about what I look for when reviewing a light novel’s illustrations. That way, we can share the same tool-kit when perusing for new series!
First and foremost, the most important consideration is the scene choice. Since illustrations are expensive (illustrators need money and recognition too!), each instalment can only afford so many. Thus, it’s the responsibility of the creators to choose impactful scenes. This enhances the reader experience and amplifies the evoked emotions. So, if a series tends to consistently miss its mark, ask why this may be the case.
The next thing to note is the character designs, expressions, and posing. Are the designs appealing and/or unique in some form? Do the expressions match the emotions these mean to convey (and are they comically exaggerated)? And do the poses feel natural, energetic, and/or ‘cool’? There are many other questions to ask, but I’m sure your eyes can spot any oddities. Light novels (and related media) have a lot of experience perfecting this particular aspect and show few flaws when examined.
One more critical component is the presence of world-elements. Are the creatures, weapons, technology, locales, etc. represented in the illustrations? In many of the titles I’ve reviewed, a common weakness is their absence. But, for obvious reasons, it’s difficult to consider illustrating one-off monsters/settings given the design work. One should then wonder if it’s because the series is being extremely choosy with its illustrations or if it’s simply full of inconsequential details.
Lastly, a factor to consider is the quality and quantity of the black-and-white inserts. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” holds here, but there is a sort of ‘roughness’ one can define to compare different works: weird proportions, inconsistent perspective, etc.

Hopefully, this section has sharpened your eyes to the details of black-and-white inserts. Since they’re so prevalent, it doesn’t hurt to try to get the most out of them. But with them out of the way, let’s get into the more important and interesting types of inserts.

Our second example is the ‘coloured illustrations’ or ‘coloured-insert’, an upgraded version of the first where the light novel showcases its art in full colour. This can be as meaningless as a clean cover or advertising material, or they can be used to set the tone and put names to the important faces (see ROLL OVER AND DIE, above). In any case, it’s as blank as a canvas can be, and it’s up to the author, illustrator, & publisher to ensure they make the most of it.

The most common form of the coloured-insert is one that depicts a particular scene in the book. This can range from completely inconsequential fan-service to a spoiler-filled climactic event (this particular issue will be addressed in the placement discussion). Similarly, they may be highly-detailed – with shading, a background, and loads of text – or with minimal colouring. All these design choices can be used to inform your decision on whether a series is worth starting (or continuing).
Another frequent choice is that of the character showcase, where the chosen scene is absent or unclear and the main point is to show off the character designs. A frequent example of this is the Wandering Witch series (not pictured), which has one at the beginning of every instalment. These are particularly great at connecting a name to a face for the reader and providing initial impressions of their personalities and roles.
One last complicated form of the coloured-insert is the manga-style story. The Alchemist Who Survived (not pictured) implements this to illustrate the volume’s prologue or another similarly early section. Something of this complexity is a rarity, but they can potentially communicate everything you need to know about a series. Such a section acts as a mini-adaptation of the light novel. Thus, it can portray the series’ art-style, setting/atmosphere, dialogue, and exciting parts in a condensed and easily digestible form. But this only comes with a heap of the illustrator’s time and effort.

Of course, the creators are free to do whatever they like to communicate whatever they want. For example, one may choose a momentous scene filled with important characters to showcase the story and the characters in a single image. This creative freedom allows for a wide range of possibilities, and one can tell if a lot of love and time has been placed behind it. But one thing is for sure, coloured-inserts are made to show off the book’s contents.

The next example is the ‘map’; a great addition to any story looking to develop its world. My favourite examples of which come from The Genius Prince’s Guide (above) and Tearmoon Empire (below). Maps can come in a mix of scales, detail, and style, but they all hope to showcase the setting of the story. How and what the creators choose to depict is important to understanding a story’s direction.

One should take care to inspect maps for the details. A series doesn’t commission a map if the information is redundant. For instance, maps that draw national borders tend to focus on geopolitics on some level (like the aforementioned series). Thus, having such information is key to our understanding as a reader. Others may only populate a plain map with locales to show the protagonist(s)’s journey so far – an interesting idea for adventuring-type stories.
Another thing to always note on the use of maps is their scope, especially if it changes from volume to volume. The Genius Prince’s Guide is a great example for their focus on a particular portion of the continent – the main setting for the instalment’s conflicts. This allows a natural expansion for the world-building throughout many volumes. And by preparing the reader with expectations, one can set up twists in plain-sight.
Lastly, one should note the style of the map. Is it simple and clean? It is reminiscent of those found in extensive fantasy table-top RPGs? Or is it more modernized? These little things can tell you the atmosphere of the story as well as from where the creators draw inspiration.

In short, if you find your current or potential light novel has a map, be sure to give it a thorough look! There’s a lot to learn about a story before you’ve even begun to read; the type of story, important elements to remember, and even foreshadowing can all be present. It’s a wonder how much information one can (visually) convey in a single insert.

Another informative example is the fun ‘potion recipes’ from The Alchemist Who Survived (not pictured) or ‘glossaries’ from The Irregular at Magic High School (below, left). Like the other inserts, these Similar guides or glossaries may be used to describe political proceedings or a magic system to aid the world-building when inserting them directly results in clunky or overly long expositions.

Normally, the presence of informative inserts indicates a lot of time has been spent developing the world/setting of the series. Like the map, these wouldn’t be added if they didn’t serve some purpose. In the case of glossary-like inserts, they tend to act as information-dumps or as future (post-read) references. And, in a way, that’s exactly their goal. As a summarized and condensed form, this is where world-elements can be described without consideration of the narrative. It’s also a great place to determine if things are detailed and cohesive!
Another use of these is to quickly determine if the setting is one you’d love to explore. For a fantasy-focused reader like me, I love magic-systems and unique locales (especially those directly affected by the fantastical elements). And if a light novel has the terminology and connections neatly summarized for me, it lets me know (1) if something is present, (2) the degree of importance, and (3) its implementation in the world.
One subtle detail to also look out for is how such information is formatted. Like the map, style can add to the atmosphere and feel of the story. For instance, The Irregular at Magic High School‘s glossary reminds me of one from a textbook – a perfect fit for this school-centred story. And the way The Alchemist made step-by-step potion recipes shows that it’s real science (with personalized notes from Mariela herself).

To summarize, just like the map, glossaries (and other similarly informative summaries) can inform you about the series’ setting and add to the overall experience. Although they’re less subtle in delivery, these inserts communicate a lot about the world, the type of story, things to look out for, and what makes it unique.

Then, in a similar vein to the map and potion recipe, is the ‘character reference sheet’ – a neat tool for long-time series, reviewers, and newcomers alike. Some great examples of a few come from The Alchemist Who Survived (not pictured) & The Irregular at Magic High School (above, right) which provide general character information – though this may be limited to more important members of the cast.
To be clear, character reference sheets are not the same as the character showcase in the coloured-inserts discussion. The former is much wordier (and may not have a picture at all), and the latter focuses far more on character design rather than story-/character-details.

Firstly, character reference sheets tend to appear in series where the cast is large in number and the focus is more on the world rather than a few protagonists. Their presence then helps readers recall a particular character’s role, background, personality, and/or appearance. However, it is not as if all the details are required for these inserts to be useful.
One especially telling feature to look for is if the relationships between characters are described. For character-driven stories and those whose value comes from interpersonal interactions (such as drama), it’s beneficial for the author and reader to stick to a consistent and understandable set. Does this pair have some bad history? Are these two in subordinate-superior positions? These facts can add some deeper meaning to dialogue and actions.
Some last small pieces to check for are fun facts. What’s this character’s hobby? Are they partial towards sweets? Or are they secretly total bro-cons? These details are almost always superfluous, but they can show how much love the author has put into their cast.

To put concisely, like the other informative inserts, character reference sheets can say a lot about the series’ cast and more. Look out for the hints in the importance of personal details and interpersonal connections to see the variety of characters, the type of story, and the author’s efforts in developing their cast.

Lastly, let’s mention some less visually-focused inserts: short stories and diary entries. These particular inserts blur the line between text and visuals, are especially wordy (potentially more than the glossaries!), and may simply be text given a decorative style or block. But the goal of these is obvious – to tell more stories! And those into light novels are here to read, so more content can’t be bad, right?

There’s not much more to explain regarding these inserts. But unlike the other types, there’s an increased reliance on the author’s efforts. If the short stories don’t appeal to you, then the rest of the work may not be the best choice for you. However, it’s unlikely that you’ll read these first – these inserts are typically placed between chapters or at the end of the text.
Short story inserts assist the work during and after reading. Authors may choose to briefly show a parallel plot, insert some comic-relief, add world-building myths, or twist our expectations with new revelations. This shows that the author has developed something greater than what is shown in the main text. And like the coloured-inserts, the possibilities are endless and limited only in what can be written.
A good example of these is the short stories in Konosuba: An Explosion on This Wonderful World! depicting side-characters away from the happenings of the main plot. These comedic moments add their own jokes and show that the silliness seeps into every part of their word. Other examples recommended to me are the diary entries of Torture Princess and the short stories from Re: Zero.

To sum it all up, the short story insert is another wordy type to look out for when adventuring in the light novel space. The potential for perspective-changing realizations, world-expansion, and silly one-off events is too great to miss. And some may be more important to the main plot than they first seem. ;)

Now that we’ve covered some examples, let’s talk about placement. From my experience, the light novel industry expects to only have a few coloured-inserts in front of the text (usually 2-3). But many series also choose to include extras, usually at the expense of printing costs (see The Alchemist Who Survived, above). So, how does one organize all of the inserts for an optimal experience?

“Does the average light novel reader prefer the coloured-inserts to be at the front or the back of the book?” – This is a rephrasing of the question many find to be split into two camps. The large majority of light novel readers polled prefer having them at the front, but a small population steadfastly prefer the back. The reasons for this split are varied, but they tend to fall into a few categories: (1) showcasing the art, (2) avoiding spoilers, (3) having consistent placement in the industry.
However, the above question is fairly closed-ended; it only deals with coloured-inserts. Black-and-white inserts are typically interspersed throughout the text. As for glossaries, reference sheets, and short stories, I believe many of us expect those to be at (or near) the end. And maps are almost always found at the front. Is this the optimal configuration? Why is it the expectation that (non-black-and-white) inserts must be at the front? And would the answers to those questions help us resolve the coloured-insert issue?

Before we get into insert discussions, let’s briefly talk about how we search for and preview books. After the covers (which is its own discussion), the reader will tend to start from the front and read from there. Most of the time, they won’t even check the back or, in the case of digital previews, the back isn’t available for viewing. This places a greater emphasis on the first handful of pages to capture and inform the potential reader. This answers the expectation question. Please keep this in mind for the following sections.

To determine an optimal solution, one must first define a problem space with a goal and varying parameters. In less technical speak, we need to know what we want and what we can change. The former can be difficult to pin down for each insert-type, but I’ll try my best to simplify my thoughts. And fortunately, we can limit ourselves to only changing the placement.
For the black-and-white illustrations, I believe the purpose is to depict certain scenes, amplify the experience, and emphasize certain parts. Thus, the obvious choice is to place them near their respective moments.
For the glossaries & character references, I believe their goal is to serve as reference material after they’re introduced in the story. Therefore, they are best placed at the back of the book. But if the goal is to (re-)introduce the elements (and the length is relatively brief), then the front is a popular choice. However, first impressions are important – so having them being introduced visually and/or with the story will have more weight.
For the maps, I believe their goal is to introduce and visualize the world (or journey so far) in limited detail. And if you’re going to show the reader what to expect, the front is the place for it. But it may serve well as a separate reference at the back.
For short stories (and similar types), I believe it depends on what the author hopes to achieve by having you read it. Is it for comic relief? Or is it to add another perspective/twist to the main plot? In any case, one should simply consider placing them in a natural break in the plot (between acts?) or at the end as to not ruin the flow.

Finally, we reach the coloured-inserts. What is their goal? As previously discussed, it’s a mix of informing the reader and showing off. Whether that is epic scenes, character designs, or a manga-styled introduction, these inserts are the best at selling the experience. And given the potential price per page for such efforts, publishers want as big of an audience seeing them. Thus, there is no better place for them than at the front.
Of course, such a decision comes with risks; the most critical being spoilers. Many readers consider the potential scene choices and included details to be too much information. There is some merit to this argument, and creators aren’t blameless here. Occasionally, an interested reader will stumble onto an insert that spoils everything about a volume’s finale. However, many of the light novels I’ve read simply choose pivotal moments and leave out critical details that later twist the reader’s expectations.
This grey-zone between spoilers and enticing the reader is one that authors, illustrators, publishers, and readers have to navigate and will leave a subset of all dissatisfied. But as a fellow reader, I would recommend simply skipping the coloured-inserts if you’re worried about spoilers. I believe this the best compromise between the creators’ cost-to-value and a reader’s risk-aversion. And with coloured-inserts being placed consistently at the front, it’s easy to know what not to read.
Now, before we conclude, let us briefly consider the alternative where the coloured-inserts are at the back. Digital buyers won’t get to see them at all. Casual bookstore perusers rarely open the back. And those who put the book down right after the story is complete (read: barbarians) may also miss them entirely. Lastly, to quote ciel‘s response about one such book, “finding them afterward felt wrong somehow and right away, I understood better your question. I can say, quite safely, I do NOT like them at the end.”

In conclusion, the coloured-inserts should be placed at the front. This is the optimal solution for the average creator’s goals – enticing interested readers with impactful story points, character designs, and fan-service – and poses little spoiler-risk to the reader when approached with discretion.

Hey! Now we’re at the end of our informing and discussions about light novel inserts, but there’s still so much out there to explore. I hope you enjoyed learning about the different types and some examples the implement them. Illustrations (and more) have become the expectation in the industry today, and one should know what to expect before jumping into it all.

For keen readers and writers, the sea of creativity is endless. Have you seen an exemplary use of an insert? How about some excellently-detailed art? Or do you perhaps want to chime in on the placement discussion? I want to hear about it all! So, please let me know down in the comments below, on Twitter, or on the Discord!

Hello! Thank you for taking the time to read my post (even if you scrolled straight to the bottom). I hope that you take home even a little of what I’ve written down. To those fresh-to-the-scene and battered-and-beaten, please enjoy your stay, and let’s talk light novel some more!

And, of course, we must have the feature’s fun fact corner. If you don’t know already, I love to cook. I’ve been learning since my time as a sophomore at the academy and started experimenting much more nowadays. Whether it’s a sweet snack or a savoury entrée, you can count on me to whip up something delicious! :)

I’m 春華 or Haruka, aspiring novelist, light novel reviewer, and the recently titled “Effortlessly Effervescent Embodiment of Eloquence.” I’ve been exploring light novels for half-a-year now, so please bear with my hopefully-diminishing naiveté. You can follow my Twitter for updates on my reviews and writing progress. And if you want to talk about light novels with me and many others, consider joining our Discord here! Let’s all get along!

2 thoughts on “A Writer’s Reflections: On Light Novel Inserts

  1. One kind of insert illustration (if it is even one of its own kind) are the half page pictures used in Ryuuou no Oshigoto (example here https://englishlightnovels.files.wordpress.com/2018/04/20180209165302.jpg). Of course, the impact on an one page online reader (like my phone) is not the same as reading the physical volume, but I really like this representation of two opponents playing shogi in this case. Never saw this in another light novel.

    Honestly, I hoped that there would be some kind of personal ranking of yours for the best illustration in every category. Maybe that could have introduced my in a light novel I didn’t read yet.

    1. Hey! Thank you for the comment and feedback. I really appreciate the engagement! :)

      I like the use of the insert you’ve attached; it shows the distance between the two characters and fills the space with the story. There’s a similarly styled insert in “May These Leaden Battlegrounds, Vol. 1”.

      However, I would say these inserts fall under the black-and-white insert category – a rather unique use of this type.

      And that’s a great idea! I had thought of providing a plethora of examples, but I’m worried about spoilers and publishing pictures not normally available for previewing. Perhaps I’ll make a separate list for each type in the future! ;)

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