The recent passing of the legendary comic book creator, Stan Lee, cast a light on the enormous body of work he created over his long lifetime. The iconic characters he created -- Spider-Man, the X-Men, and the Hulk, among so many others -- have sold millions of comic books and spawned several multi-billion-dollar movie franchises.
One article I stumbled upon in the course of my reading about Stan Lee is one he wrote for Writer's Digest as far back as 1947, when he was only in his mid-20s and at the beginning of his career. In the article, "There's Money in Comics!", Lee shares a collection of five tips on writing a good script that, while obviously intended for an audience of comic book writers, are actually highly relevant to any type of writing, even nonfiction writing, today.
1. Interesting Beginning.
"Just as in a story," advises Lee, "the comic strip must catch the reader's interest from the first. The very first few panels should show the reader that something of interest is happening, or is about to happen."
This advice is incredibly relevant to writers of nonfiction as well. Whatever you're writing, whether it's a business plan or a blog, you'll need to hook the reader right upfront, and give them a compelling reason to continue.
2. Smooth Continuity.
"The action from panel to panel must be natural and unforced. If a character is walking on the street talking to another character in one panel, we wouldn't show him horse-back riding in the next panel with a different character."
In nonfiction prose, "smooth continuity" is an essential component of good writing. I've seen too many examples of early drafts of blog articles, reports, and even emails that have sentences strung together in a disjointed way. This may be okay for a first draft, but it's something you'll need to fix during the editing process.
Writing smooth prose, prose that flows from one sentence to the next, requires applying basic principles of logic along with the fundamental principles of grammar, usage, and vocabulary.
3. Good Dialogue.
"This is of prime importance...Today, with the comic magazine business being one of the most highly competitive fields, each editor tries to get the best and snappiest dialogue possible for his characters. In writing a comic strip, have your characters speak like real people, not the inhabitants of a strange and baffling new world!"
While dialogue is more often found in fiction, sprinkling a few phrases of natural-sounding conversations or quotes in your nonfiction prose can bring it to life. I don't always insert dialogue into my writing, but when I do, I've found it injects a level of energy into my language that expository prose can't always achieve.
4. Suspense Throughout.
"Whether you are writing a mystery script or a humorous script, the same rule applies: Keep it interesting throughout. Any comic strip in which the reader isn't particularly interested in what happens in the panel following the one he's reading, isn't a good comic strip."
Again, this advice sounds very much like advice you'd give to a writer of fiction. But I also believe this concept is applicable to the writing of nonfiction as well. When you start your essay, or blog post, you're setting forth a question that you are promising the reader you will answer. Usually this requires laying out several supporting reasons and examples.
While it may be invisible to the reader, what you are doing in this process is pulling her along with you, giving her just enough information to answer one aspect of the question you're trying to answer, while leaving other questions open, which, of course, you will answer later in your piece.
5. A Satisfactory Ending.
"An ending which leaves the reader with a smile on his lips and a pleasant feeling that all the loose strings of the story have been neatly tied together can cover a multitude of sins. It has always been my own conviction that a strip with an interesting beginning, good dialogue, and a satisfactory ending can't be TOO bad, no matter how many other faults it may have."
The need among readers of fiction and nonfiction for an ending that pulls everything together and declares "This is the end" is very strong. This could come in the form of a straightforward conclusion or summary paragraph, or it could be an unexpected insight, or "kicker," as they say in journalism.