Advice for Writers via Stan Lee’s “How to Write Comics”

I can hear it already.

“But I don’t write comics. And, uh, neither do you, Colleen.”

Doesn’t matter. There isn’t a single genre that writers can’t learn from if they take the time to do so. I’ve learned helpful tips and techniques about writing from books and articles about screenwriting, writing poetry, writing literary fiction, writing military fiction, and writing erotica, even though I don’t (currently) write any of those things. I picked up Stan Lee’s How to Write Comics because (as I’ve mentioned before) I really would like to write comics eventually. But the more I read it, the more I realized that the Generalissimo’s advice applies to novels as well. Here are some of my favorite bits from the book.

On Writing Superheroes: (which I do actually do!)

“‘I decided to treat the superhero adventure strip as though it’s a soap opera story that just happens to be about a superhero who has to defeat villains. But rather than predicating it on great action scenes, I determined to predicate it on characterizations, and on whatever personal problems a superhero might encounter living in a realistic world.'”

I felt really happy when I read this, because for better or for worse, I’ve done very much the same thing with Molly in Hidden. Yeah. She’s insanely powerful (too powerful! a person or two has lamented) but her biggest problems don’t always necessarily come from her enemies. Often, it’s the interpersonal issues that really test her, and the asskicking she has to do is in addition to trying to live a “normal” life.

On Creativity and Ideas:

“The funny thing is, the more you do, the more it seems you’re able to do.”

This is another way of saying that creativity begets creativity. The more you write/draw/sculpt/knit…whatever, the more ideas you’ll have for future projects. So if you feel at a loss for ideas, create something! More “somethings” will follow.

On Creating Your Antagonist:

“…they mustn’t just be evil. They mustn’t just be strong. They’ve also got to be unusual, exciting, provocative, and surprising.” He also says: “Too many times a villain simply attacks the hero for the same reason men have given for climbing mountains — because they’re there.”

No cardboard characters. The villain should be just as interesting as the hero. You can’t just have a villain or antagonist come on the scene and start causing trouble just for the hell of it. There has to be a reason. They have to have their own motivations, and they have to be just as strong as the motivations of  your hero. I’ve read this before, and it’s something I try to keep in mind with every story: Every villain is a hero in his own mind.

On Working with the Classic Three-Act Structure:

Lee has a whole section in this book on the three-act structure, but this little tip may be especially handy for anyone trying to figure out how much of their story constitutes an act:

“How much of your story should be devoted to each segment? Well, that depends on the demands of the story, but the rule of thumb says one-quarter is reserved for Act One, one-quarter for Act Three, and the remaining half for Act Two.”

On Flashbacks:

“There has to be a compelling reason to use a flashback since it interrupts the narrative flow. Don’t just use it for what’s become known as the ‘info dump,’ with a lengthy explanation. That will stop your momentum dead in its tracks and possibly put your reader to sleep. Everything on the page has to be there for a reason, and you, the writer, have to justify the choices you make in composing your tale.”

On Subplots:

“A good subplot will allow you to set up the introduction of new characters or complications. It can break up the main action of the issue and build tension. Subplots can rise to become the main plot, but they can also be a parallel story to the main plot. But just as your larger story comes to a conclusion, so, too, must your subplot.”

Subplots can be tricky to work with. The main trouble I have is keeping my focus on the main plot once I’ve become enamored with one of the subplots I’ve started on, and I think that balancing how much subplot you include is something you learn over time. I am still definitely learning in that regard, but it’s a lot of fun trying different things out and seeing what works.

This was a great book. Whether you write comics or not, it’s definitely worth checking out, and the amount of comics history you get, from the man who has been a HUGE influence in the industry, makes it even better.



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