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View Full Version : So, I still don't "get" short stories- HELP!


Alyssa
01-04-2015, 09:04 PM
I've plotted a MASSIVE story called Monsters Within (http://alyssacrow.com/tag/monsters-within/), but I'm extremely hesitant to launch into the (expensive) creation of this comic while I have no following. So the idea was to create some short stories, so people can see what I can do. Maybe build a little bit of a following.

I've plotted out a short story about a guy who is reunited with his older sister in the afterlife, and has to defeat a demon there. It's 53 PAGES LONG (as in, 53 final comic pages), and I feel it's still too short for the story being told. The characters are too flat, the rising conflict too minimal.

Yeah, I don't "get" short stories. :whistlin:

I know I had a short discussion about short stories here on DW when I first joined, but I'm still not understanding how things work. I've written novels. I've plotted out Monsters Within. It seems that my brain is geared towards larger, more complicated plots, and characters with involved subplots. I don't know how to write a SHORT story.

You have to show enough of the story's world that the reader feels grounded, but also keep it easily understood so as not to waste time.

You have to avoid having flat, cardboard-cutout characters, but you don't have time to develop them through dialogue and circumstances.

You have to introduce conflict that is both high-stakes (whatever that means for the story) but overcome easily enough that the character can "win" before The End (or not win, if it's a tragedy).

I know what needs to be achieved, but whenever I think of potential plots, they're much too involved for a short story (as in, less than 10 pages).

Here are some random ideas I was brainstorming the other day- apparently the best I can do in trying to think of a short story plot:


Mystery:
Special Investigator uses his skill to delve into the mind of a killer, to find the motive for a seemingly random killing spree.
He finds his wife is the catalyst for these killings (supernatural elements involved), and decides to report that the man simply snapped in an attempt to hide his wife's involvement.
(As far as I can tell, this can't be made into a story less than 10pages).


Horror:
Mother is OCD about cleanliness. She rouses on her child for the slightest bit of dirt or mess. Again and again, we see the extent of her OCD regarding cleanliness. Child decides that their baby sister is too dirty, and that mother will be upset, so the child dunks their baby sister into a bath of boiling hot water ("to kill the germs").
(I figure I can probably write this to 4 or 6 pages, but I really don't want every short I write to be a tragedy).


Fantasy:
In a world where magic and magic practicers are banned, a young boy has made a safe haven for faeries and other magical creatures. He helps an older man- takes his magic item before the man can be discovered by the patrols. Later, the boy is caught with magic residue, and sentenced to death. He's dragged out into the forest by the executioner. The executioner turns out to be the man he helped, and the man sets him free, confident that the magical creatures of the forest will now offer a safe haven for the boy.
(Again, this is shaping up to be longer. Maybe 23 pages?)


These ideas don't strike me as being particularly original, or well-suited as short stories. The only short comics I've read are unedited indie works. I have no idea if they're a good representation of what makes a GOOD short story.

If any of you guys have any tips, tricks, or general advice regarding short story writing, I'd love to hear it!

Steven Forbes
01-04-2015, 09:31 PM
Short stories are simple, Alyssa. You're over-thinking it.

The more characters you add, the more complicated the story is going to be. The bigger the "idea," the more complicated the story's going to be.

Simplify, gal. Simplify. That's the entire thing behind a short story. They have to be simple so they can be resolved easily.

Time for some writing challenges in the Writer's Showcase.

I'm expecting two stories out of you, gal. Just so you know.

(No pressure.)

JasonEnosArt
01-04-2015, 09:42 PM
I'm with Steve. I think of a short story about being something simple. You really aren't going to get well rounded characters. All you're going to get is a trait or an aspect. A short story should be about a man waiting in line at the store.

A longer story tells us what brought the man TO the store, why he's there, and what happens afterward.

Alyssa
01-04-2015, 09:51 PM
This is probably going to be a lesson in me being happy with under-thinking. :har:


Time for some writing challenges in the Writer's Showcase.

I'm expecting two stories out of you, gal. Just so you know.


Poop.

:p

Steven Forbes
01-04-2015, 09:59 PM
Also remember to start as late as possible. Even later than usual. The later you start, the simpler you have to get, because you don't have a lot of space.

Start late as you simplify.

gmartyt
01-05-2015, 12:56 AM
Short stories tend to focus on an event rather than on characters or worlds, simply because there isn't enough time. Try to think of them as scenes and you should be good to go.

Scribbly
01-05-2015, 04:22 AM
You already have the idea and the characters.
Having that, you can take your enormous and massive story and break it down in small pieces or episodes. Each episode will be a short story.
These short stories can be self conclusive or be worked for continuity.
The important thing is to establish how many pages you would like work the episodes.
Then, you can start by working each episode with the same amount of pages. Example, 6 pages or 8 pages or 12 pages per episode.
Until the total mammoth gets done.
In the way, you may be building a little bit of a following.

DaveyDouble
01-05-2015, 04:25 AM
Being able to pare down a plot to something suitable to a short story is a rare and exceptionally valuable skill, especially in sequential art.

Epics are all well and good, but unless you have the total control of being able to put it out in one go, you're going to need those skills after you've developed the main plot as you'll need to turn a set of events into a story that can be told in 30pg or less.

The only people who don't need to do that are those working exclusively in graphic novel format, and there aren't as many of those as you think.

The way I approach a short story is a bit like telling a joke or a shaggy dog story. You need to establish the world efficiently, and this is where cliche is your friend.
Use themes that are well established and easy to communicate. Use visual phrasing that has immediate currency.
This is not the point where you a stretching any creative muscles, at least not obviously. You getting peoples attention.
A 2/3 panel of a military base in the woods, night. A 1/6 panel of binoculars in the undergrowth, the base reflected in the lens. 1/6 panel of the same shot now with dialogue "Perimeter clear, Echo Team Oscar Mike"

Environment established, one page. Max two lines of dialogue. Three panels, only one of which requires significant detail work.

You know how breathing room to start ratcheting up the tension. One, better two pages of the team moving through the base. Maybe a panel of the guards feet, idle chit chat as dialogue, followed by the same panel with the guards out cold, darted, as the team rush by silently.
The reader will know what is going on, but the crucial part of why is what will keep them reading.
This part is all about style. You're not going to win an Eisner but you're telling the story your way, establishing a voice and a look. You're taking content that is well worn and you're pimping it out to make it look fresh.

The penultimate section, you dress the scene for a big reveal. Drill down to some details. The team approach a locked door, take up covering positions. One of them slides a miniature camera under the door and we see I side the room. Hostages. Gunmen. Computer screens. A foreign language?
The team outside the door give each other silent looks, one flashes a hand signal to get ready.
KLIK-KLAK
They freeze. One of them looks worried, another confused. As one they look away from the door, along the corridor they've just come down.

One lone member of the team stands, grinning with the biggest grenade launcher you've ever seen.

"LEEEROOOOY... JENNNNNNKINNNNNNS"
The door explodes.

Last page, four panels, equal size. Three players with headsets are screaming obscenities at the fourth player, who is eating some fried chicken with a satisfied look.

There you go. Short story. Maybe 8 pages.
It is one of mine by the way.

You don't have to conclude anything with a short story. All you really ha e to do is reveal the point of the events taking place. And as I say, cliche is your friend here. Take a cliche, or a trope and tell a story of how everything seems to confirm it, except the ending.

There's your short story. It might not be the story you've been lo GI g to tell all your life. It doesn't matter, that's not the point.

Kiyoko, Rin
01-06-2015, 04:47 AM
If any of you guys have any tips, tricks, or general advice regarding short story writing, I'd love to hear it!

One thing I noticed from Alan Moore's Future Shock short stories was how much exposition and plot the captions covered, and how the art wasn't so much sequential moments of time but illustrations of the copy.

It may also help to reduce your short story idea down to the emotion or character arc, rather than the plot, then work out the best way to show that emotion / arc.

Hope this helps.

engcheedraws
01-06-2015, 06:11 AM
Hi Alyssa, from what I have gathered from the 3 ideas that you have brainstormed, I think it is very possible to simplify each idea to a short 4 page comic. For the horror genre idea, since you already have an idea of how to do it, I'll not touch on it. For the other two ideas, with just a general idea of the plot outline, I'll suggest how you can probably tackle the storytelling to condense it to 4 pages each.

For the mystery genre, I will suggest opening with the investigator in his office, at his desk, working late. He appears troubled, pondering over every piece of evidence that is laid on his desk. ( PAGE 1 )

As he looks through all the evidence, he starts to see a connection between each murder and finally arrives at a photo or name, the catalyst for the murders. ( PAGE 2 )

At this point, his superior walks by his office and asks him if he has any progress on the case. He says no. As the reader, we know he is lying, but why? Shortly after, he takes his coat and leaves the office, calling it a day, having worked into the wee hours. ( PAGE 3 )

He arrives home, enters the bedroom and greets his sleepy wife. Depending on the choice of photo or name from before, he can either speak to his wife (eg, "it's me, diane. go back to sleep") or you can show the wife's face to reveal that the catalyst to the murders is in fact, the investigator's wife. There are pros and cons to the two different reveals but the general idea is there. ( PAGE 4 )

For the fantasy genre, I will suggest approaching it by opening with the boy in an interrogation room with one of the guards, possibly the captain, questioning him. From here, you can have expositions about magic use, how the boy acquired the item in a sort of flash back sequence. Finally the guard orders his execution and the boy is handed over to the executioner. ( PAGE 1 to 3 )

Depending on the amount of exposition, some may spill over into this page but this page will mainly be the executioner bringing him to the forest to be executed but revealing to be saving him instead. ( PAGE 4 ) You may wish to refine the concept by introducing the idea of an order of underground mages who identify each other by an artifact of magic, for eg, ring or the item the boy has come to possess etc and having the executioner either as a mage spy or having him being sympathetic to the mages' cause, thus, helping the boy to escape.

I find that one of the joys about being a comic creator is the challenge of visual storytelling within a limited amount of space and time. It is hard but can also be a very creative and rewarding process, I think. What are your opinions about the suggestions? I hope I am of some help.

scrappy
01-06-2015, 08:33 AM
In addition to the tons of stuff everyone else said, I think you should have faith in the capacity of the reader to fill in gaps (or being happy with those gaps) without needing you to explain it to them. For instance if we see two characters who were friends who now hate each other, we don't need to see the first time they met, the building of their friendship and its eventual demise. Sometimes merely hinting at it or leaving it untold entirely goes a long way.

Scribbly
01-06-2015, 10:32 AM
Being able to pare down a plot to something suitable to a short story is a rare and exceptionally valuable skill, especially in sequential art.

What is the use of having a PLOT made if it can't be broke down on small parts for work it.?

The only way I know for writing comics scripts or anything is work the whole plot first.
And break it down on 3 main pieces for work. Beginning, middle and end.

1) Beginning: Chapter 1
2) Middle: Chapter 2
3) End: Chapter 3

And regarding how many pages the project may need, these Chapters can be subdivided again in episodes.
Each episode (or short story) has its own Introduction, Conflict and resolution

Episodes are divided in Scenes, scenes subdivided by pages, pages subdivided in sequentials and each sequential is finally subdivided in 3 basic panels.

Being panel 1> introduction. Panel 2> conflict. Panel 3> resolution.
As internal components, each panel may have:
1) Visual descriptions for the artist with only one (1) action per panel.
2) Text captions (optional).
3) Dialogue (optional).

Having the breakdown well organized we can work it up panel by panel until the whole saga is done.

This is what is called method. Going from the general to the particular and to the particular to the general.
In art it equals to going from the general sketch to the particular detail and to the particular detail to the building of the complete piece.

DaveyDouble
01-06-2015, 12:00 PM
I don't know what you're getting at Scribbly. Maybe you should chill out.

Being able to plot out a storyline is one skill in storytelling. Being able to take that plot, and then turn it into divisible section that can be then worked into a comic format is a complimentary skill, but it's not the same thing.

You can have a plot that simply describes 'X escapes from Y'. That's a plot point. It's not prose, and it's not a script, but it's a functional plot point that allows you to then move on to the next plot point in terms of planning the events that will take place in the story.

'X escapes from Y' can be a single page with some exposition, it could be a panel. It could also be a double length floppy with zero protagonist dialogue.

Being able to look at a plot, summary or outline and zero in on sections that would make a good episode is a very valuable skill, and it cannot be broken down into mechanical parts of 'beginning, middle, end'.
In fact, I'd argue that the more sparse the plot description, the more that skill comes into it's own. Being able to envisage the pages, scenes, panels and actions before a single pencil stroke has been committed.

I'm the first to admit that my writing style is odd. I don't write anything more than a plot. Sometimes I don't even write that down.
I have a layout template, and I thumbnail the story and dialogue in as I go. Partly because I'm an artist foremost, but also because I'm telling the story through sequential art, and on a page that will sit in relation to a page across from it in print.
Because of the way I work, I can cut, paste, resize and rejig panels to make more sense, prolong tension, reveal characterisation while I'm thumbnailing.

And this is the same skill as above. Being able to look at the blank space and see something that should or shouldn't be there.

Scribbly
01-06-2015, 12:51 PM
Every perfected skill is the result of a method. Not the product of random intent.


Being able to look at the blank space and see something that should or shouldn't be there.
When we read something our mind work images instantly.
What we do next, as artists, is to project these images in the blank space.
And not otherwise.
That is something that comes natural for any reader or artist.
The reader only need enjoy these images. As when reading prose novel.
The artist need to project these images in paper.
To do so each artist will develop his own method of work which is an application of the big basics of artwork.
Same for writers, there are the big basics of writing and based on these each writer develop his own working method.

If we want work for a publisher in a long project ( a 132 pages serial ?)
he will ask us for our plot of the story. Just to have the big map (sketch) of what we are going to do.
Having the PLOT we break it down and start working the story up, panel by panel. Page by page, scene by scene and so on.
We can work a basic plot for a sequence of 3 panels. Or an elaborated plot for a 300 pages story.
Every story has beginning middle and end.

A writer who can't or doesn't know how to break down his own plot may be an amateur who need learn more of his craft. IMHO

Alyssa
01-06-2015, 07:09 PM
Scribbly, good advice, but you're off track for this thread, dude. ;) I don't have any problem dividing a story into coherent parts/chapters. I don't even have trouble with dividing a long serial into individual issues. I have trouble with short stories. Short stories are not merely fragments of a larger project, they're succinct, contained packages. A short story of 23 pages is not the same as a 23 page issue to a long serial. Pick up issue #82 of The Walking Dead. That's hardly equal to a short story. It's a fragment of a larger work. That's not what I'm talking about in this thread.

I'll write to all the awesome folk who chimed in on this thread later today; I just wanted to clarify what this thread was about. :cool:

Thanks, guys! :har:

Marta
01-06-2015, 09:49 PM
I have trouble with short stories.

We're in good company, Alyssa. I have fairly little difficulty crafting short stories, but have much more whenever attempting anything longer than about 12 pages!

Stewart Vernon
01-06-2015, 10:19 PM
I think I am strangely better at short stories. I find it more difficult to keep a story going for a longer period.

To be fair, I think a LOT of authors struggle more with longer narratives. It's just that they don't notice. Think about it... how many times have you been reading a novel and felt like it was dragging along... or you like it once you get into it but those first couple of chapters were hard to push through... or you like the story until the ending, which doesn't feel satisfying somehow.

I think a lot of writers fall into the "more is better" trap and feel like they have to make a really big/long/meandering story... when they really don't need to do that.

All this isn't to say there aren't good long stories or good long-story writers... it's just that a LOT of books out there would be better if they were short-stories instead of novels.

Scribbly
01-07-2015, 01:14 AM
Scribbly, good advice, but you're off track for this thread, dude. ;) I don't have any problem dividing a story into coherent parts/chapters. I don't even have trouble with dividing a long serial into individual issues. I have trouble with short stories. Short stories are not merely fragments of a larger project, they're succinct, contained packages. A short story of 23 pages is not the same as a 23 page issue to a long serial. Pick up issue #82 of The Walking Dead. That's hardly equal to a short story. It's a fragment of a larger work. That's not what I'm talking about in this thread.

I'll write to all the awesome folk who chimed in on this thread later today; I just wanted to clarify what this thread was about. :cool:

Thanks, guys! :har:
Well, I'm sorry if I went off track then.
For the record, I never say that you would have any trouble dividing a long serial into individual issues. For the opposite, what I said is that this shouldn't be a problem for anyone who knows well how to write a long story based in a plot.

What I was suggesting for you, as exercise of style, is to use the plot for your long story and work each fragment of the story as it were an individual short story itself with its own introduction conflict and resolution.
That's all.

B-McKinley
01-08-2015, 10:41 AM
What I was suggesting for you, as exercise of style, is to use the plot for your long story and work each fragment of the story as it were an individual short story itself with its own introduction conflict and resolution.
That's all.

This is essentially the same advice I picked up from a book that dealt with constructing comic stories of different lengths. One of the methods described was the 5WH method. You ask/answer who, when, where (setup), what, why (conflict/motivation), how it went (resolution). Do that once and it's a short story. String enough of those together and it's a long story.

Alyssa,
What sort of short stories do you enjoy? What made those work? I'd recommend sampling short stories in various media--don't limit yourself to comics--to see what makes them tick. The interesting thing is you can compare and contrast how the same author approaches both formats (e.g. Stephen King).

Max Romaine
01-08-2015, 05:11 PM
If you want to get short stories, I suggest reading some of Hemingway's shorts. Old school, I know, but he was one of the best.

Alyssa
01-08-2015, 09:18 PM
@gmartyt: Thanks for the tip!

@Dave: You're awesome. Thanks for the advice and example! And while I've never played WoW, I'm a big enough nerd to understand the reference. Your short story cracks me up.

@Rin: Haven't seen these Future Shock stories, and I've no idea what you're talking about. I'll check it out. :cool: You've given some great tips, both here and in the challenge thread. Thanks for that. :banana:

@engcheedraws: Wow, thanks for going through the extra effort of going through my little brainstorm ideas! I think I'm getting a better idea of how to approach things, now.

@Scrappy: I think probably part of my problem is that I really haven't read many shorts in general, let alone find many that I've liked. I sit there with an idea and think, "Well, I'm not happy with the brevity here, therefore no one else will be happy with it". Your example regarding the two friends who now hate each other is good, and I do use tactics to imply background in my story (rather than beating folk over the head with it), but what if the story was ABOUT two friends who come to hate each other? How much do you show, and how much do you leave out? I guess that's my tripping point.

@Marta: I like to write big worlds with big issues, and have the story focus on multiple characters, each with their own deeper subplots. This is my undoing. :har:

@HDMe: Absolutely. This is why I never go anywhere without my editors. Writers love words. :slap:

@Scribbly: Ah, I think I get what you're saying, now! Any exercise to help me improve is a good one. Thanks for the tip.

@B-McKinley & Max Romaine: Great tips. Like I mentioned to Scrappy, I haven't found many short stories that I like. I've picked up a number of those "best short stories" collections, and found that I don't like the majority of them. I'll like the world, or a character, but the story leaves me wondering how people can read that and be satisfied. This might be a case of me just needing to absorb more short stories.

I posted my short story (http://www.digitalwebbing.com/forums/showpost.php?p=1840636&postcount=34) to the writing challenge Steven created. You guys are more than welcome to tear it up if you're so inclined. I'm here to learn.

Thanks so much for chiming in, everyone!