Tackling The Short

| January 16, 2012 | 11 Comments


“Focus on writing shorts.”

This is the advice I’ve heard most often given to aspiring comic writers from working editors and pros.  It’s advice I’ve echoed myself.

And it makes good solid sense for a host of reason.  As the old adage goes, you need to learn to walk before you learn to run, right?  Surely that applies to writing comic scripts?  If you can’t tell a solid story in five pages, what chance do you have at writing five issues anyone would want to read?  And even if your ultimate goal is writing ongoing super hero sagas for the Big Two, virtually NO ONE starts with a full issue gig.  No, more than likely, you’ll be invited to pitch a short for something like this.

And even if you only want to do creator-owned work, before taking on the considerable time and money investment required to bring a new series to life, it might be a smart idea to do a few shorts that take place in the world you want to build to make sure it’s an idea with legs and appeal.  (Go re-read Rich Douek‘s TRENCHES article about his series Gutter Magic for more on this approach.)

And as a  corollary, in the indie world, it’s hard to find artists willing to work for low pay on a huge series.  But a 6-8 pager?  You’re more likely to get a yes on something like that, and ideally, they fall in love with the project, too.  On the flip side, if the relationship doesn’t work out, better fail on a short than on your opus.

So, yes, writing shorts is a great idea.

However, I have to admit, I haven’t written many shorts.

I know.  It sucks when people give you advice and don’t follow it themselves.  Who doesn’t want to slap Dr. Phil across his chubby face when seeing his “Ultimate Weight Loss Solution” on the book store racks?  I’m sure for many of us, writing shorts feels like the equivalent of doing pointless drills when we’d rather just play the real game.  The reason we love comics is because at one time or another we got lost in incredible new worlds, populated with characters we love, going on epic journeys.  The epic novel series, the five season tv show, the Hollywood trilogy, the epic comic book run by a creative team in its prime…this is why we want to write.

And there ain’t nothing short about any of the above.

My aim for this piece isn’t to convince you about what you should or shouldn’t be writing at this stage of your comic career.  Our time on this planet is limited, and our creative/writing time is precious, so you need to spend it on what you love.  But what I would like to do is share some things I’ve learned having put a bit more time into shorts, as a reader, writer, and soon to be editor of them.

Whether you love them or hate them, being able to crank out a solid short is an extremely valuable skill to have in your arsenal.  There are more opportunities than ever for contributing shorts to various anthologies, and virtually all of the major publishers look for shorts in one form or another.

Tips for Tackling a Short

1) Study

Before writing a short, it’s well worth your time to read some good ones first.  The comic world has no shortage of anthologies.  Some are great.  Some are terrible.  So, to save you some time, here’s a tremendous anthology of shorts, Clockwork, all written by Paul Allor, that you should download immediately.

You didn’t buy it did you? Come on people, it’s 99 cents!  12 shorts in all!  That’s 8.25 cents a short ya cheap bastards!

Okay, great, you’ve got it.

Now, cozy up and read a few stories.  Good huh?

If you’re submitting to an anthology, it helps to read previous installments of similar anthologies. Study.

Readers: Have any anthology or shorts suggestions?  Leave them in the comments below.

2) Research

Steven wrote something in one of his columns recently, I believe it was “Dialogue should teach you something.”  I’d extend that to comics or stories in general.  Regardless of what genre you’re writing in, every story you write should enrich the reader just a little bit.

Scott Snyder, practically unanimous favorite for top writer of the decade, fills his scripts with the interesting.  Sure he can write a good horror or action scene, but you don’t leave an issue of Swampthing without picking up a fascinating factoid about botany, or an issue of Batman without delving deeper into the rich history of Gotham City.  How does he do it?

I don’t know.  It could be he’s a comic writing savant, but chances are, it’s more that he’s a hell of a researcher.

So, even if you’re writing just a 5 pager, I’m telling you to do some research.  Teach the reader something in those 5 pages he or she will remember.  The great news is, because it’s a short, the amount of research you need to do probably isn’t all that much.

A  short I wrote was featured in The Proving Grounds.  I was invited to pitch to an anthology whose theme was American History + zombies.  An opportunity for a great “What if?”, I thought it would be cool to take an already perilous historical situation — Harriet Tubman leading a group of slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad — and add zombies to the mix.

The anthology editor liked it, and I was approved to draft a script.

The above line, however, was pretty much all I had, so my next step was to fill up my noggin with the historical context, and see if that didn’t spark some interesting details and touchstones for my story.

To the Wikipedia, I went!

Now, if I was going to make this an ongoing epic, I’d have to do a lot more research: movies, documentaries, biographies, multiple interpretations of the historical events, etc.

But we’re talking eight pages here.

So, I hit up the Wikipedia, researching both “Tubman” and “Underground Railroad” and jotted down notes on things I thought were interesting:

    • Born 1820, Maryland
    • 13 missions, more than 70 slaves, never lost a passenger.
    • Head wound as a child, hit with a heavy weight.
    • Prone to seizures, narcoleptic attacks, powerful visions, etc.
    • First escaped to Philly, then returned to Maryland to get her family, kept going back.
    • Large rewards offered for her (40,000)
    • Boss used to say not worth a sixpence couldn’t sell me .now there was a huge bounty on her head.
    • Travel northeast along the Choptank River, through Delaware, then north in Penn. Travel by night, guided by North Star.
    • When I found that I had crossed that line there was such a glory to everything; the sun came up like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and it felt like heaven.

And so on.

Now, not all of that made it into my script.  But from the research, I was able to make some connections among things, to start fleshing out my story.

For example, I thought it interesting that as a child, Harriet’s owner tried to sell her for as little as a sixpence, but couldn’t because she was “damaged goods.”  Contrast that to a few years later, when there was a $40,000 bounty on her head, and well, that was too good a bit of irony to not include in my short.

These little details matter.  Research is how you get them right.

3) Focus, Focus, Focus

I asked some of my writer chums for their advice on writing shorts, and they all agreed…you need to focus your script to only what’s important.

“It’s funny how easy it is to spend half your real estate on introducing everyone,” observed John Lees. “One short I read had three pages of preamble before the actual story began.  Figure out the exact moment where your story begins, and ends. Get in and out.”

One way to make sure you do that, John advised, is to “limit characters and locations, and build your story on a single beat.”  Rich Douek concurs.  “Keep the principle cast small – you don’t have enough room to introduce, let alone focus on a lot of people.”

“Distillation is key. Reduce actions and ideas to their barest essential. Be prepared to kill most of your darlings,” advises Yannick Morin.

4) Know Your End

Another suggestion that was echoed from the gallery of writers I surveyed, was to know the ending before you start scripting. “For a short, I always start at the end and work backward,” Mark Bertolini suggested. “Know the end first then plan out all your beats and reveals in reverse. Where you end up beginning is of little importance,” echoed Yannick Morin.

For my Zombie short, I wasn’t exactly sure where it was going to end up.  Who was going to live, who was going to die…I wasn’t really sure.  But once I decided that it was going to end with a historically accurate caption, something like this:

CAP – Harriet Tubman made thirteen trips along the underground railroad, leading more than 70 slaves to freedom. Despite large bounties on her head, she was never betrayed or captured.

CAP – She never lost a single passenger.

…that I knew I was ready to write.

It was clear, no one was going to die.

Not even zombies would stop Harriet from leading  the people in her charge safely to freedom.

That’s a heroine worthy of her face on money, no?

So there you have it.  Four tips for writing shorts from myself and others. Have you tackled shorts or do you avoid them?   If any of you have additional tips, please share in the comments below.


Tyler James is a comics creator, game designer, and educator residing in Newburyport, MA. He is the writer and co-creator of superhero murder mystery maxi-series THE RED TEN,    EPIC, a superteen action comedy, and  Tears of the Dragon, a swords and sorcery fantasy. His past work includes  OVER, a romantic comedy graphic novel, and  Super Seed, the story of the world’s first super powered fertility clinic. His work has been published by DC and Arcana comics.

Tyler is the publisher and co-creator of  ComixTribe, a new website empowering creators to help each other make better comics.

Contact Tyler via email (tylerjamescomics@gmail.com), visit his website  TylerJamesComics.com, follow him on  Twitter, or check him out on  Facebook

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Category: Comix Counsel

About the Author ()

Tyler James is a comics creator, game designer, educator, and publisher residing in Newburyport, MA. He is the writer and co-creator of THE RED TEN, a superhero murder mystery, EPIC, a superteen action comedy, and TEARS of the DRAGON, a swords and sorcery fantasy. Tyler is the publisher and co-creator of ComixTribe, which is both a new imprint of quality creator owned titles, and an online community where creators help creators make better comics. Follow him on Twitter @tylerjamescomics, or send him an email at tyler.james@comixtribe.com.

Comments (11)

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  1. DonU says:

    You said that you’ll soon be editing short comic scripts, Tyler. Does this mean you’re planning to put together your own (or a comixtribe) anthology?

  2. This was extremely helpful, thanks! It would be interesting to also learn about the different approaches people may take to structuring their story after they know their end, but before they actually begin scripting. For instance, is it typically more useful/important to outline the story beforehand since brevity/being straight to the point is the key?

  3. Oh, and what anthology will your short be in? I like the concept, and would like to read it once it comes out.

  4. Steve Colle says:

    Speaking of tackling the short, are all of ComixTribe’s titles in either mini- or maxi-series format at this point instead of ongoing titles?

    • Tyler James says:

      Steve, I think the concept of an “ongoing title” doesn’t make a ton of sense, especially for independent comics. I mean, look at how many of DC’s New 52s ended at issue #8! If the top comic publishers can’t guarantee a series will be ongoing, isn’t it a little silly for an indie publisher to make the same claim?

      I think mini-series are the best way to go.

      That said, I’m all for the independent creator who knows the story they want to tell for the rest of their life, a la Savage Dragon. But, I think those creators are few and far between.

  5. Steve Colle says:

    Man (he says excitedly), we are SOOOOOOOOO on the same wavelength. I’ve been trying to tell people that since the mid-’90’s. It doesn’t make sense, especially nowadays when collected volumes can gather the mini- or maxi-series so easily into a package that can be sold through the non-direct market such as bookstores and department stores.

    Marry me? (Wait, I’m already happily married…)

  6. I actually think Television should embrace the mini series as well. After all it seems that TV shows seem to be setting themselves up with limited premises.
    Shows like the cancelled ‘Missing’, could never last seven seasons. I mean… her son could only be missing for so long. Just like ‘How I Met Your Mother’ Its not realistic to have this story go on for as long as it has been. The worse case of this, is probably ‘Prison Break’. I didn’t watch it, but its my understanding that they constantly had to make excuses to put the character back in prison, or into a new prison.

    Shit, even films sequels. They’ve announced a sequel to ‘Taken’. Yes, ‘Taken’ was awesome. But the story has nowhere to go, you can’t really expand on it, and call it, ‘Taken 2’. Currently the plot is, Liam Neeson now gets… taken.
    Now if the plot to ‘Taken’ was more open, and there was room for it to expand itself, maybe give it a sequel. Or if the character’s were interesting enough to have us go, “I want to see these characters in other interesting stories and adventures!” ‘Taken’ has neither of that.
    Comics, successful comics at least, have INTERESTING characters. So them going on for decades makes sense. The issue is, the stories over time, struggle to keep fresh, and logical. People, seem to hate character development in comics. Most people think that, for example, Cyclops has been written out of character for a long time. Really though, if you really become critical of the character, and his experiences, hes SLOWLY developed into this apparent ‘ass hole’. He’s not written out of character, at this point, IT IS his character… This has turned into a rant. The point is, the Mini/Maxi series is the future.

    • Tyler James says:

      I’ve been really digging a lot of BBC shows recently. Their approach seems to be…a “season” is as long as we need to tell the story. LUTHER was a great cop show that had seasons of 6 and then 4 episodes long. In and out, leave ’em wanting more. MI-5 had a similar approach.

      That said, a show like 24, with a premise that really seemed to be tailor made for just one season, kept my interest and attention for all 8 seasons.

      The reason: Jack Bauer.

      So, you’re definitely right…we’ll watch a great character fold laundry.

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