Story Concepts & Development for Novels, Comics, Games, Film and TV

Useful Techniques For Short Form Storytelling

First, let me say I don’t consider myself a teacher, but if you’re interested in the business of short form storytelling – comic strips, short films, webcomics, and the like – Here are a few techniques that help me when I’m developing stories.

STEREOTYPES CAN BE YOUR FRIEND
Script contests can be a great forum for practicing your writing skills. Most give you several months to write and submit your work. But there are also live writing contests, which give you a prompt and a limited time – like 90 minutes – to write a story or scene based on that prompt. The key to succeeding in these contests is in finding the most efficient ways to draw the reader in to the story.

One way to do that was in exploiting stereotypes that give the reader an instant familiarity with the character in your story.

For example, if I introduce a character as a “bad-mouthed Han Solo” or a “Hell’s Angel with a heart of gold”, those descriptions go a long way in helping you understand who that character is, and how they’re likely to behave in the scene.

If I had to describe Arash in Alien Confidential using this technique, I would call him “an alien-friendly Rick Deckard” (from Blade Runner).

[As a reminder, if I am constructing a longer story like a screenplay or comic book, I do all I can to AVOID stereotypes, or twist them in some unique way that make that character feel fresh or edgy.]

THE POWER OF NAMES
Character names are also opportunities for conveying tone, character, and story. I never pick names arbitrarily in my work (and coming up with alien-sounding names for Alien Confidential that still convey character or story is an ongoing challenge).

Though some writers will likely disagree with me, I would expect a character named Autumn to behave rather differently from one named Jazz. And a guy named Graham will certainly order differently at a bar than one who calls himself Tito.

I am also a big fan of names with an historic, biblical, or mythological reference.

For Alien Confidential, choosing alien names has been both amusing and challenging. But here again, my short form tools lead me to picking names that help the reader get an instant sense of character. In “Who Shot First?”, the “bad guy” alien is named Bruut. It doesn’t take a savant to figure out that this character is probably not very friendly.

[On a side note, the name Arash was already chosen by Namco when the project came to me, so I didn’t have a hand in that one.]

USE ONLY ESSENTIAL ACTION
This one is sort of obvious. Jump to the heart of the story conflict as early as possible in every scene, and know your ending. Then plot a way to bring the two together that surprises the reader.

For Alien Confidential, I was given a directive of 4-5 panels per webcomic, so even in stories that stretch out over several installments; it’s vital to boil every moment down to only the essential action necessary to communicate that conflict.

EVERY WORD HAS MEANING
When writing dialogue, choose every word with care, as you have little “page real estate” to play with. Years of writing comic books has honed this skill for me.

Use strong, descriptive verbs and avoid interjections.

I also spend a lot of time developing “sexy words” for my dialogue – words that express the theme or conflict of the story – and make sure to sprinkle them in whenever possible.

For Alien Confidential, I write in Final Draft using a standard screenplay format. A 4- 5 panel webcomic with descriptions and dialogue tends to run about a page in length.

TITLES
Like stereotypes and character names, titles can be a powerful storytelling tool, particularly in short form storytelling. The most obvious way to implement this is to choose a title that plays into the story’s action or theme. Another way is to juxtapose the title with the story.

Then there’s the one I tend to prefer: a cryptic title that, at first, doesn’t seem to relate to the story, then pays off at the end of the tale.

One of my favorite upcoming Alien Confidential one-shots is called “Secrets”, where Arash hires a barmaid for Black & White. While the story might seem mundane at first glance, the title lets the reader know that there is more to come.

Well, there you are. A little window into the art of saying a lot with just a little.

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