Keeping it Short
by Dino Caruso
I love ’em.
Would you like to know why, in an answer broken down into three categories? Well, alright then. Here we go!
Short Stories (Reader’s perspective):
In prose, they can range from micro-fiction (in the hundreds of words) to somewhere in the range of 7,500 words. In comics, they’re usually somewhere in the ballpark of 1 to 12 pages. You’ll usually find them in anthologies (sometimes with different creative teams handling each story) or online. The reason I enjoy them is because they deliver the potential for multiple genres and storytelling styles within the same anthology. I usually like to read some short stories after I’ve finished a longer book. It’s like having a snack in between the main courses…good for a little variety.
Some of my favourite shorts are The Sweetest Fig, by Chris Van Allsburg (I’m going to count illustrated stories); Mephisto In Onyx, by Harlan Ellison; and A Black and White World, by Neil Gaiman and Simon Bisley. Each of these storytellers has crafted a wonderful, complete, satisfying tale in a short amount of space. Track them down if you haven’t read these ones yet.
Short stories (“Breaking In” perspective):
Short story writing is a very important skill to hone if you’re a writer looking to break into the comics field. For starters, you’re much more likely to find yourself an artistic partner if the project is a short one, rather than a 24 issue epic series which forms the first part of a trilogy about a new universe you’ve created from scratch. Additionally, there are plenty of independent anthologies out there looking for content. Short stories are a great way to get yourself published and start building up some credits. And all those anthologies look pretty good on the table when you start working conventions. Short stories also give you nice, accessible, complete projects to send off to editors to show what you’ve been up to.
Short stories (Writer’s perspective):
When I’m putting a story together, whether it’s long or short, I like to go through a checklist of components. It’s got to have a beginning, middle and end…and it’s got to have characters, a setting, a problem and a solution.
The big difference between short and long stories, for me anyway, is the amount of time, space and depth given to developing your characters and making them seem whole and complete. In short stories, I also can’t include as many settings, subplots and supporting characters.
When I was writing THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA MONSTER for the forthcoming Holmes Inc. #2, I started with a piece of notebook paper broken into four boxes (labeled “problem”, “solution”, “characters” and “setting”). I wrote my rough ideas about the story into the appropriate box, and then flipped the sheet over. I split that page into three boxes (labeled “beginning”, “middle” and “end”), and quickly laid out my vision of how I wanted the story to unfold.
Now…those notes don’t count as my actual outline of the story. They’re simple tools to help me organize my thoughts. With those in place, I came up with a page-by-page outline, which I brought in to show editor Ty Templeton, assistant editor Rob Pincombe and my artist, Pierce Desrochers-O’ Sullivan. (NOTE: super important to include the artist in this process…it’s always nice to tailor the story for the artist whenever possible). When my outline was approved, I got down to scripting.
In short stories, you’ve got to cover a lot about your characters in very few pages. When writing characters that aren’t well-known to the audience in a short story, sometimes I rely on using familiar archetypes or situations that a reader can quickly identify with. For example, in this short humour story for the anthology OMEGA COMICS PRESENTS (with art by the amazing Sam Agro), I wanted to write a superhero story with a twist ending. Rather than go through an origin story and explain who all the villains are, I simply described the hero as having Batman type qualities, and I think the reader is quickly able to pick up the broad strokes of who he is.
When you’re working with established characters in a short story, a lot of the groundwork has already been set up for you. A lot of the characterization will have been handled for you in previous adventures, so a quick recap may be all that is needed.
Returning to the specific example of THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA MONSTER, the characters of Artie and Old Edgar Holmes were thoroughly examined in Holmes Inc.#1. I didn’t need to delve into their entire backstories, but rather, I chose to have a few moments of exposition on the first page where we establish Artie’s technical savvy and demonstrate Old Edgar’s affection for the lad. I think that those few panels detailed their relationship rather efficiently.
The antagonists in the story are Igopogo and an evil military man from Old Edgar’s past. To be perfectly honest, they’re pretty standard bad guys. I didn’t take the time to develop them too fully (though I’m hoping future writers in the series will) because I wanted the meat of the story to be about the relationship between the Artie and Old Edgar, and give Old Edgar a chance to shine in a situation where Artie expects him to be in the way.
It would be rather ironic if I wasn’t able to concisely explain my fondness for short stories, but before I sign off…just curious…what are some of your favourite short stories, either in prose or comics?