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Sunday, January 29, 2012

Writing 101 Shawn’s approach to Storytelling

I’ve been writing for almost thirty years, almost twenty professionally. In that time I’ve learned a few things that have helped me become a better storyteller. I’m hoping through this series I can help writers improve in their craft as well.

To write my stories I take components from comic books, literary fiction, and screenwriting to create a unique storytelling model. I feel in today’s competitive entertainment market I feel a writer can’t write novels filled with long paragraphs filled with long blocks of prose describing things in graphic detail. Today’s reader won’t sit through over fifty pages to setup a story nor will they sit through books over 100,000 words*. With books competing with faster paced media such as movies, video games, the internet and apps, I realize a writer has to adapt their storytelling to fit the needs of today’s reader.

To reach today’s readers I use a compact style of storytelling which features tight writing. Short paragraphs, and short chapters.

I use shorter paragraphs to describe scenes action going on. Screenplays often tell a story using the least amount of words. Adapting this approach to storytelling, I write short paragraphs with minimal description which allows the reader to maximize their imagination. Less is more.

Along with the short paragraphs I also utilize short chapters to quickly get the reader into the story.1970’s and 1980’s comic books used to set up their stories very quickly. Usually by about the third page the reader knew what the story was about.

Screenplays also set up very quickly. Feature-length screenplays set up very quickly. A well-written screenplay will set up the story introduce most of the characters and tell what the story is about by the tenth page.

In most of my stories, like Isis and The Temptation of John Haynes the chapters are anywhere from three to five pages. Some climax scenes may go long as ten or fifteen pages.

The short chapters and short paragraphs build a fast pace. That gets the reader involved in the story quickly. The earlier the reader is involved in a story, the more they’ll be compelled to finish the book. I find finishing chapter after chapter gives readers confidence and encourages them to keep reading.

One of the things I learned from comic books, television and screenwriting was that most of those writers understood that the readers’ time was valuable. The reason they got right to the point was because they knew time was important. Many those writers understood they were competing for the customers’ attention with other media. They understood each second longer it takes the reader to get involved in the story is a second that they may choose to put a book down.

I don’t want the reader to put the book down. I want them to keep reading my stories.

Adapting the approaches I learned from screenwriting comic books and television, I try to setup a story by the first fifteen to twenty pages. Applying a technique I learned studying screenwriting in those 15-20 pages I try to answer the following three questions:

Who is the main character?

What do they want?

Why should we care?

I find once I answer those three questions in the outline stages, the story usually falls into place. From there I can fill in the details like setting, location, supporting characters “voice” and dialogue.

I’ll break down how to answer those questions one by one the next couple of blogs.

*(Yeah, I know Harry Potter Books are over 100,ooo words but the average reader isn’t going to sit through 600 to 900 page books filled with big descriptive paragraphs, especially those with big words. Most people will just get frustrated and stop reading. )


  1. Great stuff, Shawn, even for an old hand like me. I constantly refresh my knowledge and remind myself of what's changing, and when I don't my sales reflect that nonattention.

    This one is a winner and I expect the others to be. Like you, I favor keeping film writing in mind when i write novels. I love to wander on and on, but alas, I can no longer do this, so I cut to the chase.

    You're doing writers everywhere a real favor and I will be begging you to address my website readers with a blog.

    Kudos on a beautifully done job!

  2. Hey Shawn,
    Just wanted to let you know, that the info. you're imparting on this topic will be greatly appreciated by myself and a lot of other writers.

    It's great to see someone talk about the craft once in a while, and speak to how the novel 'medium' has changed so drastically over the last few years.

    Being that I'm about to start on my second leg of pitching to publishers, I'll be ardently waiting for your next installments.

    Keep up the righteous work!!!