Hollywood is expanding its reach in terms of where it sources new material, particularly original stories that can be adapted into films and television shows. Producers have scoured through podcasts, magazine articles, and increasingly, short stories. David Boxerbaum, an agent at Verve Talent Agency, spoke with Creative Screenwriting Magazine about the success he’s been having in selling short stories to producers and studios.
Short stories shouldn’t be considered as a proof of concept or an abridged version of novel by writers that are necessarily, a means to an end. They are legitimate literary forms that may exclusively exist in that short format, or they can be adapted into larger pieces. “I think it’s a really interesting new prose that is becoming much more sought after in the marketplace right now,” says Boxerbaum. The agent is somewhat surprised by how sought-after the format has become recently after Verve has sold around 15 short stories in a row, some through bidding wars. “It’s almost replacing the spec script, but definitely becoming more sought-after than the spec. To me, the short story has become a real opportunity for writers, novelists, and playwrights, to really make an impact with a different way of showing a story, unlike we’ve seen quite some time,” he continues.
Short stories have been published for many years, but the way they have changed the industry, especially in the horror-thriller genre, is very exciting. Horror and thriller short stories have made the biggest impact in a similar way that true-crime has impacted podcast adaptations into films and TV series.
The agent compares the excitement of short stories to the explosion of spec script sales during the 80s and 90s. And it shows no signs of slowing down.
“I think it’s remarkable the way you can tell a story in the 25 to 40 pages; sometimes in as few as 4 or as high as 60. We’ve seen a different way that it triggers someone’s thought process when they’re reading them compared to when reading a normal spec.”
David has enjoyed professional success selling spec scripts and he doesn’t want writers to feel that they will be imminently be replaced by short stories. Writers should continue to write original stories in their preferred formats.
Although horror and thriller short stories have dominated this space, Boxerbaum doesn’t see them as the only genre that can work. “I definitely think sci-fi is a very big genre and there’s an absolute white space for that too. I also think we’re going to explore straight action, but I think the most successful ones will be action thriller.”
The agent hasn’t seen romantic comedies lend themselves to the short story format, since they are more sourced in the spec script, novel or IP spaces.
What The Buyers Are Looking For
The key driver of successful short stories “is a matter of finding a story or character we haven’t seen already. It just has to feel unique, special, and different. It has to feel like you’re taking somebody to a place they haven’t seen before,” continues Boxerbaum.
Writers should also consider a fresh take on a familiar story. “It’s taking a different format and doing it differently.” This approach also excites the industry. Buyers have frequently said,”‘Give me an opportunity to see a different version of haunted house story’, or, ‘This gave me a different way of seeing a version of a husband and wife, and the husband turns on the wife.’ We’ve seen those movies before, but it’s just told in a different and unique way.”
Some writers may prefer writing a collection of short stories or being included in an anthology of stories with other writers with a common theme. David Boxerbaum has had more success with one-off, original stories. He hasn’t seen much success in selling a collection of stories at once. Perhaps they might work as sequential sales that translate into sequels or a franchise.
According to David, the current short story trend began on a sub-Reddit where people post their personal scary experiences. These naturally lent themselves to thriller and horror stories. Many stories are told in the first person point-of-view to make them more intimate and immediate. “I think that really captivates the reader.”
Later, the trend spread into TikTok, X, and other online platforms. The agent doesn’t recommend one platform over another. Physical or online stories are equally effective. “If they’re out in the world, I always say the best ones will find its way to our eyes. Great material will find its way. The cream rises to the top.”
The relative ease of publishing a short story has resulted in a deluge of them with varying degrees of quality. “My job has been finding a promising story and helping to put it through what we call the “oven” and have it come out baked perfectly at the end before we try to sell it.”
Writing Great Short Stories
“I feel like we’ve found a certain model, a certain formula, and certain ingredients that seem to work every single time in these short stories. They make the story coalesce and come together.” These elements include certain character temperaments, ways to tell the rules of the world, certain points of view (POV), and particular story types that work or don’t. Verve’s success comes from analyzing the marketplace, the readers, and studying the philosophical and psychological aspects of people.
Verve rarely receives a short story that’s immediately ready for circulation. “There’s always been a kernel of an idea or a special world. People want to feel like they’re in the story with you. They want to feel like the character is them like it’s grounded in reality. That’s why I feel like the first person POV works.”
The story rules refer to instructions the characters must follow. For instance, if they enter a haunted house, they must do this or not do that. If they don’t follow the rules, there are consequences. “Rules are guidelines for the story as well. And then, you have to have two or three big reveals, twists and turns, so your reader thinks you’re turning right and then you turn left.”
David also advises against over-writing. Short stories should typically clock in at around 25 to 30 pages or around 7000 words. Occasionally, they may run as long as 40 pages.
“Less is more sometimes, but you still want to make sure you’ve layered the characters enough. You also have to get your themes across. That’s another very big selling point in the short story today. How do you tie your themes with what’s currently going on in the world and the emotions we’re feeling today?”
Boxerbaum describes himself as a “character and dialogue guy. You’re not getting a lot of dialogue in a short story because it’s usually a POV. The character work is quick because you only have 25 to 30 pages to tell your story.”
Writers shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that just because a short story is typically around a third of the length of a screenplay, it should take a third of the time to write. Both need to be complete, satisfying stories. Boxerbaum claims both take a similar length of time to write and each goes through a regular development process. “There’s a good amount of time and thought that has to go into short stories because you’re telling a very complex and layered story within space constraints.”
Verve takes its time to ensure the stories they take out to market are fully-baked. Buyers appreciate it when they visualize an entire movie in a short story. “I think it’s a powerful thing when you can tell an entire movie in that short amount of time.”
“I think the most exciting thing that a writer and artist should hear is this is an art that we’re all doing, that we’re all accomplishing, and we’re all taking a part of. I’m just a piece of that puzzle that gets to put it together.”
“The writers that succeed are the ones that put the effort in. There are no barriers. It’s all about who wants to put the time and energy into it, and who has the passion the hunger for it.”
“The most successful writers I’ve seen keep writing and hone their craft.”
“Just do what you know how to do best. Sit down and write and tell a story you want in the best way that you can. Sometimes those are the ones that work the best.”
“It’s all about telling a story and then letting the story find its place in the marketplace. It will find its way if it’s that good.“