The Good Short Story Tips and Tricks: Hook and Pacing

DSP typically plans and produces six to twelve anthologies a year with a short story word count ranging from 5k to 15k words. Technically, there is no sole right way to write a short story, but there are a lot of wrong ways. However, we’ll focus on a couple of methods used to entice your reader and get them hooked on your story for the next twenty to forty pages.

Let’s assume you know the components for proper characterization, tension, theme, POV, etc. For a good short story, you only need to place heavy emphasis on two aspects of your story; a good hook and your scenes moving at a face pace toward the climax.

The Hook

The hook is the opening line or scene to ensnare your reader. It’s a statement that makes them develop an interest in your story right off the bat. For a short story, you want them vested in your tale from the very beginning because you don’t have a lot of words to develop your character or theme. There are several easy ways to write a hook that will have your reader jump into your story; in media res, mystery, and disturbing.

In medias res means, “in the middle of the action”. Instead of starting out those teenagers having sex by the lake and then getting killed one-by-one by the psychopath in a hockey mask, you start the story with one of them running for his life while being chased by the psychopath. In my story, Malicyne’s Puzzle, the hook took place with a battle between a pirate ship and a naval frigate. Thela’s Angel started with poor Thela getting beaten to a pulp by her husband in the inn. Daughter of Darkness starts the story with the holy knight, Rhain, landing a killing blow through a demon lord’s heart in the temple of night elves dedicated to the worship of the Tri-Headed Queen.

Mystery is a very common mechanism. You start out with a profound statement or an enigma for your story. In my book, Fallen From the Stars, it opens with the following:

“Come with me.”

A gunshot rang out, followed by a woman’s scream and the world turned to utter darkness. That’s all I can remember.

Was the main character shot? What happened? Who said, “Come with me?” Readers don’t find out until Chapter 12 Bad Memories, but in a short story, you reveal the mystery of the hook usually at the climax or at the end.

Disturbing is a less common one but is great for grimdark fantasy, horror, or something in which you’re going for shock value. It makes your reader shout, “WTF did I just read?!?” and then they are compelled to read on just to figure out why you wrote that. The Disturbing method will typically contain triggers (again, for shock value).

A word of warning about using the Disturbing method – know your audience. If you’re a fantasy writer who typically writes YA epic fantasy and you want to try your hand at grimdark fantasy, your loyal fans are in for a rude awakening. Secondly, a lot of publishers have a “no graphic [anything]” rule (or rules on certain triggers in general), so don’t violate submission guidelines by writing something that will make people wonder if you’re sane or turn your editor off to you.

Pacing

After you’ve written your hook, all your scenes following should be paced as if racing toward the climax. You’re not walking or building up to the climax, you’re running to it. A perfect example of how you should pace your story is by watching the promo trailer for Dragon Age: Origins. Here’s the link (Warning: Violence and Blood):

What did you see here if this was a story? An intrepid band of adventurers on a quest in monster-infested mountains filled with ice, snow, and death. There is the brief pause by the main character, a weapon is thrown from the ice and then boom, we are running through the action building up to the climax of the sorceress Morrigan casting a powerful lightning bolt that lays low the dragon. Did you note how fast the action moved and how it flowed from one character to the next? This is how your short story should flow from one scene to the next, and then building up to the climactic battle with the dragon at the end.

Master this and you’ll sweep your reader up for an intense ride with only a few thousand words.

Happy writing!

Cardinal Sins in Writing

Amateur writers make a lot of mistakes. After all, writing is a learning process. You should always practice, practice, practice, and get your work edited, but what about during the process itself? What is it you should avoid as much as possible before you send your work out to the beta-readers? There are a lot of cardinal sins in writing. I will go over several here. Chances are if you have one or more of these in your story, your lit agent, or publisher will give your work a pass. In no particular order of importance, they are:

1. Tell, do not show. You tell me someone is angry, happy, or sad. You do not describe the body language to allow myself to make that judgment for myself. You use adverbs out the wazoo. A good rule of thumb, avoid using emotive words altogether. Also, avoid using descriptive dialogue tags when said and ask should suffice.

2. You use Passive Voice. The plane was exploded by a bomb instead of: A bomb exploded the plane. Was, were, had, to be, being, has been, have been, etc. All are passive verbs. Now you don’t have to try to eliminate all your passive verbs, but your action verbs should considerably outnumber your passive verbs.

3. Your Main Character is a Mary Sue / Gary Stu. Your character can do everything. They are smart, beautiful, strong, fast, sexually attractive (I’m talking h-a-w-t), can fight with just any kind of weapon, cast spells, the child of a god, (sigh!) the list goes on. Or maybe, they are not all those things, but you’ve constructed the story so that every challenge your main character faced, they just breezed right through.

4. Your story has no tension. Are the victories and arguments your character faced too easy? No setbacks? No twists? Everyone just goes along with the MC just because they are awesome? Yeah, don’t do this.

5. You pacing is disjointed. You put the climax in the middle of the book and the denouement is the wrap up from there on out. When gearing up for that epic battle, it completely fizzles or worse yet, it’s extraordinarily brief or doesn’t happen at all. Remember, your readers are conditioned to enjoy a completed story of beginning, middle, climax, denouement.

6. You switch POVs. Either choose First or Third Person. There are others, but uncommon and not really used effectively. If you choose First Person, then your story is told through your Main Character(s)’ eyes and by what they know. We don’t have the luxury to get into someone else’s head unless your MC can read minds. Third Person is quite common (and there are different subtypes), but if you switch POV’s from one character to the next, give us a scene break or chapter break so we know we’re hopping around. Second Person or other styles are very rare – use with caution.

7. You info-dump. If you write about the elves’ special coming-of-age ritual, we don’t need to know every single little detail about it unless necessary and especially if you tell it as if I’m sitting in History class. If we don’t need to know it for the story, odds are you didn’t need to tell us. Cut it out.

8. You did not research your story at all (or enough). You have a battle in the early 1800’s and your MC mans a Gatling gun, mowing down enemies. Except that the gun wasn’t invented and put into use until the American Civil War. Make sure you have done all the necessary research related to your story. If you set your story in an era where there is a lot of contention or debate among prominent historians/scientists, your safer bet is to go with the more popular accepted theory.

9. You did not write for the market. You love Twilight. You decide to write a love triangle with a sparkle vampire, a buffed werewolf, and a human girl who needs a boyfriend. Except no publisher wants a Twilight clone. They are done with it. They are also done with Harry Potter, Hunger Games, 50 Shades of Grey,and Game of Thrones. They are sick of the Chosen One trope. All of this is clearly written in their submission guidelines, but you wrote your Twilight story anyways. Was your story good? We won’t know unless you self-publish because that’s your only course of action from here.

In short, finish your story, and get it done. But after that, go through and look for all these areas of perceived weakness. Clean it up. Then gather your beta-readers to let them look for any weaknesses you missed.

Invisible Words: Dialogue Tags and Why You Don’t Need Them (Much)

You’ve probably heard this piece of advice before, “Don’t use descriptive dialogue tags. Use only said and ask.” And that’s good advice. It makes a lot of sense because it is really jarring to read something like this:

John quipped, “I know, let’s go to the movies!”

Sarah gasped, “But we’re not allowed. It’s against God’s law!”

“We never get to have any fun,” John grumbled.

“We could just go over to those bushes and have sex,” whispered Sarah.

John paused. He exclaimed, “Sure!”

Yeah, that’s terrible. So, how are we supposed to do it? Like this:

John said, “I know, let’s go to the movies!”

Sarah said, “But we’re not allowed. It’s against God’s law!”

“We never get to have any fun,” John said.

“We could just go over to those bushes and have sex,” said Sarah.

John paused. He said, “Sure!”

The reason why the second sample was better than the first is that the words said (and ask if used) are invisible to the reader, and it shifted the emotion in the dialogue for the reader to figure. However, sometimes this can be jarring. Why? Because examine all those times I used the names John and Sarah. If I keep writing, John, John, John, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, guess what your brain is likely to tune out or keep stumbling over?

And that’s what this post is all about–provide you another tip on style by omitting said and ask as much as possible. Let’s redo the example.

John snapped his fingers. “I know, let’s go to the movies!”

Sarah lifted a hand to her mouth. “But we’re not allowed. It’s against God’s law!”

“We never get to have any fun.”

“We could just go over to those bushes and have sex.”

“Sure!”

In the last example, I’ve picked up the pacing on this and used a little body language to instead of a dialogue tag. Second, I eliminated the dialogue tags in the last three lines.

So how does this help you? Here’s how this stylistic approach can improve your writing.

It strengthens your showing, not telling. What did you think of when John snapped his fingers and then said, “I know, let’s go to the movies!”? He hit upon an idea is what most of you will say, but some of you will have a different opinion, and that’s fine.

Since our brains are trained to ignore the words said and ask, just get rid of them anyways. Use them sparingly, but for the most part, you don’t need them. Warning: you don’t want to get yourself into “talking-bubble-head-syndrome”. You do need to show who is talking. Here is an example:

Samdel patted his rider’s coat, lifted out the lapel, retrieving a cigar. “What were you saying, girl?”

“I hate it when you smoke those thrice-damn things around me!”

“Huh. A demon said that to me once.”

You know right off that Samdel is the first person who started this part of the conversation with the narrator telling he’s fishing out a cigar. Then, we know whomever he’s talking to responds, and then he says something back.

Now, when does this not work really well? When you have three or more people involved in conversation. Still, you can eliminate a great deal of said and ask by utilizing your prose to indicate actions from all your characters, but if you need to move rather quickly, you’re better served by using said and ask to ensure your reader doesn’t get confused or lost in the conversation. Another problem some writers have created when using this method is “floating heads” or “talking-bubble-head-syndrome”, and I covered that topic in an earlier post.

In short, here’s a tip on honing in a stylistic choice to remove mundane words and help your prose with more showing than telling.

Happy writing!

Demystifying Plotting Part 2 of 2

In the last post, I discuss how plotting is not as hard as it sounds so long as you don’t make it as hard. The whole point of it is to just jot down ideas and points of each part of the story. Don’t worry about cohesion, theme, or twists. Just write down each piece and then move on.

In this lengthy post, we’ll run through an example.

I write down my overall plot: A knight journeys across the lands to slay the dragon who has kidnapped the princess.

See? Already, you know how this story starts in the beginning and the end. At the beginning, the dragon comes, lays the smack down on the castle, snatches Princess Peach, and then absconds with her. The king sends the knight to go kill it and get his daughter back. At the ending, we know the knight is fighting the dragon, kills it, and takes Princess Peach back home to live happily ever after. But what’s in the middle? Umm … well, he journeys there, and that’s what we need to figure out. Second, let’s back up a little bit. Is there anything we can do to set the story up before the dragon attacks? For example, does the dragon have to be the be-all, end-all of villains?

Yes, we can!

Let’s have a dragon goddess unleash a terrible dragon upon the mortals. She does this because at one time, the lesser races worshipped her and the dragons. She desires those Ye Olde Tymes to return. Also, it comes at a moment when humanity, along with the other races are ready to war with one another.

Chapter 1. The Dragon Goddess summons the Black Dragon. Commands her most powerful minion to kidnap the princess.

Chapter 2. The King argues with the Elven and Dwarven delegates about a potential treaty. The delegates angrily deride the King. They leave. The reader knows war is coming as already skirmishes have been fought.

Chapter 3. The Outlying Fortress that is guarding the Wastelands is destroyed by a flock of dragons. The Black Dragon flies toward the kingdom.

Chapter 4. The dragon attacks the castle, captures Princess Peach, kills the Queen trying to save her daughter.

Chapter 5. The Aftermath. The king mourns his wife, and summons the most fabled knight of all the lands to kill the dragon.

Chapter 6, 7, 8, 9 …. uhh …. stuff …

Chapter 25. The knight fights the dragon before the Gate to the Dragon Goddess’ realm is opened.

Chapter 26. The mortal races are united, treaties are signed, and the knight and the princess get married.

Okay, now we have an epic fantasy on our hands. Already, we have five chapters at the beginning and he haven’t introduced our hero yet! Some blogs will say that’s not a good idea. Right now, we don’t care. What we care about is just getting all twenty-six chapter ideas out. The fine-tuning comes later. The plot twists come later.

What do we do next? Well, we need to introduce the knight in the next chapter.

Chapter 6. The knight is at a tavern, drunk, mourning his dead wife and youngest child of six years from an orc raid while he was off seeking treasure. He argues with his surviving son, who leaves him to join the war against the elves and dwarves.

Chapter 7. A servant summons the knight to the king’s castle. The knight tells him to eff off. Dragonkin, along with other monsters, attack the village and end up killing his son and most of the village before being driven back by the knight’s awesome fighting skills. The knight resolves to fight.

Now, the knight has entered the arena and our story is shaping up. We know he has to go to the castle, get his quest from the king, then journey to the Dragon’s land for the final battle. We think about it a little more and realize the knight needs resources in order to fight. Let’s pull out all the stops—magic, people, treasure, everything. The knight needs it all and he needs allies in order to do it! Let’s start with an expression, “Sometimes, politics makes strange bedfellows.” So, we’re focusing on the knight building an army to fight the dragon.

Chapter 8. The knight receives his commission at the castle. He travels north into monster-infested lands and meets with the cabal of wizards. They will aid the knight on condition on getting the dragon parts solely for their research. He agrees.

Chapter 9. The Dragon Goddess comes to the elves, promises them they will be favored servants. They agree, but some in the Council do not like the idea. The Goddess goes to the dwarves, they rebuff her.

Chapter 10. The dragons attack en masse on the dwarven holds. They are wiped out, but the dragons are spent.

Chapter 11. The knight travels to the barbarian lands of the Bear People. They love battle and one bear is worth ten human men. However, they live in squalor in lands fouled by magic. The knight negotiates a deal for the Bear People to migrate south to better arable land. They armor up and march.

Chapter 12. The Dragon Goddess delivers an ultimatum to the King and the rest of humanity. Bow on bended knee or be wiped out starting with the princess. The king refuses. It’s on.

Chapter 13. The knight, Bear People, and wizards encounter their first major battle against the elves. The elves are defeated, but the knight is severely wounded and may not live.

Chapter 14. Some of the elves throw in their lot with the knight in exchange for assistance to usurp the existing Council. The knight agrees.

Chapter 15. The knight and his army is repelled by the dragonkin and some guardian dragons.

Chapter 16. The knight quests to find an ancient sword and shield to bolster the power of his army.

Chapter 17. The knight slays the lich guarding the powerful artifacts, but is betrayed by the wizards. He is rescued some Bear People and elves.

Chapter 18. The Dragon Goddess appears before the knight and offers a deal with him. Serve her and she will make him a king. He refuses.

Chapter 19. Battle at the Dragon Border Part 2. The knight wins.

Chapter 20. The elves begin to fight among themselves. A civil war erupts. Despite this, they start overrunning the human kingdom.

Chapter 21. The remnants of the dwarves come to the humanity’s defense. The elves are finally defeated and driven back.

Chapter 22. The surviving members of the wizards come to the Dragon Goddess’ defense and begin preparations to open the Gate to allow the goddess to come to the realm. If she does, nothing can oppose her as she will be a living god.

Chapter 23. The knight is captured and tortured. His closest friends come and rescue him.

Chapter 24. The knight and his army meets the dragons and dragonkin at the Great Castle. The Great Castle falls, and the knight storms his way to the deep dungeons below to fight the Black Dragon.

Chapter 25. The knight fights the Black Dragon before the Gate to the Dragon Goddess’ realm is opened.

Chapter 26. The mortal races are united, treaties are signed, and the knight and the princess get married.

Epilogue: Several years later. The princess is in labor and gives birth to a dragon. The goddess’ plans are complete.

So, does any of this seem rushed? Of course. It’s a rough outline, but guess what? You now have the middle. Could any of this be more developed? Yes, definitely! Once you start getting into the chronology and pacing of the book, you’re going to find out that you’ll need to bring in more chapters, more subarcs, or maybe make cuts to the outline (like introducing the wizards is too much).

After that, you can think about twists and shoring up any story themes; however, you don’t have to do any of that, because with this outline now, you can actually start writing and let those components reveal themselves.

In conclusion, you now know how to plot without having to go crazy.

Happy writing!

Some Advice: Reputation is Everything

Normally, writing blogs are just about that; most are tips and tricks on how to write better such as eliminating filler, catching redundancies, use Active Voice, etc. Others are more about the business side of writing such as marketing, self-promotion, mailing lists, etc.

In this post, I want to discuss something very near and dear to my heart, but something I see time and time again new authors throw away and that is their professionalism which affects their reputation. For people who know me as Christianmichael Dutton who writes under the pen name Hui Lang (Chinese for Gray Wolf), they know I am one and the same. I take my brand, my persona, and my interactions with everyone seriously. Everything I write here, either a blog post for Dragon Soul Press, a short story for my Red Hoods Page, or a fanfic doodle on my personal FB page, I give 110%. I am a known plotter and I typically plot out a story five or more times before deciding on how I will write the story. Then I get feedback on my work if time permits after I’ve gone through several cycles of self-editing.

Let’s start with a foundational rule:

If you’re an author who wants compensation for their work, you need to treat this as a serious business.

Let’s talk about some things that shows a lack of professionalism and how you can mitigate irreparable harm to your reputation. These things are doubly important when you’re an indie author because you have full control over your writings and publishing.  

You publish a work that isn’t edited or poorly edited. You know why it’s so hard to find a lit agent or a publisher willing to accept your story? This. This is the reason why the big trad houses have an intern whose job it is to simply read the first three pages of every work just to weed out people who cannot follow directions or send in poorly edited works. I frequently download samples of many indie authors’ books. I can’t get past the first chapter on so many of them because it comes across as if English was their second language with the help of Google Translate.

You chose a terrible cover. “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” applies to people, but not to books. If you work with a trad pub house and they slap a cover that looks like stock art drawn by an eight-year-old or you grab a cute image from Pixabay because it’s royalty free, nothing screams out, “AMATUER!” than an amateurish cover. When I see that, I think your writing matches and I don’t even bother to download the sample. If you cannot afford a great graphics artist, then go with a trad publisher who puts out great covers on their books. Check out Dragon Soul Press’ covers and see for yourself the high quality they use. Some are amazingly gorgeous (Shadows of the Fallen, I’m looking at you).

Your writing is lazy. You use Passive Voice. You used tropes and clichés that the big trad pubishers don’t want, so now your book isn’t marketable unless you self-publish. You use a ton of adverbs. You switch POVs more times than spinning on the Mad Tea Party ride at Disneyland. The rule of “Your first million words is crap,” isn’t just some made-up mantra by self-righteous authors of a bygone era. I wrote my first book when I was fourteen. It was crap. My second book was also crap. By the time I had written my third book, I already had written well-over a million words from all the campaign and adventure writing for the table-top role-playing games Dungeons and Dragons and Pathfinder. My third book still sucked. When I finished my fifth book, Fallen From the Stars, it finally looked like something I might be able to market, but it took me over a 1.5 million words to get there. If you want to fast track your learning experience, then get feedback. Serious feedback that doesn’t hold back on where you’re weak.

You don’t leverage social media effectively. As an author, you post cute cat memes, send … ahh … naughty pics to other people, launch a vitriolic diatribe against Flat-Earthers, but support anti-vaxxers, and so on. You swear like a sailor on your media pages, but you write cute furry YA stories. It’s perfectly fine to post whatever you want to post. No one should judge you for that unless you’re harassing people or being an all-around jerk, but keep it separate. Your author page should have your million loyal fans who see you as the awesome writer, and only your close friends and family get to see your cursing sailor, hedonistic anti-vaxxer jaded personality on your personal page.

This advice may come across a bit harsh, but again, review the foundational rule. Treat being an author as a serious business, forge great relationships with other authors and fans, and people will reciprocate.

Happy writing!