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!

Writing Likable Characters

We all want our readers to be invested in our stories. When a reader invests in your story, they are investing in a continued journey with you as a writer. Besides having someone thoroughly enjoy the work that you put so much effort into, having an invested reader can lead to great opportunities such as representation and publication if you’re seeking a more traditional means of publishing, or a loyal fan-base and more clout on social media if you’ve chosen to go with self-publication. Either way, only good things can come for you and your book if you have invested readers. 

But what is the key to success to capturing the hearts of readers? One of the easiest ways to get a reader completely on board with your book is to create likable and relatable characters. Think of all the books that you personally like – how many of them can you honestly say you like them for reasons other than the characters? Sure, the Harry Potter series is cool and JK Rowling outdid herself when she created the wizarding world, but if you stripped all the magic away, you’d be left with only the characters. And that was truly the heart of the books. It was Harry, Hermoine, and Ron that stole our hearts and made us want to keep reading. You can try to counter argue, but deep down you know it’s true. Take any story of any genre and strip away the fantastical settings, the plot twists, the romances, etc. and you’ll see that it’s the characters that are always at the heart of all our beloved books. 

But what is it about certain main characters that resonate with us and make us feel invested in their stories? All these beloved main characters and side characters that we love to discuss at length with friends, cosplay at events, or make fanart for; the one thing that they all have in common is their likability and relatability. So how do you go about creating characters that people like and want to follow?

Here are some tips:

Vulnerability– giving your character a vulnerability is one of the easiest ways to get your character to resonate with readers. This vulnerability can either be a physical one like a handicap or an emotional one. Either way, seeing a character struggle with their own weaknesses, hopes, limitations, or fears is always a way to get readers to see themselves in a character. 

Backstory– kind of lining up a bit with the vulnerability point is backstory. Introducing a why for the character’s actions or thoughts is always a way to make them seem relatable. And looking to their backstory is a good place to start. This is particularly helpful if you want to write an antagonist that is well-rounded and not just a straight up A-hole. Sometimes some of the best villains have some of the saddest or complicated backstories. Take the most recent Joker film. This is a perfect example of a well-rounded villain. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a bad guy, but getting to see his origins definitely helps us better understand his motivations. And in doing so we end up feeling bad for him – something that ends up making him more relatable in our eyes.  

Failure– letting your main character fail isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It can definitely help the relatability of a character. We’ve all faced failure within our own lives. We all love an underdog story with the odds stacked against them. Let your character fail and make a courageous comeback. Their resilience will speak volumes with readers because we’ve all been there. 

Morals– most for the heroes of our stories making them be nice helps a bit. We want to think of characters as being generally nice. Characters that show kindness, generosity, or selflessness are generally seen as “good” and you want your characters to be good. No one likes a character that will kick a puppy and laugh. Of course, steer clear of making them a goodie-two-shoes. Some character flaws do make them more “human.” Also, don’t be afraid of giving your villains some morals too. Just because you have a supervillain who wants to destroy the world doesn’t mean that they can’t have a moment of selflessness. How many times do we end up liking villains after they end up redeeming themselves by showing a selfless side to them? Think Shadow Weaver’s sacrifice of herself to save Adora and Catra in Netflix’s She-ra. Personally, I shed a tear at that.

Humor– whether they’re self-deprecating, snarky, or just plain silly, giving your characters some sort of sense of humor makes them relatable to readers. We all love to laugh. It’s the next universal language besides love. So, it only stands to reason that readers would gravitate towards characters that have a funny side to them. And so long as their humor is true to the character’s personality, it will resonate with audiences.

Self-Awareness– let’s face it, flawed characters are the best characters. But the key to a good flawed character is that they’ve got enough self-awareness to be able to say sorry once in a while for their shortcomings. Giving your characters, particularly your heroes and heroines, a moment of “yeah I know I’m an A-hole sometimes but I’m trying” can definitely help readers cut them some slack for some of their more morally questionable actions. 

Fear and Pain– having a character be motivated by their fear or their pain can definitely make them relatable to readers. How many of us in our everyday lives are motivated to action by pain and fear? That 20-page college paper we’ve all written the night before it’s due was definitely written on pure motivation from fear of failure and a painful lack of sleep. Having characters move through plot points based off their fear and pain will definitely make them relatable. After all, nothing is more human in this life than feeling pain and fear, which is why our characters must feel these things too. 

Take Your Time

The other day, while I was procrastinating writing a scene for my current WIP, I was browsing Instagram. One of the hashtags that I follow is “writer’s problems” because often times you see a lot of funny writing-related memes pop up. And there was one that at first made me chuckle, but then it also got me thinking very deeply. It was a picture of a cheetah side-by-side with a snail, and the caption said, “Coming up with the idea, versus actually writing it down.” 

I couldn’t help but laugh at the accuracy of the meme. But then I started thinking about being a slow writer and what that means. I’ve completed one whole novel, but it’s taken me an entire five years to write, edit, rewrite, get professionally edited, and re-rewrite to the point where it’s finally something that can be considered “good” and ready for the querying rounds. Meanwhile, I’ve watched various other writers showcase their ability to fly through the completion of manuscripts like it was nothing. And that always had me feeling insecure to a certain degree. Was something wrong with the way I write? Should I be pumping out manuscripts at a much quicker rate?

But then it hit me, no. Nothing is wrong with going at my own pace. If you are someone that can easily crank out 100K in a matter of months, then that is awesome. If you’re not, that is awesome too. Just because you’re a slow writer doesn’t mean that you don’t lack the focus or motivation to write a book. Everyone has their own pace, and you are exactly right where you need to be. In fact, pacing doesn’t matter at all, what is most important is that you don’t stop writing. 

But, if you need a little extra reassurance as a slow writer, here are some other “slow” writers that turned out to be great:

The Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkien – 12-17 years

No Great Mischief, Alistair MacLeod – 13 years

Les Miserables, Victor Hugo – 12-17 years

Finnegan’s Wake, James Joyce – 17 years

The Catcher and the Rye, JD Salinger – 10 years

Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton – 8 years

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, JK Rowling – 6 years

Lord of the Flies, William Golding – 5 years

See? You’re in some good company as all of these are household names. So, don’t get down if it’s been a few years and you’re still toiling away with your WIP. The most important thing is that you don’t give up.

The First Chapter Rabbit Hole

Everyone talks about the importance of the first chapter. And there is truth to it – the first chapter is very important. It’s probably the most important chapter that you’ll write. With that kind of pressure, it’s no wonder that many of us want to get our first chapters as perfect as possible. But that can prove to be a slippery slope. You don’t want to fall down the first chapter rabbit hole.

When you first start drafting a novel, it can easily seem a daunting task, no matter how much outlining and preparation you’ve done beforehand. Add on the pressure of the first chapter, and you can find yourself wanting to get it right the first time. But that will cause you to cripple yourself before you’ve even started. A first draft is also called a rough draft for a reason: it’s rough! You don’t need to try editing as you go along, especially not the first chapter. If you allow yourself to get sucked into the vortex of perfecting the first chapter before you’ve even finished writing the entire manuscript.

Your first chapter will inevitably have to be changed anyways, so why not just get the entire book written first before you worry about what will have to be rewritten? Don’t let the fear of not getting it right stop you from actually writing. The first chapter rabbit hole is just the manifestation of our fears. Don’t worry about getting it right on your first try. Just focus on getting it written. 

Signs You Should Delete a Character

Writing new characters can be a lot of fun. But this isn’t always the case. We might find ourselves looking at certain characters in our cast and wondering if they should even be in our story. Cutting out a character entirely from the story can be 

They don’t add any value to the story. Every character, from the main cast to the side characters, should advance and support your plot. If a character is holding your story back or is not adding anything to it, then you should probably take them out. The bottom line is if your story still makes sense without a particular character in it, then you should probably delete them from the story all together. 

You forget about them.If you are constantly having to squeeze them into every scene or if you find it difficult to find a place for them in the story, then you should probably delete them. Each of your characters should be fun to write and you should always be wanting to fit them in. If your characters are forgettable to you, then they certainly will be to your readers. Don’t give your readers a forgettable character, so just delete them. 

Writing them is difficult. Writing a character should be fun. It shouldn’t feel like a chore. Yes, writing can sometimes be a process and building up a character takes time and work, but it should never feel exhausting or boring. If a character is getting on your nerves or is feeling like a pain to write, then you should probably delete them from your manuscript.