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!

Creating Good Female Villains

One thing I don’t like in fiction is female villains. A lot of their motivations tend to be cliche or at worst, misogynistic. It’s irritating that women villains cannot possess the same motivations of their male counterparts.

Here is a short post on helping you craft better female villains. I don’t say good because you still need to have good characterization as a skill, but if you get the motivation right, your villain will at least be better.

Cliche motivations for female villains are anything of the following:

  1. Anything related to “women’s issues.” The glass ceiling, relationships, unequal pay, domestic abuse, falling in love with a male Bad Boy, etc. Don’t use these issues as motivation to make the woman bad.
  2. “Amazon Women from Mars” or something along the lines of Women vs. Men in a misogynistic way.
  3. “Queen Bitch.” The female is a villain simply because she has power/money/magic, etc.

To have a motivation that doesn’t fall into these kind of traps, think of the tropes heroines are motivated to pursue and simply make the consequences of their actions bad. Despite this, they continue their goals.

For example: A super heroine pounds the living tar out of some bad guys who are trying to fire a laser at a nuclear plant thus making the Chernobyl disaster a walk in the park. Heroine saves the day. End of story. The villainess does the same thing. The bad guys die along with the support personnel who had no idea they were working on a laser to destroy a nuclear plant. This turns into a legal nightmare for the government who have a duty to enforce the law.

If this was a super heroine, she would probably hang up her cape and call it a day or mend her ways. The villainess won’t. The ends justify the means—after all, innocent lives were at stake. She does it again, this time to low-life bank robbers, then muggers, then to some teenagers vandalizing a beautiful park because she can’t control her strength (and doesn’t really care to). Sooner or later, the government has enough and puts resources to have her arrested.

The villainess now fights the government, the police, the National Guard, etc. She rationalizes they are nothing more than a system of control and the best way to deal with it is to destroy it.

One of the things that makes for a great villain is the ability to rationalize their actions in small steps, but it scales up. Real life crook Bernie Madoff didn’t wake up one morning and decided, “I’m going to create the biggest fraud in history today!” No, he altered a trade sheet here and there. He obtained and spent a $250k meant for investments here and there. He continued until he racked up billions in fraud. If he was caught in his very first year of defrauding investors, he would probably be out of prison by now. Change the gender and now you have a female villain whose primary motivation is greed, starts small, and then it builds up.

Happy Writing!