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 a Fight Scene

Let’s face it. Writing can sometimes be a struggle for us all. But the one thing that is perhaps the most difficult to write are fight scenes. They’re high-stakes, and very intense confrontations between characters, so if done wrong, they will end up reading very, very badly.

When we think of fight scenes, we probably envision them similarly to how they are in movies – fast-paced and engaging moments that leave the audience thinking “wow.” Of course, watching a fight scene in a movie is so much more different to writing one, as a film allows the audience to take on a passive role as everything they need to know is visually being handed to them. As a writer, your job is to help the reader take on an active role in reading, by giving them written cues to help them visualize it in their minds’ eye. Obviously, this is much harder to do than visually feeding it to your audience.

If you’ve been writing a story that includes a fight scene, or scenes, and you’re finding yourself struggling, then here are a couple tips that I’ve discovered about writing fight scenes through trial and error:

Tip #1: The fight scene(s) should always move the story forward

In general, writing any scene should be as a means of moving the story forward. However, this is particularly true for a fight scene. Don’t include a fight scene into your story – even if it’s really well-written – just to put it in there. The easiest way to tell if your story is propelled by your fight scene? Delete the fight. If your story reads fine without the fight and it still makes sense, then your fight scene doesn’t move the story forward and you did well to delete it. Now if the fight was some kind of transition or if the story feels like its missing a key element, then your fight is integral to moving your story forward and you can paste it back in. 

Tip #2: Fights are meant to improve or add to characterization

If fight scenes are only focused on the brute force and physicality of the action, then they can become a bit boring to read. What a fight scene needs to do is also provide a portal through which to explore your characters and gain more insight into them. Some of the things to think about when writing your characters’ fight is:

Why does the character choose to fight?

How does this choice reinforce who they are as a character?

How does this fight affect both their drive towards accomplishing their internal/external goals as a character?

Is this fight getting them closer to accomplishing their task or further away from accomplishing their task?

What are the stakes for the characters who are fighting? In other words, what do they each stand to gain or lose depending on the fight’s outcome?

What kind of a fighter is your character? Not all characters can or will have the highly trained hand-to-hand combat skills of a Navy SEAL in a fight, so what physical or mental abilities do they possess in a fight? What mistakes are they prone to making in a fight? Are they a hot-head or a master strategist? Basically, their fighting skills, or lack there of, can give your reader a glimpse into their characterization. 

Tip #3: Fight scenes shouldn’t be slowing down the overall pacing of your story

In movies and other visual media, fight scenes happen rather quickly. However, in literature, they can drag on – especially if they’re not written well. And that can interrupt the flow of your story.  The reason why fight scenes can often make the flow of your story seem slow and heavy, is because the writer has to write out all the details that the reader needs to be able to visualize the scene in their head. Therefore, you can keep the following in mind in order to create as tight of a fight scene as possible, so as not to bore your readers:

Use shorter sentences since they are easiest to read and help to keep up the speed of your story.

Mix in dialogue with the action. You don’t want to have just a huge block of text detailing out what is happening. By breaking it up with dialogue you not only are cutting down the long descriptions of what is happening, but you’re also adding to the action through verbal exchanges. Don’t underestimate the power of dialogue when building a scene.

Don’t focus too much on introspection. While the inner workings of a character’s mind often helps to flesh out your character within the realm of the story, a fight scene isn’t necessarily the time or place to focus on what they’re thinking. A character’s introspection will happen before the fight and after – not during.

Keep it short. Unless you’re discussing an epic battle of Tolkien proportions, then a fight shouldn’t go on for pages. If it’s a fight between individuals, keep it short.

Tip #4: Don’t forget about the four other senses

When writing a fight scene, don’t just focus on the sight portion of what your character is seeing. One of the best ways to engage your readers while describing a fight scene is to hit them with all the other senses like hearing, touch, taste, and smell. Using all five senses together can really elevate your writing. It’s a good rule of thumb to keep in mind for writing in general. While sight might be the easiest and most obvious way of describing things, don’t discount the power of the other senses.

Tip #5: Edit

Perhaps the best fight scene you could have written is the one that was thoroughly edited. Again, another tip for writing in general, but it really does help when it comes to writing a fight scene. You won’t get the fight scene right the first time, so you just need to keep editing it until it gets there. Some things to keep in mind when editing a fight scene are:

Don’t give your reader a blow-by-blow description. Once you have your initial draft, when you’re going through editing be sure you delete all the non-essential details that will only weigh it down.

Forget the flowery language. Keep it short and neat and delete the extra words you don’t need. They will only drag the pacing down.

Consolidation is key. Besides the language, make sure that your characters are consolidated as well. Too many characters in one fight scene can just get confusing for the reader. And confusion leads to frustration which leads to the story being put down. Don’t let that happen to you.

Happy writing everyone!

Starting Out Writing Sci-Fi

Given recent world events that we are living through, we may start to feel a little bit like we’re living through an episode of “Black Mirror” or something akin to science fiction. Some of us writers may even be finding ourselves tempted to foray into the genre of sci-fi just based off the fact that we have so much inspiration around us with the current pandemic that is going on. So, if you’re feeling the call of inspiration and want to try your hand at writing either a sci-fi short story, novella, or novel, below are the five elements that make up the genre of science fiction:

1. World Building

Ok, first things first. World-building is a big portion of sci-fi. Very similar to fantasy, people who read sci-fi are ready and willing to accept the impossible as possible – provided there is a plausible explanation for everything. In order to do this, you need to really build your world and make it authentic and believable. Don’t worry about using elements that have already been done – such as flying cars – just be sure to put your own spin on something that is already familiar in order to keep it fresh.

2. Unfamiliarity

Sci-fi tends to take us into a territory of unfamiliarity. It takes parts of our own world that are familiar to us – we’ll use the flying cars example again – and twists it around to make it unfamiliar and new to readers. Of course, this is where world-building really plays a major role in bringing everything to life because in sci-fi, the setting is very much integrated into the plot of the story. Furthermore, the setting also affects the action of the story as well as the characters’ lives.

3. Plausible Foundation

Believability is key when creating your world. It’s sci-fi, it’s based in science, therefore your world has to make sense. You can’t introduce futuristic technology without plausible scientific explanations for how it works. For example, you can’t write a story where humans colonize Jupiter and walk around the planet without spacesuits because it wouldn’t be believable – your audience would know that’s not possible. Of course, if you have explained that over thousands of years of terraforming, humans managed to change the atmosphere of Jupiter enough that they could get away with walking around sans spacesuits, then you have a much better story forming. Of course, in order to plausibly explain everything in your sci-fi story, you’ll probably have to conduct a bit of research. Additionally, you’ll probably also want to create a timeline of events in order to keep track of everything that happened in order to be able to avoid plot hole popping up in your story because let’s be real…setting a story 1,000 years in the future is going to have a lot of history happen in between that explain why and how things are the way they are in the present point of your story. Therefore, creating a timeline for yourself will very much help keep things linear. Of course, you don’t have to add in all 1,000 years worth of history to your story (you’re not writing a pretend history book) just the bits that make sense to add because they explain certain technologies or elements in your story.

4. Scientific Principles

Sci-fi isn’t really a genre that leaves much wiggle room for breaking laws and rules, more like gently bending them. If you do bend them, you need to be able to back it up with a plausible scientific explanation to explain it. For example, you can’t break the rule of gravity on Earth. However, you can bend the rule that Mars in uninhabitable to humans. What you need to remember when writing your story is to adhere to the scientific laws of physics and chemistry in order to ensure that the world you create can be plausibly explained in theory.

5. Character’s Reactions

Just like when you write any story, you want to do more showing, rather than telling. Of course, when you have a story that is set in another world, it’s hard to stay away from the tendency to want to explain everything. But a great way to show what is going on in your world rather than tell your audience about it, is to use your characters. Your characters using a teleportation device as easily as they would an elevator is a great way to show that teleporting has been around for a while, rather than telling your readers that it’s been a thing for years. Using a character’s reaction is good for gauging what’s old technology in your world and what’s new without explaining things to your audience. It’s a story you’re writing, not a history book.

Magical Scribbles

Writing about witchcraft is magical and hard work. Establish a sacred writing space. Burn essential oils or incense as you write. Play soft music. Decide on the angle you will take with your book or article. The market is replete with Wicca 101 books and witchcraft. Many accomplished authors such as Christopher Penczak, Raven Grimassi, Laurie Cabot, and Deborah Blake have already covered many subjects. They live what they write and lead magical lives. They have proven themselves to be authorities on what they write. If you do the same, you can achieve your dreams.
When you are confident you have polished the article, your story needs a home. I recommend reading the two books How to write for the New Age Market by Richard Webster and The Pagan Writers’ Guide by Melusine Draco. These books show you what to write and where to send your magical words. Some markets to write for are Eternal Haunted Summer Ezine, Sagewoman magazine, and Witches and Pagans magazine.
Editors are swamped with writing-related tasks. Write something basic to start with until you grow more confident. My writing has appeared in anthologies and Ezines. The witchcraft and mind/body/spirit writing market mostly center around non-fiction. Most of the markets are in the United States and prefer non-fiction. An important question is what to write, why, and for what audience. In depth writing will grant you that coveted byline. They prefer that you share your research sources.
If you are aspiring to write a book on witchcraft, the best publishing companies are Llewellyn, Moon Books, Weiser Books, New Page books, Immanion Press, Inner Traditions, and Avalonia Books. Avalonia publishes scholarly material. The best way to familiarize yourself is by reading what they publish.
Keep track of where you send your writing and never give up. The most successful people are the ones who kept trying. When an editor expresses an interest in your writing, be ready.
The last stop on our broomstick ride is your perspective of witchcraft. To succeed in this market, have a reverence for witchcraft. To write for this market, you need to have an awareness for it and live it. Most of the editors and writers have a lot of experience and practice it regularly. They not only write it, but live it fully and deeply. Now you can have magic in your life and in the lives of your readers.

Gothic Poetry

I like to write gothic poetry. Gothic poetry has a fascinating history, thanks to the writings of Tennyson and Thomas Gray. If you are a lover of the dark side, and enjoy music such as Inkubus Succubus and romantic poetic musings, then I hope this post inspires you to pen dark verse of your own.

Once I walked home past a cemetery on a  magical cold winter night. The chilling glow of the streetlight over the tombstones woke the muse in me. I went home and wrote a poem about what I saw that night.

Surround yourself in an environment that inspires you to write dark verse. I live in a city well-known for its dark spooky history. I visit my favorite cemetery, Mount Olivet, carrying a thermos, a journal, and my pen. Graveyard tours are offered in my hometown. Put away the laptop or phone for an hour or two. Grab a journal, a quill pen, and latte-and go!

Now, once you are comfortably seated in a cemetery, sipping your latte, open your senses to the environment. Hear the bird songs, the creaking tree boughs, see the crows – crows are always hanging around in a cemetery. I think it has something to do with them being messengers of the dead–if you believe in that. Write down your verses. Therefore, it’s great to use a journal rather than a tablet. You can be messier and more creative. It frees up your creative expression.

Observe the way the crows perch on tombstones, how old the tombstones are. I once found an abandoned bird’s nest in a cemetery. Notice the age of the trees, colorful leaves, or flowers at the foot of a grave. A moth flitting over the ground, birds pecking for seeds, crows screeching from the treetops. A crow nest lives in the cemetery in my neighborhood. The nest has been there a long time.

Once, I strolled through Mount Olivet. An apple tree grows inside and outside of the cemetery. A fallen apple lay on the ground. Dead carpenter ants rested on the apple- except for one carpenter ant that crawled over the rotted apple. It churned my stomach. I left.

The Titanic victims are buried there. A word of caution: remain grounded and centered while you are there. Take what you like and leave the bad energy behind.

The quiet of a cemetery can be relaxing. They are not dangerous places, but people should still use common sense. If you do want to write there, go during the day. Safety trumps all. Don’t disturb the graves or take anything that doesn’t belong to you.

This may hopefully lead you to create a poetry chapbook!