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!

The Perfect Way to Write Your Novel

Here it is: the cure-all secret that will revolutionize your writing. Are you ready? Do you want to know the perfect way to write a novel? Alright, here is a step-by-step guide below:

1) WRITE!

Thought I was going to let you off easy? Nope. The whole point of writing is to write. It doesn’t have to be good; it just has to come out on paper. That is what editing is for. The key that you need to focus on is sitting down to that laptop or notebook every day and writing something down. There really is no magical secret to writing a perfect novel. Everyone’s novel is perfect in its own way. The real magic lies in actually starting it so go write!

2) Set Realistic Goals

If you’re struggling to get writing, then setting yourself a goal of 5k words a day is a little unrealistic. In fact, it’ll feel next to impossible because when you sit down to write, you’ll get intimidated and suddenly your shower will be in urgent need of cleaning. And if your shower gets cleaned, then you should do the toilet and the sink while you’re at it. And hey, your living room could probably use a dust, and if you dust, obviously you need to vacuum too. Oh look, it’s bright outside. Why not go for a walk? If you’re going to walk, might as well make it productive and take a walk to the grocery store with the canvas bags because it’s about time you stop killing the environment and start meal prepping. If you’re going to eat healthy, might as well exercise in order to lose that gut so you should sign up to a gym. In fact, let’s take a drive to the gym to test it out? And – NO! JUST STOP! Rather than set unrealistic goals for yourself that will then be met with copious procrastination methods, take a deep breath and settle for something more achievable like 500 words. You can even set yourself a time goal instead, like set aside an hour every morning or evening to get some work done. Either way, start small and then work your way up to bigger goals as the smaller ones start to become second nature.

3) Take a Short Break

This is key. Short breaks are good for keeping your sanity. While it’s fun to immerse yourself into your work, short breaks help to avoid burn out. Rather than trying to schedule an eight-hour writing session on Saturday, try to go for six one-hour sessions spread across the week, and a special two-hour day on the weekend. And throughout those writing sessions try to factor in a quick 10-minute break where you can stretch, make yourself some tea, and just step away from the computer or notebook for a minute. It is also a good idea to give yourself a couple days a month where you just don’t write at all. Instead, go for brunch or binge Netflix. Do something that gives your brain a break from your work. It’ll actually make your work even better when you go back to it with fresh eyes.

4) Don’t Give Up

Inevitably, we will all hit a wall at some point in our story. It might happen early on, it may occur in the middle, or it might even come at the end. Either way, the proverbial writer’s block comes for us all. But the key is how you deal with it. Give yourself no more than 48 hours of a break and then get back to it. Even if after 48 hours you still feel like you’re blocked, power through. It’s better to write utter trash that can later be edited than to sit and wait for the brain fog to clear. Writer’s block is the leading cause for stories to go unfinished. Don’t let it happen to yours.

5) Repeat

This one is pretty simple. If you paid close attention to Step 4, you should have a finished product to show for it. Good job. Once it’s been edited and sent out into the world, you can move on to the next project on the agenda, and that is to repeat the cycle: Write, Be Realistic, Take Short Breaks, and Don’t Give Up. It’s not a magic formula, but in following the simple steps you will feel like you’re creating magic.

Happy Writing!

Writing Horror Fiction in Today’s World

Horror has a seductive hold on us. Horror is like a tentacle crawling from the crypts of our darkest dreams to suck us into horrific nightmares. Horror, if done properly, casts a dark magic, sending chills down readers’ spines.

Now is the time, now is the hour. In my opinion, horror movies such as Insidious 1-2, The Possession of Hannah Grace, and Sinister aren’t scary enough for me. I am an avid writer of horror fiction and I am well read. I know that in order to give readers or viewers the frights royale, readers should be too afraid to not leave the lights on all night and hide under the covers. And curse the writer because they can’t put the book down.

The writer must make extra effort to horrify jaded readers. There is a difference between horrifying and terrifying. One of the two you experience more deeply. Terror is more effective. I won’t watch The Exorcist which deals with similar themes as the movies mentioned above, but does a much better job. The Exorcist doesn’t turn away from something revolting, it stares it in the eye. It makes you look too, when you don’t want to. -and doesn’t let go. The same is true for Silence of the Lambs. But it doesn’t need to gross readers necessarily just to be scary.

Novels such as Dracula and Frankenstein reflected the time or era in which they were written. In Victorian times, darkly romantic fanged noblemen were scary because the society had different fears and beliefs about death than now. Those fears wouldn’t faze us today. Anne Rice wrote about vampires and made vampires intimidating and sexy again. That is why the novels were successful. Today, writers like Suzanne Collins draw from what they view in the world today. We are more sophisticated now yet desensitized at the same time.

If you are interested in penning a horror novel or short story, I suggest the following tips: Get out of your own comfort zone. Change the environment where you write. Bring your writing pad, coffee, and lurk in a cemetery, visit a haunted location or a morgue, and research the folklore of your hometown. You might create something original, which can be helpful. Getting out of your comfort zone and exploring new things breathes new life into your writing. Here are a few more tips.

Buy a tarot deck to inspire you, read dark poetry of a poet you never heard of until now. Go on a trip to a quiet seaside town that has a paranormal history. Be safe as you explore new eerie cemeteries or towns.

Trust in yourself. If you’re fearful while writing the story, there’s a good chance your reader will be too. Pay attention to your dreams. Often dreams reflect our daily lives and what is hidden in our subconscious. Heed your insights and flashes of inspiration. I penned a dark novel based on a flash of inspiration that I would never have dreamed up otherwise. Learn all you can and be openminded. Then when you have created your villainous monster, you can make him or her or it the main character. Be true to your creation, your own monster. Your readers will recognize the true effort you put in.

We have global communication today. We can see the world events on the Internet. The Internet opened a window into the savage truth that we could be in the grip of an almost impending apocalyptic doom. Now that is scary.

Audiences and readers today have seen everything. A novel can be successful still, but writers must be unabashedly original to truly terrify their readers. Look at what is happening in society. The monsters of yesterday are not the monsters of today. It worked for Stephen King and Thomas Harris and with luck, it can work for you too.

How Long Should a Chapter Be?

A common debate amongst authors is how long should a chapter be? James Patterson has chapters literally one page in length while J.R.R. Tolkien’s are dozens. Both are great authors. Both are infamous. But in the matter of chapter lengths, which one is right? The answer is they both are.

Let’s look at the definition of a chapter before going any further.

Chapter (Noun) – 1. A main division of a book, typically with a number or title. 2. A local branch of a society. 3. The governing body of a religious community, especially a cathedral or a knightly order. 4. A period of time or an episode in a person’s life, a nation’s history, etc.

We know it’s a main division of a book without even having to look at the definition, but look at the last example they give. A period of time or an episode in a person’s life, a nation’s history, etc. This is literally telling you, within the definition itself, that it does not matter how long the length of the chapter is as long as the scene within it is completed. You can still have a cliff-hanger at the end of the chapter, even if it is a page long.

Still not satisfied that the chapter can be any length? Let’s talk about lengthy chapters.

Do you remember seeing those fancy designs in between the text in some books? Those are called divider vectors. They are a visual ending of a scene for the reader. Vectors help to break up longer chapters so the reader is able to find a stopping point, because the reality is we always get interrupted by something while reading. It leaves an easier place to come back to.

Looking back at the definition of chapter again: A period of time or an episode in a person’s life. Your personal life is not cut into perfectly timed portions. An example — you only meant to stay at that Halloween party for two hours, but time whisked away and you found yourself there for five hours. The same goes with writing. One minute your character is behaving themselves and following the script. The next minute, they’re gallivanting across the countryside with a bunch of Dwarves and a wizard.

Do not restrict yourself or your characters on the fairytale ideals of perfect chapter lengths. Of course for young readers, you should make sure the chapters are easily comprehensible. But you still are not limited to a certain word count or a certain page-length for chapters. This is one of the steps that prevents many authors from simply writing.

So, sit down at the keyboard and just write.