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!

Why You Shouldn’t Withdraw Your Submission Early #1

After being in the business for so long, one ends up seeing multiple dreams being squashed or coming true. One of the worst things is getting in your own way and causing everything to crash and burn. This has occurred many times and as such, has warranted this article.

Many publishers have the option of manuscript and anthology submissions. When someone submits to both outlets and one gets rejected, the automatic response is to withdraw all submissions from that publisher. This is the wrong way to do things. Just because one thing was rejected does not mean everything will be.

There are so many possibilities as to why it was refused. Some of the most common reasons is it needed more editing or that story didn’t fit in that particular anthology. No matter the reason, none is cause to withdraw all of your submissions. More often than not, the publisher is planning on accepting one even though another was rejected.

The reason many authors are not successful with traditional publishing is because they don’t follow submission guidelines and once refused, they automatically give up. “Self-publishing is such an easier way to go” has been a saying going around writing communities. It may be easier, but you will never have the same opportunities that traditional publishing gives. And so, the story that was rejected due to poor editing is uploaded for self-publishing without further improvement and gets nowhere with sales.

The worst of all is that, more often than not, the author never continues improving their writing. Critique is the most important way to continue honing your writing skills. If you think you’re already the best and have nothing further to improve, then you’re already in the wrong mindset.

To be continued in a later blog post called
Why You Still Need an Editor After Multiple Books

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.

Do I Need Chapter Titles?

When you first open a book, you more often than naught find a Chapter List shoved in between the pages before the first official page. The list of chapter names gives you an idea of what is going to happen within the book. Some people prefer this; some people believe it isn’t necessary since the summary on the rear cover should sell it. It honestly depends on what the author wants to do. Here are some of the pros and cons to help you decide for yourself.

Pros

  1. Your reader has an idea of what to expect for the book.
  2. Your book looks organized and professional on first glance.
  3. Some readers memorize the last place they’ve read by chapter number or chapter name. By listing it in the front of the book, the user can skim through the list to find the exact page number with ease.
  4. It’s normally expected. For book clubs, it makes it easier to keep track of where everyone’s progress should be after a certain amount of time. They will not thumb through a book to guesstimate this information for themselves.

Cons

  1. You thought naming the book itself was difficult. Now you have to name each and every chapter without giving away the entire story!
  2. Your reader knows too much about what happens in the book.
  3. You have yet another extra page between the cover and the first official page for the reader to begin the book. Being an extra page, it gets overlooked by some of the average readers who just want to begin reading.
  4. Extra pages also add extra costs to your book overall.

If these aren’t enough to convince you to sway either way, here is another brief article on the topic. Let me know your opinions in the comments!

Finding a Home for Your Story: Advice on Publication

Way back when I was about 22-years-old, I took a poetry class that changed my writing forever. I’m by no means a poet. I barely managed to write any decent poetry during the class. And since leaving the class, I’ve hardly ever written a poem – except for the occasional one that is born out of a purely emotional moment. But my lack of poetry skills isn’t what I took away from that class. It was actually quite the opposite. I walked away from that course as a newly-infused writer full of confidence and a sense of hope. As writers, we should always be filled with a sense of hope as we tell our stories. And we should always be hopeful that our work will find its intended audience.

That is probably the biggest take away that I received from my professor. She often spoke about “finding a home for your writing.” At first, we all thought she was talking about publication and finding the right magazine or journal to accept your work. That’s not remotely what she meant.

She told us a story about a series of poems she had written, which subsequently got rejected from every place she submitted to. Discouraged, she put them away in a file cabinet and forgot about them. Then, one day years later, she was going through the file cabinet and found them again. She was experiencing some personal difficulties at the time and her own words ended up being exactly what she needed to hear in that moment.

“Sometimes, you won’t always reach the broad audience base every writer dreams of,” she said bluntly. “Sometimes you’ll find that what you created will only reach a few people or even just one: yourself.”

The silence after she said those words covered the room in an impenetrable cloud of thought. I scanned the pensive faces of my fellow students as they digested what she’d just said.

Sensing many crushed dreams in that moment, my professor smiled as she added, “But you also have to keep in mind that your work serves a higher purpose. Everything you pour onto the page is intended for someone to read – to provide someone with whatever comfort they need in that moment. It will always find its intended audience so don’t be discouraged by your words. Use them. They will always be hope for someone who needs to read them.”

To this day, I still get chills when I think back to that moment in class. Every writer has a moment when they defined themselves as a writer – and that was mine, at the back of the classroom, quietly absorbing this poet’s wise words. Yes, we all want to be discovered as the next J.K. Rowling and have our stories printed for the masses, but those grandiose dreams are really us getting ahead of ourselves.

The journey to finding a home for our story doesn’t begin at the end of the road with a publishing contract and an advance; it begins with ourselves. We are our story’s first home. We are the ones who need to take comfort in our own words – after all, they live within us. Finding the hope within our writing will have a ripple effect. So far, I’ve had a couple short stories published and each one was the most honest version of the story in my mind that I managed to tell on paper.

See where I’m going with this? When you stop writing for the masses and write for yourself, you will be free to create the purest form of your story – and that version always manages to find its intended audience, whether large or small.