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!

Write Like It Matters

As writers we all have our moments of doubt. When starting out with a new idea, there is always a moment of hesitation where we question if our idea is “good enough.” It’s a reoccurring fear that we have throughout the whole writing process. It’s why we downplay our work, refuse to show it to certain people, try to skirt questions, and generally act secretive about our writing. We fear ridicule and rejection – having someone confirm our worst fear that the story we care so deeply about, is actually not “good enough.”

But what we have to remember is that our stories are important too. It’s so easy to look to those already published and successful authors and think, “there is no way I’d ever measure up.” Someone once said, “write like it matters and it will.” And that is all we need to keep in mind. So long as what we’re writing is something that we love and care about, it will translate to an audience. Every single one of us has at least one story to tell. And we shouldn’t let any fears or doubts get in our way. So, if you’re currently grappling with self-doubt, let me be the first to remind you that you’re not alone. And your work is most definitely good enough, which is why you need to keep going.

Keep on writing.

Writing Resources

As writers, we often find ourselves needing a little bit of help to navigate the task that is crafting a story. But sometimes, we don’t always know where to turn when we need a little bit of a creative boost. It is usually in those times of need that we turn to the internet for some inspiration. And below, I have put together a list of my favorite online sources for when I need a little nudge. 

Writing resources:

Fantasy Names Generator

Have you ever found yourself completely stuck as to what name you should give a character, or what to call a new piece of technology in your world? I’ve been there a few times and that is how I discovered Fantasy Names Generator. If you haven’t already discovered this website, then you really need to go check it out. It has literally a category for everything from troll names to steampunk city names to actual human names from the 20th century – chances are this website will inspire you if you’re ever stuck for a name. It’s also got a generator for character descriptions or story prompts so if you’re experiencing writer’s block a browse usually helps to give the creative wheels a turn in the right direction. 

Artbreeder

I love creating visual representations for my characters. There is something about seeing them come to life that makes their story that much more tangible for me. Unfortunately, I did not inherit my mother’s fine art skills. Instead, my repertoire for “fine art” is limited to questionably symmetrical star doodles and lopsided stick figures. And turning my characters into stick figures isn’t exactly inspiring. Thankfully, that is where Artbreeder comes in. It’s a free website where you can create characters. And it’s so much fun! Another app that I like to use on my phone is Dollify since it gives you more of a cutesy/anime look to your characters. 

Pinterest

Okay, I will admit, this one is pretty obvious. Most of you probably already use Pinterest for creating mood boards. But I thought I’d include it just incase. I cannot state enough how much I love mood boards. And Pinterest is my favorite place to search for and create mood boards. Not only have I found mood boards to be a great way of plotting out scenes or reinvigorating myself with creative energy when I hit a writer’s block, but sharing them with your followers on social media is also a great way to drum up interest in your work. 

Grammarly

Yes, regular spell check on your computer is great. But if you want that little bit extra, Grammarly is excellent. It will catch things that the regular spell check on Microsoft Word might not. And if you are choosing to do some self-editing of your manuscript, I highly recommend getting Grammarly, it’s worth the money.

Facebook Groups

If you’re stuck looking for like-minded people, look no further than Facebook. Especially in today’s current climate with the COVID-19 pandemic it’s not like we can just go out and attend writing workshops and stuff in order to meet fellow writers. So, going online and finding a Facebook group is a great way of still being able to get the benefit of having a writing circle but also remaining socially distant. And even during non-apocalyptic times, online Facebook groups can still be a great way to connect with other writers in your area or from around the world. I am personally a member of several, my two favorite ones being the Fantasy and Scifi Writers and the NaNoWriMo group. The F/SF one is great for obvious reasons, since it’s right within the two genres I tend to write and read the most, the members really understand the struggles of being a F/SF writer. And the NaNoWriMo one is another great resource as there are writers of all genres in that one. And it gets particularly busy around November, so it’s a wonderful support system to have if you ever participate in the NaNoWriMo challenge because it’s literally thousands of other writers going through the exact same struggle as you trying to finish 50k in 30 days. 

What are some of your favorite writing resources? Let me know!

When You’re Stuck On A Scene

As writers we all experience writer’s block. But nothing is more frustrating than when we are in the middle of an important scene and then, BOOM! The writer’s block strikes. And suddenly we find ourselves gently banging our heads against the desk, wondering when it will back. Getting stuck on a scene is not fun. I’ve come up with a couple ways of breaking through the writer’s block barrier:

Tip 1

Try writing the scene from the perspective of another character. Sometimes getting into the head of another character can give you a fresh perspective on your scene. 

Tip 2

Make a music playlist for the scene. Nothing helps get creativity flowing quite like music. If you use music to set the scene it might help you get through the writer’s block. I usually like to make a writing playlist ahead of time, specifically to try and get ahead of any potential writer’s block.

Tip 3

If you are artfully inclined, try sketching out the scene. Alternatively, if you’re like me and your artistic expression doesn’t range beyond stick figures then you can try making a mood board on Pinterest. Sometimes seeing a visual representation of our scene helps to get the creative juices flowing again. Alternatively, doing something creative can get us back into the writing frame of mind. 

Tip 4

Circle back to it and instead write the next scene. Just because you’re stuck on one scene in particular, that doesn’t mean that you can’t keep moving forward. Plus, this might help to get the flow going again.

Tip 5

Try writing in a different style or POV. 

Tip 6

Write the dialogue only. I really find this one particularly helpful. Sometimes we get stuck on a scene because we’re trying to set the scene with descriptions etc. But if we get the dialogue and character interactions down, we can then circle back and layer on the other elements afterwards.

Tip 7

If all else fails, get up and go for a walk, come back, make a hot cup of something, and then try again. This is my go-to solution when nothing else is working. 

What writer’s block solutions do you like to try when you’re stuck on a scene?

First Five Pages Checklist

The first five pages of your book are so important. As aspiring authors, we are well aware of their significance. And we place so much time and emphasis on getting them right. While we probably have a fair idea of what to do and not do in our first five pages, here is a quick recap of things to keep in mind when looking at the start of your novel.

Important questions to ask yourself:

Does the first line engage your reader?

Is your main character properly introduced?

Has the POV and narration style been made clear to the reader?

Does your reader get a good feel for the world – i.e. have you set the status quo?

Have you established your main character’s deepest desire?

Is there an inciting incident?

The most important thing to avoid at the beginning of your novel:

The information dump. 

Your reader is only starting to get to know your main character and within these pages, so you don’t want to overwhelm them with backstory or world building information so early on. Remember, you’ve got a minimum of 80,000 words to work with, you can take your time introducing the important background information.