Ring the Bells – Short Story Workshop 7



When I first moved to Colorado Springs, we lived right smack downtown. I was often in my kitchen at noon (feeding the toddler) when the bells in all the surrounding churches started. It was like being caught in the middle of a storm of sound, and it left you a little dizzy afterwards, as if you still heard bells that were no longer sounding.

This is exactly what you want to do with a short story.

Oh, a novel too, mind you. But the tools and the implements of making people continue to dream upon your novel are different than the tools that make a short story unforgettable.

I learned early, mostly because I was a child full of iniquity, that the most important parts of a short story were the beginning and the end.

People will tell you that every little bit of a short story, ever sentence, every punctuation mark, has to be absolutely perfect.

Don’t listen to them.

Provided you’re not so bad that you actually lose people in the middle, you can have quite a few little sins there. Extra words, bits just for fun. In fact, cleaning a short too much can kill it and turn it into a lifeless “recital piece.”

BUT your beginning and your end have to be flawless in their form and function.

The beginning has to hook. That means you have to open with a zinger. Don’t give me long reminiscences about poor uncle Albert’s lost teeth. No, start with a punch. “I have no teeth and I must eat steak.” Okay, not one of your great lines of literature, but better than, “We noticed that uncle Albert had lost his teeth in the spring of seventy nine.” That line, unless followed up by “That was the year the wild chickens laid waste to (and upon) the western states. The yolk was on us.” Is going to put people to sleep. In fact, I yawned while writing it.

To be serious, the beginning has to catch you and hold you. I don’t think I ever wrote a better beginning line than “Dying is easy. It’s staying alive afterwards that’s difficult.” However, there have been better lines than mine, of course.

Unfortunately, because what I read mostly are novels, that’s what comes to mind first.

It was a pleasure to burn.

All my life I’ve wanted to go to Earth.

It was a warm night when a fist knocked at the door so hard the hinges bent.

This is the Discworld, which travels through space on the back of four elephants which themselves stand on the shell of Great A’Tuin, the sky turtle.

On one otherwise normal Tuedsay evening, I had the chance to live the American dream. I was able to throw my incompetent jackass of a boss from a fourteenth-story window.

The difference is this. In a novel, you might have a page or so to get going. In a short story, you need to hook us RIGHT from the beginning and drag us in, kicking and screaming.

Once you’ve hooked us, and we know we’re going to read about these characters come heck or high water, you can relax a little. Not to the point the reader asks what he’s doing there, but just a little. You can get playful and make it fun.

But after the climax, when you’re bringing the reader back to his upright and locked position, you need to do something more: you need to give them something to remember you by.

In novels, this is often the world or the character, or something else that gets them dreaming. How many kids dreamed of going to Hogwarts with Harry? How many of us have flown dragons on Pern in our dreams?

I’m not saying that’s impossible with a short story. It’s just that short stories are normally too small to contain that type of world building/character/adventure.

What you’re left with, therefore is concentrated emotion or idea, or preferably both.

By the time you hit the last few lines of your stories, you should have some idea what the idea or emotion you’re trying to convey is. If you don’t, figure it out, and then tie it all together.

A good last line – A Rose for Emily – can turn an entire story on its head, but a last line doesn’t need to be surprising to be good.

I was looking for examples on my semi-packed shelves, and of course can’t find any, but I shouldn’t have to. A short story’s final lines should be GOOD. Either poetic or action, or whatever the tone of the short is should be reinforced, tied together, preferably in a way that will keep the reader thinking.

Find the most powerful thought in your story, then craft a line that makes it ring like a bell in the reader’s heads after the story is over. It doesn’t need to be a surprise. It just needs to tie it all together.

Okay, some practice might be needed. I’m still practicing. But sometimes it works.

And when it works it’s like standing in my kitchen, with phantom bells ringing in my ears, long after the sound has ceased.

Next week, Fiddle, Twiddle and Revise.


    1. Yes.
      Sorry — I wrote this last night and was drawing a blank, plus I’ve packed all my collections, apparently.
      But also “I am Jane here, all alone in the dark, but who are all you zombies?”

      1. The lines you need to look up aren’t the really effective ones. 🙂

        (Yeah, yeah; I don’t mean making sure you quoted the wording exactly right. And of course, All You Zombies has a second ending six sentences later, one far less quotable or memorable. Ah, well; “Even Jove nods.”)

    2. … and now I know how to improve the story I wrote for the Baen Fantasy contest: I need to rearrange the ending so the punch-line (or does this have a different name if it’s not within a joke?) can also be the last line.

      1. Fortunately, in my case, the short I submitted will fit as an introduction and I can start my novel from four years before; while, giving the reader a taste of what is to come. My hope was that it would be good enough for a ‘when you have a novel you think we might like, send it.’ No such luck. Glad you got some help from the writing and this post. It’s always good to get helpful advice. Also, the submission itself was a learning experience for me and that I hope you gained from it too.

  1. I think that my favorite beginning line of a novel is “There are some mistakes that “oops” just doesn’t cover.”

    Last lines, I don’t know.

    I used to think I was good at beginnings, but I’m starting to realize that while I was starting with the person that I wanted readers to care about, I didn’t often start with them experiencing the “story question”. So Fischer is eating his lunch and is informed by his “friends” of important news… and then I ding around setting back ground and walking him through the space station to find out if his One True Love has been returned to him or not. Now I’m thinking that the starting point ought to be when he’s looking at images of the transformed “blues” and is sick because he realizes that He Can’t Tell if one of them is his True Love or not.

  2. I’m 3,500 words into what I think is about a 4,250 ~ 4,500 word story. It does not start with a bang…and I’m struggling with how, or if, I should change that.

    The story starts with a completely normal setting and goes quickly downhill. A day turned bad kind of thing. Jumping straight to action would upset that tone.

    It’s my first crack at a true short story, so I’m willing to be wrong. What about a pithy statement foreshadowing what’s to come? Too cliche?

    Part of my problem, I’m sure, is that I don’t read enough short stories. I’ve tried to fix that with some anthologies.

    1. My new opening line and I aren’t getting along.

      “There may have been a murder a day in the city, but in the suburbs – Pecan Hills was peaceful.”

      1. no —
        There may have been a murder a day in the city, but in the suburbs Pecan Hills was peaceful.
        That is, it was peaceful until they found the were elephant hiding in the high grass.
        (The second sentence might be spurious 😉 )

        1. Now I’m trying to decide if were elephants can crouch… (Crouching elephant, hidden rhino.)

          Or if somebody’s really far behind on their yard maintenance… (I was gonna cut the lawn, but my wife’s taken to trading with the native village.)

                    1. If this happens, I hope it’s a shifter mini-golf course. It works with the menagerie theme, and awesomeness would follow.

  3. My favorite starts to a story is one of the Dresden books (can’t remember which one): “The building was burning and it wasn’t my fault.”

    1. Part of what gives that line punch, though, is familiarity with Harry.

      Which doesn’t make it a bad line, by any means.

      1. I disagree. The line itself tells you that it might easily have been assumed to be his fault. It doesn’t say “and this time it wasn’t my fault” but it *almost* says that. So even someone who had never heard of Harry Dresden will still get the impact.

        1. Eh. They’ll get some impact. I’m not sure they’ll get all of it. The humor inherent in the line seems to rely on knowing how much destruction has followed in Harry’s wake in the past.

          But it’s hard for me to be definitive, because I have read the books, so judging a first time experience is tough.

      2. If I may offer myself as a test subject, it works. Although, of course, I know who Harry is because sons, I don’t know Harry. Still found it told me a lot.

        1. Which Harry are you thinking of? This being Harry Dresden (which name, I just realized, gives a whole new dimension to the fact that he uses fire a lot).

            1. There is no other Wizard named Harry besides Harry Dresden! [Very Big Grin]

  4. I’ma just gonna toss this one out, the opening of my Baen submission:

    He felt each slapping impact on the rounded ends of his lower legs, the fitted cups smacking home with each trotting step as he ran to the sound of the screams. The last time he’d given in to this instinct he’d woken up staring through a dust-hazed sky toward the sneering Afghan sun, and smelling blood. Way too much blood. Ah, well, at least he could definitively answer the question next time somebody asked if he’d do that again…

    I like it. No idea if it works for anybody else. And I don’t know if the first line hooks most people, or no.

  5. “Daddy, can I have a shoggoth for Christmas?”
    I looked up from my quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore, and told my daughter to go and ask her mother.

  6. Off topic but I think I have a problem. I sat down 5am yesterday and wrote for 24 hrs straight with a break for lunch and evening walk and midnight tea. I just came out of the fog 20 minutes ago. 10ish? Brain won’t stop and I’m afraid I’m going to loose it. Story, not brain.

    Can anyone help me find the pause button?

    Must give my hands a rest now, but I’d appreciate any suggestions.

    1. Sorry, had the same problem a time or two. However, the story was still there when I awoke; maybe, a little different.

      1. I finally reached a part that required strategic thought by the protagonist and my brain said no. I’m pretty happy though. Its a vomit draft but 13,000 words is a nice end to my dry spell.

        I’m hoping to have something publishable in a couple months. This will be my first kitty out the door and the first novella of a series so I’m pretty nervous. 🙂

        1. Oooh, good luck on the first of a series! And that’s a pretty decent run on a draft, congratulations!

          My brain seems to steadfastly refuse to focus on the first of mine. Instead it wants to play with the plots of the later books, and even came up with the rough ideas of the final. It works in silly ways, so the most I can do now is outline and jot down the notes and ideas.

  7. It never fails: just when I get used to the brutal hopelessness of combat, something turns me into a human again, and I have to start all over.
    This morning it was Canup falling asleep on Boatwright’s shoulder. We were jammed into the shuttle, shoulder to shoulder and ass to ass on the seats, and Canup just nodded off, and his helmet drifted over to rest on Boatwright. Instead of shaking him awake, Boatwright lowered his voice to keep from disturbing him.
    I hate that crap.

  8. I had a thought. Since many of us losers from Baen are on this comment path. What about one of the experienced writers that submitted and lost. One who has self published before, take submissions from us, glean what he or she thinks are the best, basic edit, stick them together and submit to say; Amazon a “10 best S-Fi shorts by new or upcoming writers” Yes, I know that my story probably doesn’t rate in that group, none the less, it would help kickstart some MGC members and buy a few cups of coffee for some.

    1. Anthology rights and payments are, as I understand it, murderously difficult.

      Did any masochists enter and lose?

          1. Probably. I don’t count as one of the experienced writers though… just one of the losers. ;P

            I suppose I’m a masochist at least far enough to want to put my story in front of as many people as possible to get a range of opinions on it. I like it. I’ve shown it to one fellow writer elsewhere who didn’t care for it. I rewrote a little. My husband liked it, but he’s my husband. It’s been a long time since I’ve had a regular critique group to get multiple opinions from, and the reason for that is I’m not producing enough to uphold my end of the deal on a critique group… which isn’t likely to change with school and all going on.

            1. 🙂

              This problem I understand. I’m so biased on my own stuff. And do I take the opinion of the days I like it? Or the opinion of the days I hate it?



          2. It was the spell itself that informed her. The magic of it wove through Eileen with tendrils of dreamlike meaning. “You are summoned. We have summoned you. You are a demon, bound to us and our cause.”

            Rewrite with all the was-es out? Heck if I know.

  9. “Quiet,” Lui hissed. “Don’t spook it. We need it all the way in the box.”
    Gina, holding her breath, watched as the wild pizza rippled toward the box trap.

  10. I’m a total novice at this so I can only make suggestions. I do know that Baen does put out anthologies and after a year puts them on the free list. Sarah, Larry, and numerous other writers now have samples out there because of that.. If they point to Baen, it could point to ‘the hun’
    One of the anti-self publishers we were directed to a few months ago had a back issue of his magazine in the header, I read the article, confirmed that he was a two time idiot; but, the article he submitted mentioned that ebook readers prefer shorter stories. No goat gaggers. A group of short stories would fit the bill.
    Third point- Most of the ebook or ephone readers I know like to read while at the doctor’s office (me too) or an appointment, waiting for the wife/husband to arrive. Get in a quickie before facing the dentist drill.
    Shoot, it would be good practice for aspiring editors and publishers. Just as long as I retain copyright to be able to take it to a book, I don’t care much about the rest of the details.

      1. I can’t really comment on the numbers, but I’ve found myself buying a lot more short story collections than I ever had before. An e-book reader app on your phone and a collection of short stories make waiting rooms much more tolerable.
        I don’t doubt that novels still outsell them 10:1. But I’d surprised if that ratio wasn’t significantly better than whatever it had been before the e-book revolution.

        Of course, the word “collection” is probably key. I don’t think I’ve ever bought a stand alone short story.

  11. Reminder — anyone who wants to join Expecting Something Written, the online workshop for Sarah’s fans by Sarah’s fans and for Sarah’s fans, please write to me — mbarker at computer dot org should do it. Keep writing!

  12. This is the opening to my submission to Baen:

    For as long as I could remember, I wanted to be a knight in shining armor. I’d lost countless hours reading every single story I could get and I pestered every person I met for any tale they might have heard, no matter how badly told. I loved them all. I delighted in the ideals of honor, chivalry, bravery… nothing made me happier than imagining the day of my knighting.
    There was just one little problem. …Well, perhaps it’s not really a little problem. Rather big, really…
    You see, I’m a dragon.


    Curse being ill. I’m on such a backlog of Stuff To Do. ;_;

  13. Hum… How about the Nine Billion Names of God by Arthur C. Clarke.

    Simple story. Two computer geeks get employed by a monastery to put together a computer to generate the nine billion names of god. The monks believe this is the task set by god for the universe, and that once it is done, the universe will end. The geeks do it, and rush off, laughing at those kooks who are going to be surprised when the last name is printed and nothing happens. Which should be happening about now.

    Last line…

    Overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out.

    1. Oh, Lord, yes. How could that not have come to mind. It wasn’t QUITE a surprise ending, but did it ever ring through me. I remember the first time I read that story, I said “Oh” aloud at that phrase.

        1. I think that’s the trick to this one — we’re all identifying with the geeks, kind of laughing at the monks, and then… Whoops, they were right. As Sarah says, not quite a surprise, but a sudden shift in the point of view, from science will triumph to what if. Something like that, anyway.

  14. I thought I was doing something nifty when the first line and last line of my Baen Fantasy story were mirrored bookends.

    “We do what we must,” Mother always said, back when we were skulking around the wharves and warehouses at the bottom end of Port Alkarief.

    But as mother always said, we do what we must.

      1. Were I to blow it up to a novel, a think a lot of the nice bits in the story would have to fall by the wayside. Although this bit I might be able to save.

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