You put in a lot of effort to write your finest narrative, and if you're being honest, you're pretty convinced it's fantastic. You show it to other authors for input, and they all agree.
You muster your confidence and press the "Submit" button, submitting it to an unknown panel of writing contest judges.
Then you have to wait. What will the panel of judges think? Will they agree that your narrative is deserving of the grand prize?
Did you write a story that will attract the judges' attention? In any case, what kind of story is that?
I will take you behind the scenes and disclose precisely what judges look for when selecting writing contest winners.
The judges in the final round of our writing contests have an almost impossible task: how will they determine who of a small number of exceptional pieces will win a prize?
For a story to get this far, it has already been thoroughly scrutinized by the entire panel. Every judge has read and analyzed it, and enough people have argued that it has advanced to join an elite group of stories.
We all know that it has supporters among the judges. We are all aware of its immense worth. The trouble is... so do the other ten, fifteen, or twenty stories chosen for the final round.
How do the judges make their decisions? What distinguishes the winning story? And, if a tale that has progressed this far does not win (which, mathematically, is always the case), what is the fatal error that eliminates it?
I've noticed several patterns throughout these competitions. Several critical errors repeatedly arise—and it is these errors that the judges evaluate when making the most difficult selections in the final round.
Long hours of judging debate have been condensed into eleven elements that winning stories must include. I've seen each of these elements become the determining factor in whether or not a tale wins a prize.
Do you want your story to go beyond the final round and win the contest? Scrutinize these ten elements and ensure that your tale includes them.
Make sure you stick to the theme of the contest. You could write a fantastic narrative, but your story will be invalidated if you pay attention to the theme, skip a section, or otherwise violate the contest rules.
The issue is that a short tale is not a novel. An epic fantasy story can be told in at least 1,500 words.
Choose a tale idea whose breadth falls inside the word limit. A 103-year-life old's narrative may be too long, but an unplanned detour on the way home from the grocery store may be just the right length.
This is related to step #2. Yes, you can write a 1,500-word short story spanning two time periods, with five scene changes and three point-of-view characters. Should you, however? Perhaps, perhaps not.
Overcomplicating your story might easily confuse your viewers when working with a limited word count.
Check that transitions are apparent and that each new element you introduce—a new scene, a new character, a new narrative twist—moves the story ahead rather than cluttering it.
It might be challenging to discern what needs to be clarified in your writing, so have someone else read it before you submit it.
The opening sentence of your story is your opportunity to make a great first impression. A strong, unusual, and intriguing first sentence will pique the judges' interest and make them eager to read the remainder.
In a short period, writing contest judges read hundreds of stories. Make sure your opening line entices them to click on yours.
There needs to be more room in a 1,500-word story for extensive world-building sections or backstory pages. And that's hardly the most exciting aspect.
Refrain from beginning the story with three paragraphs that set the scene. Instead, begin your story when "normal" comes to an end.
What is the first indication of trouble? The first sign that something is unusual about today? What is the instigating circumstance that starts the action? Skip the detailed introduction and jump right into your story.
Everyone desires something. It may be as minor as an extra hour of sleep or as significant as one more day with their terminally ill grandfather.
Whatever it is, their desire and actions to obtain it drive the plot.
Make sure your character has a purpose in mind. Stories with aimless individuals meander, leaving readers needing clarification about why they're reading.
Stories about characters with specific goals and decisions to pursue them keep us interested and flip the pages to find out what happens next.
Pro tip: Everyone requires something. What they want and what they need are sometimes different. Will your character be satisfied if they attain their goal? Or will they have to face some unfavorable consequences?
Are you 500 words over your limit and need help deciding what to cut? Look for the following:
Backstory. Yes, you must know everything there is to know about your character—but your readers do not.
It may be tempting to mention every detail of their past that lead them to this point, but doing so may slow down your story and load readers with unneeded material.
Get everything down on paper in the first draft. Then, when you edit, try eliminating as much backstory as possible.
Pro tip: If readers (and characters) need to know something crucial, utilize it as a startling discovery to fuel the plot.
A flowery description. Does a detail advance the plot? Does it reveal anything meaningful about the character or the plot? If so, that's fantastic!
If not, sever it. We don't need to know what color your character's trash cans are unless your narrative is about rogue painters vandalizing the neighborhood garbage collection route.
Adverbs. Cut them cleanly. "The road to hell is paved with adverbs," Stephen King argues, especially when you have only 1,500 words.
While you're about it, remove these seven words as well. Save your space for words that advance the plot rather than bogging down the reader with clumsy prose.
(Did you see how many adverbs I used in that paragraph?) Ouch. We are all far from editorial perfection.)
This is the climax of the story, the critical point to remember. Your character must decide at some point in the story.
The suspense builds throughout the story. The narrative is thickening, the stakes are mounting, and the hazards are increasing.
As the story nears its conclusion, place your character in a critical situation where they must decide how to respond.
If your character limps along without making a decision, or if they let others select for them, the story will feel dissatisfying and unfinished.
But as they make a decision and then face the repercussions, we'll be hooked, wondering how they'll handle what comes next.
The decision your character makes in a crisis has ramifications. Maybe they took a chance, and it paid off, or they failed miserably. Whatever the case, something must have changed due to their decision.
Keep in mind that stories are about change. If your character ends the story in the same spot they started, readers will question why they bothered to read it in the first place.
Make sure that your character's hardships and decisions impact someone or something irreparably by the end of the novel.
On that note, avoid crafting a story with a dream sequence as the main plot. Unless the waking reality has changed due to the dream, it feels deceptive.
Any changes made in the dream world are lost when the character awakens. Why read a story in which nothing happens?
Yes, this also applies to daydreams. Check that the story is partially in the character's head.
Your first 1,450 words of your 1,500-word tale are engrossing. You don't have a lot of room to finish it, but if you add some closing, it'll be great, right?
It's complicated to write the right finish to a short tale, the conclusion that would cleanly but not too neatly tie up loose ends, leaving the story feeling resolved and a little enigmatic. The judges are aware of this.
They're still hunting for the ideal conclusion.
What is required for this narrative to be completed? What will be the solution to the conflict? What will let us be pleased that we have arrived at "The End"?
Remember that a short narrative may stand alone. It's not the first chapter of a novel nor a prelude to anything more significant.
Make sure your story stands on its own and that this brief insight into your character's life is completed when it concludes.
A narrative that is otherwise good but falls short in the ending will not be ranked first.
However, a shocking but unavoidable climax that leads to a satisfying finish will astound the judges and position your narrative as a strong contender for the grand prize.
Take your time to perfect your finish.
I've examined all of these factors through the eyes of a writing contest judge—what does our panel look for when we're asked to choose a few winners from a sea of compelling stories?
However, there are two additional ways to read this list.
1. The judges' feedback. One thing that distinguishes our writing contests is the option to receive direct comments from the judges on why your tale won or lost.
I'll tell you a little secret: these ten criteria account for 85 percent of the input judges provide. If you can master this list, they will find it difficult to provide constructive critique.
(Would you like specific criticism on how your tale met or failed to meet these ten essentials? Participate in one of our writing contests and sign up to receive feedback from the judges!)
2. The techniques of outstanding storytelling A list like this can come across as fabricated:
"Oh, you mean if I just sprinkle these ten arbitrary elements into my story, it'll be twisted enough for the judges to appreciate it?"
But here's the thing: the judges are looking for these elements because they are crucial to a good narrative.
You don't need a writing contest to practice these skills—master them, and you'll become a stronger storyteller for any story.