Writing contest judges take on an almost impossible challenge—how to decide which of a small group of excellent stories will win a prize. What sets the winning story apart? A summary of Alice Ludlow’s 10 Storytelling Essentials That Wow Judges and Win Writing Contests may help you win that next short story contest.
1. Did the entrant adhere to the theme? A brilliant story may that ignores the theme or disobeys contest guidelines is a quick way to get a story disqualified. Follow the prompts.
2. Did it focus on a self-contained story? A short story is not a novel. You can’t tell an epic fantasy tale in under 1,500 words. Choose a story idea that fits within the word count requirements.
3. Did the story structure lend itself to clarity? When working within tiny word counts, over-complicating a story can confuse readers. Make sure transitions are clear and each new element introduced—scene, character, or plot twist—moves the story forward rather than cluttering it up.
4. Did it hook you with a brilliant first line? A powerful, surprising, and intriguing first line will make the judge want to read the rest. A judge will ask: What engaged me in the beginning? Could it have a better first line? Were there story hooks in the first paragraphs? What made me want to keep reading?
5. Did the writer get straight to the action? In a 1,500 word story, writers don’t have space for long passages of world building, description, and backstory. Start at the moment when “normal” ends—the first sign of trouble or first indication that something will be different today. What inciting incident kicks off the action? Start your story there.
6. Is it clear who the main character is and did s/he have a goal? Everyone wants something—as small as another hour of sleep or as profound as one more day with their terminally ill grandfather. Whatever it is, their want, and the things they do to get it, drives the story. What goal is the main character pursuing? Stories about characters without goals ramble on and confuse readers. Characters with clear goals that make decisions to pursue them keep us hooked to see what happens next. If the character achieved their goal, did it make them happy? Or did they have to deal with unwanted consequences?
7. Could the writer have cut excess words/phrases/paragraphs so as not to bog down the story? Three things can slow the flow of a story. Backstory—the writer needs to know everything about her character—but readers don’t. Is there too much detail and unnecessary information? Florid description—does a detail move the story forward or hinder it? Does it show us something about the character or the plot that we need to know? Adverbs—“The road to hell is paved with adverbs,” wrote Stephen King. That’s especially true in a 1,500 word contest.
8. Do the characters make a choice? Tension builds, the plot thickens, stakes rise, and the risks become greater. As the story climaxes, did the character come to a critical dilemma where she must choose how she will respond? Or did the character limp along without making a choice, or did he let other people choose for him? If so, the story will feel incomplete.
9. Did anything change? The decision your character makes in a crisis moment has consequences. Maybe a risk paid off—maybe they crash and burn. Whatever the case, something must be different as a result of their choice. Stories are about change. Trials the character experiences and the decisions made should leave someone or something irreversibly changed by story’s end.
10. Did the writer nail the ending? The first 1,450 words of a 1,500-word story should be riveting. The conclusion should tie up loose ends neatly. Did it reach closure? Resolve the conflict? Were you satisfied and say, “Yeah, The End”? An otherwise excellent story that fails to nail the ending won’t take the top spot.
A short story should be complete in and of itself. The story must stand alone, and when it ends, this tiny glimpse into a character’s life is truly done. And, you could have a winning story!