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On Judging A Short Story Competition For School Students, by Pauline Francis

teenage girl writing in a book

I’ve been judging short story competitions for many years now, both national ones and for local literary festivals. Entering writing competitions is fun and a good way of testing your writing skills.

So – what makes a good short story?

Well, a story to begin with. Morris Gleitzman recently visited a local school and talked about the short story. He said that there must be a problem. You can begin the story with the problem and show how it’s resolved during the story or you can hint mysteriously at the problem and build up the tension until it’s revealed – perhaps with a twist – nearer the end of the story.

I’ve judged some brilliant stories and reluctantly not chosen some that had great potential. Why didn’t they win? Almost always, the writer had a brilliant idea but failed to carry it out.

In 2013, I’m going to be a Writer-in-Residence in another local school and the students entering the programme have just been chosen by me from their short stories. I met some of the students who had just missed out and all of them admitted to writing the story and handing it in without checking and re-drafting. With more care, they could have won a place on my programme.

Short stories are difficult. But they’re the most used form of competition because they can be written, read and judged in a shorter space of time.

These are the main faults which put a story into my reject pile:

  1. Too many characters for the length.
  2. Not enough conflict.
  3. Too long a time span – unless its genre is time-slip.
  4. Slow beginning.
  5. A cheat ending (it was all a dream)
  6. No – or poor – dialogue.
  7. An ordinary theme which never lifts beyond that.
  8. Weak language.

So, let’s suppose you’re going to enter a short story competition and you have about a month to write it. Try to get your idea or main character straight away, if you can. It must really engage you personally if it’s to engage the reader. What do you want to tell the reader? What is the most important thing?

Here are a few tips.

  1. Plan the story so that you don’t spend too much room setting up the story then rush at the end, leaving the reader puzzled, cheated or let-down.
  2. You need lots of tension so that your reader’s mind might be guessing at more than one possible ending.
  3.  What attracts you to a good novel is also true of a good short story: a strong voice and a strong plot. Many writers of short stories seem to forget that and tend to leave their stories unstructured, sometimes without paragraphs.
  4. Consider using more than one narrator.
  5. Consider using time-slips, or another method of showing dates or times.
  6. Consider using other formats: letters, blogs, emails, texts.
  7. Use dialogue. Of course, like a picture in a picture book, it must move the story along.
  8. Ask the reader a question. ‘How did my life end up like this? What can I do? Did you know that it’s impossible to…?’
  9. Leave questions in your reader’s mind, so they want more. You don’t have to tie up all the ends.
  10. Does a human being have to narrate your story? Why don’t you make it a horse or dog or a bird? But be sure you can make a believable story hang onto it.

Most feature a big dramatic event because they have fewer words to make an impact. There must be enough tension to hold your reader’s attention. Stories about happy people only work if they’re in conflict with somebody or something.

If you have an idea NOW as you’re reading this, write it down before you forget it. Then plan with my suggestions above in mind.

When I’m down to the shortlist for a short story competition, I always read the stories aloud. It quickly highlights lack of tension and poor language. I like students to vary the length of their sentences because it adds power to the story.

For the Writer-in-Residence programme, the students will be writing a short story on the theme of what home means to them, because the college has a great many international students.

I’ll have a follow-up article about this later in the year.


Paulines Francis’s author website:

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2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Reblogged this on Tangled Inkspills.

    July 1, 2013

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  1. Month In Review (June 2013) | Writing Teen Novels

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