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Tips For Crafting a Winning Short Story

Tips for Crafting a Winning Short Story

What can you do to give your story the best chance of success in a competition? Below is a checklist judges use in selecting the winning entries. Each item is vital if you want to make it to the short list rather than the pile for shredding. When you have completed your story, go over it, paying particular attention to each of the points listed below. You have taken the time and effort to write it, now give it that extra polish to make it shine.

N.B.
Before you begin, check the entry conditions carefully. This is extremely important, as if you breach any of them, your entry will be automatically disqualified and won’t make it to the judge, no matter how good it is.
e.g. don’t be careless with the word count as the competition secretary may scan and check, and an excess will mean instant disqualification.

1.   Title
Appropriate, interesting, clever – or boring and unimaginative?  Does it enhance the story, catch the reader’s interest? It's your story's banner, the first words your reader sees so it must pique their interest.

2.   Format
Is it easy to read, with no distractions (fancy fonts, bold, extra-large print, clip art, decorations), with title and page number on each page?

3.   Basic writing skills
Spelling, punctuation, grammar, sentence length – it may be unconventional, as long as it works.  Poor attention to skills (like spelling) makes for distractions. Don’t rely entirely on your computer’s spell-checker. Have someone else you trust read it for you, to catch any mistakes you might have missed. If you claim to be a wordsmith, these are the tools of your trade, so learn to use them properly.

4.   Use of language
Imagery, word pictures, show/not tell.  Does the writer create powerful images by the skilful use of language, or are there too many clichés and qualifiers (adjectives and adverbs) which slow a story’s pace down? Readers need to see a clear picture to become involved in your story.

5.   Plot
Is there a unifying thread that holds the piece on course, is it maintained throughout, or does it wander off course?

6.   Dialogue
Is it realistic, credible, appropriate to the piece, does it drive the story forward, draw the characters’ personalities for us, or is it irrelevant waffle, just padding for an inadequate story?

7.   Voice
Is it strong, clear, distinctive and appropriate to the piece, maintained throughout, with no author intrusion (the writer sneaking in with their editorial comments)? Does the narrator use words appropriate to their age and gender?

8.   Style
Is it appropriate to the subject, engaging, or is it flat, bland, predictable, boring? When using the vernacular, be consistent.

9.   Characters
Are they believable, well-drawn, engaging? Make your reader care about them by the way you portray them.

10.   Setting
Is there a strong sense of place, are we right there with the characters? Here is where details matter, but make them count by using the five senses of sight, sound, taste, touch and smell to make it come alive.

11.   Impact
Does it make a lasting impression, or is it ho-hum?  Is there a twist the reader didn’t see coming? If not, make one.

12.   Pace
Does it move along steadily, with no “dead” spots, or does it drop off here and there? Overuse of qualifiers (adjectives, adverbs, etc) slow down a story’s pace. Choose more powerful nouns and verbs.

13.   Beginning
Are we plunged straight into the story, or is there too much “setup” detail? Begin with the action, don’t waste time on weather reports and scenic description unless it is vital to the plot. You risk losing your reader’s attention if nothing happens for the first half page.

14.   Ending
Does it satisfy, leave something for us to ponder, or is it all tied up with nowhere to go? Beware the fatal temptation to tie it up with a neat bow by telling the reader what to think, preaching your own conclusion. If the reader has stayed with you this far, give them the credit to draw their own conclusions, which may be very different from yours.

15.   X-factor
This is that indefinable something that sets a story apart from the general pile. It is what makes the story stay in the reader’s mind long after it’s over. Is it a new story that’s never been told before or an old story told in a new and fresh way? Whatever it is, it compels the judge to immediately consign the story to their short list. Good luck finding it, it’s every writer’s dream.


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