How to Win a Top Story Writing Contest - in a Word
What’s the secret tip that will help you win a top story writing contest? It can be expressed in just one word...
But wait! Before the secret can be yours, you must first undergo a Trial by Ordeal. Simply judge with critical attention more than one million words of stories - that’s Pride and Prejudice eight times over - submitted in a writing contest.
All asudden, the secret will so illuminate your mind that henceforth you will be spared all expense of light bulbs.
Seriously, the secret is...
Hush! Before I reveal it to you, have I told you about my garden shed?
That is the Magic Den where, at every solstice and equinox, I hide myself away for six weeks to judge the entries in the Writers’ Village story contest.
Oh, the labour! Oh, the joy! Oh, the energy expended, simply in running the beer cooler! (Of course, I no longer need to buy light bulbs.)
By now, I can sniff a winner in the first paragraph. A quick skip to the last paragraph and I’m sure of it. I then diligently read every word again, to be sure.
After all, I have to write a thoughtful critique of every story. And I don’t skimp it. But that first whiff is rarely wrong. Why?
Because I know the Secret.
It burns within me like a fulgent gem! A lambent flame! Or an amuse bouche, unwisely accepted at a Thai restaurant.
And the Secret is...
A great story is as carefully structured as a Breguet watch. It’s a marvel of compact form, a dynamic little universe, all in itself. Take out the smallest thing and it stops working. You can glimpse that universe, ticking away in a great story, in just the first few sentences.
Structure? Let me define structure, by explaining what does not work in a story.
Structural Error #1 is to start your story too late. The reader is gifted with three pages of scene setting - the history of the haunted house, the genealogy of the wretched family, the narrator’s superfluous confessions of a youthful tryst behind the bicycle shed. And was her name Mary?
Nothing yet has happened. Long before the ghost appears, the audience has fled, screaming.
Even worse, of course, is Error #2: the story where nothing ever happens. By the closing paragraph, the narrator is still asking herself - in eloquent agony - ‘shall I have eggs for breakfast? Or bacon?’ By then, she’s talking only to herself and the frying pan.
Virginia Woolf could get away with such tosh. Her characters never just boil eggs. They deliver destinies. But Woolf wrote like an angel, and few writers have her skill. (That said, I’ve often wanted to throttle her silly characters and cry ‘Lady, get a life!’)
The sign of a great story
A great story ‘happens’ in the first two paragraphs. It can be an intriguing theme, a phrase, a plot thread or a snatch of dialogue. Optionally, it may return to the same motif in the last paragraph. (Do not despise the ‘book end’ close. It’s a formula, but it works.)
The story will present a ‘globed, compacted thing’ (to quote Woolf). By whatever narrative device, it has become a plenum, autonomous, a universe in itself.
That’s all there is to it.
True, one further factor is desirable. The story also has to engage the reader’s emotions. Some stories entered in the Writers’ Village contest are as technically perfect as a Breguet watch. I rate them highly, but they do not win a top prize. Why? Because at the end, I sigh ‘Brilliant!’ And then ‘So what?’
Weave an original, highly emotive theme into a meticulous structure and you’ll have a winner.
I guarantee it.
But then, what do I know about structure, pacing, suspense, the Rule of Three - or even how to hold my reader’s attention until the last word? I’m just a contest judge.
To gain a free 14-week course which brings you 101 powerful ideas to win story contests visit: Writers' Village.