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How to Win a Top Story Writing Contest - in a Word

Updated on July 14, 2011

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.

My garden shed
My garden shed

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 Breguet watch
A Breguet watch


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.

A tryst behind the bicycle shed
A tryst behind the bicycle shed

Error #1

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.

Error #2

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.


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    • John Yeoman profile imageAUTHOR

      John Yeoman 

      7 years ago from Story writing land in the centre of England

      Thanks, Melovy. Do drop your email address into the box to enrol in the free 'master class', if you haven't already done so:

      I look forward to reading your stories!

    • Melovy profile image

      Yvonne Spence 

      7 years ago from UK

      I’m really glad to have come across your hubs. This one so useful. I’ve entered many writing contests and had some success, in that I’ve come third a couple of times, but never hit that top spot. I will be going through my stories now and looking at them with new eyes.

      I’ve just had a look at your site and it looks great. I am amazed at all you do for writers. I will be reading your other hubs for sure.

    • De Greek profile image

      De Greek 

      7 years ago from UK

      That bad, eh? :-)))

    • John Yeoman profile imageAUTHOR

      John Yeoman 

      7 years ago from Story writing land in the centre of England

      Any critique would be superfluous.

    • De Greek profile image

      De Greek 

      7 years ago from UK

      Free lesson noted and appreciated. :-)

      But am I the last reader who enjoys words for their sake and descriptions which lead to a point somewhere along the way? What about the introduction of minor characters who will be crucial to the story later on?

      Allow me to take advantage of you by pretending to make a point. The following is the introduction to a chapter of my book:


      The cleaning woman at Levante Freighters had been nicknamed ‘Mrs. Ethelred’ by the office wits. She took pride in the nickname because they told her that Ethelred had been an ancient English king, and she assumed that the name was due to her queenly posture. In fact she was named after her husband who had become known as 'Ethelred the Unready' amongst the staff. Mrs. Ethelred would insist on complaining to all the girls in the office that her husband refused to give her anal or oral sex. Apparently the reason was that the husband had been traumatized by the behavior of his father, who had recently “come out” at age 62 and now went about with a pony tail and a boyfriend.

      “Good morning Mrs. Ethelred,” Sam said to her as he and the dog walked in.


    • John Yeoman profile imageAUTHOR

      John Yeoman 

      7 years ago from Story writing land in the centre of England

      Oh, the injustice! I sympathise. No, I suppose Maugham would have rated 42 out of 45 in my contest - enough to be short-listed but not quite a cash prize winner.

      Why? Times have moved on. Agatha Christie could spend 10,000 words getting to the point in The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Today, she wouldn't find a publisher. (Unless her name was Umberto Eco, Dan Brown - or, of course, Agatha Christie.)

      Oh, the perfidious inequity of it all! Please accept a Kleenex.

      BTW: Note the cunning way I ended this Comment, to create a perfect unity, by echoing the first line in the Closure :)

    • De Greek profile image

      De Greek 

      7 years ago from UK

      Now I am confused. I have just finished reading two books of short stories by Somerset Maugham and he NEVER gets to the point in the beginning and he often inserts a story within a story that has nothing to do with the original title intent.

      My huge admiration of you does not allow me to simply dismiss this without investigation. According to this article, Maugham would have failed in all your competitions. How is such a thing possible?

      And there is no small amount of self interest in this:

      If you are right, I shall have to re-write my book from the beginning, instead of relying on my wit, eloquence and charm to hold the attention of the reader long enough to find out why so many people are after my hero!

      Oh, the pain, the unfairness of it all!... :-)


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