Having been a juror for a few fiction competitions now, I feel I’m beginning to create somewhat of a “method,” even a rubric, for selecting my top stories. Here’s what I look for.
The Central 3: Character, Conflict, Creativity
Good writing comes in a variety of forms. And there’s no one set formula for “getting it right.” But there are a few things a competition story needs to do to get noticed…and it must get noticed to rise in the ranks.
A good story can have any of these three as its foundation:
- Memorable and/or unique characters
- An intriguing conflict (within the character, between characters, or with an outside force)
- Or some bit of flair or personality that makes it stand out among the rest.
If it has one, great. Two, even better. If it has all three? GOLD!
Don’t Forget…You’re Telling a Story
One of my biggest pet peeves is when I come across a stand-alone scene with no context. It’s understandable, with strict word limits, that we won’t be able to tell every part of a story like we could if we weren’t limited. But, even with word limits, we have to be conscious of the traditional story arc.
Even if all we have space for is a piece of the story, that piece should hint at something greater outside of its borders. It should be couched in the arc, even if much of it has to be implied. Consider looking at examples of flash fiction, especially 100 word stories. There are some masters of microfiction out there who are experts in crafting tiny stories that pack a punch.
Elements of Story
We should also consider a few of the elements of story I haven’t already mentioned.
- Point of View: Choose the most impactful narrator to tell the story and consider the use of 1st, 2nd, and 3rd person.
- Style: Our style can help us stand out. Crisp, staccato sentences. Simplicity. Poetic prose. Sensual description. Style is not what we write, but HOW we write it. Think about the difference between such writers as Faulkner and Hemingway. One is known for his lengthy, complex sentences, while the other is known for his brevity. Both are, arguably, amazing, and their styles are recognizable. Find what you are good at and capitalize on it. Make it yours.
- Literary Devices: Strategic use of metaphor, simile, alliteration, personification, allusion, foreshadowing, symbolism, satire/humor, etc. can also make our writing stand out. But, we must be careful not to overdo it. Most writing instructors and editors will caution against the use of “purple prose” or sentimentality.
- Powerful first and last lines: Bookending our stories with something that appears at both the beginning and the end (like an image or word), dialogue that propels the plot…these are also ways to stand out.
It’s important to note that not every story will be everything to every reader, so we should select our story ingredients carefully, knowing we probably won’t be able to hit every mark. Especially in the beginning, when the word limits are so tight.
I’ve noticed that I often love stories that other judges do not. So, take my advice with a grain of salt. I am only one writer and one reader with one set of criteria. At the end of the day, you do you, boo. Because, ultimately, if you aren’t having fun, it will be obvious.
My Selection Method
As a juror, I have a pretty set routine for approaching a round of entries. I read through them all quickly the first time, just getting an overall sense of what is there. I star the ones I like, but I don’t question much or think about it too deeply, I just go with my gut reaction. This means I’m just going for the best stories.
My second read-through is only for the stories I’ve starred. I begin to look a little more closely for my top three story requirements (character, conflict, and creativity). And once I get it down to the top stories, I rate them on a scale, placing the titles in boxes (see below). From here, I add up the points to put the stories in order. This also helps me in providing feedback, because I can see, in the chart, which elements worked for or against the story.
|Good (3)||Really Good (4)||Excellent (5)|
|Conflict/Plot (The Story Arc)|
|Creativity & Style|
That’s pretty much it.
I know, I know, it’s a lot. But don’t let it keep you from attempting competition writing. At the end of the day, the goal of the competition should be to improve, to learn, and to grow as a writer. Receiving feedback from a real-time audience is priceless. The motivation and momentum and demand can be stressful, but if we approach it as a journey, it’s much less intimidating.