You believe you’re a competent writer.
Maybe you’re better than competent.
So you submit your best story to a short fiction competition. You know it’s beautifully written, and you await the judges’ verdict with a modest confidence.
Inexplicably, your story doesn’t win. Why not? Chances are, it contains a major plot flaw.
I won’t say that your story took too long to start, or didn’t start at all. Or that it was a graphic, sparkling ‘slice of life’ that went nowhere. Or a black hole of philosophy that ended ‘Just another day in Boring, Oregon’. I wouldn’t accuse you of such clumsy errors.
Maybe your tale was brilliantly written but it was still dead – because its plot was shop-worn. Correct that plot flaw and there’s still no guarantee your story will win, of course. But if it’s technically correct in all other respects, it will leap into the contest’s shortlist. I guarantee it.
Having judged around 1000 entries in the Writers’ Village story contest in recent months, I’m developing a nose for shop-worn plots. Here are five that occur in every round:
They were lovers in Nero’s Rome and died together in a bestial arena, devoured by wolves. Two thousand years later their eyes meet again at a New York cocktail party. Cue bliss, wedding bells and poetic flashbacks. And the story ends right there. Yawn.
Instead, let’s suppose that, following their reunion after two millennia, the couple find they don’t like each other at all. Their marriage becomes an arena. It ends in divorce. And they throw each other, metaphorically speaking, to the wolves. That’s a twist. If the story was well written, its originality might win a prize.
A naïve young girl has three ugly sisters. They grow up to become fashion tycoons while our heroine languishes in a shoe shop. Sound familiar?
But then… she wins a beauty contest and becomes a super-model! Her sisters try to sabotage her career, but to no avail. The story ends with her marrying a billionaire and bankrupting her sisters.
Would that story win a prize? No. You just can’t trick out a nursery tale in a modern dress and call it original. Give it a twist!
Maybe the girl discovers that her glamorous husband (the ‘fairy godmother’) is a rogue. So she descends to drugs, destitution and a job in public relations. But her sisters come to her rescue. “Blood is thicker than water!” they cackle, as they restore her glittering career – in return for 15% of her earnings.
Now that’s a prize-winning twist. Perhaps.
The narrator buys a weird old house. Ghostly manifestations occur. But she realizes that the ghost is friendly. It’s just trying to get justice for some long-forgotten wrong.
Or the phantom turns out to be the narrator herself, a fragment of an earlier incarnation who has time-slipped across the centuries to warn her of some imminent peril. Finally, the wraith vanishes with a wistful smile – and the story’s done.
Boring. Have you heard that tale before? Everyone has. So give it a twist!
In Whispers In Her Ear by Gayle Beveridge, a woman is haunted by angelic voices. She takes their advice. Too late, she realizes the voices were those of demons, and she’s damned.
That story won the $1600 top prize in the Writers’ Village 2013 contest. Not only was it beautifully written, but the last-line twist came as a total surprise.
A loving wife attends her husband’s burial. She’s surprised to see several strange women at the grave. Each claims that she is the husband’s legal wife – and has the documents to prove it. No wonder the man was so rarely at home!
Variations on this long-whiskered plot include the Revealing Will (the deceased leaves all their money to a lover previously unknown); the Trick Funeral (the deceased is not dead at all); and the Nasty Codicil (the heirs have to carry out some outlandish act to inherit the deceased’s fortune).
To make an embarrassing funeral work, the surprise must be very clever.
In one of Jeffrey Archer’s stories, the grasping relatives are commanded to bury the deceased at sea in a lead coffin. When the will is read, they discover – to their horror – that they have inadvertently consigned his entire legacy to the waves. The coffin had been made of gold. That’s clever.
The narrator visits a dying parent and discovers some disconcerting facts. “Son, you are the product of a laboratory experiment and were cloned from a mouse.” Or “My real name is Lord Lucan and I have been on the run for forty years.” Etcetera.
Again, this plot nugget is powerful, but the shock is not enough to carry the story by itself. How does that revelation affect the narrator’s life?
Suppose the protagonist Bill has been raised as a Jew then discovers, at the deathbed of his beloved father, that the man had been a war criminal – the commandant of a Nazi death camp. What will Bill’s Jewish wife and children think? What face does Bill see when he looks in the mirror now? That’s the real story.
There’s nothing wrong with these five shop-worn plots – you’ll find them in many best-selling novels – but you have to work on them. Here are three ways to turn them into winners:
1. If you’ve lifted a plot off the shelf, deepen and complicate it. So just when the reader is sighing “that’s Bluebeard’s cupboard (or Cinderella’s or Goldilocks’), drop in a twist – a wily variation – that nobody can see coming.
2. Look for the major ‘so what’ question hidden in your plot. What might happen then? And after that? How could you make the consequences of those events unpredictable?
3. How do these startling twists impact the characters’ feelings – their lives and relationships? Show their emotional responses to the plot twists, and your story will gain depth.
That’s all there is to winning a top prize in a short story contest, apart from the 101 other craft techniques you might need. But as a competent writer, you’ll know about those already…
Have you ever read a story that nearly worked for you? What let it down and how do you think the author could have fixed it? Please leave a comment and share your views!
About the author:
Dr John Yeoman, PhD Creative Writing, judges the Writers’ Village story competition and teaches creative writing at a UK university. He has been a successful commercial author for 42 years. You can find a wealth of ideas for writing stories that succeed in his free 14-part course.
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