Seven Ways To Win A Story Contest

    Would You Like to Win a Short Story Contest?

    What do judges look for when awarding prizes in a story contest?

    You’d expect every reader to bring their prejudices to the table – and they do – but professional judges usually agree to a remarkable degree on which stories merit an award.

    How do I know? I’ve just judged several hundred entries in the Writers’ Village international short fiction contest.

    To ensure fairness, I then submitted the shortlisted entries to a further panel of judges, all acclaimed authors. Their verdicts were almost identical.

    How did they select the winners, among so many excellent stories?

    The judges were not greatly moved by lyrical language, snappy dialogue or deep insights into the human condition. They looked for evidence of structure. Provided a story was competent in other respects, its structure, or lack of it, was the deciding factor.

    How can you strengthen story structure? Ask these seven key questions of your story – and you’ll know!


    1. Have you focused on just one protagonist?


    A short story should have just one protagonist whose viewpoint the reader will occupy. A story may be told by several narrators, or through more than one point-of-view (pov), but one protagonist must clearly predominate to sustain the reader’s engagement in the story.

    Chaucer told The Canterbury Tales – a collection of short stories – through 24 different points of view, but the presence of a single protagonist, the host Harry Bailey, is always implicit.


    2. Do you bring on the protagonist quickly?


    The main character should appear in the first 400 words of a short story or no later than page one. Readers bond with the first strong character they meet. It’s important that the first person they meet is not a bit-player who subsequently disappears.


    3. Is conflict introduced almost at once?


    The protagonist should be involved in one or more meaningful conflicts almost at once. The conflict(s) may be physical, emotional or psychological, but they must represent two or more forces opposed within the protagonist’s mind.

    The conflicts in the stories of the late Tom Clancy might appear at times to be entirely military or physical, but the protagonists are simultaneously wrestling with inner conflicts such as self-doubt or divided loyalties.


    4. Does your protagonist change?


    The conflict must change the principal protagonist in some way; s/he should be a different person at the end of the story.

    Stories presented as a serial may appeal because the reader knows the protagonist will not change their character from story to story. But s/he must still arrive at the end the story having learned something significantly new about themselves or human nature. Otherwise, the tale is a cartoon strip.

    For example, Sherlock Holmes is a serial character. Nobody expects him to be a different person at the close of every conundrum he solves. But the stories usually end with him making some wise observation to Watson. The great detective has learned something new from each encounter and, to that degree, he has been changed. (Indeed, his meeting with Irene Adler in A Scandal in Bohemia radically changes his attitude towards women.)


    5. Is there a single underlying theme?


    Theme is the underlying significance of the plot. A short story should have just one prevailing theme, and a single master plot. All sub-plots, if any, and ensuing conflicts should support that theme.

    The French scholar Georges Polti said there were only 36 master plots in all the stories of the world. For example, Polti’s first master plot involves a Persecutor, a Supplicant and a dubious Power which may favor one side or the other. Doesn’t that remind us of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, where the merchant Antonio is persecuted by Shylock but saved, after Portia’s entreaties, by the Duke of Venice?

    The theme of this master plot? The power of mercy over hate…


    6. Does your story close by revisiting the theme?


    The close of your story should revisit, in some way, its theme. The central problem may be resolved, or the tale might close upon a note of tantalizing ambiguity. There might even be an acceptance that the issue(s) will never be resolved, but it must return – no matter how obliquely – to the theme. If it doesn’t, there’s no closure.

    Even Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, which seems to end with no conclusion, does close. Because it returns the reader to the problem posed by the narrator at the start. What (really) is Truth? That problem defines the story’s master plot.


    7. Have you engaged the primal emotions?


    The theme must engage the protagonist’s, and, by extension, the reader’s, primal emotions or carnal drives. Defined in the crudest terms, these include sex (or procreation), physical survival (for self, family or tribe), emotional comfort (love, friendship and community), and spiritual survival or advancement.

    The theme and ensuing conflicts in a strong story should involve one or more of these primal drives. If the protagonist is not personally threatened or engaged in these primal areas s/he must become emotionally involved with a character who is challenged in one or more of them.

    For example, the crime stories of Kathy Reichs appear, at first glance, to involve no primal drive. They’re grim whodunits, escapist entertainment. But Reichs’ heroine, the forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan, is obsessed with a passion to avenge the dead – to re-assert the values of a civilized community and so protect the ‘tribe’. That’s a primal drive.

    The author can invoke a primal drive overtly, as in a suspense thriller, or tacitly, as in a literary story which fits into no obvious genre. But it must be done.


    If your stories tick all these boxes, and are otherwise well-written, they deserve to be short-listed for an award.

    If they don’t incorporate these elements, no tricks of plotting, characterization, dialogue or the like can help you. Because your stories will be dead. They won’t engage the reader.

    Of course, there’s a lot more to writing great stories. No doubt, you can easily think of stories that broke each of these rules, yet won.

    So why not share them? Or suggest other rules that win readers – and awards? Please leave a comment!

    About the author

      John Yeoman

      Dr John Yeoman, PhD Creative Writing, was a tutor in creative writing at a UK university. He was a successful commercial author for 42 years and was a regular, much-loved contributor to WTD. He died unexpectedly in 2016.

    • Elizabeth Best says:

      Thanks for the information. Now that you have listed these tips, they make sense. I will use them to review a story that I have put aside for a while. I will also bear them I mind as I read. Knowing these strategies is great’ putting them into practice is the challenge. That is my writing resolution for the coming year. Thanks again for all you have done to enlighten the writing community.

      • Many thanks, Elizabeth. Every good wish for your writing in the New Year.

    • It’s always great to have help with structure and what real professionals are looking for. I tend to write as if channeling something. Stories that come quickly, without almost thinking. I get worried my stream of consciousness writing does not read well. I’m grateful for all the help as I learn my own style.

    • Reen Collett says:

      Hi there, John.Thanks for that. Great tips. Since you ask for more points for good fiction writing…whether Short Story or Book… May I offer 3 more:
      1. Main Characters that are really lovable, no matter what else they are. I’m probably no different from the average reader in not wanting to go past the first chapter or paragraph with an MC I can’t warm to. One that doesn’t, for instance, think that the main aim in life is revenge, or survival, or to have sex with the right person. I’ve come across best-selling authors whose MC I can’t raise any enthusiasm for, and have to close the book.
      2. Plots that have more than one layer or dimension to them. Michael Gruber is great that way.,, Frances Hodgson Burnett – remember “T. Tembarom”?…Kipling, Robert Heinlein, Tolkien…..
      They end up being uplifting, inspiring, and you close the book feeling you’re saying goodbye to friends. New writers could ask themselves, for instance, what they want the MCs or their mentors or their support system to symbolize,
      3. Plot twists and red herrings. E.g., the love interest turns out to be not the real one at all. Or the MC is warned off an unpleasant character, who turns out to be the rescuer….etc, etc.

      • Hi Reen, it’s good to see you here. I agree with all your suggestions:

        1. IMHO, a main character doesn’t have to be lovable to sustain our interest (think of Hannibal Lecter). But they do need to have one decent human trait that we can relate to. Hannibal was very merciful to one of his prison guards who treated him well although, upon his escape, he performed atrocities on the others.

        2. A plot that has, behind it, a deep theme will always make a story stand out. A theme is something you can express in a proverb eg: ‘Love always conquers hate’. Of course, it should not be overt. That’s schmaltzy. But it must drive the plot or else the reader feels at the end: ‘that was entertaining, but so what?’.

        3. I’m a great fan of plot twists, if only because a predictable close has all the resonance of a funeral dirge. That said, not every story should end with a twist. That would be predictable too! But a story should contain surprises, mysteries, questions – reasons for the reader to read on.

        And if the last line of a novel poses a further question, it can cue a lucrative sequel!

      • Thanks, Reen. I posted a long and wondrous reply here previously but, inexplicably, it vanished. And now I’ve forgotten it… Suffice to say, thank you again!

    • Thanks Dr John! It’s good to have the 7 points so succinctly expressed. A good check list for fiction writing.

    • Andre Cruz says:

      Very good article. Keeping the story simple, fact paced and protagonist focused is great advice. Since contest judges have to read hundreds of submissions, you have to make your story pop and fast.

      • Thanks, Andre. It’s interesting that author Joanna Penn has just cited research which proves what we’d always suspected: very few readers will read past the first page when deciding whether to buy a novel. In a short story, they won’t go further than our first paragraph unless it enchants them. You’re right: ‘you have to make your story pop and fast.’.

    • This is good stuff. I love the 7 points.

      Even though I write non fiction but I love to read engaging stories. They intrigue me. And I want to tell stories too.

      One of my goals — my craft development goal, to be specific — in 2014 is to nail my narrative voice. I think keeping these tips handy would help.

      Thanks for sharing, Dr. John. Love it! 🙂

      • Thanks, David. A tip: don’t try to ‘devise’ a narrative voice. Let it find you!

    • Dear Dr. Yeoman,

      I think this list will be very helpful to me, not just for contests,
      but for any story I write. Although I have had several stories
      published, I have had more rejects. I’m going to go over the rejects
      carefully and check them against this list.

      Adelaide B. Shaw

      • True, Adelaide. The advice would apply to any story – or novel – regardless of whether you submitted it to a contest.

    • Hey Doc, what do you say to people that say rules are made to be broken? Doesn’t it seem like following all of these rules would stifle creativity?
      For example, Indian movies are very often romances. They end with the wedding. But wouldn’t a film that went beyond the wedding and explored the resulting marriage be interesting? Why not do that?

      • True, Asad, rules are made to be broken. But you have to know the rules before you can break them! I read a lot of stories in my contest that are ‘transgressive’ and try to break the rules. But usually they’re just re-inventing a wheel that was pioneered by Ben Jonson circa 1604 🙂

    • I am writing a NON-fiction book on my disability. I am living this story with most or all the above points. I have written much, yet since I got back to my hometown, London Ontario, Canada; I have not written anything. I have my own personal reasons for this including financial. As such, I have been working on building an audience, applied for help to complete a biz plan for financial help & working on changing my mindset & learning all I can in many areas of relevance in my life, witch includes, my dreams & becoming “the hero” & the man I was born to be, my destiny. After reading the last article for 350 words with “If you could be anyone, who would you want to be?” I left this & went on my regular routine. I found a source of inspiration. A picture with a poem above…I wrote this: nice poem 😉 & ya….U know 🙂 untie you,
      let you go free, do as U want, just B U
      as I hold nothing against U, ya, ur loose,
      can U feel it, restraints strain, I know ur pain
      I feel it to, they tighten their grip, & U know
      the binds that tie, bleeding wrist, all around
      even the venomous snake refuses to leave,
      wrapped around ur leg, poison from it,
      a part of U, veins filled, pain & sorrow, mine 2
      apart of U & me, yet ur love gave me strength,
      yet U don’t believe mine will save U,
      yet no one else is willing 2 do what I do,
      fear & loathing, anger & pain, only suffering
      U want only to end it all; suicide U abide,
      all 4 the thrill of a ride, eat shit, die inside
      ain’t no way, the sun U see, its warmth, no feel
      an ordinary man, STILL give a damn, gold….
      snake symbols the bullies in ur life,
      it ain’t right, lost my sword, stories untold,
      no shield, no friends, no insight, lost trust 2,
      baby, I’m howling 4 U. Generations of souls,
      stories whispered, everyone’s corrupted,
      do U really think I’m ever giving up
      ur slow death ur rush ur tears in the rain.
      get a grip, hold on tight, I can & will be ur hero
      Y, ur my baby, love U always, U free me.
      reincarnation & eternal damnation, fire flies,
      still, U call, I’m by ur side, through pain & pain
      still I remain, hero at heart, lions roar, EPIC…
      DIE A HERO, against the rules, yet, both U & I
      we both choose, 4 as it seems, 1 must die…
      a bullshit kinda life as I this thought, SMILE
      UR my baby, Y leave U 2 another? Nature cries,
      I’m alive, but U think ur dead playin*,
      tell me another riddle, I’m wrong, tell me so
      I’m dying a villain, aged & going grey,
      wrinkles tell ALL as do the water-marks….ya,
      so wanna be YOUR HERO as U R MINE, TY
      J.R. Uttley 12/12/13
      I wanted to write more….this WILL be going in my 3rd book, “Poems & Other Ramblings”

    • Ahmed says:

      I wanted to write, but I’m ESL; when I read the “write to done”, suprisingly I didn’t just feel “i want to”, but I felt I have the precious chance to write.

      Tank you fo rthe confidence you gave me,

      Fortunate Ahmed

      • That’s all it really takes, Ahmed. The confidence to persist, and persist…

    • Raza says:

      Thank you Dr John. Have read your 7 points. I’ll take care of them, when I compose my 5th Short Story.

    • I’ve never really been entirely sure what makes a prize-worthy short story, so I guess I’ll go over the two I’ve had a little success with and see how many of these factors I can tick off the list. Thanks for this, it’s interesting to think about! 🙂

      • Thanks, Bonnee. Contestants often think that story contests are a ‘black hole’, swallowing their entries without explanation of why some other entrant won.True, all judges are subjective. But if you endow your story with good structure it stands an excellent chance.

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