How To Write A Short Story – 6 things our judges look for

There are countless writing guides out there, in print and on the web. Many contradict each other. Many more cite the usual ‘rules’ (“show don’t tell” for example).

Since our writing competitions started nearly two years ago we’ve received many hundreds of stories, of differing lengths, styles, genres, and levels of drama or humour. We’ve loved reading them all and, we hope, have published a wide variety of different styles – not just on our website here, but more widely in our print anthologies.

With the lockdown continuing into 2021, coupled with our ambitous plans to grow and expand the Cranked Anvil experience, we expect to receive many hundreds more entries and submissions over the coming year. With that in mind, we thought we’d produce our own little writing guide here. It’s not a definitive guide on How To Write A Short Story, but it will give you a few pointers as to what our judges look for when they’re reading entries.

The beginning. Make sure you grab the reader’s attention immediately. You don’t have many words, so use them wisely. Make sure you establish the tone, setting and character as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Character. Yes, this is a bit of an obvious one, but make sure your characters are believable and well-rounded. This seeps into the dialogue they speak, the actions they take (or don’t take), the motivations they have. It doesn’t matter if your protagonist is a down-and-out Santa, a middle-aged man looking back over his life, or a flip-flop, make sure their character is consistent throughout.

Plot and conflict. Another obvious one, but you’d be amazed how many stories we receive that don’t even get anywhere near the longlist because, quite frankly, nothing happens. Give your main character a problem to face – and make it one that the reader will care about. Use your 1500 or 500 words to work towards a satisfying ending. Even pantsers can benefit from a bit of planning, and even the shortest of stories can benefit from having the three-act structure applied to them.

The title. Our rules state that your maximum word count doesn’t include the title – so use that to your advantage. Now, we’re not saying that your title can be 200 words long! But a carefully chosen title that really complements  the story and adds a deeper degree of resonance will undoubtedly catch our judges eyes.

There are plenty of other things that catch a judges eye, of course. A writer’s style and vision. Freshness of ideas. Interesting use of language. Humour. Then, of course, there’s always the story that lands on a judge’s desk which has broken all the rules and yet still makes it to the short list, for whatever reason. But bearing in mind the points above, you will at least give yourself a head start in ours (and, no doubt, many others’) writing competitions.

And here’s a couple of bonus ones for you…

The mechanics. Check your spelling. Your grammar, your punctuation. Make sure you manuscript is professionally presented and properly formatted. Yes, it’s the story being told that is ultimately the most important thing, but if there’s only one slot left on the shortlist and two equally enjoyable stories, it’s the sloppy looking document, littered with spelling and punctuation mistakes, that will end up on the reject pile.

The rules. Read the rules… READ THE RULES… READ. THE. RULES.
And then, before you finally submit, go back and read them one last time to make sure you’ve stuck to them. Make a checklist if you have to, and go through it to make sure your story doesn’t fall at the first hurdle.

Okay – enough reading about writing. It’s time for you to get on and write!

Enter our 1500 word short story competition here.

Enter our 500 word flash fiction competition here.

Enter our 700-1000 word prompt competition here.

All competitions run quarterly, with deadlines all year round.

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