After ten years of evaluating thousands of short stories in our national writing competitions, our Writers College judges have compiled a list of eight basic tips to help you onto the shortlist.
Before you enter a Short Story Competition, it might be worthwhile defining exactly what a short story is – and what it is not.
1. Create plausible, detailed characters.
Name your characters. Work in their ages and details about their appearance in subtle ways. Don’t give us vague, shadowy, formless characters. Your reader needs to relate to them, and whether he likes them or hates them, feels sorry for them or cheers them on, is up to you, the writer.
2. Use believable, succinct dialogue.
Dialogue is very useful. It’s rare to find a short story that has no conversation in it. Just telling the reader what your character is doing and thinking can become very monotonous. Conversation makes your story sparkle and come alive. It adds depth to your characters and the reader can understand their feelings through what they say, so it’s important to keep your dialogue as natural-sounding as possible.
3. Create a credible plot.
Things must happen in your story. Characters must clash, or overcome a problem of some sort. Read about how to create a twist in the tail.
4. Use the correct tenses.
Flashbacks must be written in past tense, or past perfect tense. If something is happening in the moment, you can use present tense. Present tense helps to foster a sense of immediacy and increases tension in the writing. When writers write an entire story in present tense – including present tense for flashbacks – it is disorientating and off-putting for the reader. Study your tenses here.
5. Your story must make complete sense.
Don’t make big plot jumps. Don’t leave out important details. Don’t tell us about a character wearing a red dress, and then, six paragraphs later, she is ski-ing in a polar parka across the Arctic. Make sure your story facts are credible, plausible and congruent. Read about creating logical flow.
6. Use similes and metaphors, and slip in unique images.
Literary devices add colour and originality to your writing, and creating pictures with your words is the easiest way to keep your reader hooked. Read about 11 Ways to Keep Your Reader Hooked.
7. Keep your point of view consistent.
Will you use first person, or third person narration? Whichever you choose – stick to that perspective throughout. You can’t, furthermore, refer to your reader as “you”, and then “we” and then “one”. You have to keep the narration consistent, and use the same pronoun and its variants throughout your story. Read more about Point of View.
8. Edit your story!
Spelling and grammar errors, typos, formatting issues – these all detract from the reading experience. Make your writing appear effortless by editing carefully. Find out 20 editing pointers here.
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