Thursday, 29 March 2012

What Makes a Winning Short Story?

Today we have a real treat for anyone thinking of entering a short story competition, or writing one for a magazine or website submission. Jo Derrick shares her insights into what she looks for in a short story. Her background in this field is impressive (founder of Quality Women's Fiction and Cadenza Magazine, she is now editor of The Yellow Room Magazine). So, we'll leave it to Jo to tell us ...


I think many writers ignore the importance of an attention grabbing title. This is the first thing I look at when I receive a short story. It has to be unusual enough to arouse my curiosity. I want to be able to say, What a great title! I wonder what this story is about? Sounds intriguing. Writers need to think about how the title reflects the content of the story.

First paragraph: 
The quality of the writing has to stand out from the first line. I can usually tell, reading that first paragraph alone, whether the standard of writing is up to The Yellow Room readers’ expectations (remember the winning stories are published in the magazine). Plunge the reader straight into the action. We don’t want any sort of build up or preamble or being told what has happened leading up to the main event. Show the main event and flashback later, if necessary. I want to see character in action in the first paragraph. I want to be on the character’s side from the get-go. I want to know where we are and be shown. Think film. Give your work a visual quality.

Good attention to detail: 
The best short story writers are those who observe and record the minutae of every day life. Sharpen the focus!

 The story’s setting has to be interesting or unusual. I need to feel present at the scene. I don’t like stories which begin with a character waking up or getting out of bed. That has become a cliché and isn’t remotely arresting enough. I think writers can sometimes restrict themselves to their own worlds. The old cliché ‘write what you know’ is partly to blame for this.

 I’m much more interested in character than plot. The stories I like best are those which show how a character changes, no matter how subtly, during the course of the story. A change in perception; a new insight into their own lives or someone else’s or a fresh perspective on an experience. I have to feel empathy for the main character. I can tolerate unsympathetic characters in a story as long as they have one or two redeeming features. No one is completely good or completely bad. What has made your characters the people they are today?

Use of Language: 
I like writers who have fun with language and play on words. I love to see stunning imagery and metaphor. Beware of clichés and aim to come up with something original. Vary sentence and paragraph length. A one sentence paragraph, for example, can bring the reader up short and create an impact. Long sentences denote a more leisurely, relaxed pace. Always remember to show. Show your character’s emotions; show your character in action; show the scene in question. Allow the reader into your character’s world by showing them the details. Avoid using passive sentences. Avoid indirect speech. Be direct. We need to be there and involved right from the start.

Use of Senses: 
I like writers who make good use of the five senses. I like stories which are vibrant with colour. Show me the weather and make me feel that summer breeze or raindrops on my cheek.

My advice to writers would be ‘broaden your horizons’. Sometimes it’s necessary to get well away from our comfort zones. Latch onto a strong emotion you’ve experienced. Try to describe it. Now put it into a context. Create a brand new setting; create characters very different from yourself.

 I am always fascinated by how a story is structured. Unusual structures in a short story are appealing, if done well. I get a lot of stories set out in the form of letters or email correspondence. That doesn’t work so well.

Is Your Story Memorable? 
A competition judge has to read a lot of stories. The best short stories have resonance. I remember them long after I’ve finished reading them. They have the ‘X’ factor – that certain something that I can’t quite put my finger on. The images remain in my head, as do the characters. I can still remember stories I read over ten years ago, because they had resonance. There’s something unusual about them; or the images are so striking they stay with you.

Layout and presentation: 
They are important. I can usually tell from the lay out alone how good the writing is going to be. Please indent each new paragraph and only leave white space between paragraphs if indicating a gap in time or change of viewpoint.

Message and Theme: 
A reader shouldn’t have to work too hard to understand a story’s message. If he/she does have to work hard to understand it, this usually means the writing lacks clarity. I look for a clean, economical prose style with no words wasted. I get far too many stories about illness, hospitals, old people’s homes and death. While these things are all part of life’s rich pattern, they don’t make for an uplifting reading experience in the main. I want stories with a positive message and that have a feel good factor without being schmaltzy or twee. I like writers to take risks with their subject matter. Up the stakes. Make me care about your characters and their situation.

Good, Authentic Dialogue: 
This is so important. What your characters say must count. Don’t sweat the small stuff when it comes to dialogue. Get straight to the point.

Emotional Truth:
 I want to identify with a particular emotion your character experiences. I want that light bulb moment, ‘Yes, that’s exactly how I feel about that, too!’.

In a short story there is no margin for error. Your writing comes under the microscope. Every word must count. I think this is where short story writing differs markedly from novel writing. It is more closely related to poetry in this respect.
As Sarah Dunant put it, ‘There’s no place for the writer to hide in a short story, no room for failure, for sloppy writing or muddled thought.’

Satisfying Ending: 
So often a good short story is spoiled by the ending. I know how fiendishly difficult it is to write an ending that fits. I feel that at the end of a short story your character should reach some sort of conclusion about themselves; their world; their experience. In some ways, the end should mark a new beginning, not necessarily in a dramatic way.

Remember less is more. Sometimes what is left unsaid has greater impact than hammering the point home.

And finally.....

Edit, edit, edit: 
To be a successful short story writer, ‘You have to be utterly vulnerable on the page, and utterly ruthless in revision,’ as Chris Offutt once put it.

I do hope some of you will enter The Yellow Room Competition and that some of the above is of help to you and hasn’t put you off. Good luck! 

The Yellow Room Magazine's Spring competition closes on 31st March 2012.

Jo Derrick (formerly Jo Good) has been writing seriously since 1990 and has had numerous articles and short stories published, as well as winning prizes in short story competitions. She is the editor/publisher of The Yellow Room Magazine, a literary magazine for female writers, which she launched in 2008. Jo was also responsible for both Quality Women's Fiction and Cadenza Magazine. She has judged many writing competitions over the years, and currently runs two short story competitions per year. Jo juggles writing and editing with two children, 10 and 16, and is working on a crime novel.

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  1. Wonderful post, thank you. I'm off to hone my latest short story in the light of all your advice. That "there's no place for the writer to hide in a short story," I think is especially true.

  2. I agree. Jo has given so much good advice here.