You work hard to write your best story—and if you’re honest, you’re pretty sure it’s amazing. You share it with other writers to get their feedback, and they agree. You work up your courage and hit the “Submit” button, sending it off to a mysterious panel of writing contest judges.
And then . . . you wait. What will the judges think? Will they agree your story deserves to win it all? Did you write the kind of story that will catch the judges’ eye? What kind of story is that, anyway?
I’m going to take you behind the scenes and reveal exactly what judges are looking for when they choose the winners of writing contests.
The Bewildering Challenge of Judging a Writing Contest
In the final round of our writing contests, the judges are tasked with an almost impossible challenge: how will they decide which of a small group of excellent stories will win a prize?
For a story to have made it this far, it’s already undergone careful scrutiny by the entire panel. Every single judge has read and considered it, and enough have advocated for it so strongly that it’s moved forward to join an elite selection of stories.
We all know it has fans among the judges. We all know it has great merit. The problem is . . . so do the other ten, or fifteen, or twenty stories that were selected for the ultimate consideration.
How do the judges choose? What sets the winning story apart? And if a story that made it this far doesn’t win (and mathematically, that’s always the case), what’s the fatal flaw that knocks it out?
10 Storytelling Essentials That Wow Judges and Win Writing Contests
I’ve judged four writing contests with The Write Practice, and I’m gearing up for my fifth. (Want in on the fun? Join our next writing contest here!) My favorite part of every contest is the discussion amongst the judges. I love hearing what they see in their top picks, what stands out about the strongest contenders.
Throughout these contests, I’ve picked up on some patterns. A handful of critical mistakes appear again and again—and in the final round, it’s these mistakes the judges consider as they make the toughest decisions.
I’ve distilled long hours of judges’ discussion into ten elements the winning stories must include. I’ve seen every single one of these essentials become the deciding factor about whether a story will take home a prize or not.
Want your story to not just make the final round, but win the whole contest? Take a careful look at these ten elements and make sure your story includes each one.
1. Get inspired by the theme.
If the contest has a theme, make sure you adhere to it. You might write a brilliant story—but if you ignore the theme, skip part of it, or in any way disobey the contest guidelines, that’s a quick way to get your story disqualified.
2. Focus on a bite-sized story.
Here’s the thing: a short story is not a novel. You can’t tell an epic fantasy tale in under 1,500 words.
Choose a story idea whose scope fits within the word count requirements. The life story of a 103-year-old might be too long, but an unexpected detour on the way home from the grocery store might be just the right length.
3. Structure your story with clarity in mind.
This goes along with step #2. Yes, you can write a short story set across two time periods with five scene changes and three point-of-view characters, and fit it all in just 1,500 words. But should you? Maybe, maybe not.
When you’re working within a tiny word count, overcomplicating your story can quickly confuse your readers. Make sure that transitions are clear, and that each new element you introduce—a new scene, a new character, a new plot twist—moves the story forward rather than cluttering it up.
It can be hard to judge what’s confusing in your own writing, so have someone read your story before you submit.
4. Hook your readers (and the judges!) with a brilliant first line.
The first sentence of your story is your chance to make an amazing first impression. A powerful, surprising, and intriguing first line will capture the judges’ interest at the start and make them look forward to reading the rest.
Writing contest judges read hundreds of stories in a short amount of time. Make sure your first line gets them excited to stumble across yours.
5. Get straight to the action.
In a 1,500 word story, you don’t have space to write long passages of world building or pages of backstory. And the truth is, that’s not the interesting part anyway.
Don’t open the story with three paragraphs setting the scene. Instead, start your story at the moment when “normal” ends.
What’s the first sign of trouble? The first indication that something will be different about today? Skip the descriptive introduction and start your story there.
6. Give your character a goal.
“Make your characters want something right away even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.” —Kurt Vonnegut
Everyone wants something. It might be as small as another hour of sleep or as profound as one more day with their terminally ill grandfather.
Whatever it is, their want—and the things they do to get it—drive the story.
Make sure your character has a goal they’re pursuing. Stories about characters without goals ramble on, leaving readers confused about why they’re reading at all. Stories about characters who have clear goals and make decisions to pursue them keep us hooked, turning the pages to see what happens next.
Pro tip: everyone needs something, too. Sometimes what they want and what they need aren’t the same thing. If your character achieves their goal, will that actually make them happy? Or will they have to deal with some unwanted consequences?
7. Cut excess words so you can focus on the story.
Are you 500 words over the limit and stumped about what to cut? Look for:
Backstory. Yes, you need to know everything about your character—but your readers don’t. It’s tempting to include every detail of their history that led them to this moment, but that will actually slow down your story and burden readers with unnecessary information. Get it all out on the page in the first draft. Then, as you edit, challenge yourself to cut as much backstory as possible. Pro tip: if there’s an important piece of information readers (and characters) need to know, use it as a surprising revelation to fuel the plot.
Florid description. Does a detail move the story forward? Does it show us something about the character or the plot that we need to know? If so, great! If not, cut it. Unless your story is about rogue painters vandalizing the neighborhood waste collection route, we don’t need to know what color your character’s trash cans are.
Adverbs. Cut them ruthlessly. “The road to hell is paved with adverbs,” writes Stephen King, and that’s especially true when you’re limited to just 1,500 words. While you’re at it, cut these seven words, too. Save your space for words that will move the plot forward, not weigh the reader down with clunky prose.
(Did you catch all the adverbs I used in that paragraph? Ouch. We all fall short of editorial perfection.)
8. Make your characters choose.
This is the crux of the story, the crucial moment to focus on. At some point in the story, your character must make a decision.
Throughout the story, the tension is building. The plot is thickening, the stakes are rising, and the risks are becoming greater and greater.
As the story approaches the climax, bring your character to a point of crisis where they must choose how they’re going to respond.
If your character limps along without making a choice, or if they let the people around them choose for them, the story will feel dissatisfying and incomplete.
But as they choose something and then face the consequences of their decision, we’ll be riveted, wondering, how will they handle what happens next?
9. Make sure something changes.
That moment of crisis, the decision your character makes, has consequences. Maybe they took a risk and it paid off—or maybe they crash and burn. Whatever the case, something must be different as a result of their choice.
Remember, stories are about change. If your character finishes the story in the same place they began, you’ll leave readers wondering why they bothered to read it in the first place.
Make sure the trials your character experiences and the decisions they make leave someone or something irreversibly changed by the end of the story.
On that note, beware of writing a story where the main plot is a dream sequence. Unless the waking world is somehow different as a result of the dream, it feels disingenuous. Any change in the dream world is erased when the character wakes up. Why read a story where nothing changes?
And yes, this applies to daydreams, too. Make sure the story isn’t all in the character’s head.
10. Nail the ending.
The first 1,450 words of your 1,500-word story are riveting. You don’t have a ton of space to wrap it up, but surely if you just tack on some kind of closing, it’ll be fine, right?
It’s very, very hard to write the perfect ending to a short story, the conclusion that will tie up the loose ends neatly but not too neatly, leaving the story feeling resolved and also a bit mysterious. The judges know this.
They’re still looking for the perfect ending.
What does this story need in order to reach closure? What will resolve the conflict? What will allow us to walk away satisfied that we’ve truly reached “The End”?
Remember, a short story is complete in and of itself. It’s not the first chapter of a novel, or a teaser into something larger. Make sure your story stands alone, and that when it ends, this tiny glimpse into your character’s life is truly done.
An otherwise excellent story that fails to nail the ending won’t take the top spot. But a surprising but inevitable climax that leads to a satisfying resolution will amaze the judges and make your story a strong contender to win it all.
Take the time to get your ending right.
Two More Notes About These “Essentials”
I’ve looked at all these elements from the perspective of a writing contest judge—what does our panel look for when we’re challenged to select a handful of winners from an abundance of engaging stories?
But there are two more ways you can read this list.
1. Feedback from the judges. One of the things that makes our writing contests special is the opportunity to get feedback directly from the judges on why your story did or didn’t win. I’ll let you in on a secret: 85 percent of the feedback judges write relates back to these ten elements. If you can master this list, they’ll find it a real challenge to give you any critical feedback.
(Want specific feedback on how your story did or didn’t fulfill these ten essentials? Join one of our writing contests and sign up for feedback from the judges!)
2. The secrets of great storytelling. A list like this can feel contrived: “Oh, you mean if I just sprinkle these ten arbitrary things into my story, it’ll be twisted so the judges like it?” But here’s the thing: the judges want to see these elements because they are fundamental skills of great storytelling. You don’t need a writing contest to apply them—master these skills, and you’ll become a better storyteller for any story.
Of course, writing contests are a great forum to practice them. Why not join our next one?
Which of these essentials do you find the most challenging? Let us know in the comments!
Try your hand at writing a story for the Winter Writing Contest! The theme was “Countdown”: Your character has a deadline. It might be a cancer prognosis giving him six months to live, a blackmailer giving her twenty-four hours to comply before a secret is revealed, a few more minutes until the clock strikes midnight and his one true love vanishes, or something else entirely. Whatever the case, your character is racing against the clock.
For the next fifteen minutes, draft a story based on the contest theme. Focus on essentials four and five: hook your readers with a great opening line, and get straight to the action.
When you’re done, share your story in the comments below, and be sure to leave feedback for your fellow writers.