Judging Short Stories (and Happy Endings….)

Now that Evesham Festival is over and the names of the winners of the short story competition have been announced, I can give you some feedback on my experience as a judge.

Another reader and I read all 126 stories and whittled them down (anonymously) to a longlist of 15, which were then sent to Vanessa Gebbie, the main judge.

It’s quite an eye-opener, reading that many competition entries and I learned a lot about what makes a good short story (and what doesn’t!), so it’s time to share my findings:

THE TITLE
A good title really lifts your story and can entice the reader to read it. Many entrants clearly hadn’t given much thought to their titles (there were several one word titles and clichés, even amongst the longlisted 15). Not important? But the title is the first impression a judge has of your story and your writing. Plus, if a judge can’t decide between two stories, the title could be a deciding factor.

The stories that took first and second place in the Evesham competition this year both had good titles (‘Heavy Traffick Trilogy’ by Alwyn Bathan and ‘Trudy North. Righteous Soul’ by Marcia Mackey).

IS IT A SHORT STORY?
If you’re entering a short story competition, ask yourself whether what you’re submitting fits the bill. It doesn’t matter how good it is: if it isn’t a short story, it won’t win.

We had monologues, a short play, character studies, autobiographical pieces and entries that were very well-written but that were clearly extracts from a novel.

In a short story, something has to happen (several entries fell down here). Even if the ‘something happening’ is only that the main character changes his/her mind. The hero must be changed in some way and shouldn’t be the same at the end of the story as at the beginning.

THE ‘HOOK’ AND THE TWIST
Lots of entrants clearly knew that your first line or two should act as a ‘hook’ and grab the reader but think ‘intriguing’ rather than ‘shocking’. There were quite a few shocking first lines, which then proved to be a hard act to follow (and which seemed too gimmicky and contrived).

Ditto twist-in-the-tale endings. I know there’s a school a thought that short stories should end with a twist (they really don’t have to) but twist stories are hard to pull off. If they don’t work, then the whole story just reads like a long joke, leading to a punchline.

SPELLING/GRAMMAR
Watch for typos and grammatical mistakes. Proof read your story carefully before you submit it; ask someone else to read it; read it aloud. Most entrants didn’t have any problems with this but a spelling mistake on the second line of a story (this happened) is off-putting and made me wonder how much care had gone into crafting and polishing that story.

CHARACTER
Short stories are essentially about character and it was no coincidence that most of the 15 stories that we long-listed had a strong central character, undergoing some kind of conflict or problem.

A short story is not a saga; there simply isn’t room for lot of characters (it’s confusing for the reader and we don’t know who we’re rooting for). Ask yourself, ‘Whose story is this?’ and focus on that character.

EMOTIONAL RESPONSE
Only a handful of stories brought a tear to my eye, or made me laugh or feel shocked and those were the stories that rose to the top of the pile. Your story needs to stand out from the crowd; it needs to be memorable.

Many were perfectly nice, well-written stories but they were also rather bland (and I know I’m guilty of this myself, when I’ve entered competitions in the past. This is what I mean when I say I’ve learned from this process!).

I got to the end of many stories and thought ‘So what?’ That’s what you want to avoid: the ‘So what?’ response from the judge. And by ‘emotional response’ I don’t mean by murdering someone in the first paragraph because I won’t care about any of the characters at that stage. That emotional response will only come by creating a convincing scenario and compelling characters and yes, I know, that’s not easy in 2000 or so words.

When she ran a short story workshop for us last October, the judge Vanessa Gebbie urged everyone to be brave and to take risks with their writing and that’s certainly what you need to do, to make your story stand out. A particular judge may not like it, of course but I think it’s true to say that no judge will choose a bland (or ‘safe’) story as a winner.

THE ENDING
I’ve come to the conclusion (ha! Pun intended), that when it comes to a competition entry, your ending is actually more important than your beginning.

This is because most judges worth their salt will plough on through the story, even if the start is not that gripping. A good ending can lift an otherwise ‘OK’ story but a poor ending – as I witnessed several times (and oh, it was so frustrating) – can ruin an otherwise fabulous story. So many stories just fizzled out at the end, as though the writer had run out of steam, or word count, or ideas. So many endings were a cop-out, or confusing or just plain dull. There were 5 or 6 stories that were in contention for the longlist but their disappointing endings let them down.

You don’t have to tie everything up, there doesn’t (as I said earlier), have to be a twist – or even a happy ending. But the ending does have to be ‘satisfying’ for the reader (and that’s part of your challenge, as a writer, to work out what ‘satisfying’ might be!).

And in other news…

I got married last Saturday! Wheee! Kept that all a bit quiet, didn’t I? That’s only because I didn’t want to jinx things. Turns out I’m really superstitious!

Here are a few little pics of the day, if you’d like to see them:

This entry was posted in Competitions, Cotswolds, Short Stories and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

41 Responses to Judging Short Stories (and Happy Endings….)

  1. Bob says:

    Congratulations hope you marriage is a very long and happy story…..

  2. Angela Jelf says:

    Such helpful advice, thank you. And many congratulations on your marriage! You all looked lovely!

  3. Kate Hogan says:

    Congratulations to you both, Helen. You look lovely, as does your Mr! Wishing you both much love light and laughter together. Great tips on the short story comps, too. Thanks. All good wishes. Kate Hogan

    • Helen Yendall says:

      Thanks, Kate. Yes, we didn’t scrub up too badly, did we? (she says, sitting here with a wild mop of hair, unwashed face and scruffy shorts!)

  4. These are incredibly helpful tips as I foray into the world of short stories, Thank you! And Congrats on the wedding!

  5. carol1875 says:

    Great advice, thank you and congratulations on your special day

  6. pennywrite says:

    Story advice most useful! And wow many congratulations!! What lovely pictures. Best wishes to you both.

    • Thanks Penny and I’m glad you found the tips useful. I scribbled the points down when I was ‘fresh’ from judging 126 stories and those were the things that really struck me. One thing I forgot to say, was that many of the stories were quite dark and depressing and there was actually only one story that made me laugh out loud and that (coincidence?) was my favourite story of all.

  7. Congratulations! The pictures are lovely.

  8. Helen Lowry says:

    Very helpful and useful post. Congratulations on your big day!

  9. christinemhowe says:

    Thank you very much for sharing these useful tips, also your lovely wedding pics. Congratulations to you both!

  10. Many congrats to you both!Have happy and healthy life together. Great post – I don’t tend to enter comps, as I think the entries will be of a far higher standard than mine.

    • Helen Yendall says:

      Thanks Sharon. I know what you mean about competitions and I definitely avoid the bigger, more prestigious ones, for exactly that reason but I think, with the smaller competitions (eg: Evesham’s!), you’re definitely in with a good chance.

  11. Patricia Stowell says:

    Thank you Helen. This is so useful and many congrats on your marriage. May you have a long and happy life together.

  12. philippabowe says:

    Huge congratulations Helen!!! You are an absolutely gorgeous bride, the two of you look so happy and beaming, it’s lovely to see. And thanks for sharing the valuable judging feedback. 🙂

    • Helen Yendall says:

      Thank you, Philippa, that’s very kind. We have just watched the video of our speeches (which, unbeknown to me, a friend had videoed on her phone) and it was both hilarious and excruciating (and we were clearly both a bit drunk, as I can’t even remember saying half the things I said!) but really good fun and yes, we had the best day ever, as I think you can see on our faces!

  13. Graham Cowley -( and Sian) says:

    Congratulations to you both – lovely photos – a twist at the end of the blog 🙂

  14. Keith Havers says:

    Good advice for entrants and judges. I’m often asked to judge but I don’t find it easy. Congratulations again to both of you.

  15. Jacquelane Cox says:

    Oh, my! Now THAT’s a great twist to the story! Congratulations!

  16. Kate Blackadder says:

    Congratulations, Helen – and what a gorgeous dress!

  17. Thank you for taking the time to give us such great tips! Congratulations on your marriage!

  18. juliathorley says:

    Congratulations on your own happy ending. What fabulous pictures. And as for the comments about judging short stories, I agree with every word you’ve written. The only other comment I’d make from my own experience – and it’s been said before – is to discount the first five ideas you come up with. Stories about dementia or estranged relatives being reconciled through shared grief can be brilliant, but we’ve heard it all before.

    • Helen Yendall says:

      Thank you Julia and yes, I agree about common themes. Actually we didn’t have too many dementia/estranged relative stories but we did have several murder stories (usually someone getting rid of their spouse!). After a while they just merge into one, no matter how well written they are because they’re not memorable!

  19. lindalindatyler says:

    Congratulations on your marriage!

  20. Amanda Barton says:

    Now there’s a lesson in writing a satisfying ending – uplifting and surprising! Many congratulations, Helen and husband.

  21. banksywrites says:

    Wow, you look gorgeous, Helen. Lovely pics. And great to put a face to your other half, after all these years. I know I’ve already said it, but huge congrats. And thank you for the useful writing tips. I was away for the Evesham Festival of Words, so was sorry to have missed you. But perhaps we’ll catch up soon.

  22. Eirin Thompson says:

    Just wanted to add my best wishes to you, upon what looks to have been a lovely wedding, and my congratulations to your husband! Like your other correspondents, I found that a brilliant twist at the end of your piece – but not one you can easily repeat. You looked gorgeous. Well done!

    • Helen Yendall says:

      Thank you so much, Eirin. I didn’t honestly mean it as a ‘twist’ at the end of the piece but everyone seems to have taken it that way! No, I don’t think I’ll be able to beat that one! I was bemoaning the fact that it was all over today, to my husband (!) and he said, “Well, we can’t do it all again!” But I wish we could!

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