Writing winning stories

Alex Keegan says in his article writing winning stories that writing for competitions is a way to increase your output, and this is true. This is one positive outcome of not winning. Winning is a bonus!

And who of us doesn’t want to win? Yes, we all do!

We all want to win, or get into the top 10 out of a thousand entries from 32 countries as I did recently. Success like that gives you a tremendous boost. But I have been going through all the stories I’ve written over the years for my collection and realise how poorly written they all were. No wonder they never got placed if I dared enter them in a competition!

So what was different this time?

I took one of those old stories and used the idea, which was a good one poorly executed, and re-worked it at least five times. I then asked my editor, whom I knew would tell me exactly what was wrong with it, and she did. Armed with her expert advice, I re-worked the story again. So what are the headline tips from that phase?

They are:

  1. Re-work the story many times. Let it rest then go back to it. You will find things that need fixing. Do this until you get a get a feeling deep inside that says, “this is as good as I can get it”.
  2. Give it to someone whose opinion you trust. This will usually be someone  with considerable writing skill and many years od successes behind him or her.
  3. Re work the story.

I guess my key advice to any one entering competitions is write many drafts. Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.

Alex Keegan advises that you be fresh, innovate!

I agree. Try working with an idea that takes you where few other writers have gone. And I don’t mean….sleazy. Be creative. Create a character that few people have ever met. Or set up a scene that stretches the reader’s imagination. I recently reviewed a novel that was set on a space station on Mars. The environment the population had created was dying so the main character was moving his family to another planet. I still remember the characters, the scenes, the smells, and the infrastructure from that story. It was nothing like earth and thoroughly believable. As you can see, it left an indelible mark on my memory. And I am not a scifi reader. It was good because the writer invited me into his world and I got lost in it.

John Yeoman gives seven keys to successful short story writing. Follow these seven points and you are well on your way to winning competitions. These points work for all good short story writing so I will close this blog with them.

  1. Focus on one protagonist. You can have a number of high profile characters. However, a short story can only do justice to one character in terms of fleshing the person out and giving it a voice. There is not enough room for any more characters competing for the limelight.
  2. Bring in the main protagonist quickly. Set the scene and introduce the protagonist. This should happen within the first 400 words.
  3. Introduce conflict almost immediately. Have your protagonist struggle with simultaneous conflict – inner and outer.
  4. Make sure your protagonist goes through a process of change. The experience the protagonist goes through must bring about a change to the protagonist’s world. If not, nothing has changed. The character must have learnt something about the world or about him or herself in the journey.
  5. Ensure there is a consistent theme threading through the story. There should be just one theme in a short story. Sub-plots will always support that main theme in some way.
  6. Close the story by reiterating the theme. If it is a story about the effect of war on the children of war veteran, go back to that theme as you round off the story.
  7. Engage your reader’s emotions. When the reader’s stomach tightens as he or she reads your story, you have achieved this goal. If the reader admits, somewhat sheepishly, that he or she cried, smile to yourself….not because you succeeded in making someone cry. Rejoice that you stirred their emotions and empathy. That is truly marvellous writing.

In my example above, the main character was a ruthless man and cold-blooded murderer. Despite this, as I met his family and got to know his values, I wanted him to succeed.

The novel was October Rain by Dylan J Morgan.

Just one additional thought from Alex Keegan. Enter more than one story in a competition. His argument is valid when he says the story you least expect to catch the judges eye, often does. I have never done this because I take so long to perfect my one entry. But I think it is good advice. He adds a rider to that…don’t sacrifice quality for quantity.

Happy, but more than that, successful writing everyone!


winning writing
successful writing


That's a great plan! I'd love to see how you go.