There are many ways of writing a short story, but whatever its form, ideally there should be a journey and a change for your chosen protagonist. Good writing is a given, but I like a story to have Character, Plot, Conflict and Conclusion and not be just a mood piece or an incident. There are, of course, many excellent short stories that don’t include all these elements, but personally, I look for an opening that grabs me from the start, characters I can empathise with and a storyline that carries me through to a satisfying conclusion. I also like an unusual subject that can take me into a different world and show me something new. There’s nothing wrong with stories about families and broken relationships, but competitions get a lot of them and a story that’s a bit different can go a long way.
I enjoyed reading these stories very much and deciding on winners wasn’t easy. When judging previous competitions, I have been able to set some aside immediately as being of very poor quality, but I was pleased to find that these stories were thoughtfully-written, literate and obviously cared-for. I hesitate to mention that they were also of a high standard of grammar and spelling, but rightly or wrongly, bad presentation can put a judge off.
However, there were a few errors that could have been avoided with careful vetting – it’s always good to get someone else to read it first.
First of all, the mood pieces. Beautifully written, in many cases, but without incident, characterisation, conflict or conclusion. I would get to the end and think, ‘What has this writer told me?’ Perhaps a turn in the events or a conflict would have provided the force to drive it along.
Next, there were the ones that wouldn’t get off the ground and spent the first page on exposition and flashback, instead of getting on with the story. You only have a limited number of words, so use them wisely. Short stories happen in the here and now. Life histories are for the novel.
Far too many had no dialogue. Even some of the winners didn’t. For me, dialogue is essential. A short story is a little drama and characters should speak to each other. Dialogue can do so much to convey the nature of characters and the interaction between them, and speech enlivens the page.
Finally, although I didn’t penalise for this, I would like to have seen more writers indenting their paragraphs. White space is important for the look of a page and denseness gives a stodgy appearance to what might otherwise be an excellent story.
The pieces I eventually chose were relatively ‘simple’. They were well-written, they didn’t obfuscate with over-flowery language, they told the story, and in a couple of cases they raised a little smile.
All three main prize winners had strong characters, conflict and conclusion.
First prize went to ‘The Butcher’, a great piece of Grand Guignol, slightly reminiscent of ‘Fried Green Tomatoes At The Whistle Stop Cafe’. The writer got straight into the story and held my attention throughout with terse and characterful language right to the grisly, yet satisfying, conclusion.
Second prize: The writer of the very entertaining ‘The War of the Apricots’ chose an original subject, and followed it through with gusto. I slightly lost sympathy for a man who, even if he was under extreme pressure, could batter squirrels, but it was strongly written with a pleasingly ironic end.
Third prize: ‘The Last Revolution’, a tense post-apocalypse story of betrayal. This was a very visual, cinematic story which got straight into the situation, leaving explanations till later.
For the final three, I chose ‘The Trapper’ for its interesting subject, very real sense of being there, and an ending that took me by surprise, ‘Iceman’ for its arresting opening and sense of other-ness, and ‘A Funeral’ for its delicate surgery on a relationship and oblique finale.
All the writers are to be congratulated on a very high standard of work.
– Clare Girvan
SENTINEL LITERARY QUARTERLY SHORT STORY COMPETITION (DECEMBER 2012) RESULTS
1st Prize – The Butcher by Daniel Knibb
2nd Prize – The War of the Apricots by Marie Gethins
3rd Prize – The Last Revolution by Daniel Knibb
Highly Commended –
The Trapper by James Collett
Iceman by Paul Saville
A Funeral by Brindley Hallam Dennis