If you’re a writer, I wanted to let you know about an exciting short story contest sponsored by Family Fiction. You can read all about it here…and then come back for some tips on writing that short story!
If you’re a reader and not the writing type, good news! You get to read and vote on your favorite stories for the “People’s Choice” award! Go here to vote, although new stories will be added as they are approved, so check back! Also, you should share this post with a friend who you’d love to see enter!
Now, for some tips for those people thinking about entering: advice from some of your favorite writers (and two contest judges!).
Tip One: Don’t Start at the Beginning
This might seem counter-intuitive, but you get maybe two pages of space to develop a self-contained story for this contest. That means you’ll have to start in the middle of the action.
Jody Hedlund wrote a blog post about keeping readers’ attention where she makes a useful analogy:
“Before I write a scene, I envision a stage and my characters upon it. Who would want to go to a play and watch the actors meander around the stage talking to themselves or reflecting on problems while eating, getting ready, shopping, driving in the car, talking on the phone, etc.? Big yawn. Rather than the mundane and ordinary, our audience wants to be entertained by the unfolding story. Put the characters on stage and have them jump right into the action and drama.”
Remember that, like in a play, the audience needs to understand what the characters are like right away—and from their words and actions, not from you describing their personalities. Or, as Rel Mollet (blogger on Relz Reviewz and also a judge for this particular contest) puts it: “I look for an immediate connection to an intriguing character, an evocative scene, or even a unique turn of phrase. This has special importance in a short story as the author doesn’t have the luxury of allowing a reader a few chapters to settle into the tale!”
Tip Two: Do Something Different
Think of the top five settings for a story in your particular genre. Go ahead, write them down.
Now, don’t use any of those.
Dee Henderson puts it well in her page of tips for aspiring writers: “If the primary focus of a scene is your two characters talking together, then as writer take advantage of that. They can talk anywhere. So put them on a ladder in the rain trying to rescue a stuck cat, rather than at a restaurant table sharing a meal. Put them out at night with flashlights walking the highway searching for a lost dog. Give them tasks to do together. They are hauling out wet drywall from a flooded basement and talking while they work.”
Especially when you have a limited amount of space to describe the story, all of your dialogue and character development also has to move the plot forward. If you can defy clichés and work action into every paragraph, your reader will stay engaged.
Tip Three: Finish Well
This might be the hardest part of a short story. Yes, with a 1000-word limit, it can feel like you just got started before you end. But you don’t want readers to end your flash fiction piece saying, “That’s it?”
My suggestion? Start with a simple concept—think the difference between a Pixar movie and one of those short films they show before the movie. Write everything out first, even if it’s twice as many words as the limit. Then cut and edit ruthlessly. (For more on what to cut if you need extra words, check out Deidra Romero’s highly practical article on the subject—she’s another contest judge!)
Just make sure you save some words for the conclusion on the story. We want to have a sense of closure and feel like there was a full story arc: a problem was resolved or a character made a change or a group of people learned something or there’s hope for the future. If there are subplots left dangling…well, it’s a 1000 word story—you probably shouldn’t have subplots.
Tip Four: Get Help
Finally, never underestimate the importance of having someone else read and comment on your story. Since it’s only 1000 words, you don’t even need to feel like you’re inconveniencing your editor. They read more words than that on billboards during a morning commute!
As Lynn Austin says in a blog post, “The characters and story are clear in my own mind because I’ve lived with them for nearly a year, but to an outside reader, there may be thoughts I failed to convey, or holes in the plot that need to be filled, or maybe a loose thread left dangling. Fresh eyes can see these flaws much more clearly that I can.”
Now, armed with new knowledge and inspiration, go write that short story!
I’ll be checking (and voting on) the page of approved contest submissions…hope to see your stories there soon.
What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?