10 tips to help write a prize-winning short story.

10 tips which helped me win  the Writers’ Forum Short Fiction Prize with my short story Man or Mouse.

These are not my own ‘rules’ but snippets of advice I’d gleaned from various books and podcasts on writing.

1. Cut the first page. It’s set-up. (Chekhov advises to cut the first three pages!) Cut to the chase. Get straight to the story.

2. Be strict with POV (point of view).

3. Start your story immediately after a dramatic event.

4. Like Ouroboros your story should also have its tail in its mouth – connect the ending to the beginning.

5. Know your ending.

6. Set up ‘plot points’ – clues in the text that point to the reveal – so when you smack the reader in the face with your twist all of your foreshadowing clues will burst into light.

7. Cut ALL adjectives and adverbs until your story is ‘bare bones’. Re-add sparsely and with great care.

8. Rewrite 6 times: for light, sound, touch, taste, smell and sight.

9. Be spare with metaphor.

10. Avoid cliches. Be original. Hold every word up to the light.

Sue Moorcroft, head judge of Writers’ Forum, gives her own advice here.

6 comments

  1. Great post! Though you’ve packed a lot into point 10, and I’m sure even following these rules it’s not going to work without a healthy dose of talent and inspiration.

    Wondering about point 8. How are light and sight different? And if we’re checking off bodily senses, would it help to add proprioception…?

    • Thanks Will.

      I think light and sight are different because it’s possible to write a story through someone’s eyes, forgetting to consider the source of light, where it’s coming from, and what is visible.

      For example, someone might write a scene where the character is getting on a night-bus, and then describe the journey as if it were day, whereas only certain things will be lit, by the different light sources.

      This may seem obvious to the experienced writer, but to the less experienced it’s worth considering, and in my opinion it’s worth devoting a full rewrite just to be sure that the story is true to the source of light, so that what is visible to the character is visible to the reader.

      If light is so important to painters, it should be to us as well, since it’s been said that writers are painting with words!

    • Haha, you’re right, I have packed a lot into no. 10, although it is supposed to be one point. Holding up every word to the light, that is, paying attention to every word and phrase, will hopefully ensure we are being original and not letting a cliche slip by unnoticed, or an overused idiom go unchecked.

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