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November 30th, 2012

How to stand out in a short story competition

A lot of short story markets are very specific in terms of the type of story they use and the market seems to be growing ever smaller. Yet delve into the world of competition writing and there’s more scope to unleash your imagination to the full and the good news is, the short story competition scene is showing no signs of diminishing.

However, in order to be named amongst the prize winners, your story needs to make a judge sit up and take notice. Here are some ideas on how to make your short story stand out from the rest:

Think Outside the Box

Morris 023The same old storyline is something which gets a judge’s back up straight away. An example of such a story is where the downtrodden wife has no idea of her husband’s infidelities but it turns out that she knows just what’s going on, kills hers husband and gets away with it. Another story which will put a judge off is one where a woman is taking a walk with her dog through the woods and comes across a cottage that she’s never noticed before. An old lady invites her in for a cup of tea. The next day the woman takes some biscuits as a thank you to the lady but discovers that the cottage is dilapidated and the old lady died years ago.

So how do you make your story original? Think outside the box. For a ghost story, the ghost could be a famous person. Who would he/she choose to haunt and why? This has enormous scope for a humorous and entertaining story, which will make a judge laugh out loud.

Or perhaps the ghost is that of a soldier killed while serving in Iraq. Does he go to see his family and find them unable to cope with his death? This would make a touching story, adding that element of emotion and forcing a judge to feel moved.

You might want to write a story about witches. It’s easy to conjure up an image of a woman with black hair, long black cloak, black cat and broomstick. But can you think of others who aren’t labelled witches but behave very much like them? What about a group of girls at secondary school who bully another vulnerable girl? This would certainly make a compelling story.

A story about a siege which takes place in a library is surely something a judge wouldn’t expect. Why would a siege be taking place in a library? What events led up to it? Who’s involved? There are lots of possibilities to make an unusual and exciting story.

Unusual Viewpoint

A story told from a different viewpoint can often catch the eye. However, stories where the writer attempts the twist-in-the-tale of the narrator turning out to be a cat or dog have been seen by a judge many times over. Nonetheless, a story featuring someone who we wouldn’t normally expect to be a narrator will stand out.

Stories seen through the eyes of a child can be particularly effective. How about a little boy in a children’s home rocking himself to sleep, never believing that anyone will want to adopt him? This tugs at the heart-strings straight away. Another narrator could be a young teenager battling to cope with his parents’ divorce.

A character we wouldn’t usually associate with being a narrator is the fairy on top of the Christmas tree. What goings on between the family members does she witness?

A story narrated by a celebrity make-up artist who hears all sorts of secrets, but who is treated as if she isn’t there, has all the makings of an explosive story.


A judge often has hundreds of entries to read through. Many will be full of misery and woe, so a story which makes a judge break into a smile comes as a welcome relief. It’s likely the story will be put to one side to be looked at again. Though, the humour mustn’t be forced or the script full of exclamation marks, which act like a neon sign to ensure the judge knows exactly which parts are side-splittingly funny.

A modern take on a fairytale can make a great humorous story. Goldilocks and the three bears could have a bungling burglar as a modern ‘Goldie’. Returning to the topic of unusual viewpoints, an amusing story could feature the donkey that carried Mary to Bethlehem as narrator.

Nothing compares with the thrill of winning your first competition. Your entry has stood out amongst possibly hundreds of others. The judge picked your story. A competition win can often be the big break you need and lead to other things. So make sure you enter the next ‘Writers Bureau Competition’. You, too, could be a winner.

Esther Newton is a freelance writer and tutor for ‘The Writers Bureau’. She has written for a diverse range of magazines including the women’s weeklies, writing magazines, pet publications, hobby magazines and children’s publications. Esther enjoys writing fiction and has had numerous stories published and won several competitions. Branching out into copywriting, she has produced leaflets, brochures and newsletters, amongst other things, for companies specialising in all sorts of areas, from healthcare, to dog sitting, to charities.

Esther says: When I started volunteering for my local Cats Protection, I vowed I wouldn’t bring any home. It didn’t take long for my resolve to crumble and here’s a picture of my latest rescue cat, four-month-old, Morris. The phrase, ‘Butter wouldn’t melt’ comes to mind.

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