How do you win a writing contest? Here are five secrets:
1. First, recognize you are human
This may be a strange way to begin a list of tips on how to win a writing contest, but let me explain.
Stephen King once said, “To write is human, to edit is divine.” But instead of the word “editing,” you could substitute the phrase “judge writing contests,” because editors and writing contest judges play a similarly godlike role. (Although, you might say writing contest judges are more like fallen angels than little gods).
Why is one excellent story chosen over another excellent story? Who knows?! Even the judge may not know, at least not objectively (although, they will always have great reasons).
To scrutinize the actions of the judges of a writing contest is impossible.
All writing is subjective. A judge attempts to say, “This story is good,” or, “This story is bad,” but really, they are just choosing based on their own idiosyncratic taste. Winning comes down to luck. Or God. Or what the judge ate for lunch that day.
What is the writer to do then? Submit your piece, pray it wins, and then go write your next story (and find a new contest to submit to). Nothing else can be done.
I know that’s not a very good tip. If you need more advice than this, continue reading.
2. Your main character must be fascinating
And what fascinates us the most is contrast.
Light vs. Darkness. Good vs. evil. A good hero battling the evil in the world. A normal person battling the evil inside themselves. An evil person drawn, despite themselves, to a moment of goodness.
Life vs. death. A woman’s struggle against cancer, against a villain that wants to kill her, against the deathly banality of modern life.
Male vs. female.
Neat vs. messy.
Contrast is fascinating. Does your main character have contrast? If you want to win a writing contest, he or she should.
3. Surprise endings
I love surprise endings. All judges do. However, I hate out of the blue endings.
A good surprise ending can be predicted from the very beginning, but the author skillfully distracts you so that you never expect it (the traditional method of distracting the reader is to use red herrings).
A bad surprise ending cannot be predicted, and feels like the writer is simply trying to give the reader something they would never expect. This is lazy.
Please surprise me. Please don’t make up the most shocking ending without providing the clues to this ending earlier in the story.
4. Repeat with a twist
In the last few lines of your story, repeat something from earlier in the story with a twist. This echoed ending will reverberate with your reader giving closure and emotional power.
For example, you might repeat the opening image. If the snow is falling in the first lines of the story, you might say, “As night closed, the snow continued to fall. He thought it would fall for all his life.”
You might repeat an action. If your character is eating at a diner with his wife in the first scene, perhaps in the last scene he is eating alone at the same diner all alone.
You might repeat a character. If your heroine has a meet-cute with an attractive man early in the story, you can end the story with him unexpectedly showing up at her workplace.
Repeating with a twist gives your ending an artful sense of unity. It’s also really fun!
5. Write what you know (even if what you know never happened)
In one writing contest, I read a story written by a Brazilian writer about American kids driving around, eating hamburgers, and going to prep school.
“Write what you know,” I wrote to her over email. “I’m sure there are fascinating stories where you live. But don’t regurgitate stories you see on American television. You will never know that world as deeply as you know your own.”