Monday, 23 November 2015

A Judge's Plea

Please, please, please can we have stories with a happier ending? Okay, I’m being a bit facetious here, but there is a point I’d like to make.

I’ve just finished judging one short story competition, and I’m in the process of judging another. And so many of them end in death. Yes, those stories are emotional, thought-provoking, and some are extremely well-written. But why does there have to be so much death?

As writers we sit in our own workspace, our own little world, creating a story that we hope might win a competition. All we think about is our story. But have you ever thought what other writers might be writing? What are your competitors writing about?

For the competition I’m currently judging I have over 125 entries to read. I’m about half way through, but I read a batch of twelve yesterday and in every single one of them somebody died right at the end of the story. I stopped reading. There’s only so much death a man can take in one sitting.

A death can tug at the heart-strings. It can illicit a wealth of emotions in the reader. It can give a story poignancy, significance and a moral. But it’s also possible to do all of that without killing everybody off!

Because so many stories seem to end with a death, they all blur into one. Whereas I do remember the ones that finish on an upbeat note. They really stand out. That doesn’t mean that those stories are not emotional, or engaging. They are. In some ways, more powerfully so.

It is possible to write a powerful story and end on an upbeat note. The winning entry of the competition I’ve finished judging, for example, was about the emotional battle of coming to terms with a life partner’s severe, debilitating stroke. Through the course of the story the narrator goes on an emotional journey questioning the quality of their partner’s life … and that of the narrator. And so the narrator decides the kindest thing to do, for both of them, is to kill their life partner. 

At first I was thinking, “Here we go again! Another murder in writer-land.” And it would have worked as a story. But the writer chose to end it differently. Just as the narrator was picking up the cushion, their partner made a movement. A finger moved. That’s all. but it was the first movement since the stroke. And at that split second the story completely changed. There was hope. Suddenly the narrator’s outlook went from one of despair to one of joy, love and excitement.

I know we have no way of knowing who else is entering a competition, let alone what they’re writing about. But if I can offer one piece of advice it’s to remember that you are competing against other writers. Yes, you’ve got to please the judge (and that’s not easy because we all have our own subjective tastes and preferences … and this post is clearly about one of mine), but your story needs to stand out from all of the other entries too (for the right reasons - poor spelling and grammar isn’t a good reason).

So consider your story a little more before you submit. Does it have the right outcome? If someone dies at the end, is it because that’s the outcome most people would expect? Or could there be a different one? One that puts a whole new perspective on the story?

Don't just think about the judge reading your story. Think about your story in amongst several hundred others. What is it about your tale that makes yours different enough to stand out from all of the rest?


Good luck!

7 comments:

  1. If you're looking to add a kick to the end of a story, death can be the easy way out. However, as Simon points out, lots of people are looking for the easy way. The point he makes about the upbeat ones standing out is important. I've judged a few competitions and if I remember a story the next day, then that one has a good chance.

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    1. Yes, the ones that stick in your mind (for the right reasons) are always a good indicator of an enjoyable read.

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  2. The death and misery type stories do seem to feature in many competitions. Perhaps the number of (horrid) real-life stories emblazoned across the front of popular magazines has had an influence.

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    1. There may be something in that, Carol! I have read one funny story this afternoon, though!

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  3. Good advice, thank you.
    Note to self:- Simon likes funny stories.

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    1. Yes, Lee ... if you see I'm judging a competition, do try to submit something funny. I much prefer having a good laugh to feeling sad and despondent.

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  4. When I took my first writing course several years ago, I was guilty of the fairytale ending - all is well in the wolrd and there is always a fairygodmother to jump in at the last minute and remedy a bad situation:) Unfortunately this wasn't the way to go either. "It is the job of the protagonist to resolve the problem" is now firmly fixed in my head. I do love a happy ending still or at least one that, like you say, gives hope. In real life, death is something that we all have to cope with at some point and so I can understand why writers end on a sorrowful note. I don't think it is an easy way out as suggested above - it is a natural end for us all and a lot of emotion - anguish, fear of the unknown, grief etc - are a part of the phenomenon. Nevertheless, I will stick to my happy, hopeful endings as there is enough sadness in the world. Oh and if you need cheering up at any time Simon, Christmas 24 in up and running on TV. Now there is a lot of hope and cheese and gooey stuff to lighten the mood :) Have a great week and thank you for a super post!

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