Judging Stories

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A frustration that judges kept encountering was the failure of contestants to understand what a short story is, despite the library’s offer of a preparatory introduction for all contestants.  It was as if they had never read a good one. Among the submissions was a precis of a government report. It was, predictably, achingly dull. Another, presumably also written by a public servant, was an angry justification for a program discontinued by a newly-elected government with different priorities. It was entertaining to read of the author’s indignation, but it was not a story. A bureaucratic mind is not a storyteller’s. I recall receiving pieces of unfocused nostalgia, probably from older writers, in which the simplicities of a bygone age were described with warmth and empathy, but these also were not stories, with a clear beginning, development and satisfying conclusion: they were sadly incomplete, as in a telephone conversation suddenly cut off. Some stories were eminently forgettable. One was crudely obscene. Others, intended to be comic, were not. One such depicted a wheelchair race between two old men in a retirement home. The premise was amusing, but the story was ruined by grotesque exaggeration: the story ended abruptly in the unconvincing smashing of crockery and the wholesale destruction of the dining room and both wheelchairs.  Even the most unimpeded wheelchair is not a Ferrari. This story, I subsequently learned, was plagiarized. The original, so much better, was shorter, understated, and included a deft reference, in an unexpected ending, to the appearance of a challenger in a motorized wheelchair.  Plagiarism is a serious offence. As Duddy Kravitz memorably said, although in a very different context, “Cheaters never prosper!”

Another story, undoubtedly well-meant but also unrealistic, was about a female suicide bomber who is instructed to blow up Ottawa’s Notre Dame Cathedral. It is not clear why terrorists would have chosen such a mission to such a place, or such a person to carry out this act. The bomber boards an Air Canada flight from the Middle East, an undetected bomb in her luggage, and is pleasantly surprised to discover that the Canadian male sitting next to her on the plane is courteous and tolerant. She has an animated civil discussion with him. She is later perplexed to find out that the taxi driver who takes her downtown is of Arabic descent, loves Canada, and is equally tolerant and polite. Yet she plans to murder people like these. The story concludes with her on the sidewalk outside the cathedral giving some sober second thought to her mission. Whether the bomb is still ticking in her carry-on while she re-considers is unclear, but the cathedral is still standing by story’s end. If only, the author implies with touching John Lennon-like naivete, if only terrorists could see us as we really are, bad things would not happen, and sunny ways would be the inheritance of us all…

Timeless advice applies to all who seek to write well. Take mental snapshots of memorable events, then record them in a journal. Pay attention to detail. Keep a diary. Write for yourself first, and for others second. Show: don’t tell, explain, or preach. Revise and proof-read. Let a trusted but constructively critical reader see what you have written. Respect your readers. Don’t bore them with dull long-winded description or dialogue that adds nothing to the story. Reflect often, and in solitude. Don’t force a story; let it come to you. Read. Heed the warning of Stephen King below. His bestselling horror stories have sealed his reputation as a writer of considerable skill. All of us, novice writers especially, need to read widely and frequently. This is the best way to learn how to write what is compelling, convincing, and memorable. Reading and writing are two sides of the same coin. Good stories last for good reason. I once produced a list of time-tested good stories for contestants, and would happily make it available to any interested reader. Mr. King said this: “If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

Text written on paper, with pen and cup of coffee beside it.

Peter was born in England, spent his childhood there and in South America, and taught English for 33 years in Ottawa, Canada. Now retired, he reads and writes voraciously, and travels occasionally with his wife Louise.
2 Responses
  1. author

    Anonymous3 months ago

    There is lots of excellent advice here! I’m impressed at how willing you and your competition judges were to support contestants. How sad that it is no longer running.

  2. author

    Ed Janzen2 months ago

    I liked “Judging Stories”.


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