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by Anonymous SCBWI Contest Judge

Years ago, I’d sit among other eager writers, waiting to hear if my submission had won “Special Mention” or even better, “Most Promising.” Watching the elated winner claim their award, I’d wonder why my story didn’t capture the prize.

Now as a contest judge who’s “been there,” I hope that sharing my insights on how to take a story from good to impressive will help another aspiring writer.

Judges respond to stories that engage us. I may love some genres more than others, but when judging, I set aside personal preferences and look at the caliber of the work.

I read contest submissions multiple times to answer two key questions:

Did I want to read past the first page?

If so, how did the writer pull me into the story?

While many contest submissions show promise, it’s almost always craft issues that keep stories from soaring. But that’s good—because with work these stories can be turned into winners.

Five craft issues seem to affect a story’s success the most.

  1. Opening with a literal or figurative car crash.

With so much emphasis placed on grabbing the reader’s attention with a first line or first page, it’s tempting to open with drama—either emotional or physical.

But films almost never open with a car bursting into flame. Instead, filmmakers introduce a character, place them in the car, and hint at the destination before the accident hits.

Readers, too, need a few moments to meet a character and get grounded in their world. Only then can a reader grasp the significance of what’s taking place and care about what happens to the character.

2. Straying from the moment.       

Forked path

When a protagonist appears on the first page, it’s natural to want to share what we know about them so the reader will love them as much as we do.

But in our zeal to share their backstory, the narrative may ping pong between what is happening in the present and what took place in the past. The scene fails to build and tension is lost.

Limiting backstory to what a reader absolutely must know at that exact moment helps a reader connect with the character, follow the action and experience their emotions.

3. Straying from the moment (2).

Yes, I’m repeating it! As a scene unfolds, the character’s focus should remain fixed on what they are contending with in that moment. When people experience change or crisis their attention is riveted on what they must deal with right then.

If the character leaves the scene for a memory, it should be inextricably linked to what is happening in the scene and the emotional tone has to match. Leaving a happy scene for a grisly memory (or vice versa) makes no sense.

4. Getting stuck in the character’s head.

Internal dialogue is not as interesting to readers as it is to writers. Multi-paragraph passages of internal dialogue often benefit from generous cutting or introducing other characters into a scene so internal dialogue is replaced by interpersonal.

Interpersonal dialogue engages readers by showing aspects of the main character that aren’t visible unless they interact with others. The protagonist’s responses help readers gauge their honesty, personality, grasp of reality, etc., and see alternative ways to interpret events.

5.  Pacing.

Young readers are very sensitive to pacing. Comfortable with faster pacing and quick cuts, they want scenes to move along. But that doesn’t mean all scenes must race to the finish line.

Cutting long passages of internal dialogue, speeding up scenes with interpersonal dialogue, revealing backstory in small bits and staying in the moment can give even quiet scenes more gas.

As you forge ahead on your writing journey, I hope these observations help. Here’s to a “Most Promising” future.

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Photos by Giorgio Trovato on Unsplash, Jens Lelie on Unsplash, and Laurenz Kleinheider on Unsplash