How To Win The BBC Short Story Prize
Hint: Don’t Write Genre
The 20-45 year old female narrator gripped the steering wheel and gazed out at the road ahead. The car ate up the black asphalt and road markings as she sped to her destination. It was a destination of some significance to her and the trip allowed her to meditate on her life. Soon a Crisis Generating Event (CGE) would unfold, we’d be told she’s married to an astronaut or a root vegetable would crash through the windscreen or something. But before that, you have to ladle on the back-story.
This formula; female driver on road trip getting all wistful followed by a CGE/confrontation, is the sort of stuff the judges liked last year. When I say formula, I don’t mean formula-formula like those awful genre stories – you know the ones I’m talking about; westerns, crime, scifi, horror, romance, chick-lit or vampires. No, I mean bona fide mimesis-enhanced formula that’s dead clever and reserved for proper literature. Oh, and have her glance at her mobile or waiting for a text message or something that gives the story a contemporary feel, you’ll lose brownie points if you don’t.
So anyway, your heroine is in a speeding car and something is about to happen. She glances in the rear view mirror or she changes gear. This allows a flashback. Because rear view mirrors mean looking back, shifting gears signal a change in perception. See? Clever stuff, this. So what bit of her past should your female character think about? Her best friend at school? The day she stubbed her toe while making a sandwich? That awkward moment at John Lewis’s, wondering which set of coasters to buy her mum for her birthday? Nope, it’s the man in her life, that’s what she thinks about in her little flashback. That’s what the judges looked for.
And what a total wanker he is (was). What did our plucky protagonist ever see in him? OK, so at first she was wowed by his worldly charm (make sure he’s way older than her, of course), but then there is a cutaway to dialogue… she asks a heartfelt question, his answer is clipped and evasive. Uh-ho, trouble at t’ mill I’ll wager…
But don’t reveal all his terrible faults just yet, because it’s time for your CGE to happen. Put it in now. Crisis ensues, a turning point that mirrors her conflict with the man in her life. Feel free to mix and allude at will here, but make sure the ending gives no hint of resolution or (god forbid) a twist at the end or a punchline.( i.e. The narrator looked sniffily as the heat of the bonfire warmed her face. The journey had come to an end in one sense, but in another it hadn’t at all. Wednesday’s washing wouldn’t be ready until Thursday, she thought. The End).
And there you have it, a guaranteed winner. Of course the judges might decide to change the formula they want without telling you. Those bastards often do. Maybe the vogue will be for a middle class businessman who loses everything when he suddenly realizes he’s been dead for years (metaphorically as well as physically), another year it will be a harassed junior school teacher musing about a Pupil With Problems and comparing their own issues (see ‘man in her life’ above) to the hints and allusions to child abuse hanging over the poor ickle PWP.
So you never know what the judges will chose to favour next. It won’t be genre, that’s for sure, but whatever it is it will be dead clever, proper literature and it will signal a rebirth of the short story form as serious fucking shit. Or not.
Good luck with all your entries.