Use Your Fifth Idea

It’s well known that in short story competitions and in writing submissions generally, there are many common themes. The three ‘D’s for example. Death, Divorce and Dementia. Or variations on these. Many great stories are, of course, written on these subjects and frequently find their way into our short lists. But the ones that do have a fresh and interesting angle.

A few years back I organised a free weekly writing contest for Ad Hoc Fiction. It was very popular with hundreds of entries in each week. The prompt was to write a 150 story with a particular word included. Let’s say the word was ‘bottle’. Stories about a character ‘losing their bottle’, bottling it up, ‘bottling out’ would be very frequent. It’s likely that there would be many stories about a genie in a bottle. Or a bottle of poison being used for nefarious purposes. You can still find the winning stories in the Ad Hoc Fiction archives. Here is a winning tale by Sharon Telfer who won second prize in our 2020 BSSA Award with ‘Under a Whale Bone Roof’. We interviewed her about the BSSA story here Sharon’s stories (her recent debut collection,The Map Waits was longlisted in the Edge Hill Prize in 2022) are always very layered. Maybe her 150 word Ad Hoc Fiction winning micro had to include the word ‘Telegraph’, her title, but the tiny piece says a great deal about the character and her situation in very few words. And telegraph, a new form of communication in this story, has many meanings.

The eminent short story writer and teacher from the US, Pamela Painter, with Anne Bernays wrote a classic craft book of writing exercises called ‘What If’ which has been through many editions. The title ‘What If’ exercise is to take a scenario, (maybe an historical story about a telegraph as in the example by Sharon Telfer) and write down at least five ‘What if’ sentences about what might occur. Your first ‘What if’, might be the consequences after a family receives a telegraph to say their son has been killed in the first world war. A common subject involving death. One of the three ‘D’s. The fifth scenario you come up with might go somewhere entirely different, like Sharon’s story.

With three months to go until our 2023 Award ends on April 24th, you have time to write your fifth choice piece.

Jude Higgins
BSSA Team, January 30th.