My writing group chooses certain contests to submit to every other month or so. We write to the prompts and then go through about three rounds of critique before sending them in. It’s a great motivator to get words on the page, and it is also incentive for people to be more aggressive with their critiques because we want our stories to be as polished as they can be (i.e., no, we’re not attacking your writing, we just want you to have the best shot at winning…so fix this shit!). I suggest any writing group out there to try it at least once.
Our latest contest is a scenario one, that starts with a prompt. One of our group members had a really good story, and everyone agreed on that, but it didn’t really utilize the prompt in a meaningful way. For example, let’s consider the most cliche writing prompt of them all: it was a dark and stormy night. There are a lot of scenarios that can materialize in one’s mind when they think of the rain pelting the windows of a dimly lit house in the middle of the night. The wind howling. Lightning flashing. It sets a certain mood. But what if I chose to make the next sentence: “But the next day was beautiful” and then went on with the story as if there was never a drop of rain? Sure, the story could end up being the best I’ve ever written, but is it relevant to the exercise? No.
It seems counterintuitive to think that you might not win a contest if you submitted the best overall story. So let’s think about it from the perspective of those running the contest. Say you announced a short story contest and the prompt is : Your character is trying to avoid something that has come back to haunt him from the past. A few months later you filter through all of your submissions and end up with two stories you really like (in my opinion, one of those two wouldn’t even make it that far, but for argument’s sake…). Story #1 incorporates the haunting past really well into the arc, and in the end the original conflict is resolved, even revealed in a whole new light. Still, you find that you liked Story #2 more. The writing is a little better, and the plot is simply more interesting. But they didn’t really use the prompt in the story at all. Sure, the conflict began with a dark past (otherwise you would have disqualified it from the start), but that lead to something else that dominated the narrative. The dark past wasn’t really brought up anymore in the story, and, overall, wasn’t really relevant at all. You’re not sure if you’re being too anal about it. They did start off with the prompt, and it did direct the story initially. But then you try to imagine Story #2 without the haunting past, and you find that you can replace it with more than a dozen other unrelated catalysts that could have led the character in the same direction. Really, the story would be no different without it.
What do you do?
Writing prompts are given to spark creativity. Of course, sometimes these sparks can set off tangential thought patterns and you can end up with something that has nothing to do with the original prompt. That’s fine, but the challenge of a prompt is to incorporate certain characteristics of a story. If you’re running a contest, don’t you think you’re more likely to present your readers with a winner who took your prompt and made something that wouldn’t have existed without it? Would it be worth it to publish the story that’s better if it looks like something the author could have written the same with any other prompt thrown at them? I don’t think so.
This isn’t to say that stories which veer from the prompt are worthless. Far from it. You have a new story, and more writing experience, and that’s never a bad thing. But it’s okay to recognize that the story won’t work for a particular submission/contest. You’d be better of taking out the elements which will just come off as forced anyway and replacing them with something more organic. Then use the story for another submission, preferably a non-scenario one. If you still want to submit to the original contest, then start over, and make sure you’re building your story around the original concept in a unique way, rather than using it as a side tool. The judges will thank you.
What are your thoughts? Is this a no-brainer? On the flip side, do you disagree? Does it matter how well the original prompt is integrated, as long as the story kicks ass?
Disclaimer: That thank you from the judges may be a silent, unspoken thank you.