But first, what is the system, you say? I award up to 45 possible points for the following elements:
Entertainment Value...10 points
Technical Use of Language...10 points
The elements of pacing, technical use of language, and storytelling all relate to how the writer uses words to bring the story alive. Entertainment value and voice focus on overall impact and uniqueness. My scoring system is designed to reward tight writing more than a good idea. For that reason, a good story expertly written will place higher than a great story with writing issues. (I have a specific theory for why I do it that way, but that's for another day.)
So, what do I mean by "writing issues" specifically? They are anything that "pulls you out" of the story or diminishes the dream the scene is trying to weave in your brain. In short, if the writing itself drags down the story, it's a writing issue.
Here are the most common culprits:
1. Telling Instead of Showing. Most of the time, a story is strongest when it's portrayed in real time for the reader, not narrated by the author in a kind of summarized, Cliff's Notes fashion. Caveat: Judicious use of telling can be essential to giving the reader information. However, the entire piece should not be telling.
Example: Stephanie was so tired of her mother staring at her. Her mother asked so many questions all the time. She accused Stephanie of not caring. Nothing was ever good enough. Stephanie thought that she didn't even have the energy to respond anymore.
Rewrite: Stephanie pushed away the coffee cup she didn't ask for. Mother stood by the table. Angry and waiting.
Stephanie sighed with years of fatigue. "I'm sorry, mother, but I really don't know what to say to you anymore."
What's the point? Build the scene for us. Portray action. Have people talk. Don't just tell us about it second hand.
2. Over-description. If a single sentence has more than two adjectives, you're in danger of diminishing your impact. Example: The long, winding road was filled completely with a permeating, oppressive darkness.
3. Unbelievable Dialog.
Example: "What are you going to do with that hammer that you are waving in your hand?"
"I was thinking that maybe I should drive it through your skull and into your brain. In fact, I've been thinking about murdering you for ages upon ages."
Rewrite: "Put the hammer down!"
"I'm going to fucking kill you."
4. Mismatch. Mismatches can be in intensity, such as when powerful words are paired with a non-powerful moment.
Example: "The parking ticket thundered into my hands and demolished my every chance of having a glorious day."
Descriptions should generally fit the importance of the moment in length and intensity.
Mismatches can also be in time. Don't use lengthy descriptions to portray a very quick action (unless you are specifically going for a slow-motion effect).
Example: His fingers extended toward the door, and as he touched the brass, his hand curled around knob. With a twist, the door unlatched. He pulled it open and entered.
Reading these words takes about four times as long as the action itself.
5. Weak Verbs. Example: The sky was dark. The motorcycle was idling. He was eager to go. Rewrite: The clouds piled in the sky. The motorcycle engine sputtered. He flexed his hands, ready to go. Caveat: A sprinkling of weak verbs is necessary to give the reader a breath. All of the verbs can't be strong, but too many weak verbs makes the impact anemic.
6. Unnecessary Words/Tightening. Example: When he sat down on the chair, he thought he saw her go out of the door and out of the room. Rewrite: As he sat down, he saw her rush from the room. (Stronger verb too.)
7. Cliches. Example: He needed her like he needed to breathe.