Criteria for Judging Short Stories

Woman reading from book.
... Jupiterimages/Stockbyte/Getty Images

Whether you're editing an original story for a contest or critiquing someone else's work for a creative writing class, the elements of fiction are useful tools for evaluating a piece's strengths and weaknesses. Techniques including character development, conflict and overall originality can serve as benchmarks for assessing how well a story creates suspense and evokes emotion in readers. You can use these elements to determine a short story's quality, compare it to similar works or make a plan for revising your own writing.

1 An Attention-Grabbing Opening

A strong short story should contain exposition that both introduces the characters and conflict and makes audiences want to continue reading. Evaluate the strength of the opening scene, including use of dialogue, description and characterization in painting a picture of the story's world. The online writing organization Pennwriters Inc. suggests using the first page as a benchmark for the strength of the story's opening. By the time the page ends, you should have a good idea of who the main character is and what he's trying to achieve.

2 A Gripping Plot

The events that unfold from the opening scene should contain clear rising action, a climactic scene and resolution. Within this framework, the story should also contain a clear conflict that adds increasing tension as the story develops. You can look closely at the conflict to see whether it naturally and realistically arises from the character's motivations and behavior, as well as how each scene serves as a unit for plot development. By the end of the story, a strong entry should demonstrate how the main character has changed as a result of the plot, and hint at what could take place now that the action is over.

3 A Strong, Realistic Protagonist

The strength of the story's main character should be a major consideration as you judge its merits. A successful short story should contain a well-developed protagonist who comes to life in readers' minds, having both admirable strengths and personality flaws. You might consider the feelings the character evokes as you read, and whether the author has been able to establish sympathy for his protagonist. Realistic dialogue should also be an important criterion, as the characters should speak ways that are consistent with their personalities, as well as the setting and time period of the story.

4 A Vivid Palette of Details

Just as a movie uses visual effects and photography to bring the story to life, a strong short story includes striking descriptions that draw readers into the story and create a sense of place. The story's use of detail should engage your senses through creative use of imagery, as well as enable you to visualize the events as they unfold. The setting should also be clearly established through meaningful description and contribute to the overall mood and meaning of the piece, as well as aid the story's characterization and plot in creating emotional impact for readers.

Kori Morgan holds a Bachelor of Arts in professional writing and a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing and has been crafting online and print educational materials since 2006. She taught creative writing and composition at West Virginia University and the University of Akron and her fiction, poetry and essays have appeared in numerous literary journals.