The ninth mini-contest was held in August 2009. This mini-contest was more of a theoretical exercise than a true writing contest. We asked contestants to imagine they were forced to write a story about a competition in which an overwhelming favorite easily defeated an inferior opponent. We asked them to explain how they’d add tension to a story where the outcome was so obvious.
We also asked for a short excerpt from the potential story that captured the spirit of the story.
We received fewer entries than normal, but we got some solid ideas that made us think about new ways to handle the problem of tension in fiction. In the end, six judges agreed that the following entries were the best.
Some winners are new to OTP’s winner’s circle; others are not. Just remember, all entries are judged blindly. (Meaning, the judges have no idea who wrote the entries they are judging.)
Third Place ($5) by Ruskin Drake
The narrator is an old, yet clearly powerful wizard who goes back in time to prevent himself from gaining power, for magic has brought him only misery. He challenges his younger self to a magical duel. The wizard’s only sure method of achieving his goal is to permanently cripple his counterpart’s spellcasting ability. The tension comes from the old wizard’s guilt as he attempts to do just enough damage to halt his counterpart’s magical development, but not enough to destroy a life that might find fulfillment in something apart from magic, all while his counterpart refuses to surrender.
Fire has not stopped him. Neither have broken bones. He still contorts his seared, mangled hands into the necessary shapes to toss spells that harm me less than mosquito bites. I draw the knife from the sheath at my side. I will cut off fingers, if he forces me to.
Second Place ($10) by Andrew Cohen
In a post-apocalyptic future society bound by the dictates of megalithic corporations, orphanages are idyllic campus-like settings where children compete to remain in their corporate controlled, sterile environments without lifelong want or need. In Darwinian fashion, winners are qualified to receive limited resources reserved for the carefully managed procreation of an elite class cocooned in consumerism and artifice while, at age sixteen, losers are exiled into a laborious world of stench and struggle, but where there exists vestiges of individuality and self-determination. As told from poorly-performing Alex’s viewpoint, losers may, or may not, possess a higher reward.
Smarter, stronger, faster Patrick was busy determining the optimal supply and demand price point for Pizza Pops® in below three minutes while Alex, spying a beetle’s climbing shadow behind today’s video window of a bucolic meadow, daydreamed of what it might feel like to cup the insect in his hand.
(Side point we can’t help but remark upon. The three male judges all loved this entry, and the three female judges all disliked it. Given the all-over-the-map scoring for this contest, that was enough for second place. But why didn’t the female judges like it? If you’re female, is your reaction strongly negative? Feedback@OnThePremises.com…)
First Place ($15) by Heather Legg
The inferior opponent is telling the story, a woman recovering from heart surgery who was once a highly ranked tennis player. She’s playing her first match after her surgery, and it’s not easy. Though her familiar opponent is a much stronger player at this point in their lives, the success of the inferior opponent, and the story’s tension, does not rest on the score, but on the fact that she’s making it through a complete set. She speaks very little of the score; we know she’s losing, but mostly of what she feels within her heart, literally and figuratively.
I dare a glance towards the stands, once full of strangers, eyes glued, breaths held. Now only my husband, my cardiologist and my best friend sit, pride mixed with worry. I look away, feeling the ball in my hand, just like my doctor must have felt my heart in his.
Honorable Mentions (no money, just fame)
Two other entries scored highly enough to earn honorable mentions.
I think the trick here is to conceal that the outcome is, indeed, a foregone conclusion. I would achieve this, first of all, by writing from the point of view of the intended victor. Despite the fact that anyone else can see that he is bound to win, his own doubts become the most important obstacle. This creates reader irony, which can ratchet up tension nicely if used correctly.
It was dark outside the arena. No lights, no crowd. Peter, feeling alone, tucked some gum into his mouth. What did he do? The franchise was counting on him, but it seemed as if people wanted him to lose. His entire career depended on this one race. Or did it?
(by Jennifer R. Povey)
I’d tell the story from the POV of a gambler, tipped off that the competition was rigged. Knowing the outcome, he bets heavily on the winner to recoup some previous heavy losses and pay off a loan shark.
The tension comes into play because of a time factor. The gambler’s had several chances to pay up. Now it’s, pay up or else. Both the gambler and the goons are at the competition. The gambler has to collect his winnings before the goons grab him. Can he stay out of their reach until the competition ends?
Shit. Carbone’s goons. They headed straight for him, and the horses were still on the back stretch, Moneymaker with a four length lead.
Run, you bastard. Run!
All the horse had to do was reach the finish line before the goons grabbed him, and he’d be home free.
(by Barbara Turner)
Congratulations to the winners and our sincere thanks to everyone who entered the mini-contest.