Topic, Common Themes, and Winners of the Fall 2009 24-Hour Short Story Contest!

Over the past few months, at, I’ve been posting a missive about the common themes in entries submitted for the previous 24-Hour Short Story Contest. We’ve received lots of positive feedback so I’ll continue to do this for future contests.

For the past month, I’ve spent every spare moment judging the hundreds of entries submitted for the Fall 2009 24-Hour Short Story Contest. In case you’re not familiar with our quarterly contest, this is how it works. On the date of the contest, at start-time, we send out the topic for that specific contest to all registered entrants. We also post it online. Entrants then have 24 hours to write and submit their stories. The stories “must deal with the topic in some way to qualify” and they must not exceed the pre-assigned word count.

After reading the entries for each contest, we can see how difficult it is to come up with a unique plot when working with an assigned topic. But, inevitably, a few writers do manage to successfully break away from the pack.

So, take a rest from your busy day. Sit back, relax, and…what’s that? Do you hear a baby crying??

Weeks of obsessive tending and gentle turning ensured a blue ribbon for his biggest pumpkin next weekend. His chest puffed with impending pride as he fantasized about the envious stares of the other town folk, especially that pretty, stuck-up woman next door, who always looked through him, not at him.

The cold wind started again and he shivered, watching the sky darken too quickly. As bright, painted leaves rained on his crop, he instinctively turned his head toward an infant’s cry. At the top of the hill, under the old Maple, his stuck-up neighbor was shielding a bundle from the wind, fumbling with her blouse…

Before you continue reading, take a moment to consider where you would take that story…

Here are my notes about common themes that emerged from the Fall ’09 24-Hour Short Story Contest:

  • We received lots of references to the Headless Horseman, the Great Pumpkin, and Peter Peter, Pumpkin Eater (I can’t even count how many Peters we had as main characters!)

  • Lots of babies got hidden inside the giant pumpkins for one reason or another

  • Many women gave their infants to the pumpkin farmers for protection

  • Many of the women were widowed – and a lot of those had husbands had been in Iraq or some other war

  • Several women were in abusive relationships (husband or father)

  • Some women were young girls who gave birth out of wedlock

  • We learn the baby is his (the pumpkin farmer’s) from a tryst with the neighbor

  • Tons of pumpkin pies! I kept getting hungry when reading the stories…until I would end up reading about…

  • Violent pumpkin farmers using victims for pumpkin patch fertilizer

  • There was intense competition between the pumpkin farmers and neighbors and many pumpkins were stolen and/or otherwise destroyed in one way or another (tons of axed, shot and exploding pumpkins!)

  • Countless references to “lightening” during the storm (should be lightning)

  • In many stories, the lightning hits the Maple tree, putting the woman and baby in danger and the farmer saves the day

  • Many of the men won the prize money at the fair and gave it to the poor woman

  • The crying baby sound is actually coming from a kitten

  • Someone in the story is named “Pumpkin”

  • The farmer cheats and puts small weights in the pumpkin or hides something else in the pumpkin

  • Lots of dead bodies in huge pumpkins

  • A hail storm or other weather destroys the pumpkin(s)

  • Lots of pumpkins came to life – often infant pumpkin creatures being held/nursed by the woman. I thought those were particularly entertaining but it soon became apparent it was a common theme among the entries. I sure enjoyed them, though!

  • There was a strong air of romance throughout most stories and the most common ending had the two lonely neighbors falling in love and/or the pumpkin farmer learning the neighbor is the real “grand prize”

As with all contests, some common themes come back again and again no matter what the topic is. These include:

  • We find out at the end that the entire story was just a movie/TV scene/play

  • The story either starts with a dream or the reader finds out at the end that it was all a dream

  • The reader finds out the main character is actually dead (is a ghost or spirit of some sort), or that the main character has dementia

  • The story is dramatic but you find out at the end that the characters are really children playing make-believe

  • Some writers used a common fairy tale or well-known fairy tale characters as the basis of their story

Links to the winning stories appear here:

The Winter contest is scheduled for January, 2010. Each contest is limited to 500 entrants. You can see the complete list of 85 prizes and sign up here: