RTÉ Short Story Competition 2022: Acclaimed novelist Lisa McInerney, a judge at this year's RTÉ Short Story Competition, explains what she looks for in a good short story...


When I came on board as a judge for last year's RTÉ Short Story Competition, I hoped that not only would I get to read exciting work from emerging writers, but I would learn something new about the short story, a form I still find a bit mysterious, even occasionally forbidding. The reasons a reader finds a good short story invigorating are the same reasons the writer finds them challenging: it takes skill to give something so concise the appropriate weight. I’m delighted to be returning as a judge for this year’s competition with even more excitement and a little more insight, just as I’d hoped. I doubt there’s a writer alive who hasn’t more to learn about writing, who can’t be encouraged by a different way of looking at the craft. I really hope that heartens and inspires emerging writers — we’re all climbing uphill, and the views only get more spectacular.

I've always found it useful to think of short stories as dark rooms I must illuminate...

Compiling last year’s shortlist, I realised that the most affecting stories were about pivotal moments in individual lives: a protective gesture on a first date, an unwitting proposal fracturing the friendship between two cousins, an awkward meeting between a local sportsman on a downward spiral and his mentor (in our winning story, The Third Day by Kevin Donnellan). There were stories processing common experiences in inventive and intimate ways: lockdown, generational gaps, platonic love, prejudice, isolation, hope and hopelessness. What was common to all of the best stories was their authors’ wish to make sense of some universal concern by making it familiar, visceral, and therefore profound; shrinking what seems immense into a form that’s blisteringly concentrated, leaving its characters, and its reader nowhere to hide. Same goes for the writer.

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RTÉ Short Story Competition 2021: Listen to The Third Day by Kevin Donnellan

I’ve always found it useful to think of short stories as dark rooms I must illuminate. When I’m writing a novel, I’m holding a flashlight. I can swing it around and focus on whatever catches my eye, I can light up corners until the space is utterly familiar to me. But with a short story, it’s more like I’m limited to the use of a spotlight fixed on only one area of my characters’ lives, one detailed moment or short sequence. The trick is describing where the light falls whilst leaving the reader in no doubt as to the size of the rest of the room. The space my characters inhabit has to feel real, and the reader has to believe that beyond this moment, my characters could lead full lives.

We write stories for so many reasons...

I remember at a literary panel a few years ago, Lucy Caldwell — my co-judge for the 2021 RTE Short Story Competition and a renowned short story writer — suggested that the advantage to the short story was its limited length so naturally allowed for experimentation, because the writer didn’t need to sustain a particularly ambitious voice, character or plot for the length of a novel. The short story is just the right form for adventuring; there’s just enough room to play. The writer can switch tones, lead with an unreliable narrator, employ a lot of dialogue or a villain’s stream-of-consciousness, or snap into some unexpected voice at the end.

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Listen to the runner-up in the RTÉ Short Story Competition 2021: Mamo by Sara Keating

What was confirmed for me in judging last year's story prize is that the beauty in a story is in the way it’s told, and that the writer has the best chance of surprising themselves, and their readers too, by being open to playing with the 'rules’. If the short story is something observed under a spotlight, then what happens if that spotlight is swivelled slightly, if it strobes, or is filtered with some unconventional colour? What happens if it’s not so much a spotlight as a microphone, only picking up dialogue?

We write stories for so many reasons: to test ourselves, to create something beautiful, to entertain or provoke, to process our experiences. It might be that the right way in to the short story, as a new writer, is to figure out what can be seen in that spotlight and by whom, then find some way to pull the rug from under them.

Listen back to Arena where the judges gave their thoughts on what they want to see from the entries.

The RTÉ Short Story Competition 2022 in honour of Francis MacManus is now open for entries, and writers have until Friday 13th May to submit their short story to the competition - find out more here.