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39 Emergency Exits

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Our judge's feedback 2005


5photostory says......


Read all of these short-listed stories in our 2006 anthology 39 Emergency Exits

Read our judge's feedback below and pick up tips for your own writing.

2005 Winning entry: The Jump

A lively and well-rounded story with more than just a romantic interest thanks to the action theme of the jump scene. Generally speaking, there can be a danger of bland dialogue when including the small-talk of characters meeting each other for the first time, but here their initial conversation works expertly: this is a good example of the 'two birds with one stone' principle for other writers, as the dialogue performs a dual function for the reader - in this case letting us know necessary background about the jump.

The interplay between the two main characters works well as it subtly captures a sense of male-female dynamics: we pick up on Fabian's feeling of superiority and Isabella plays on that herself, showing how impressed she is that he will take part in the Jump. She lets him think he is in charge, as they speed around the town, but she still gets her own way - both that day and the next.

Not all of the pictures are used to the same extent as the others - the market is not involved in the actual setting of the story, as one of the characters simply works there, and although the club is known for its large wooden doors, they are no longer locked by the time the characters arrive. However, the other pictures are used in a significant way as they are not just features of the story's background: we start the run-up to the ending when Fabian gets drunk in the disco and he only realises something is wrong because his helmet is missing... and not only is the final jump scene set on a recycling site, but Fabian's bike itself effectively gets recycled there. In this way the ending, and therefore the thrust of the whole story, remains based on the pictures to the last.

The story picks up a real pace and we want to race along, wondering if Fabian will be able to make it on the moped in time: the characters connect again at the end and we are left wondering if Fabian has caused Isabella's (and his own) downfall, while we are inside his thoughts to understand that his concern is for his motorbike, not the fact that she could have killed herself.


First Runner-up: Memory of Wood

The slightly unorthodox approach to this story is one of its strengths, presenting a more unusual philosophical angle to a crime story than a more straightforward police / action approach, and it is well structured from this point of view: the conversation between the policemen keeps the story flowing while the history of the crime is gradually teased out for us.

The conversational setting allows us to find out about the crime, but also about the policemen themselves, as they stop for tea: the main characters are thus brought out in the interaction and are all recognisable as individuals in the story - the policemen are not clones of each other, while the hint that at least one of them knows the market trader quite well also adds interest.

The strength of this entry is the very interesting way that the doors not only feature in the story as the back fire exit of a club but also through what happens to them after that, being 'recycled' by the market trader: in this way most of the pictures are tied up in the basis of the story, with an additional reference to recycling of the plastic cup, and the criminal is recognised when he takes off his motorcycle helmet: all the pictures are therefore well-incorporated into the story without any tenuous links, and without detriment to the direction or flow of the plot.

At first we are led to wonder why the murderer took his helmet off as he was hiding behind it, and because that led to his capture - then it seems that this has been answered early on, but in fact we only find out about the deeper explanation for it at the end. Instead of coming to a climax, therefore, there is more of a denouement with the interesting sense that the wood has gained its revenge and brought justice about: the ending is well engineered, by saving the details of the crime until the end, and finishing with an explanation that leaves the reader with a sense of satisfaction at the end of the story.


Second Runner-up: Men come and Go but Friends are Forever

An entry with some of the best turns of phrase, for example the inventive imagery of the row of motorbikes leaning like drunks, which is the sort of sentence that instantly stands out and shows that a writer can truly write. Conversation is used very effectively to keep the story moving and to convey nuance, such as the ill/drunk/whatever discussion, and the dialogue of the boy on his bike gives the flavour of him struggling with his English, but without then continuing for so long as to be grating and obtrusive.

This is one of the strengths of this story, as we immediately gather from the first paragraph how the two girls' relationship works, and this allows us to gain the further information of the second paragraph by reading between the lines: this mechanism works very well and conveys a depth in the characters without labouring the point; then when we reach the critical decision-making stage in the story, Stacie's reaction makes sense and we can see how it is Caroline that gives in.

The disco is a central part of the plot, although Stacie and Caroline do not encounter any difficulty with the doors being locked. Special mention, however, to this writer for describing the helmet exactly as in the picture, slipped under his arm as if by a headless ghost (a concept delicately reinforced by the consequences of the story whereby we never find out his name). Although the concept of recycling is only mentioned in passing with Caroline first meeting her suitor at the bottle bank, the logo itself is included literally as a physical notice: meanwhile the market is a key location in the story as the rendezvous point for their date the next day.

The insights into Caroline's mind also work well, and we approach the climax with the realisation that she has been persuaded not to turn up for her date. Technically speaking, however, there is a clever use of tenses here, with the market scene described in the present tense, in contrast to the rest of the story narrated in the past; this is not only a grammatically correct usage, but moreover in this instance it has the effect of causing an anticipation that something is about to happen: maybe she is still going to make it after all... For the die-hard romantics out there, there is still a glimmer of hope to cling onto even at the end: that Caroline WILL turn up at the last minute before the unnamed Portuguese rider has finally revved away.

Note for readers: A submission by this author was selected as our Pioneer Readers title in 2007: Despite Losing it on Finkle Street.


Crossing France on a Motorbike

A beautiful sense of French ambience captured within the early stages of the story, and the reader is drawn gradually into the scenario; considering that as far as the plot is concerned, there is no specific sense of anticipation planted in the opening stages, this has been done in a very accomplished way.

Part of the anticipation for the reader is in the impression of Max being out of place in the setting painted so fondly by the narrator: what is Max doing there? - a question which is answered for us in the end, by which time we feel we understand the two characters well from the short interchanges and the narrator's own thoughts.

One of the strengths of this story is the very deft introduction of recycling which only makes sense at the end, and although the girls dancing are not exactly in a disco, their bar is the closest thing in the circumstances. The locked doors also feature in the climax of the story, but the market and the motorcyclists' helmet, although both included, do not specifically contribute to the plot except in an incidental way.

The twist is only revealed suddenly at the end, with enough clues on the way for them to slot into place when we get there, as opposed to giving too much away in advance: very nicely done, with the spectacular finale contrasting with the story's sleepy / contented tone which conveys the narrator's enjoyment of French life.



This story is not only amusing but maintains a light-hearted and upbeat feel throughout; it is very well-written, with nice turns of phrase, in a style which conveys to the reader from the beginning what sort of story to expect, and the innovative ideas drawn together make it very readable.

The strong characterisation of this piece, with the portrayal of a down-to-earth girl finding herself out of her depth in posh company, is one of the main ways that the plot and humour are drawn out. As the characters play up to their roles, we build up a strong perception of who Claire is in particular, naturally relating to her and sympathising with her stuck on her own at an event that is all a bit too posh for comfort.

The helmet is used imaginatively as a prop for the stripper, but although it is a fun story to read, all the other pictures are only included tenuously at best: the event could only be loosely described as a disco, and the locked doors swing open as Claire approaches. The way the other pictures are used does add to the humour of the story, with the concept of recycling alluded to as a way for Claire to avoid admitting she collects dustbins, while the misunderstanding with the market aptly fits the overall scenario, but other entries have incorporated the pictures in a more in-depth way.

A fun ending, with the punchline saved until the very end: the writer skilfully keeps us off the scent, carrying us along by the narrated viewpoint that Claire is looking forward to telling Linda all about it, and so the ending is as much of a shock to us as to Claire herself - and nothing else needs to be said.


Just Desserts

A well-portrayed escape from the world most of us live in, but presented in a matter-of-fact way that makes us relate to the story. It is sometimes difficult to convey a realistic picture of cultures we do not have personal experience of, but (assuming you don't!) you have avoided this pitfall well by maintaining a light-hearted viewpoint which additionally does not require the reader to engage with the assassination as a 'heavy' issue.

The underworld characters are presented in a sympathetic enough light for us to be able to identify with John, the hitman, while still leaving us in no doubt about the edge to both him and Eric which makes them treat their job so lighly; meanwhile your use of dialogue between John and Kerry is a good example of how a writer can develop a new character for the reader within the space of just a couple of paragraphs; we only meet Kerry towards the end but as she is a key figure with a role in the final plot, it is important that she is introduced to us quickly as you have done.

Both the market and the locked doors are well brought into the story as key parts of the plot, although the other pictures are not incorporated with the same effect: the helmet, for example, is included, but there is no sense that the plot turns on it in any way. In the same way, although parts of the story are set at the recycling plant and the disco, they don't significantly contribute to the plot, and there is almost a sense that you have tried to 'get them out of the way' early on (?)

John's reaction at the final twist ensures the ending of the story matches its light-hearted tone throughout; this is a strong finale although personally I just wonder if it is telegraphed only a couple of lines too early, as we have understood the ending before John comes out of the shower: this is a difficult area as some readers always 'click' with a short story plot sooner than others, but I would be tempted to have John hear the radio on his way downstairs, eg "And to repeat today's breaking news..." : in order to store up the punchline until as late as is absolutely possible - a topic for our discussion board?!


Congratulations to the £175 winner, Graeme Down of Kent.

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