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Thunderdome Rules: How to Judge Flash Fiction Competitions Quickly

In 2012, I joined a flash fiction competition on the SomethingAwful forums. I also joined the next week, and the week after, and I came to realise in February that Thunderdome has been running for almost 8 years. This week was Thunderdome #400. Our weird little writing weekly writing competition has got people into grad programs, dream jobs, got people publishing deals with Big 5 Publishing Houses; The Dawnhounds started in a Thunderdome side group; the Discord channels spun off it house a terrifying array of Serious Authors who I know started out writing flash fiction about sentient farts on SomethingAwful.

Each week, Thunderdome has three judges. The head judge is the previous week’s winner, and the other two are people they’ve shoulder-tapped to help out. In eight years of Thunderdome, I’ve never seen less than 3 judges. It might’ve happened in a week I took off, but it’s extremely unusual and it takes a lot of coordination. 

One thing about judging Thunderdome is that you’ve got to read anywhere from 5000 to 200,000 words in about 48 hours and pick a winner. You’ve gotta do that with three people, often in different timezones. Since I’m one of the original members and I’ve won a lot, I’ve spent a lot of time in the judge’s seat, and at some point over the years I came up with a simple scoring system to help process a lot of different pieces of fiction in a very short space of time. 

I’m going to be using a specific example I ran, week #268: NEEEEEEEEERDS. It had 24 entrants, together writing almost 40,000 words. We got the results out in about 18 hours.  

The system looks like this: 

  1. Count the number of entrants, which we’ll call n
  2. Each judge must rank the stories 1-n
  3. An individual judge’s fifth-best story gets 5 points, their 20th-best story gets 20 points. 
  4. Add up all judges’ totals for each story 
  5. Divide by 3, get a final score for each story 
  6. One final round of checks: are all judges happy with the winner winning? Spot-adjustment based on discussion. 

It’s like golf: the story with the lowest points in the winner. It’s best with 3 judges, though it’s workable with 2–5. You’re trying to spread it out without creating a massive amount of work for yourself. 

It’s a bit mechanical on the face of it, but the fact that the judges are basically just preference ranking means there’s a lot of space for the art-ness of things to shine through. Your judges are following their hearts, and then you’re taking that in a structured way and outputting a number that lets you figure out exactly how everybody is feeling. 

If you’ve got weeks and months to turn the competition around, I wouldn’t use it as more than a neat little guide. If this thing needs to be out tomorrow, it can be a lifesaver. I brewed it up to hit TD’s aggressive deadlines, but as my career has thrown me to the four corners, I’ve taken it with me to other competitions and it’s proven an incredibly useful tool.

Even if you don’t follow the numbers purely, it’s great for getting your head in the right space, for figuring out which stories nobody really clicked with and helping to surface the ones everybody loved but nobody brought up in discussion, for having it clearly laid out in a way that helps everybody quickly and easily lock down the likely candidates.

It’s yours now. Use it wisely.

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