Everyone needs a route map, whether it’s Hillary and Tenzing climbing Mount Everest or an English candidate writing a story. One of the ways of planning a story is to create a story mountain, with each stage of the tale labelled on the diagram. The drawing doesn’t have to be any more than a big triangle, but the five stages help to provide a good structure. The story mountain is only part of the process, however. Even before the exam, you could invent two or three interesting characters to use or practise telling a particular story – perhaps an old fairy tale in a modern setting. It’s always good to be prepared, and it’s too late by the time you sit down in the exam hall. If you’re taking an 11+ or 13+ combined English entrance exam, you should have around half an hour left for the composition after doing the reading comprehension. The routine to follow includes choosing the right question, brainstorming ideas, creating the story mountain, writing the story and checking your work afterwards. Depending on the total length of the exam, you should plan to leave yourself a set amount of time for each stage (shown in brackets, assuming you have a total of 30 minutes).
1. Choose the right question (less than 1 minute).
Sometimes you won’t be given a choice, but you will always have different options in a proper 11+ English exam. One might be a description (often based on a drawing or photograph), and another might be an essay on a factual subject, but there will always be the chance to write a story, either based on a suggested title or in the form of a continuation of the passage from the reading comprehension. The important thing here is to try to find a topic you know a bit about and – in an ideal world – something you’d enjoy writing about. If you you’ve never ridden a horse, it would be pointless trying to write a story all about horse racing!
2. Brainstorm ideas (5 minutes).
Some pupils go straight into writing the story at this point. The story might occasionally be quite good, but the danger is that you don’t give yourself the chance to come up with the best possible ideas, and you certainly won’t make it easy for yourself to structure it when you don’t have a plan to help you. Whether in business or at school, the best way of coming up with ideas is to spend some time brainstorming. That means coming up with as many ideas as possible in a limited time. There’s no such thing as a bad idea, so try to think positively rather than crossing out anything you don’t like. It takes time to come up with well thought-through ideas for a story, so be patient, and don’t just go for the first one you think of. That’s like walking into a shop and buying the first pair of trousers you see: they might not be the right size or colour or design, so you have to browse through the whole range. Try to come up with at least two ideas so that you can pick the best one. If you’re having trouble, think about the different elements you can change: the plot, the characters, the setting, the period and the genre. Those are the basics, and imagining a particularly good character or setting might just provide the clue you’re looking for, and you can always change what kind of story it is – a thriller will look a lot different from a romance or a comedy!
3. Create a story mountain (5 minutes).
Once you’ve decided on an idea, you can create your story mountain. You don’t actually have to draw a mountain or a triangle, but you do need to map out the five main stages of the story. You don’t need to write full sentences, just notes that are long enough to remind you of your ideas. Just remember that the opening has two parts to it, so your story will have six main paragraphs, not five. (That doesn’t include any lines of dialogue, which should be in separate paragraphs.)
Opening (or introduction)
The best way to open a story is probably to start ‘in the middle’. Most fairy stories start with something like this:
Once upon a time, there lived a beautiful princess with long, golden hair. Esmeralda was madly in love with Prince Charming, but her wicked stepmother kept her locked up in a tower a thousand feet above the valley below…
The trouble with this kind of description of the characters and their situation (‘exposition’) is that it’s just a bit boring! Nothing actually happens. Far better to think of the most exciting moment in your story and start from there.
“Aaaaaaagggghhh!!!” screamed Prince Charming as his fingers slipped from Princess Esmeralda’s icy window ledge and he fell a thousand feet to his death…!
Once you’ve written a paragraph or so grabbing the reader’s attention, you can then introduce the main characters, where they live, when the story is set and so on. That means the opening needs two paragraphs:
1. Grab the reader’s attention
2. Describe the main character
Why do you need to describe your heroes? Well, the more the reader knows about them, the more they can imagine what they look like, how they sound like and how they might behave in certain situations. That leads to sympathy, and sympathy is important because the reader has to care about the heroes in order for stories to be exciting.
So what do you need to write about your heroes? Here’s a quick list of the major details in roughly the right order:
3. Job or school
4. Looks (including eye colour, hair colour and style, height, build, skin tone, favourite clothes)
6. Friends and family
7. Personality and interests
8. USP or ‘Unique Selling Proposition’
You can be as detailed or as general as you like about some of these things. Your hero’s home, for instance, could just be ‘London’, or it could be ‘the famous Blue Cross lighthouse on the promontory overlooking Shark Bay in Antigua’! Overall, though, you should probably be writing eight to 10 lines of A4 for the whole description. You can even save yourself time by thinking up, say, three ‘off-the-shelf’ characters and memorising them (see article).
Build-up (or rising action)
The build-up should describe what the main character is trying to do. For instance, is he or she robbing a bank, escaping from prison or fighting off an alien invasion?
Problem (or climax)
Every story needs drama, which is really just conflict. If you show what the hero’s trying to do in the Build-up, the Problem is just what gets in the way. It might be guilt at leaving a friend behind, say, or a prison warder spotting the escaping convicts or a searchlight lighting up the yard. Whatever it is, it’s a problem that needs to be solved.
Solution (or falling action)
The solution to the problem is what the hero tries to do to fix it. It may not work, but it’s usually the best option available.
Ending (or outcome)
Not many 10-year-old boys like happy endings, so the plan doesn’t always have to come off! If you want your hero to die in a hail of bullets like Butch and Sundance, that’s up to you. Another way to end a story is to use a ‘cliffhanger’. In the old days, that meant the hero was literally hanging on to the edge of a cliff, and the reader would obviously want to know if he held on or not. These days, it just means adding another mystery or problem that needs to be fixed. For example, the hero could escape from prison…only to find a police car chasing him!
4. Write the story (15 minutes or more, depending on the length of the exam).
Now for the important bit!
Stick to the plan
The most important thing to remember is to stick to the plan! It’s very tempting to get carried away when you’re writing and follow wherever your imagination leads you, but the downside is that your story probably won’t have a proper beginning, middle and end, and you might run out of time trying to get the plot back on track.
Balance the Three Ds
You should also strike a balance between the Three Ds: Drama, Description and Dialogue. Every story has a plot, so drama will always be there, but a lot of pupils focus so much on what’s happening that there is very little if any description or dialogue. Readers want to imagine what people look like and how they feel, so you have to give them something to go on. People also generally have a lot to say when they get emotional or find themselves in tough situations, so you won’t be able to capture that unless they talk to one another in your story.
Show off your vocabulary
This is also a chance to show off your vocabulary. Including a few ‘wow words’ (or ‘golden words’) such as ‘annihilate’ instead of ‘destroy’ will impress the examiner no end – as long as you know how to spell them!
Use poetic devices
What’s the difference between ‘in the evening’ and ‘on a night as dark as a murderer’s soul’? If you think one of these is a little bit more descriptive and atmospheric than the other, then why not use poetic devices in your own writing? Just make sure the comparison is appropriate. If you’re describing a picnic, things might be ‘as black as Bovril’ instead! I’ve written an article on them if you want to find out more, but the most common ones are these:
- Rhetorical questions
- Sentence structure
5. Check your work (4-5 minutes)
If there’s one tip that beats all the rest, it’s ‘Check your work’. However old you are and whatever you’re doing, you should never finish a task before checking what you’ve done. However boring or annoying it is, you’ll always find at least one mistake and therefore at least one way in which you can make things better. In the case of 11+ or 13+ exams, the most important thing is to test candidates’ imagination and ability to write an interesting story, but spelling and grammar is still important. Schools have different marking policies. Some don’t explicitly mark you down (although a rash of mistakes won’t leave a very good impression!); some create a separate pot of 10 marks for spelling and grammar to add to the overall total; and some take marks off the total directly – even if you wrote a good story. Either way, it pays to make sure you’ve done your best to avoid silly mistakes. If you think you won’t have time to check, that’s entirely up to you. You’ll almost certainly gain more marks in the last five minutes by correcting your work than trying to answer one more question, so it makes sense to reserve that time for checking. If you do that, there are a few simple things to look out for. You may want to make a quick checklist and tick each item off one by one.
This is the main problem that most Common Entrance candidates face, but there are ways in which you can improve your spelling. Firstly, you can look out for any obvious mistakes and correct them. It can help to go through each answer backwards a word at a time so that you don’t just see what you expect to see. Secondly, you can check if a word appears anywhere in the text or in the question. If it does, you can simply copy it across. Finally, you can choose another, simpler word. If you’re not quite sure how to spell something, it’s often better not to take the risk.
This should be easy, but candidates often forget about checking capitals in the rush to finish. Proper nouns, sentences and abbreviations should all start with capital letters. If you know you often miss out capital letters or put them where you don’t belong, you can at least check the beginning of every sentence to make sure it starts with a capital.
This simply means any marks on the page other than letters and numbers, eg full-stops, commas, quotation marks, apostrophes and question marks. Commas give almost everybody problems, but you can at least check there is a full-stop at the end of every sentence.
It’s always useful to read through your story to make sure everything makes sense. It’s very easy to get distracted first time round, but it’s usually possible to spot silly mistakes like missing letters or missing words on a second reading.
Test yourself on what you’ve learned from this article!
- What are the five steps to writing a story?
- What are the five stages of a story mountain?
- How many main paragraphs should be in your story?
- How do you know which title to pick?
- What’s wrong with using the first idea you think of?
- What are the Three D’s?
- Why do you need to check your work at the end?
Try going through the whole five-step process to write a story based on the following choice of titles:
A summer’s day
The ghost from the future
A fresh start
The voice in the darkness
The Noah’s Ark
The hot afternoon
My father was furious
The swimming lesson
The picnic by the lake
Great things come from small beginnings
The person in the queue
Through the window
The long hot summer
The first day of term
Crossing the line
Show and tell
A visit from uncle
‘The room was so quiet that I noticed the clock ticking’
(Write a story that opens with this sentence.)
Every day, she sat alone by the upstairs window
(Write a story that opens with this sentence.)
(Write a story that uses this as its final line.)