Story mountains

Whether you’re doing something as easy as climbing Mount Everest or as hard as writing a story, you always need a plan!

One of the ways of planning a story is to use story mountains, 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.

However, the story mountain is only part of the process.

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 the following five steps:

  • Title: choose the right title or question
  • Brainstorm: think of ideas
  • Plan: create the story mountain
  • Write: write the story
  • Check: check your work.

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 Title
(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 a newspaper story or diary, but there will usually 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’ve never ridden a horse, it would be pointless trying to write a story all about horse racing, and it would probably be pretty boring!

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.

Try to use five or six words for each section (missing out ‘filler’ words such as ‘the’ and ‘an’), such as ‘M frees dog from fence’ or ‘Shark bites F in leg’.

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.)

A. 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 how should you describe them?

Here’s a quick list of the major details in roughly the right order:
1. Name
2. Age
3. Job or school
4. Looks (including eye colour, hair colour and style, height, build, skin tone and favourite clothes)
5. Home
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, but giving more detail is usually better as it helps paint a picture in the reader’s mind.

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, 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).

B. 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?

C. Problem (or Climax or Dilemma)

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.

D. Solution (or Resolution 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.

E. 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 of a TV serial might literally be hanging on to the edge of a cliff, and the viewer would obviously have to ‘tune in next week’ to find out if he managed to hold 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!

Finally, you could always have a ‘twist in the tale’, in which the good guy turns out to be a bad guy, for example.

It doesn’t take long to write – just a sentence or two – but it’s a great way to leave readers scratching their heads and thinking, “Wow! I never saw that coming…”

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.

Don’t Leave Loose Ends

A good story will have narrative tension. In other words, it will be exciting.

Part of that involves doubt about whether your heroes will succeed or not, and that’s where the ‘good’ questions come in.

If readers are asking themselves questions like “Will the hero escape?” or “Will the hero survive?”, then you’re doing your job as a writer.

Those are ‘good’ questions because they get to the heart of what the story is all about and keep your readers guessing.

Excitement comes from uncertainty and doubt, so you want your readers to wonder what’s going to happen.

Look at it another way: imagine if they didn’t ask themselves any questions at all. That’s basically the same as saying they’d be bored stiff!

However, you don’t want them to be asking ‘bad’ questions. These are the loose ends that crop up if you don’t give good enough explanations for your characters’ actions or abilities.

For example, if your hero is robbed and tries to solve the crime on his own, the obvious loose end is why he didn’t call the police.

Alternatively, if your hero has a special power like being able to read minds, you either need to explain where it came from (like Spiderman being bitten by a radioactive spider) or admit that it’s somehow ‘mysterious’ so that your readers can stop worrying about it.

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 ‘cerulean’ instead of ‘blue’ will impress the examiner no end – as long as you know how to spell them!

Use Energetic Verbs

You can create energy in different ways, but choosing powerful verbs is a good way to appeal to the imagination and show part of someone’s character along the way. For example, if a kid is greedy, you could say ‘he picked up the slice of chocolate cake’, but saying ‘he grabbed the slice of chocolate cake’ suggests he just wants to stuff his face!

Use the Active Voice

You can either use the passive or active voice. The passive voice shows something happening to someone; the active voice shows someone doing something. For example, ‘he was hit by Mark’s shovel’ is passive, but ‘Mark hit him with the shovel’ is active.

As you can probably see from this example, the active voice is better at showing power and intention. Writing that someone ‘was hit’ almost suggests it was an accident, but ‘Mark hit him’ shows exactly what happened and whose fault it was!

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:

  • Simile
  • Metaphor
  • Personification
  • Alliteration
  • Onomatopoeia
  • Repetition
  • Rhetorical questions
  • Imagery
  • Sentence structure (ie long and short sentences or simple, complex and compound sentences)

Show, Don’t Tell

Whether you’re describing characters or the environment, it’s better to show rather than simply tell the reader. Telling is lazy, but showing engages your readers and makes them part of the experience, letting them use their imagination to work out what’s going on rather than spoon-feeding them every detail.

For example, it’s easy to say a character ‘was a keen walker’, but it would be better to say she ‘hiked six miles of the Appalachian Trail every weekend’. Equally, rather than describe someone, you could use dialogue instead. Rather than say ‘he was tired’, his best friend could say, “You look like you were up all night!” Another way is to suggest something and then surprise the reader later in the story. For instance, you could describe a black-and-white poster of an old yacht on a girl’s bedroom wall but only reveal she’s an expert sailor when she has to sail across the bay to rescue someone.

When it comes to the environment, you could say ‘it was very cold’, but it would be much more vivid (and alliterative!) if you said ‘his breath formed frozen clouds in front of his face’.

One way of looking at it is to imagine that you’re directing a film rather than writing a story. In films, you hardly ever hear a narrator telling you what’s going on. You’re simply shown everything you need to know.

Appeal to the Senses

It’s easy to forget to describe a scene during a story, but that means readers can’t imagine it and so won’t feel as if they were actually there. One way to make your descriptions more vivid and memorable is to appeal to the five senses:

  • Sight
  • Smell
  • Hearing
  • Taste
  • Touch

You don’t have to use them all, but try picking the most important ones. Obviously, you need to show what the setting looks like, but if it’s a coffee shop, for instance, you could say ‘she inhaled the aroma of freshly brewed espressos’.

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.

Spelling

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.

Capital Letters

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.

Punctuation

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.

Other Grammar

It’s always useful to read through your story to make sure everything makes sense.
It’s very easy to get distracted the first time around, but it’s usually possible to spot silly mistakes like missing letters or missing words on a second reading.

And that’s it! I hope these tips on story mountains will help.

Quiz

Test yourself on what you’ve learned about story mountains from this article!

  1. What are the five steps to writing a story?
  2. What are the five stages of a story mountain?
  3. How many main paragraphs should be in your story?
  4. How do you know which title to pick?
  5. What’s wrong with using the first idea you think of?
  6. What are the Three D’s?
  7. What are five different poetic devices?
  8. What should you check your work for?

Sample Titles

Try going through the whole five-step process to write a story based on the following choice of titles (all but one taken from actual 11+ papers):

Left Behind

A Summer’s Day

Saying Sorry

The Lie

The Race

Lost Boy

A Fresh Start

The Voice in the Darkness

Noah’s Ark

Smoke

Silence

The Hot Afternoon

My Father Was Furious

The Swimming Lesson

Caravanning

The Choice

The Garden

Sleeping

Twins

Junk Food

The Picnic by The Lake

A Gift

Great Things Come from Small Beginnings

Saying Goodbye

The Person in The Queue

Through The Window

The Photograph

The Long Hot Summer

The Joke

The Loner

The Dare

The First Day of Term

Crossing The Line

Weird Habits

Mirror

Show And Tell

Going Underground

Echo

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.)

‘Nobody’s perfect.’
(Write a story that uses this as its final line.)

Model Answer

Here are two stories created by Open AI’s ChatGPT chatbot entitled The Ghost from the Future.

Version 1

The ghost from the future appeared out of nowhere on a dark and stormy night. It was a transparent figure, translucent and ethereal, with eyes that glowed like embers in the night. It drifted silently through the streets, its movements flowing and graceful, as if it were weightless and without substance.

As it moved, the ghost left a trail of frost in its wake, coating everything it touched with a thin layer of ice. People who crossed its path recoiled in fear, feeling a chill run down their spine as the ghost seemed to look straight through them.

No one knew where the ghost had come from, or why it was here. Some whispered that it was a harbinger of death, sent to collect the souls of the doomed. Others believed it was a lost spirit, trapped between worlds and unable to find its way to the afterlife.

Despite the fear it caused, the ghost from the future continued to haunt the town, appearing at random intervals and in unexpected places. No one knew how to stop it, or even if it could be stopped. All they could do was wait and hope that it would eventually move on.

One day, a brave young man named Jack decided to confront the ghost. He gathered his courage and followed it into the woods, determined to discover its true nature and purpose.

As he pursued the ghost, Jack realized that it was moving towards a decrepit old house on the edge of town. He followed it inside, and was shocked to find that the ghost was leading him to a hidden room in the basement.

Inside the room, Jack found a strange and ancient machine. It was covered in dust and cobwebs, and looked as if it had not been used in centuries.

The ghost from the future stood beside the machine, gesturing for Jack to approach. As he drew closer, the ghost spoke in a whispered voice that seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere at once.

“This is a time machine,” the ghost said. “It was built by a madman who sought to change the course of history. But he was stopped before he could use it, and now it lies here, forgotten and abandoned.”

“What does this have to do with me?” Jack asked.

“You have been chosen to travel into the future,” the ghost replied. “You must go and see what has become of the world, and bring back knowledge that will help us to prevent a terrible fate.”

Jack hesitated, unsure if he was ready for such a daunting task. But the ghost from the future was insistent, and in the end, he agreed to go.

He stepped into the time machine, and with a flash of light and a wave of dizziness, he was whisked away into the future.

What he found there was a world unlike any he had ever seen. The cities were filled with towering skyscrapers and flying cars, and the streets were crowded with people of all shapes and sizes.

But there was also a sense of dread and darkness that hung over everything. The air was thick with pollution, and the sky was a sickly shade of green.

Jack soon discovered that the world was on the brink of disaster. Climate change had wreaked havoc on the planet, and the oceans were rising at an alarming rate. Many species of animals and plants had gone extinct, and the air was toxic to breathe.

With the help of a group of rebels who were fighting against the ruling government, Jack set out to uncover the truth about what had happened to the world…

Version 2

The ghost from the future was a strange and eerie presence that no one could explain. It appeared out of nowhere, in the dead of night, and always seemed to be watching. It had a pale, transparent face and cold, dead eyes that seemed to see right through you.

People whispered that it was the ghost of someone who had died in a terrible accident, or perhaps a victim of a crime. Some even said it was a warning from the future, a glimpse of what was to come if things didn’t change.

No one knew for sure, but one thing was certain: the ghost from the future was a chilling reminder that the past was never truly gone, and the future was always lurking just around the corner.

As the ghost continued to haunt the town, people began to fear for their safety. They locked their doors at night and avoided going out after dark. But despite their best efforts, the ghost from the future always seemed to be one step ahead, appearing at the most unexpected times and places.

One day, a young girl named Emily was walking home from school when she saw the ghost from the future standing in the middle of the road. She tried to run, but the ghost was too quick. It reached out with its cold, bony hand and touched her on the shoulder.

In that moment, Emily felt a strange sensation wash over her. She felt as if she was being pulled into the future, and she saw visions of what was to come. She saw wars and disasters, but she also saw moments of great happiness and love.

When the vision ended, Emily was back in the present, but she was different. She had a newfound sense of purpose, and she knew what she had to do. She had to warn the people of her town about the dangers of the future, and do everything she could to help them prepare for what was to come.

With the help of the ghost from the future, Emily began to spread the word. She held meetings and organized events, and slowly but surely, people began to listen. They started to take action, and the town began to change for the better.

Thanks to Emily and the ghost from the future, the people of the town were able to face the future with hope and courage, knowing that they were ready for whatever came their way.

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