Tag Archives: stories


Creating Off-the-shelf Characters

Common entrance exams have a time limit. If they didn’t, they’d be a lot easier! If you want to save time and improve your story, one thing you can do is to prepare three ‘off-the-shelf’ characters to choose from.

You can work on them beforehand, improving them and memorising them as you go. By the time the exam comes around, it’ll be easy to dash off 8-10 lines about one of your favourite characters without having to spend any time inventing or perfecting them.

Here’s what you need to do.

The first thing to say is that you need your characters to be a little out of the ordinary. Most pupils writing stories tend to write about themselves. In other words, 10-year-old boys living in London tend to write stories about 10-year-old boys living in London!

Now, that’s all very well, and the story might still get a good mark, but what you want to try and do is stand out from the crowd. Why not write a story about an 18-year-old intern at a shark research institute in the Maldives?!

To decide which one you’d rather write about, you just have to ask yourself which one you’d rather read about. One thing you can do to make sure your characters are special is to give them all what I call a ‘speciality’ or USP (Unique Selling Proposition).

It might be a superpower such as X-ray vision or mind-reading, or it might be a special skill such as diving or surfing, or it might be a fascinating back-story such as being descended from the Russian royal family or William Shakespeare – whatever it is, it’s a great way to make your characters – and therefore your stories – just that little bit more interesting.

Secondly, you should also make sure all your characters are different. Try to cover all the bases so that you have one you can use for just about any story. That means having heroes that are male and female, old and young with different looks, personalities and nationalities.

For instance, Clara might be the 18-year-old intern at a shark research institute in the Maldives, Pedro might be the 35-year-old Mexican spy during the Texas Revolution of 1835-6 and Kurt might be the 60-year-old Swiss inventor who lives in a laboratory buried deep under the Matterhorn! Who knows? It’s entirely up to you.

Thirdly, creating an off-the-shelf character is a great way to force yourself to use ‘wow words’ and literary techniques such as metaphors and similes. You may have learned what a simile is, but it’s very easy to forget to use them in your stories, so why not describe one of your heroes as having ‘eyes as dark as a murderer’s soul’?

If you use the same characters with similar descriptions over and over again, it’ll become second nature to ‘show off’ your knowledge, and you can do the same with your vocabulary. Again, why say that someone is ‘big’ when you can say he is ‘athletic’, ‘brawny’ or ‘muscular’?

Fourthly, try to stick to what you know. If you’ve never even ridden on a horse, it’s going to be quite tough to write a story about a jockey!

Alternatively, if you’ve regularly been to a particular place on holiday or met someone you found especially interesting, then use what you know to create your characters and their backgrounds. It’s always easier to describe places if you’ve actually been there, and it’s easier to describe people if you know someone similar.

So what goes into creating off-the-shelf characters? The answer is that you have to try and paint a complete picture. It has to cover every major aspect of their lives – even if you can’t remember all the details when you come to write the story. I’d start by using the following categories:

  • Name
  • Age
  • Job or education
  • Looks
  • Home
  • Friends and family
  • Personality
  • USP (or speciality)

Names are sometimes hard to decide on, so you might want to leave this one to last, but you just need to make sure it’s appropriate to the sort of character you’re creating. It wouldn’t be very convincing to have a Japanese scientist called Emily!

Age is fairly easy to decide. Just make sure your three characters are different – and not too close to your own age!

Job or education goes a long way to pigeon-holing someone. You can tell a lot from what someone does for a living or what they are doing in school or at university. You can include as much or as little detail as you like, but the minimum is probably the name and location of the school or college and what your characters’ favourite subjects are. You never know when it might come in handy!

Looks includes hair, eye colour, build, skin colour and favourite clothes. The more you describe your heroes’ looks, the easier it’ll be for the reader to imagine them.

Home can again be as detailed as you like, but the more specific the better. It’s easier to imagine the captain of a nuclear submarine patrolling under the North Pole than someone simply ‘living in London’…

Friends and family are important to most people, and it’s no different for the heroes of your stories. We don’t need to know the names of all their aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents, but we at least need to know who they live with and who their best friends are.

Personality covers many things, but it should show what your characters are ‘like’ and what their interests are. Again, you don’t have to go into enormous depth, but it’s good to introduce the reader to qualities that might be needed later on in the story, such as athleticism or an ability to sail a boat.

USP (or speciality) covers anything that makes a character worth reading about. One of the reasons Superman is so popular is his superpowers: his ability to fly, his X-ray vision and the fact that he’s invulnerable. His greatest weakness is also important: Kryptonite. It’s the same for your characters. What can they do that most people can’t? What qualities can they show off in your stories? What will make them people we admire, respect and even love?

If you wanted to make Superman one of your off-the-shelf characters, this is what your notes might look like:

  • Name: Superman (or Clark Kent, Kal-El, The Man of Steel, The Last Son of Krypton, The Man of Tomorrow)
  • Age: Early 20s (when he first appears)
  • Job or education: News reporter at The Daily Planet in Metropolis
  • Looks: Tall, with a muscular physique, dark-haired, blue eyes
  • Home: Krypton, then the Kents’ farm in Smallville, Kansas, then Metropolis (or a fictionalised New York), where he lives in a rented apartment
  • Friends and family: Jor-El and Lara (biological parents)/Jonathan and Martha Kent (adoptive parents), Lois Lane (colleague, best friend, girlfriend), Jimmy Olsen (colleague), Perry White (boss as editor of The Daily Planet)
  • Personality: Noble, honest, caring, gentle, resolute, decisive
  • USP (or speciality): Superpowers, including invulnerability, super strength, X-ray vision, super hearing, longevity, freezing breath, ability to fly (but vulnerable to Kryptonite!)

Once you’ve created the notes for your three characters, you can write a paragraph of 8-10 lines about each of them. This is your chance to create something that you can easily slot into any of your stories, so use the past tense and stick to what the characters are like, not what they’re doing. That will be different in each story, so you don’t want to tie yourself down.

Here’s an example using Superman again:

Clark Kent led a double life. He wasn’t happy about it, but he needed his secret identity so that no-one would find out who he really was. He might have been a mild-mannered reporter for The Daily Planet with a crush on his partner, Lois Lane, but he was also a crime-fighting superhero: he was Kal-El, Superman and The Man of Steel all rolled into one!

His secret was that he’d actually been born on Krypton and sent to Earth as a baby to protect him from the destruction of his home planet. He’d been found by a childless couple living on a farm in Smallville, Kansas, and Jonathan and Martha Kent had adopted him as their own.

They didn’t know where he’d come from, but they’d provided him with a loving home as they watched him grow into a blue-eyed, dark-haired, athletic young man with a passion for ‘truth, justice and the American way’.

And they soon realised he was special when they saw him lifting a tractor with one hand…! He was faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound!
“Look! Up in the sky!”
“It’s a bird!”
“It’s a plane!”
“It’s Superman!”

Try using your characters for stories you’re asked to write by your English teacher (or tutor, if you have one). The more often you use them, the better they’ll get as you change things you don’t like about them, bring in new ideas and polish the wording.

Next Steps

Try to create three off-the-shelf characters. Make them different ages, male and female and from different parts of the world. Start with the notes and then create a paragraph of 8-10 lines for each one in the past tense, ready to drop into any story…

If it helps, you could also print out a picture from the internet and put it on your wall, adding notes to it to describe all the details of the character. For example, if you like fantasy tales of ‘swords and sorcery’ and want a hero to match, you could find a warrior from a film such as The Lord of the Rings and scribble down words like ‘helm’, ‘scabbard’ and ‘jerkin’. You could even add poetic devices to describe your hero’s main characteristics, such as his ‘arms of wrought iron’ or his ‘eyes as green as emeralds’.


True Stories

When I lived in Brisbane, I used to sit by the pool with my friend Eden for hours, days, weeks at a time, swapping stories. He must have heard every one I had. When we both ended up at a party in London a few years later, he was next to me when I was telling someone a story.
“I think I’ve heard this one before,” he said.
“Oh, no!” I said. “I must’ve run out of stories…”

Anyway, I’m getting older now, so I thought I should write a few of them down before even I forget them!

Women can go to Harvard, too…

When I was living with a woman called Anne in San Francisco, she was invited to the very posh wedding of one of her classmates at Harvard Business School and took me as her guest. The ceremony was in a cathedral, and the reception was at the best hotel in town. At one point after dinner, I was sitting with Anne at our table when the wedding photographer came over. He came up to me and asked me to line up for a picture.
“Er, are you sure you want me?”
“Yes, I need a photo of all the Harvard Business School alumni. That’s you, right?”
“Er, I think you mean my girlfriend…”

A happy ending and an unhappy ending

In the glory days when I owned an E-Type Jaguar, I drove down one weekend for a party at my uncle and aunt’s house in Oxford. I parked in the drive, and, a couple of hours later, a friend of my uncle’s noticed the car and asked whose it was.
“Ah, that’s my nephew Nicholas’s car. He’s in the lounge if you want to meet him.”
My uncle introduced me to the man, and he told me a story I’ll always remember. When the E-Type first came out in 1961, he had been amongst the first to buy one, and he was very proud of it. Back in those days, there was so much excitement about the new British sports car that owners would get mobbed at traffic lights! Around the same time, he met a girl he liked and decided to ask her out. When she said yes, he planned to pick her up in his E-Type that Saturday night. However, when the day came, his car broke down on the way to her house. Complete disaster! What was he going to do now? As it turned out, things got even worse when the very same girl happened to walk past!
“Oh, dear. I said. “I guess that ruined your date. Did you ever see her again?”
“Yes,” he said, “she’s in the kitchen!”

PS Everyone likes a happy ending, but that weekend finished with my E-Type blowing a head gasket on the M40! It was in the days before I had a mobile phone, so I had to sit for 25 minutes on a slip road while 10,000 cars helpfully honked their horns and flashed their lights at me as they went past. (And, no, I didn’t meet my future wife, unfortunately…!)

It’s better to be lucky than good

I went to see The Open a few years ago at Royal St George’s with my friend Josie. At one point, we were following Sergio Garcia, and he hit a good drive, but the fairway was very bumpy, and the ball ended up in a dreadfully difficult lie in the rough. When Garcia reached it, he spent about 10 minutes trying to decide what to do and even got the officials involved at one point. Meanwhile, I explained to Josie that his best option was to take a penalty drop and hope to get up and down for his par from what was only about 150 yards. Instead, he hacked at the ball as hard as he possible could – and moved it about six inches! The lie was still awful, so I again told Josie that his best option was the penalty drop – this time for a probably bogey. He just had to take his medicine. However, after another lengthy pause to decide what to do, Garcia hit the ball from the impossible lie. It was a good contact, and it sailed towards the green, where it bounced a couple of times…and rolled into the hole for a birdie! As the crowd cheered, Garcia went crazy, running around in circles and waving his iron over his head in celebration. Sometimes, it’s better to be lucky than good…!

Black ice

In 2014, I went on a cruise around Spitsbergen to see the polar bears. On one particular trip in a Zodiac, we found some ‘black ice’. Black ice is ice that has been at the bottom of a glacier for a few thousand years and has had all the oxygen and other impurities squeezed out of it. As a result, it has some rather unusual qualities. It is perfectly clear, it takes an age to melt, and it’s a lot denser than normal ice. This was quite a find, so our guide reached overboard to haul in the chunk of ice – almost falling out of the boat in the process! – and brought it back to put behind the bar. A couple of hours later, I spent a very pleasant half an hour drinking a shot of Islay single malt whisky with a couple of cubes of 30,000-year-old black ice in it. They didn’t float, but sank to the bottom of the glass and were still there when I finished my drink!

Everything’s bigger in Texas

When I was 16, I went on an exchange to Amarillo, Texas, with my parents. While we were there, we went to a restaurant called Texas Lone Star, where they had a special offer: if you could eat a 72oz steak with roast potatoes, vegetables and all the trimmings in under an hour, you got it for free. There was even a roll of honour on the wall to commemorate the biggest of big eaters. I remember one chap had finished his steak in 10 minutes, and another had felt a bit peckish afterwards, so he’d ordered another one!

The camera oft proclaims the man

When people like my pictures, they often ask me what camera I use. I tell them, and then I tell them this story…

A few years ago, Ernest Hemingway went to a photography exhibition in New York. He loved the pictures so much that he asked to meet the photographer. When they were introduced, Hemingway asked him what camera he used.
“Well,” he said, “I have a Hasselblad, but this is a great honour for me, Mr Hemingway. I’ve read all your books. Can I just ask you one question? What typewriter do you use…?”

Alcohol beats sex

I was best man on a stag weekend in Vegas once. We’d been indoor parachuting – yes, it IS a thing! – and gambled for a few hours at the Bellagio when we decided to take a limo and find a strip club. We asked the driver the best place to go, and he said we had a choice:
“What do you mean?”
“Well, here in Vegas, you can go to a topless bar and drink as much as you like, or you can go to a strip club with full-frontal nudity, but NO ALCOLHOL!”
What a choice to have to make at two o’clock in the morning when you’re on a stag do!
We eventually had a vote and decided unanimously that – for 30-something blokes – alcohol was more important than sex…!

Revenge is sweet

We ended up going to a Roman-themed strip club in Vegas. One of the guys called Frank who worked with the stag fancied my girlfriend Anne, and he’d already tried to get rid of me by inviting me to windsurf with him under the Golden Gate bridge – when I would probably have drowned in the rip tide! Anyway, we were queuing up to go into the Emperor Room for a few lap dances, and we were standing chatting with each other when a topless girl came running up to Frank, screaming with excitement.
“Frank?! Is that you? Oh, my God! It is you!” she cried.
“Er, hello Tiffany.”
He was looking a bit awkward at this point, and it turned out that he’d met this girl at a Hooters bar in San Francisco, and he was terminally embarrassed about it. Unfortunately (for him!), the queue was a long one, so he had to talk to her for about five minutes before we eventually got in. As soon as we were sitting in the Emperor Room, he turned to me:
“Nick, this is a bit embarrassing, but do you mind not telling Anne about this? It was nothing. I don’t really know Tiffany, and it was all a long time ago.”
“Sure,” I said. “What goes on tour stays on tour.”
“Thanks. I’m glad you understand.”
“No problem,” I said.
Anyway, once it was Frank’s turn to have a lap dance, I immediately took out my phone and sent a text:
“Anne, you’ll never guess what just happened…”
Revenge is sweet!

“Get the power of sport into your life, love!”

When I used to watch sport at the Pacific bar in Val d’Isère, the manager used to go to great lengths to get the football coverage. At one point, he managed to find the video feed from a Norwegian satellite channel so that he could show the match with the traditional 3pm kick-off one Saturday. However, I don’t think he quite realised what would happen next. At half-time, just as the players were walking off the pitch, the scene suddenly cut to a rooftop where two naked porn stars were having full-on, hardcore sex!

His other experiment was an attempt to provide an English audio commentary to the foreign coverage of the games. One day, he showed pictures from a Scandinavian satellite feed dubbed with commentary from Radio Five Live. The only problem was that there was a two-second delay to the satellite feed, so the commentator ended up announcing it was 1-0 even before the corner had been taken!

Manc nobbers

A few years ago, I lived with Steve and Tom. I worked with both of them, but Tom was always off working in Atlanta, and he eventually met and married a woman called Becki over there. When I went to their wedding, we were all at Atlanta airport with another friend of ours called Damian when suddenly we noticed Oasis a few feet away! It was the Brit Awards the next day, and they were on their way to the ceremony. Now, Damian was a huge Oasis fan and had picked them out to be future stars when Definitely Maybe came out, but he was too shy to go up and talk to them. Instead, it was down to Becki to make the first move. Being American, she had no problem going up to Liam and Noel and introducing us all – she even told them that she and Tom had just got married. They’d just been to MacDonald’s, and Liam offered her a chip by way of congratulations…And I thought it was for me, so I took it by mistake! Awkward…

Beginner’s luck

I was paired up with an Italian chap and his friend when I played golf at Duke’s Meadows a few years ago. He’d only just started playing, so I gave him a few tips as we went round. One bad habit he had was to turn away in disgust when he thought he’d played a bad shot. I told him he should always watch his ball until it stopped rolling: either it would help him find it or he might find out it had got a nice bounce and wasn’t such a bad shot after all. At the 5th hole, he thinned his tee shot and again turned away in disgust, but I told him to watch the ball. It was a good job he did, because it ran all the way along the ground and into the cup for a hole-in-one!

If at first you don’t succeed…

I went to the Brazilian Pantanal in September 2016 to take pictures of the jaguar. We ended up with around a dozen sightings, but my favourite was when we saw a jaguar kill a caiman. We heard on the radio that there had been a sighting, so we went over there in our boat to have a look. It turned out to be a young jaguar that had caught a 12ft caimon – or South American crocodile – in the shallows of the Cuiabá River. Jaguars usually kill caiman by biting them on the back of the neck, but this jaguar was only two years old and hadn’t quite learned how to do it properly. It was gripping the neck of the caiman in its jaws and could easily have killed it just be squeezing a bit harder – like lions do with their prey – but it somehow knew that this wasn’t the way the jaguar was supposed to do it. The only problem was that it couldn’t switch its grip to the back of the caiman’s neck without letting go of it and allowing it the chance to escape. It spent about 10 minutes thinking about it before finally changing its grip and killing the caiman ‘properly’. However, the business wasn’t quite over yet. Jaguars like to hide their kill from other jaguars by dragging it under a bush or a tree, and this one was no exception. The only problem was that the bank of the river was very steep, and the jaguar wasn’t big or strong enough to pull the caiman all the way up. By this stage, there were around a dozen boats watching the show, and we all saw the jaguar spent at least 25 minutes trying to get up the bank in various places. In the end, it finally managed it, and all the tourists gave it a round of applause!

Remember the basics

On the same trip to Brazil, we were coming back from a game drive when we had a call from our home base that there was an anteater in the grounds. It was getting late, so the driver slammed his foot on the gas and led us on a very bumpy and hair-raising race along the dirt roads back home. In the end, we arrived just in time to see a mother anteater with a baby on its back. When the light finally died, someone produced a torch and lit up the scene for all the photographers. Anteaters don’t have very good eyesight, and this one came closer and closer until it was only a few yards away. We all took as many pictures as we could until it eventually loped off into the undergrowth. Afterwards, all the photographers celebrated our good luck – except for Rob, who told us that he hadn’t got a single shot.
“There was something wrong with my camera. It wasn’t working properly, and I didn’t know what to do. In the end, I realised that I hadn’t taken the lens cap off!”

I hate surprises

I hate surprises. One of the worst was when I was living with my girlfriend Isabelle in Lyon. We were at home reading the paper when I noticed that Bruce Springsteen was coming to give a concert in the city. He’s one of my favourite acts, so I was very excited, but we never discussed getting tickets. The concert was three months away, so there was no hurry, but, as it got closer and closer, I was getting nervous. I had a sneaky feeling that Isabelle was going to ‘surprise’ me with two tickets, but I wasn’t sure, and I didn’t want to miss the chance of a lifetime. In the end, I didn’t say anything until, finally, the day of the concert arrived. It was due to start around 1900, and I was desperate to say something, but I didn’t want to ruin the surprise. At around 1730, Isabelle asked what I wanted to do for dinner. I said I didn’t mind, trying desperately not to give the game away, and then she suggested that we went out for hot dogs. Now, Isabelle loved her food – and even insisted on frying the duck breasts when I offered to cook her dinner on Valentine’s Day! – so this sounded very suspicious! I didn’t know what to do, so I went along with Isabelle to the car. After five or 10 minutes, I was so nervous that I couldn’t stand it any longer.
“You know it’s the night of the Bruce Springsteen concert, don’t you?” I said.
“OF COURSE!” Isabelle cried. “I bought us tickets months ago! Why would you ruin it by saying something like that?!”
Oh, dear. We ended up having a major falling out – which was all totally avoidable! – and Bruce Springsteen didn’t help when he totally ruined my favourite song Thunder Road by singing a dreadful up-tempo version! As I say, I hate surprises…

Here be dragons

I went out with a girl called Lisa once who had a four-year-old daughter called Cluny. She was at school one day when they had a visit from Father Christmas – except it was really her dad in a red suit and with a fake beard! All the other kids recognised him, and they teased Cluny about it. She still believed in Father Christmas, so she was very upset. When she got home, she asked her mother if Santa was real. Now, Lisa was very keen on being very straightforward with children, so she told Cluny that Santa didn’t exist and that it was actually her father who had dressed up and pretended to be him. Cue more tears. Anyway, Cluny spent the next weekend with her father and asked him the same question. He had very different ideas about childcare, and he told her that ‘of course’ Santa was real and ‘of course’ he hadn’t dressed up in a Santa suit!
Now, you need to understand all this in order to know how I felt when Lisa, Cluny and I went to the circus, where they had one of those Chinese dragons carried around by men with poles.
“Nick,” Cluny said, when Lisa had gone to the ladies room, “is that a real dragon?”
What a question? What was I supposed to say? Should I admit that dragons didn’t exist and shatter her childhood dreams or pretend that it was real and upset her mother. I decided to compromise.
“Well, dragons come from China,” I said, “and it would be very expensive to bring one all the way over to London, so this one must be just a pretend dragon.”
Fortunately, Lisa came back at that moment, and I was spared any more awkward questions. Phew!


In 1998, I had lunch with a friend of mine called Mark who had an apartment in the Alps. He told me he had 51 days’ holiday as he was working in Germany and wanted to buy a season pass so that he could ski every weekend. On the other hand, he wanted to make some money by renting out his flat. What was he going to do?
“Well, if you rent it out to me, you’ll get the money, but you’ll still be able to stay there whenever you like to go skiing.”
I gave him a cheque there and then for the whole season, and that was how I came to retire at 29! It was probably the first real decision I ever made in my life. After that, I spent seven years skiing and playing golf in France, Belgium, America and Australia before returning to London to settle down and start a family. That hasn’t happened yet, but I did at least make the decision to go ‘quality of life’. That means I do things because I enjoy doing them. I’m now a private tutor and a wildlife photographer. I teach for a few hours a week, and I also take several trips a year to take pictures of bears catching salmon in Alaska, tigers in Rajasthan, polar bears in Svalbard and the Big Five in Africa. In my spare time, I play tennis and golf. I still have all the same problems as everyone else, but at least I never get up in the morning wishing I didn’t have to go to work!

“You look like you want to dance…”

I once went to a club in London with a bunch of guys and a girl I was quite keen on. Unfortunately, she spent most of the evening being chatted up by an Irish guy, so it was a complete bust from that point of view. I wandered over to the dance floor and happened to see a gorgeous blonde girl just standing and watching. She didn’t appear to be with anyone, so I went up to her and said, “You look like you want to dance.” And we did. In fact, we danced together for the rest of the night. Her name was Caroline, and she was just in London for a couple of weeks on her way home to Melbourne from Holland, where she’d been working for a couple of years. When it was closing time, I asked for her number.
“Well, it’s a bit difficult as I’m staying with friends,” she said.
Hmm, a likely story, but I was desperate.
“Well, do you want me to give you my number?”
“Okay, but I don’t have any paper, so I’ll have to write it on my hand.”
Oh, dear. That didn’t sound very promising.
“That’s fine. Just give me a call.”
We went our separate ways, and I waited for her to call. A couple of days passed, and she still hadn’t called, so I was beginning to give up hope. Then I came home late from the office one night, and my flatmate Ron said someone had called for me.
“Who was it?”
“Oh, just some Australian girl.”
“Yes, I think that was it.”
“Did she leave her number?”
“No, she said she was staying with friends, so it was a bit difficult.”
I thought that was it. I didn’t think she would call again. However, a couple of days later, I had exactly the same conversation with Ron – and I still didn’t have her number! If only I hadn’t had to work so late in those days, I wouldn’t have had to rely on my useless flatmate to take a message! Again, I thought that was it, but, fortunately, she called one more time, and this time I was home. We had a quick chat and arranged to go on a date.
“Where do you want to meet?” I asked.
“Well, I don’t really know London,” she said.
“Okay,” I said, thinking on my feet, “you know where Trafalgar Square is? I’ll meet you under the lions at Trafalgar Square at 12 o’clock tomorrow.”
And so began a whirlwind courtship. Over lunch, I couldn’t stop thinking about kissing her, but I had to wait until later, when we took a walk through Hyde Park. When I tried to kiss her, though, she suddenly got all shy.
“Don’t! Not in public,” she said. “Let’s sit down under that tree.”
The tree obviously made the difference, and after that there was no stopping her. We spent the next two weeks together, day and night, until it was time for her to fly back to Australia. I was very keen to keep seeing her, so I told a white lie that almost led to disaster.
“Well, I’ve just finished a contract, so I have a bit of time on my hands, and I’ve actually been thinking about flying down to Australia. Maybe we could see each other when I’m over there.”
“Yes, that would be great.”
It felt like it was a painfully obvious ruse to spend more time with her, but it wasn’t. In fact, when I took her out for a meal on her last night, she wasn’t in a very good mood.
“Why not?”
“Well, you’re going to fly all the way to Australia, but you’re not coming to see me!”
“Oh, of course I am!”
“No, you said that you were going to go anyway and that we ‘might see each other’ when you were over there.”
I couldn’t believe this.
“Of course I’m going to see you. That was the whole reason for booking my flight. I was just trying to play it cool!”
Anyway, she wasn’t convinced. I couldn’t believe it! How could she think that she was just an afterthought?! The mood was so bad that we didn’t even finish dinner, and I seriously considered staying in England. Fortunately, I took a chance, and it proved to be a good decision. When I arrived in Melbourne, everything was on again with Caroline, and I spent three glorious months over there. She was on gardening leave, so she had plenty of money and plenty of time on her hands. I stayed at her place, and I spent the days travelling around the area and the nights having the best sex of my life! I wanted to stay longer, but my visa was running out, and I had a job to go to as a ski rep in the Italian Alps. I left and tried to stay in touch, but it was almost impossible to make international calls in those days before mobile phones. In the end, I spoke to her and told her I was going to get a work visa and fly out again to see her in the spring, but she didn’t sound too enthusiastic. And that was it! Too bad…

One night in New York…

I have a friend in New York called Ashley, and I have him to thank for a rather memorable night in The Big Apple. He’s very well connected – I think he’s something like the fourth most connected person on LinkedIn – so he knows a lot of people. One of those people was a girl called Lorna who worked for Playboy – although not as a bunny girl! She wanted to spend a summer in London to be closer to her mother, and Ashley asked if I had an empty flat I could rent to her. In the end, we agreed to swap: Lorna would live in my place, and I’d live in hers. When I flew to New York, I called Ashley, and we arranged to meet at his office after work. We had drinks and dinner at Soho House, and then we were joined by a male friend of his from LA and a very attractive blonde called Hope. Ashley had booked us tickets for a lingerie show at the trendy Kane Club at 1130, but we still had time to kill, so we all went for a drink beforehand. It was all good fun, and it’s always nice to be able to flirt with a pretty girl! Anyway, we eventually moved on to the club, and the lingerie show was really something. There were four models strutting their stuff, but one of them was clearly the sexiest – and she knew it! Every time she came on stage, there was a barrage of cheers and wolf whistles. Unfortunately, the show was over all too quickly, and we ended up out on the street. Ashley called a couple of cabs for us and – very helpfully! – engineered it so that I shared a cab home with Hope. It was ‘only’ half-past one in the morning – early by New York standards – so we ended up having a drink together. And, to top it all off, she even gave me a goodnight kiss. Thanks, Ashley…!

Another night, another blonde

Ashley set me up with another girl on that trip, and she arranged for us to go and see another lingerie show, this time starring Elle ‘The Body’ Macpherson. We met for a drink beforehand, but the only problem was that she had some sort of cast on her leg. She explained that her kitten had been running along the windowsill, and it had knocked off a piece of china. When she’d tried to catch it, it had broken and cut her leg quite badly. This was obviously a shame, but it was even more of a shame when it came closer and closer to the time of the lingerie show. Eventually, I asked my date if it was time to leave.
“Well, I don’t think I’m up to it, to be honest, not with my leg. But feel free to go on your own if you want to.”
This was one of the trickiest problems I’d yet encountered. Do you a) do the noble thing and stay with your date or b) go and see one of the most beautiful women in the world wearing her underwear? I did the British thing and, with a stiff upper lip, chose option a)…

Yet another one…

The third blonde I went out with on that New York trip was an actress called Maureen Flannigan. She lived in the apartment above Lorna’s, so she put me in touch with her in case I wanted to drop by for a coffee. The first day I arrived, I unpacked my stuff and put the TV on. I was flicking through TV Guide when I suddenly saw a thriller starring – you guessed it – Maureen Flannigan! I turned over and watched a bit of it. She was certainly attractive, so I went up and knocked on her door. We ended up going out for lunch at the deli across the road, and I told her the story.
“And the movie was on this afternoon?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“Well, that’ll be good for my residuals…”

And the winner is…

I’ve never regarded myself as a ‘lucky’ person. I don’t win things like competitions, and I don’t end up with unexpected windfalls, but there was one thing I did win. It was in the days when I’d just joined a consulting firm, and all the new joiners were issued with an American Express card to pay for their expenses. The loyalty programme offered us a choice: we could either accept a bottle of wine each or pool our rewards in exchange for an all-expenses-paid trip for two to Istanbul. We decided to go for the holiday, and we arranged a time for the prize draw one Wednesday afternoon at three o’clock. Some of the analysts were working abroad in Sweden and South Africa, so it was agreed that they would call the office at 1500 and join in with the rest of us. When the time came, I was just about to go down to the conference room for the draw when one of the partners grabbed me.
“Do you have a minute, Nick?”
“Er, is it really just a minute, or do you need longer?”
“No, I just need a quick word.”
I looked at my watch. It was 1458, and I was cutting it pretty fine, but I agreed. In the end, it was 1505 by the time I dashed out of the partner’s office and down the stairs. On the way, I met my friend Steve, who just said, “Nick, you bastard.”
Bizarre. Anyway, when I got to the conference room, everyone had left apart from the organiser.
“What happened?” I asked. “I just met Steve, and he called me a bastard…”
“Ah, yes. He had the choice of the last two envelopes, and he picked the wrong one!”

Hours and hours

Some people laugh when I say I have to ‘work hard’ occasionally. Given that I only do a couple of hours of teaching a day after playing a round of golf or a couple of sets of tennis, this doesn’t seem like hard work to them. However, it wasn’t always like that. When I was working as a management consultant, I had to build a model of the railway network. Time was short, and there were no interviews to do, so there was no particular reason to go home! As a result, I worked seven days a week and even pulled an all-nighter. We had fortnightly timesheets in those days, and I remember one that showed I’d worked 192 hours in the previous two weeks. I was strangely proud – but also disappointed I hadn’t quite passed 200…!

Cheetah cheater

The first time I went on safari, I booked the wrong flights. The trip was supposed to be from 14-28 January, so I obviously booked flights for 14 and 28 January. It was only when I was chatting to the other guests that I heard them talk about going back on the 27th.
“I thought we left on the 28th,” I said.
“No, it’s an overnight flight, so we leave on the 27th and get back on the 28th.”
Oops! I felt dreadful. I’d have to tell the guide and try and sort something out. I wasn’t sure what he could do, so it was very stressful. Right up until I actually spoke to him.
“I’m so sorry, but I’ve booked the wrong flight going home. I leave on the 27th rather than the 28th.”
“Right, then,” said the guide after a moment’s pause, “what do you want to do with the extra day? You could go white-water rafting or canyoning or perhaps go on a private all-day game drive.”
I hadn’t thought of it like that! In the end, I went on the game drive, and I had one of the most exciting wildlife encounters I’ve ever had when the driver and I spotted a cheetah ‘timing’ – or hunting – an impala. It was a hectic chase, and at times we were travelling at 40mph over a very bumpy dirt road, trying to keep up with the cheetah. It was the first time I’d seen one of the big cats – apart from a quick glimpse of a lion the previous day – and it was a sensational finish to the trip. The only problem came when I put a couple of cheetah photos on Facebook. When I got home, I saw the other guys from the trip, and one of them was confused.
“I saw you’d put a picture of a cheetah up on Facebook,” he said, “but we didn’t see any cheetahs, did we?”
“Well, er…”

Beware the bear

A few years ago, I went to Brooks Falls in Alaska to see the bears catching salmon. The bears were free to walk around the camp just as we were, so we had to get a lecture on how to stay safe. That involved singing as we walked to the falls or even wearing bells to frighten off the bears! However, I still came uncomfortably close to bears on a couple of occasions.

The first was when I was just dropping off a bag at the outdoor locker room. I turned the corner of a building and there, right in front of me, only five yards away, were a mother bear and her cub. Not a good place to be! Now, bear safety is very counter-intuitive. If you see a bear, you’re supposed to stand still rather than running away, and, if you’re attacked, you’re not supposed to fight back! In this case, I kind of did the right thing by backing slowly away round the corner of the building until I was out of sight – but then I pegged it. It’s the only time I’ve ever run away from anything in my life…

The second close shave came early one morning when I was the first person to arrive at the raised wooden viewing platform next to the waterfall. It was fairly secure, but there was one part that had a short staircase down to the ground. It was roped off, but that was it. After a few minutes, another photographer arrived, and we started chatting. I had my laptop with me, so I showed her a few pictures I’d taken. As I was doing that, a bear walked past the staircase, a matter of 10 feet away! We carried on chatting, and it carried on walking past. Thank Goodness for the rope. Otherwise, the bear would never have known that it wasn’t supposed to eat us…!

Paul Smith

I bought a Paul Smith suit a few years ago, but it had a pink pin-stripe, so I needed a few new shirts and ties. The only problem was that the assistant gave me a pink and white check shirt and a pink and purple flowered tie. They obviously didn’t go together at all, but, when I tried them on, the chap just looked at me and said: “Ah, that’s very Paul Smith…”

Paul Smith (again)

When I went in to buy a suit at the Paul Smith boutique in Notting Hill, I accidentally went into the bespoke tailoring room on the top floor. An old, white-haired chap with a tape measure around his neck came up to me and asked if he could help. I told him no and went across the landing to the off-the-peg section. As I turned to leave, though, I heard someone say: “Are you all right, Paul? Do you need any help?” It was only when I went downstairs and looked at a few pictures of the staff that I realised the chap I’d been talking to was Paul Smith himself!

Paul Smith (this is getting ridiculous…)

The first function I went to in my new Paul Smith suit was a wedding in Barbados. The rehearsal dinner was at a restaurant on the beach, and I was just talking to a pretty girl as the sun set when a chap came up to me and asked if I was wearing Paul Smith. When I said yes, he told me a story about an Emmy award ceremony he’d been to a few years earlier. He’d been nominated for an Emmy, but he’d had nothing to wear, so, on the day of the awards, he called the local Paul Smith store at five o’clock in a last desperate bid to find something appropriate. Unfortunately, the store was just about to close, but the manager agreed to wait for him if he came right away. He rushed out of the office, found the store and ended up buying a suit, a shirt, a tie and a few accessories to wear on his big night. It was a good job, too, because he ended up winning the Emmy!

(By the way, the girl I’d been talking to said it was the first time she’d ever been completely ignored by two blokes talking about fashion!)


I’d always wanted to go to Africa, but I wanted to go there for the first time on my honeymoon. However, that didn’t happen, so, when I received an email from a friend asking me if I wanted to climb Mount Kenya and go on safari, I signed up immediately. When I finally boarded the plane, I was very excited, and, as we crossed the Mediterranean, I was constantly looking out of my window to catch my first glimpse of Africa. When I first saw land, a big smile crossed my face…until I noticed on the seat-back map that we’d just reached Crete!

“We’ll always have Paris”

When I started working for PwC as a computer programmer, I had to go on an eight-week training course. When it was over, it was a tradition to do something special to celebrate. The previous intake had gone to Brighton beach for a barbecue, but we decided to go to Paris. We didn’t have much of a budget, though, so we decided to save money by taking a coach early one morning and coming back late the same night! Now, one of the tutors was called Jane, and I had a big crush on her, so imagine how jealous I was when I saw her dancing with some French bloke in a cellar bar we went to. However, when we left, she took my hand and led me to a bridge over the Seine, where we kissed for the first time. We must have been enjoying ourselves, because a passing Frenchman took one look at us and said: “Un peu, mais pas trop!” [“A little bit, but not too much!”]
It was only two years into our relationship that I found out Jane’s side of the story. When I recalled how she’d taken my hand on the way out of the Paris bar, she said with chilling certainty, “No, I didn’t take your hand. You took my hand!” As Yeats once wrote, “Tread softly because you tread on my dreams…”

Dating disaster

I once invited a girl to dinner at my place in Notting Hill. After a few drinks, I cooked a Spanish stew with potatoes, onions, chorizo and white wine. The ingredients needed to be fried on the hob, and then I had to put the frying pan in the oven for 40 minutes. When everything was ready, I opened the oven door and lifted out the pan…and the handle fell off! The stew spilled all over the oven door, and my evening looked to be over before it had even started! Fortunately, my date was a good sport and helped me scrape the remains on to two plates, and we carried on as if nothing had happened…!

Snare spill

I went to a recording session with Eden once, and I was led into the producer’s booth while they were setting up the drum kit in the studio. A drummer was drumming away, and then the producer turned on the microphone and told him to put a piece of carpet against one of the drums as he was getting ‘snare-spill on the overheads’. I think he meant that the volume was too high from the overhead microphones. Anyway, what a great line! Now, when I’m with a pretty girl on the dance floor and I can’t hear what she whispers in my ear, I can just say: “Sorry, I was getting a bit of snare-spill from the overheads.” If she looks at me funny, I’ll say, “Sorry, I thought you must be in the music business…”

Northern lights

I flew to Kiruna in Sweden a few years ago to stay at the Ice Hotel and see the northern lights. After a couple of washouts, I decided to book a trip to Abisko on the final night to try and see them. My friend Amanda came along, too, and we ended up sitting next to the driver on the minibus. After half an hour or so on the motorway, I started to notice a few swirling, grey shapes in the sky.
“Is that the northern lights?” I asked.
“No, it’s just light pollution. There must be a town over there.”
Five minutes later, I saw similar shapes in the sky.
“Are you sure it’s not the northern lights?”
“No, it’s just light pollution. Trust me”
Ten minutes later, all hell was breaking loose in the skies outside, so I leaned over to speak to our Swedish guide.
“I’m sorry, mate, but isn’t that the northern lights outside?”
He’d heard what I’d said before, and he was getting a bit testy.
“All right,” he said impatiently, with a strong Swedish accent, “I’ll stop the bus, and I will get out and see if it’s the northern lights. Okay?!”
So he stopped the bus and opened his door to have a look outside. After only a couple of seconds, he came back, and he was very excited.
“Yes, it is the northern lights! Everybody out! Get your cameras! It’s the northern lights!”

Tango Argentino

When I was planning my trip to Buenos Aires last year, I asked the sales girl to book me a ticket to a tango show. She said she’d investigate, and she called me back a couple of hours later.
“Apparently, there are two major shows, but one is a bit raunchier than the other. It’s up to you, but I know you’re probably used to seeing scantily clad women, so I’ve booked the raunchier one. Is that all right?”
“Er, yes, but why did you say that?”
“Well, I just looked at your website, and I saw some of your pictures.”
I was still a bit confused. Why should pictures of wildlife make her think I was used to looking at naked women?! It was only later that I realised what had happened, so I called her back.
“Are you sure you went to nickdalephotography.com?”
“No, I think it was nickdale.com.”
“Ah, that’ll be the other photographer called Nick Dale, the one who does glamour shots!”
“Oops! I’m so sorry…”

Thank you!

I like doing nice things for people, things that are nice enough to get a really heartfelt thank you. The one that always sticks in my mind is when I was training for the Oxford University ballroom and Latin dancing Varsity Match. (Yes, it does exist!) I was with a partner called Sian, but we weren’t doing very well. Eight couples were going to be selected, but we were only the ninth-best. Things got even worse when Sian had to pull out just two weeks before the match with glandular fever. I was given a girl called Caroline to dance with, but she’d been part of what was probably the tenth-best couple, so we had our work cut out! We had completely different routines, so we almost had to start from scratch, but it was difficult to get lesson time with our coaches Bruce and Jean because they wanted to spend more time with the better dancers. We needed to train a lot harder, and I found somewhere for us to go. It was the fencing salle on Iffley Road, and it had full-length mirrors all down one side, so it was perfect for us to check our lines. We danced a couple of hours a day in that room every day for two weeks – and I spent another five hours a day in there just practising on my own! When the tryouts came along, Jean stopped the first record after the first few bars.
“What’s going on?!” she snapped. “It’s only a few days before the Varsity Match, and I can only see one couple smiling.” There was an awkward silence as we all looked at one another. “And that’s Nick and Caroline!”
That was a good start, and we did make the team in the end, but we didn’t have very high expectations. The deal was that we would only get our Half Blues if we beat at least half of the Cambridge couples, but that was a tall order. During the Varsity Match itself, nothing went too disastrously wrong, and we had a good time. Afterwards, they announced the results in reverse order, but we were too busy chatting to notice who finished where. When the MC announced third place, Caroline and I looked at each other, wondering where we had finished. It couldn’t possibly be higher than third, could it?
“And in second place overall, congratulations to Nick Dale and Caroline Flint…!”
As soon as she heard those words, Caroline ran over to me, threw her arms round my neck and said, “Thank you, Nick! Thank you so much!”
I’ve never been thanked like that, either before or since…

Top of the charts

Eden was a budding musician, but he was always dirt poor, so I lent him some money to release his first single Halo. It was covered by another band and used for a White Horse whisky advert on TV in Greece. All that publicity led to a lot of sales, and one day he emailed me at work to say that Halo had reached number four in the Greek charts. I was just about to go to lunch when I saw another email from him, telling me that he’d just ‘knocked Alanis Morissette off her perch’ and reached number one. I walked over to my colleagues and raised my hand:
“Quick question: how many of you have financed a number one single? Is it just me…?”

The hole-in-one

I went to watch the World Matchplay at Wentworth a few years ago with my Uncle Michael and his friend Chris. They weren’t sure where to watch the action, so I suggested standing behind the 10th hole. It was a par three, so we’d be able to see the tee shots and the putts. The first pairing we saw was Hansen and Stenson. Stenson was eight holes up with nine to play, but Hansen stepped on to the tee and hit an iron straight towards the pin. We were right behind it, and we saw it bounce once, bounce twice and then bounce into the hole!
“That’s only the fourth hole-in-one I’ve ever seen live,” I said, “and two of them were mine!”

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. Big mistake!

You have to give yourself time to come up with the best possible ideas, and you certainly won’t make it easy for yourself to structure the story if 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, colour, design or price, 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. Just make sure it’s believable!

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. 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’ – something that makes the characters special and readers want to read about them.

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.

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. You might see someone’s breath on a cold night, for example. If you want to do the same when writing a story, you can make your description much more vivid (and alliterative!) by saying ‘Frank’s breath formed frozen clouds in front of his face’.

A similar trick is to leave out the answers to questions. This is something screenwriters do all the time to keep the audience in suspense! “What are you going to do to get your revenge?” one character asks another, but you’ll have to wait to find out…!

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.


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.


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.


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



The Hot Afternoon

My Father Was Furious

The Swimming Lesson


The Choice

The Garden



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


Show And Tell

Going Underground


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.