Tag Archives: story-writing

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 that you can 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…

Story mountains

Story Mountains

Are we nearly there yet…?

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 choosing the right question, brainstorming ideas, creating the story mountain, writing the story and checking your work afterwards.

Depending on the total length of the exam, you should plan to leave yourself a set amount of time for each stage (shown in brackets, assuming you have a total of 30 minutes).

1. Choose the Right Question
(Less than 1 minute)

Sometimes you won’t be given a choice, but you will always have different options in a proper 11+ English exam.

One might be a description (often based on a drawing or photograph), and another might be an essay on a factual subject, but there will always be the chance to write a story, either based on a suggested title or in the form of a continuation of the passage from the reading comprehension.

The important thing here is to try to find a topic you know a bit about and – in an ideal world – something you’d enjoy writing about.

If you’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 what do you need to write about your heroes?

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, 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.

Your hero’s home, for instance, could just be ‘London’, or it could be ‘the famous Blue Cross lighthouse on the promontory overlooking Shark Bay in Antigua’!

Overall, though, you should probably be writing eight to 10 lines of A4 for the whole description.

You can even save yourself time by thinking up, say, three ‘off-the-shelf’ characters and memorising them (see article).

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.

Make Readers ask Good Questions, not Bad Ones

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 ones 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 (‘bad’) question would be “Why didn’t he just 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 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)

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

The Ghost from the Future

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.)