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, ou 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 super powers: 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?

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.

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.

Story mountains

Story mountains

Are we nearly there yet…?

Everyone needs a route map, whether it’s Hillary and Tenzing climbing Mount Everest or an English candidate writing a story. One of the ways of planning a story is to create a story mountain, with each stage of the tale labelled on the diagram. The drawing doesn’t have to be any more than a big triangle, but the five stages help to provide a good structure. The story mountain is only part of the process, however. Even before the exam, you could invent two or three interesting characters to use or practise telling a particular story – perhaps an old fairy tale in a modern setting. It’s always good to be prepared, and it’s too late by the time you sit down in the exam hall. If you’re taking an 11+ or 13+ combined English entrance exam, you should have around half an hour left for the composition after doing the reading comprehension. The routine to follow includes choosing the right question, brainstorming ideas, creating the story mountain, writing the story and checking your work afterwards. Depending on the total length of the exam, you should plan to leave yourself a set amount of time for each stage (shown in brackets, assuming you have a total of 30 minutes).

1. Choose the right question (less than 1 minute).
Sometimes you won’t be given a choice, but you will always have different options in a proper 11+ English exam. One might be a description (often based on a drawing or photograph), and another might be an essay on a factual subject, but there will always be the chance to write a story, either based on a suggested title or in the form of a continuation of the passage from the reading comprehension. The important thing here is to try to find a topic you know a bit about and – in an ideal world – something you’d enjoy writing about. If you you’ve never ridden a horse, it would be pointless trying to write a story all about horse racing!

2. Brainstorm ideas (5 minutes).
Some pupils go straight into writing the story at this point. The story might occasionally be quite good, but the danger is that you don’t give yourself the chance to come up with the best possible ideas, and you certainly won’t make it easy for yourself to structure it when you don’t have a plan to help you. Whether in business or at school, the best way of coming up with ideas is to spend some time brainstorming. That means coming up with as many ideas as possible in a limited time. There’s no such thing as a bad idea, so try to think positively rather than crossing out anything you don’t like. It takes time to come up with well thought-through ideas for a story, so you might not think of more than a couple, but that at least gives you the chance to pick the better one. If you’re having trouble, think about the different elements you can change: the plot, the characters, the setting, the period and the genre. Those are the basics, and imagining a particularly good character or setting might just provide the clue you’re looking for, and you can always change what kind of story it is – a thriller will look a lot different from a romance or a comedy!

3. Create a story mountain (5 minutes).
Once you’ve decided on an idea, you can create your story mountain. You don’t actually have to draw a mountain or a triangle, but you do need to map out the five main stages of the story. You don’t need to write full sentences, just notes that are long enough to remind you of your ideas. Just remember that the opening has two parts to it, so your story will have six main paragraphs, not five. (That doesn’t include any lines of dialogue, which should be in separate paragraphs.)

Opening (or introduction)
The best way to open a story is probably to start ‘in the middle’. Most fairy stories start with something like this:
Once upon a time, there lived a beautiful princess with long, golden hair. Esmeralda was madly in love with Prince Charming, but her wicked stepmother kept her locked up in a tower a thousand feet above the valley below…
The trouble with this kind of description of the characters and their situation (‘exposition’) is that it’s just a bit boring! Nothing actually happens. Far better to think of the most exciting moment in your story and start from there.
“Aaaaaaagggghhh!!!” screamed Prince Charming as his fingers slipped from Princess Esmeralda’s icy window ledge and he fell a thousand feet to his death…!
Once you’ve written a paragraph or so grabbing the reader’s attention, you can then introduce the main characters, where they live, when the story is set and so on. That means the opening needs two paragraphs:
a) Grab the reader’s attention
b) Describe the main character

Build-up (or rising action)
The build-up should describe what the main character is trying to do. For instance, is he or she robbing a bank, escaping from prison or fighting off an alien invasion?

Problem (or climax)
Every story needs drama, which is really just conflict. If you show what the hero’s trying to do in the Build-up, the Problem is just what gets in the way. It might be guilt at leaving a friend behind, say, or a prison warder spotting the escaping convicts or a searchlight lighting up the yard. Whatever it is, it’s a problem that needs to be solved.

Solution (or falling action)
The solution to the problem is what the hero tries to do to fix it. It may not work, but it’s usually the best option available.

Outcome (or ending)
Not many 10-year-old boys like happy endings, so the plan doesn’t always have to come off! If you want your hero to die in a hail of bullets like Butch and Sundance, that’s up to you. Another way to end a story is to use a ‘cliffhanger’. In the old days, that meant the hero was literally hanging on to the edge of a cliff, and the reader would obviously want to know if he held on or not. These days, it just means adding another mystery or problem that needs to be fixed. For example, the hero could escape from prison…only to find a police car chasing him!

4. Write the story (15 minutes or more, depending on the length of the exam).
Now for the important bit!

Stick to the plan
The most important thing to remember is to stick to the plan! It’s very tempting to get carried away when you’re writing and follow wherever your imagination leads you, but the downside is that your story probably won’t have a proper beginning, middle and end, and you might run out of time trying to get the plot back on track.

Balance the Three Ds
You should also strike a balance between the Three Ds: Drama, Description and Dialogue. Every story has a plot, so drama will always be there, but a lot of pupils focus so much on what’s happening that there is very little if any description or dialogue. Readers want to imagine what people look like and how they feel, so you have to give them something to go on. People also generally have a lot to say when they get emotional or find themselves in tough situations, so you won’t be able to capture that unless they talk to one another in your story.

Show off your vocabulary
This is also a chance to show off your vocabulary. Including a few ‘wow words’ (or ‘golden words’) such as ‘annihilate’ instead of ‘destroy’ will impress the examiner no end – as long as you know how to spell them!

Use poetic devices
What’s the difference between ‘in the evening’ and ‘on a night as dark as a murderer’s soul’? If you think one of these is a little bit more descriptive and atmospheric than the other, then why not use poetic devices such as similes, metaphors and personification 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!

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 first time round, but it’s usually possible to spot silly mistakes like missing letters or missing words on a second reading.

Sample questions

Try going through the whole five-step process to write a story based on the following choice of titles:

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

The 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.)