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11+ Tips: How to write a story

9 November 2017

This week we look at the composition section of the 11+ exam, and discuss the best way to write a descriptive and well-structured story.

The second half of the 11+ English paper involves composition, where candidates show that they can create a structured, descriptive piece of writing with good vocabulary, grammar and spelling.

Here are some examples of the composition section question from past papers:

  1. Write a short story beginning with the words ‘Promises are all very well…’
  2. Write a story about an encouneter with an animal. It might be a bull in a field or a mouse in a kitchen. It could be frightening or funny.
  3. Continue the story, making up things that began to happen to Jamie after the parrot bit him. Do not introduce any new characters.
  4. Write an article for your school magazine about an interesting place you have visited recently.
  5. Write about a person who has been important to you or whom you admire.

As we can see from these questions, the composition section of the 11+ might ask candidates to continue the comprehension text or to present the different sides of an argument. However, most tests simply ask candidates to write a basic short story using a preassigned title.

A useful structure

Children are usually taught that a story needs ‘a beginning, a middle, and an end’. This is fairly useless as far as advice goes, since it’s not clear what each of these sections should contain. To help candidates properly structure their stories, I would suggest an alternative blueprint in the form of a few basic rules:

  • A story should be about a single event. This event can usually be summarised with a single sentence. E.g.: ‘getting lost in a forest’, ‘going on a rollercoaster’, ‘finding a haunted house’, ‘winning a race’. This rule is important firstly because candidates don’t have much time – usually around 20 minutes – in which to write their stories. It also lends a very neat and clear structure to their writing.
  • The story should be in three parts, but rather than ‘beginning’, ‘middle’ and ‘end’, these parts are ‘setting the scene’, ‘the main event’ and ‘reflecting on the action’. The beginning of the story, the ‘setting of the scene’, should explain who the characters are, what they are in the process of doing, and should include the word ‘had’. To explain this rule more clearly, let’s look at an example. To begin a story titled ‘The Rollercoaster’, we might write: “Whoosh! Katie looked up to see the rollercoaster car roar around the track over her head. She had come to Thorpe Park for her birthday, and was now queuing with her friends Alice and Jamie to go on Rameses’ Revenge, the most frightening ride in the park.’ The word ‘had’ introduces the past perfect tense, allowing us to explain the background to our story. It’s through ‘had’ that we find out who our characters are, and what they were up to as our story begins. This lends our story a very clear focus.
  • The ‘main event’, occurring in the middle of our story, should be all about action and description. Having explained who our characters are and why they are where they are, we need to describe the main event in our story. Taking the rollercoaster as our example, there is so much to describe: the way our characters feel as they make the initial descent, how the park stretches out underneath them at the very top, the exhilaration of the first drop etc. The point is that the whole thing could simply be written as ‘we went on the rollercoaster’, but we make it exciting by going into minute detail.
  • The end of the story is where we reflect on the action in the middle. This is pretty easy to understand. The last part of a story should be looking back, in the way that the beginning of our story looked forward. In our rollercoaster story, Katie, Alice and Jamie might look back on how much fun going on the rollercoaster had been.

Now that we have our structure, let’s find ways to make each section effective.

Setting the scene

We’ve already discussed how the word ‘had’ can be effective at the beginning of our story. By using the past perfect case we can establish what has led our characters to the point at which our story starts. Some more examples:

‘They had come to the house as part of a Halloween dare’

‘They had come to Greece for their summer holidays’

‘He had taken Jumble out for a walk’.

Even though we’re using the first paragraph to set the scene, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t include descriptive writing. In fact, the first paragraph of your story is the perfect place to throw in some artistic imagery.

‘The house was dark and noiseless, and dust hung in the air, illuminated by the moonlight seeping through the cracks in the walls.’

Finally, our ‘setting of the scene’ should include some speech, if possible. As a general rule, what characters say, think and do is far more effective at telling us about them than simply describing their characteristics. For example, writing ‘Henry was afraid’, is far less effective than writing ‘Henry’s hands shook with fear as he peered down the corridor. “Do we have to go down there?” he whimpered miserably.’

By giving our characters some speech we are both showing that we know how to punctuate speech but also that we can describe characters effectively.

The Main Event

As we’ve discussed, the story should be about a single event that we can describe in minute detail. The event can last anywhere from a few seconds to a few hours, but if you go for something that lasts longer than that it’s likely that you’re not being specific enough. The perfect subject material for a story is an event that has a definable time frame. For example:

  • A storm
  • A sports match
  • A night spent somewhere spooky
  • A birthday party
  • A scuba diving trip.

It’s in the middle of your story that you describe this event. For this part of our story we need as much description as possible. This should be both external description – what our characters sense around them in their environment, but also internal description, discussing their emotional states.

A good trick for writing descriptively is to say that for every action that occurs, there will be two or more sentences describing it. To go back to our rollercoaster story, we might have something like:

‘The car crested the peak of the track, and then plunged downwards [action]. Katie felt her stomach leap upwards, and instinctively she gripped the metal bar strapping her to her seat [internal description]. The world around her turned into a blur, and the wind roared at her face as she, Alice and Jamie were sent hurtling towards the ground [external description].’

A good exercise to practise writing with this kind of descriptive detail is to see how much description and action you can get out of a very short space of time. A good title for a story is ‘the penalty kick’, in which you ask a pupil to write a story that in real time only lasts around 10 seconds, about the final penalty kick of the World Cup final. There is so much to describe, both internally and externally, that it becomes a very useful creative exercise, and demonstrates that you can write a lot without very much actually happening!

Reflecting on the action

The final part of the story should involve some form of reflection. The best way to do this is to have the main character reminisce about the actions of the day. They can recall certain events from the main event, and this gives the writer yet more time to explore their emotional conditions.

‘As Alice fell, exhausted, into bed that night, she thought back on how exciting the rollercoaster had been, and how happy she was that she had been brave enough to go on it. “The first drop was the worst part” she thought, “but also the best part in a way too…”’

The end of the story might also suggest continuation beyond itself, such as:

‘Little did Henry know that this wouldn’t be the last time he set foot in a haunted house, and that next Halloween was going to be far, far more frightening…’

A final point

Following a ‘setting the scene’, ‘main event’ and ‘reflecting on the action’ structure will allow candidates to write stories that are neatly rounded, but the priority should be on describing characters, events and environments effectively. All stories should include their fair share of similes, metaphors, personification and advanced vocabulary, and the more effectively candidates can describe, the more marks they will receive.

Good luck with writing your stories, and remember, enjoy yourself and be creative!

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