Englishbiz - Story Writing


© 2019 Steve Campsall

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writing to entertain: fictional writing

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Writing a story can seem such an easy thing to do - after all, you've been doing it since you were in primary school. Yet creating an absorbing, fast-paced fictional narrative is surprisingly difficult. For your coursework, around 1000 words is usual (try to avoid exceeding this) and, for exams, perhaps 5-600 words. What's needed to get that higher grade?


What makes for a successful story?

"Make 'em laugh. Make 'em cry. Make 'em wait. Exactly in that order."

Wilkie Collins

1. Your story needs to hook the reader from its first sentence. Whatever you write, cause your reader to feel from the outset that they are going to enjoy the time given over to reading your story. You can do this by writing about characters and incidents that the reader can relate to.

  • Such stories begin and remain lively, interesting and meaningful. The reader can relate to what is happening. The imagined narrator has an inviting, interesting tone of voice.

  • The story is unified and coherent. i.e. there are no loose ends, diversions or waffle; the reader constantly feels that the story is leading somewhere interesting.

  • The story begins with a plot hook that captures the reader's interest by being intriguing.

    • An opening using a short, catchy sentence or intriguing question works well: "Crowds! I hate them!" or "Flick! Flick! Flick! The ambulance's flashing blue light told its own story." or "If that wasn't that the most stupid thing Jenny had done in her life, I don't know what was...".

  • They writing is economical and sharp in style: no padding, pointless description or boring dialogue: each word and phrase has been weighed up and seems to be leading somewhere useful.

  • Paragraphs are a satisfying length; sentences are varied and punctuated properly using full stops or semicolons at their ends, never commas.

2. For exam purposes, always arrive pre-prepared with a few outline stories in your head.

  • This will truly help your grade - and steady your nerves! Many ready-made stories can be molded to fit the exam question with just a little adjustment.

  • Well before exam day, plan and sketch out a few plots for possible stories.

  • Work out who these stories revolve around, that is their main character or protagonist.

  • Think up a few interesting plots: what's going to happen to the main character? What difficulty - conflict - will she or he have to face and overcome?

  • Work out a suitable beginning, middle and ending for each story. Many writers work out endings first then work backwards to their beginning. this can work well because endings are often the hardest part of a story to work out.

  • Think about suitable settings. This is the time, place and situation the action occurs and is important as it needs to be realistic and believable.

  • Setting is also important as it is often an important way to create an appropriate atmosphere or mood for the events of the story to unfold. Successful writers take great care over this aspect.

Think about basing this pre-planned bank of stories on dramatised anecdotes - that is, on incidents from your own past life or that you have heard from others. These anecdotes need not be entirely (or even at all...) truthful of course - no one is testing your ability to tell the truth, just your ability to write an effective story!

  • Think of a series of personal incidents that would make lively and interesting stories when you were, for example, especially pleased / happy / proud of something in your life as well as when you felt especially guilty / embarrassed / let down.

  • Especially under exam conditions, it's best to avoid romance, sci-fi, ghost and horror stories. Why? They rarely work well and tend to attract lower marks.

  • You'll be surprised how frequently you will be able to fit one of these existing stories into the question you are asked in the exam. Just think of the relief you'll feel when you find you can do this on the day of the exam!

3. Successful students know what the examiner looks for and give just this in their story. They know that marks are given according to how well their writing meets certain criteria. Here are typical ones:

  • An effective story needs to have a realistic, believable and interesting sense of character.

  • It needs a realistic and atmospheric setting.

    • Setting is important because it is used not only to create a realistic seeming and believable sense of place but very often also to suggest a suitable mood or atmosphere.

    • Creating an appropriate mood within which the events of your story can unfold is crucial to gaining the higher grades. This allows your reader to enter the world of the story and thus feel a sense of involvement with the action.

  • The story's plot needs to hook the reader early on and engage the reader's attention by creating a sense of pace and tension.

    • Tension is created by revealing details in a measured way - piece by piece.

    • A sense of pace can easily be created by using shorter sentences.

  • The use of description is effective and useful to the mood, character, setting or plot: it must be kept relevant and with a genuinely useful purpose to the story.

    • There's no point describing anything at all unless it adds usefully to the story.

    • Excessive use of adjectives is uninteresting and a distraction - see the Englishbiz guide to descriptive writing for more on this important aspect of story writing.

  • When characters speak through the use of dialogue, it must be kept tight and dramatic, that is, it must be truly useful and interesting, contributing something worthwhile to the story.

    Avoid too many "He said..." then "She said..." - try to vary the verb used, e.g. "She screamed...", "He implored...". And make quite sure that there is no 'waffle-like' empty and flabby dialogue such as:

'How are you?' I said.

'I'm well. How are you?' He replied.

'Good.' I said.

And so on. Yawn... B-o-r-i-n-g! (because it isn't of interest to your reader or to the story - so... it's pointless. And yet each year so very many students do write dialogue just like this. Oh dear!).

  • A good story has an effective structure.

  • This means choosing a coherent and unified 'beginning > middle > end' structure for your story.

    • Remember, this isn't as easy as it sounds. The "beginning > middle > end" must all be linked and flow naturally.

  • The opening lines need to a) set the scene b) create a suitable mood and c) introduce the main character(s).

  • An effective structure also means leading on quickly towards a problem or conflict that the protagonist - the main character - will be forced to face and eventually overcome.

  • The 'middle' of your story should see events building up with a sense of rising action towards a climax near the end of the story.

  • The end or resolution of your story should see all loose ends being tied up; of course, the end doesn't need to be happy ever after - but it does need to be satisfying.

    • Of course, you could also choose to end on a cliff-hanger - an ending with a twist to make your reader think and reflect!

Here is part of the mark scheme from a major GCSE examining board - see some of what their examiners want to see in your story-writing to gain a grade A:

  • plot and characterisation are effectively constructed and sustained

  • the story is organise, sequenced and well paced

  • sentences and paragraphs are effectively varied in length and structure

  • a wide range of appropriate, ambitious vocabulary is used

And here is what a professional American writer considers makes a good story...

A good story uses:

  • Character - in which a personality is revealed or changed.

  • Setting - a place described where an action occurs.

  • Mood - a feeling shared by the reader suitable for the action.

  • Time - defines the limits of the story and around which action is organized.

  • Technique - the use of descriptive writing and dialogue.

  • Purpose - a theme which is of interest or importance to the reader.

Skilfully done, the story unfolds allowing the reader to meet the characters as they encounter problems with which they deal in a place and time the reader experiences with them.



Audience, Style & Theme
Before you write, think about your reader; in fact, in your mind, 'become' your future reader. This is the number one professional writer's secret. If you write 'for yourself', you will almost certainly write less well than if you keep your potential reader in mind before you put pen to paper and during the process of writing, constantly checking and thinking what you write, as you write, to be sure your writing remains clear, precise, lively and interesting.

Ask yourself:

  • What can you write about that a reader might enjoy reading - something they can also relate to and find interesting?
  • How can you write about this subject in a way that will capture a reader's interest and hold on to it?

It is a fact that no one likes to write without a good reason but equally no one likes to read without feeling that what they have read has been worthy of their time and attention.

  • What types of subject make reading worthwhile, interesting - even enjoyable?

Most of us seem to enjoy reading about the important things in life: growing up, illness, danger, love, death, fear, loneliness, friendship and so on and most readers enjoy writing that creates a sense of excitement, tension, fear or wonder and maybe because we are a little nosy or like to compare ourselves, we enjoy reading about interesting characters that is, we enjoy hearing what happens to others and how they overcome difficulties life brings their way.

  • Writing that explores such ideas stands a good chance of being interesting to read.
    • The technical term to describe the idea or message 'behind' a piece of writing is controlling idea or theme; this is what the writing is, at heart, all about.
    • In professional writing, the writer's theme or controlling idea is rarely evident 'on the surface'; rather, it begins to emerge as the reader reflects on what is written.
    • The theme might emerge through 'layers' of meaning the writer builds through the use of 'devices' such as symbolism, metaphor and irony. For example, a story about a visit to a place might have as its deeper meaning the wonders of nature or of creation and a story about a journey could really be a kind of metaphor for a person's life.


  • Think about this. When you have read a good story, you will, during your time reading, have felt as if you were a part of the story... This means that you have, in a way, 'become' - for some of the story - a character within the story, perhaps the main character; or you will, at the very least, have enjoyed empathising (i.e. understanding exactly) with the main character's predicament. And you have almost certainly also shared the sense of achievement the main character felt in overcoming some of life's problems. Make sure when you write, that your reader will be able to relate to your main character and what happens to him or her.



Decide on the key aspects of your story before you write - most especially on who is in it, where it happens and what overall message or theme you wish to leave for your reader to think about after the story is read.

Also plan the structure or sequence to give your story a clear 'beginning-middle-end' with each idea leading on to and connected to what came before. In almost all stories, a main character begins life in a kind of 'normality' but soon faces a problem (called the 'conflict' ) this conflict is eventually overcome, usually after a climax of action finally a new kind of 'normality' resumes in what is called the 'resolution'. This kind of story - the most common kind - is called narrative.

Remember that even if the story is autobiography (i.e. about your own life), the events you describe do not have to be 'true' - at least inasmuch as it must be made to appear made to be more dramatic than life by leaving out the boring bits! English coursework and exams are not at all about what really happens in life they are about technique and style.

So... decide before putting pen to paper just what sequence the events of your story should be told, as well as... who will be in the story and where it all will lead. This final part is important - it is the theme of your story.

To help you plan well, always remember that your reader will enjoy feeling that their time spent reading has been worthwhile. It would help to 'switch places' and for a moment reflect on becoming your own reader. When you read you like to be made to feel:

  • interested
  • excited
  • involved
  • moved
  • tense and fearful
  • a sense of wonder

Work out how you could narrate your story and make your reader feel like this. We are always especially interested in what happens to people too, because we live alongside them all the time and are naturally rather nosy! It's also good to learn from other folk's lives and see how they overcame problems that we ourselves might one day have to face.

Work out an interesting theme like this before you write - it is a secret of gaining a high grade. If you can work out a subtle way to reveal this theme to your reader, then you have discovered another secret of high grade essays. Click here to read a piece like this.

Recognising what to include and what to leave out of a story is vital to you grade.

  • By including only with what is relevant, effective writing becomes unified and coherent. This is important because it means the reader feels instinctively that each word and sentence is leading somewhere useful (i.e. it is coherent) and leading in one important direction - towards a single purpose (i.e. it is unified) .
  • Thinking of writing as akin to a woven piece of cloth can be a useful metaphor: when you read back to yourself what you have written (both as you write each sentence and afterwards during redrafting), you should ensure it is coherent and unified by pulling out any 'loose' or 'wrong' threads and making sure that the pattern you have created will be attractive to your reader.



Characters will always have to speak in a story and when they do, you show this by giving each speaker a new line and placing all they say inside speech marks, like this:

    'It won't be long now,' thought Harry 'All hell will be let loose soon!' .
    But almost before he had finished speaking a voice boomed over the intercom, 'All units to Precinct 5 all units to precinct 5!'
    It had begun.

The key to gaining marks from the dialogue you introduce in your story is to stick with the rule: if it isn't adding anything useful and interesting to the story, take it out. Never include dialogue for the sake of including dialogue. Instead, use dialogue for a purpose. This could be: to help define a particular type of character to move the plot forwards to create tension... but never, for the sake of passing the time of day.

Never move forward into your plot without setting the right mood for your reader. This 'mood', which must be consistent with the main idea of your writing, will help engage and absorb your reader.

Like dialogue, describing things can be your saviour - or your downfall... . When you do describe something in your story - and description can add powerfully to any story - make sure the description is not being used for its own sake: always make it do something useful! When describing, even though your story is probably imaginary place, always help your reader to feel as if they were there, seeing, hearing, tasting, feeling... all that matters that is around them. Use 'sensory description' to achieve this:

  • Where it matters most, show don't tell! Show your reader by allowing your characters to do things that allow your reader to see, hear, taste, smell or feel what the character feels. If a character is evil, show an evil act, rather than merely tell your reader, 'John is evil' !
  • You probably do need adjectives to do this, but try hard to find words that do not need an adjective if you can. Choose precise words (you could use a thesaurus to help...). Precise words are far more effective than everyday nouns qualified with extra adjectives. Use vivid - and preferably original - similes and metaphors, too as it is these that help to almost etch an image onto your reader's imagination.



Here is writing that uses precise vocabulary and vivid similes or metaphors. You might think of such vocabulary as 'muscular' for it creates powerful images without relying on lots of extra adjectives. Can you detect the sensory images here, too?

  • The swollen mass of people teemed forwards like a seething colony of crawling ants.
  • The mingling spices tingled our senses to create a glorious surge of appetite.
  • The summer rain spilled down and soused our sweltering faces with its refreshing coolness.
  • The flashes of lightning flooded the land with a fearful display of Nature's power.
  • The children were like bundles of concentrated energy exploding with delight.
  • The very buildings themselves seemed to bow low as the town's new hero approached.


One last thing... check what you write as you write it!

Each year, literally thousands of students fail to achieve the marks they could. Don't be one of them ALWAYS CHECK YOUR WRITING BEFORE HANDING IN!

Read each sentence immediately after you write it
Use a variety of sentence types and styles and remember that shorter sentences are often clearer and crisper sounding. An occasional ultra-short sentence can add real impact to writing. Read each sentence before you proceed to the next to check it is fluent, accurate and complete. Does it follow on logically from the previous sentence?

Check every paragraph
A paragraph is a series of sentences (often at least five) that develop from a single topic sentence used to introduce the point of the paragraph.

Avoid creating overly short paragraphs as this suggests either a) you do not know what a paragraph is or b) that you have no explained the point of the paragraph in sufficient detail. Try to make sure that each paragraph flows naturally on from its predecessor by using the final sentence of each paragraph to subtly 'hook' into the topic of the next paragraph.

To correct a missed paragraph simply put this mark where you want in to be: // then, in your margin write: // = new paragraph. The examiner will not mark you down for this so long as you have not forgotten all of your paragraphs.

Examine each comma
A very common error and poor style is to use a comma instead of a full stop to end a sentence. This makes two or more stylish, short and crisp sentences into one long, drawn out and boring sentence! Always end each sentence with a full stop - or a semi-colon if you know how to use this punctuation mark.

Look at every apostrophe
Apostrophes are only ever used for two reasons, but many students fail to use them effectively and reduce the readability and quality of their written work.

If two words are 'squeezed together' into one and a letter is missed out in the process, you should show where this missing letter used to be by inserting an apostrophe in its place so the phrase should not becomes the single word shouldn't.

When one of two nouns belongs to the other, show which one owns which by adding apostrophe + s to its end so the school's entrance is correct because the entrance is 'possessed' by the school similarly Alan's book shows a similar 'possession' of a book by Alan. If the thing that does the possessing is a plural noun such as, for example, dogs, the a phrase such as the dogs' kennels, shows that the kennels belong to many dogs by placing the apostrophe after the final plural s.

But watch out for it's: with an apostrophe this is always a shortened form of it is or occasionally, it has, as in it's cold. But if you meant 'belonging to it', as in its fur is shiny and smooth, no apostrophe is needed.