© 2019 Steve Campsall
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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."
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.
2. For exam purposes, always arrive pre-prepared with a few outline stories in your head.
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!
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:
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!).
FIND OUT MORE
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.
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.
FOUR STEPS TO SUCCESS
1. PLAN FIRST!
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:
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.
IN DETAIL - BUT ONLY THAT WHICH ADDS INTEREST TO THE STORY
Recognising what to include and what to leave out of a story is vital to you grade.
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!' .
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.
3. INVOLVE YOUR READER
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.
USE DESCRIPTION - BUT USE IT ONLY FOR EFFECT
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:
USE PRECISE AND SENSORY DESCRIPTION
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?
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.