Exam Tips: How to Write a Story For an English Language Test
Not all English as a second language exams have the option of writing a short story, but the Cambridge First Certificate exam does, and so do some others, so it is necessary to know how to write one. Students often choose to write a story in the second part of the writing section in Cambridge First Certificate thinking that it will be easier than the other options because it is less formal and more imaginative. Imagination is called for, it's true, but also good organization and careful attention to some specific rules and guidelines.
I will use the Cambridge First Certificate exam's rules as an example in this article, but the general principles outlined here would apply to the writing of stories in other exams as well.
First of all, stay within the word limit. If the instructions say to write the story in 120 to 180 words, then do so. If your story falls above or below the word count, add or trim as needed. Secondly, pay careful attention to the question. Often the Cambridge exam gives a sentence that must begin or end the story. Sometimes it says it must begin it and sometimes it says it must end it, and sometimes you have the choice. Whatever the instructions say, do it. In addition, you must not change the sentence in any way or add to it; it must go into your story exactly as it is given. This is a basic of successful exam writing: follow the instructions explicitly.
What to Write
What should you write about? That's up to you. You might like to write a true story, something that happened to you or someone you know; you might like to write a fantasy, like a ghost story; you might like to write about something exciting, like a rescue. That's the fun of story writing: the fact that you can choose any subject. But whatever you choose, recognize your limitations. Don't try to tackle novel-length subject matter. Don't try to summarize an entire movie you've seen. In this length of story you only have the space to write about one incident, one thing that happens. The rest of the story adds detail.
Point of View
A story can be told in either first person, that is, the point of view of the writer, or in third person, a more objective presentation of the events. If you are taking the Cambridge First Certificate exam, usually the exam question will determine the point of view. If the sentence you are given to open or close your story is in first person, then write your story in first person; if it is in third person, then the rest of the story should be as well. If you are given a title only, then you have a choice, but remember: whatever you choose, stay consistent. Always use the same point of view throughout the story.
Plan your story carefully. A good story doesn't just take off and go anywhere. When you are writing a story as short as this, good organization is essential. Your story should have about four or five paragraphs depending on the subject matter, but each paragraph should have its particular topic and advance the story in a specific way. The organization should be like this:
1. Introduction. The introduction informs the reader of the three Ws: who, when, where. Who is the main character or characters in the story? When does the story begin? Where does the story begin? Sometimes there is a hint of what and why as well. What are they doing when the story begins and why are they doing it? Try to mention something interesting that will hook the reader into wanting to continue reading.
2. Main part. This is the part where the action happens. In the second and third paragraph there is usually a buildup to the main event in the fourth and last paragraph in the main part. Remember, in each paragraph one specific thing should happen that advances the story along.
3. Conclusion. In the conclusion there is usually a summing up, or lesson learned, or the writer's feelings or impression of the events, if the story is told in the first person.
Stories can be fun to write but they are also challenging, and one of the most difficult grammar aspects is the correct use of verb tenses. Stories should be told mainly in simple past tense, with occasional use of past progressive or continuous, and past perfect. Don't mix present and past tenses, and don't make the common mistake of using past progressive for simple past. Watch your tenses!
In conclusion, stories are fun to write, so have fun. Use your imagination, but keep it under control by following these simple guidelines. Your imagination is a tool that must be used correctly, just like any other tool – and when you do wield it with skill and precision, you can use it not only to pass your writing test, but to create a thing of beauty.