The story was removed from the main Cambridge FCE exam in the last update but, given the need to adjust content for younger people, it still features in the First for Schools exam. Being a creative sort, I have been teaching the basics for years, and even written the odd example. But I had never really sat down in the same way as I teach, so I thought it was time I did, since I am preparing a number of students at the moment. It has been an eye opener.

For many people the idea of writing a story scares them. But as I always stress, it is important to learn how to do all the task types in the Cambridge exams so you can choose the question that is suited to the vocabulary you know best, on a topic you know most about.

On the other hand, many people love stories but – or and so – do not plan well enough and, as I discovered, run into difficulties with things like cohesion and word count.

So this post is for both those of you who love or “hate” stories.

First of all let’s remember the basics of all First Certificate writing task types…

  • Who are you writing for? (e.g. age, publication; remember the examiner, of course, and how many exams they have to read!)
  • What style/register do you need to use? (affected by the first question, of course, for a story it will be informal)
  • What do you need to include? (check the rubric/instructions and ensure you use all the information they tell you to)
  • How will you structure (organise) it? (paragraphs, logical “flow” of the text, linking words/phrases, etc)

…and what you need to think about when writing a story:

  • Who? (protagonist(s), any “incidental characters”)
  • Where? (places – are there multiple locations/what are they like?)
  • When? (order of events, use of different past tenses, etc.)
  • What? (what happened/how did it happen?)
  • Why? (give reasons for the characters’ actions)

Some of this will come from the rubric, of course, especially the “what” and the “who”, though you will clearly need to elaborate (give more detail) on them in the story as part of your “Content” score, which assesses you on how well you cover the information in the question.

To put all this into action, a plan is vital, no less than with any other type of task. It need not be a long plan, and, I would say, probably should not follow the same format as, for example, an essay, for which it’s a good idea to plan every paragraph, in summary. I start by answering the “wh” questions in my mind, relating them to the information we need to include. In this case, my plan then included bullet points on the main details listed in the question, which was as follows:

Your teacher has asked you to write a story in English for the school magazine.

Stories wanted

Your story must begin with this sentence:

Nicholas was looking through a dictionary from his school library when he found a photo hidden between the pages.

Your story must include:

  • a friend
  • some money

So my initial bullets were as follows:

  • Photo: it is of an old house with some faded writing on the back telling the reader to search for “a painting of Captain Wilson” in the hall.
  • Friend: after finding the photograph he confides in a friend to help him solve the mystery.
  • Money: they find some old money hidden in the house (but not near the painting).

In this way I knew I could guarantee including all the information while giving some structure to the story and hopefully, a logical progression (organisation).

The biggest problem with my plan, I discovered, was it was really too ambitious for the length. Short story-writing (or rather “nano” story-writing!) is quite a challenge! So I ended up tweaking my plan to simplify it and allow for less elements and a more direct direction to the “climax”. The result was not as intriguing as I would have liked, and lacked details, but, of course, this is not a creative writing competition, it is a language test, and in this respect, I was quite happy with the result. 

At 202 words it was slightly over the 190 word limit, but this is a guide and hopefully you will agree there is not a lot of “irrelevant content” (the reason such a limit is set, apart from the consideration of timing – and like the old saying goes “I didn’t have time to write you a short letter so I wrote you a long one”!). In fact, in preparing a class on this, I read an example from Cambridge themselves which was 197 words. This includes, as with mine, the 15-20 words in the given sentence.

The biggest change was the length of the “treasure hunt”. I originally envisaged a visit to the public library and a twist involving another clue behind the painting. But having written the first part/paragraph – which, of course, includes the obligatory first sentence – I realised while sending my heroes to the public library that this would soon eat up the remaining word count. So I had to rethink, which also meant forgetting the extra clue, of course.

The advantage of not specifying too much detail in the plan meant I could easily cut out steps, though and redirect the characters, so I was able to have Nicholas’ friend, Charlie, recognise the house immediately and send them straight to the house. To avoid any more “spoilers” (!) I’ll leave the rest for you to read!

Nicholas was looking through a dictionary from his school library when he found a photo hidden between the pages. With mild curiosity he picked it up and saw a large house with an impressive garden. As he turned it over his eyes widened as he read, in faded letters, a message telling the reader to “search behind the painting of Captain Wilson, in the entrance hall”.

He rushed to show his best friend Charlie, who also loved a good mystery and he immediately recognised the house, which, he whispered, had been abandoned for a long time. As soon as they were out of the library they started running to the bus stop and impatiently waited for the next bus to the village.

As they were getting off the bus, they nearly fell, they were so excited, and ran to the lane leading to the old house. The front door was locked but they found a way in through a slightly open window and searched for the painting. Behind it was a dusty envelope with some old bank notes. “Well, we can’t buy anything with this, but I’m sure the museum will be very interested!” cried Nicholas. “We may even get a reward!”

The Cambridge First for Schools Trainer give a checklist to follow after you have finished writing your story. It asks you if you have:

  • used a range of past tenses?
  • used descriptive adjectives and adverbs?
  • used a range to time words and expressions?
  • divided your story into paragraphs?
  • written 140-190 words?

A useful list – my immediate thought was to add a few more past tenses, as it was mainly in the past simple. This meant adding a past perfect (“which had been abandoned”, an opportunity to use a relative clause too) and a fairly easy rewording the beginning of the third paragraph from “In their excitement, they almost fell off the bus” to the classic “as this was happening, something else happened“. If I had to make more improvements I would probably add a few more time expressions and descriptive adjectives, but there are a few – “as, when, immediately, as soon as”; and “mild (curiosity), impressive, impatiently, slightly, dusty”.

Incidentally the Cambridge Trainer series is one I highly recommend for its great training content - straight from the institution organising the exams - and excellent value for money, with six practice tests, the first two of which have detailed training and practice content which breaks down each task to work on specific points and strategies. I have so far used the regular First Certificate Trainer, the Cambridge Advanced Trainer and this First for Schools Trainer. (Click the link to buy on Amazon. Disclosure: I will earn a small commission.)

As I said earlier, planning is key to all tasks and, I’ve found, especially important in writing stories, especially such short ones as you have to do for First Certificate. It is important to be clear how much to include; my list of tips below can act as a checklist, but the key things to remember when creating your plan are to set the context (the opening/beginning), develop the story (the middle) and create a climax (the ending). You may have the first line to guide you, but you still need to give a context for that opening sentence. Sometimes the sentence will be the last line, in which case you could work back from the end or, if you have an active imagination, think of something completely different – the development will be key to logically lead the reader from beginning to end.

This is very close to what I did, but, crucially, I overestimated what I had space for, so I think it’s best to limit your plan to two or three ideas or events. This will give you sufficient space to use plenty of descriptive words; any more and all you will be doing is using action verbs to explain what happened next (with its resulting limitation on connectors – “then, after that, next…”). Note that this does not mean limiting the actions within the story too much; I’m talking about the main events. For example, in my story, the events are:

  • finding the picture: setting the context here is describing what’s in the photo and how the protagonist reacts
  • showing his friend and identifying the house: the development in this case is minimal – a simple identification and they are off to find the house
  • searching for some sort of “treasure”: there are a few incidental actions (running down the lane, entering the house, but not so easily…) before the “climax” of finding the old money

Each action within the events is an opportunity to use different tenses and descriptive adverbs, while setting the scene for each allows for adjectives and intensifying or qualifying adverbs (I only managed “slightly open”, but I could have added more, for example “an intriguingly cryptic message”. This, of course, adds two words, so it’s a balance between having enough “meat” to the story, in terms of the storyline (events/actions) and enough descriptive language. I already had to cut so much of the actions/events that there is a bit of a jump between searching and finding the painting – I don’t even mention them actually finding it. But again, this is not a creative writing competition and as long as the reader can follow the story, you will be fine.

So, here are my tips to help you write a better story for First for Schools:

  1. Read all the information in the question carefully, underlining keywords, and begin asking questions (who, where, what, etc)
  2. Create a plan by answering your questions and using the keywords as bullet points
    • 2-3 scenes maximum
    • beginning – development – ending: write one main idea for each
  3. Estimate word count for each part; this will take practice:
    • observe how much you write in a typical paragraph in all writing tasks
    • as a guide, you can simply divide 180 (10 words short of the “limit”) by 3, so your average paragraph length is 60. In mine the paragraphs are 66, 56 and 80 (going 12 over the limit)
  4. Write and adjust, ensuring you don’t go much over 60 words per paragraph (and if one is longer, adjust the others by removing non-essential actions/ideas)
  5. Check for sense and flow: once you’ve finished your draft, read it through and ensure the story flows logically and makes sense. And, of course, check the word count.

You may find that, even more than in other tasks, that you have to cross out not just words but whole sentences. This is not necessarily a problem, as long as it is readable – if it becomes difficult to follow, re-write the paragraph (corrector is not permitted, nor pencil – just dark blue or black pen). Of course, as you practice, you should get faster at planning and writing and you may be able to write a whole draft and have time to transfer it to the answer sheet. To give yourself a chance of doing this, you need to have lots of timed practice.  If you find that you struggle for time, consider writing directly on the answer sheet as the examiners will not look at the rough paper at all and you will lose many marks if you leave a whole writing question unanswered.

Remember, you have 1 hour 15 minutes, so I recommend spending a maximum of 35 minutes on each task, which gives you 5 minutes to (re-)check through both tasks at the end. Some argue that the essay is more important and to allow more time for that. This will depend on each individual but because it is obligatory, the essay is usually where you get most practice, so it shouldn’t be necessary. As far as checking is concerned, this five minutes is really important to go back to the essay question, as it has been proven that if you leave a task and come back to it, you are more likely to find mistakes. So don’t be tempted to use this time to transcribe your story (or other task) to the answer sheet.

Final thoughts

I mentioned earlier the need to find a balance between storyline and descriptive language. This balance is, I think, the key to writing a successful story. Reading this line I have just written makes me think this is really obvious, but often we forget the most obvious. In this case it could have saved me a bit of time adjusting the story if I had thought a bit more about how many events is the optimum for allowing sufficient language and ideas. But, as always, this comes with experience. And the best way to achieve the balance is to practice. So I invite you to practice writing short stories, perhaps by grabbing a random sentence from your favourite novel and developing your own mini adventure out of it! Send me your stories and I’ll be sure to have a look and if I have time, give you some feedback (obviously all my active students will get that anyway in class!)

I hope you found this guide to writing stories for First for Schools useful, let me know in the comments!