Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Short Story Writing for Leaving Cert Students

Last night, a former teacher of mine reminded me of a couple of things. Firstly: I'm a writer who knows things about writing. Secondly: I'm a teacher who has some experience teaching creative writing. And thirdly, I'm old.

Okay, not that old. But I'm old enough to have sat my Leaving Cert and to have written and published several books since. I'm old enough to have gone through college. And I'm experienced enough to have written a lot of short stories in my time.

The point is, I was asked for advice, and I was able to give it, and I think it's about time I put together a post on this for all the English teachers (and English students) out there.

1. Keep it simple. You have a limited amount of time and space in which you must write your story. You can't create an in-depth universe in the few pages at your disposal. You can't write a story spanning, in detail, a few years. You don't even have weeks. Try to fit the action into one day - two or three at most. Other things to avoid include: acts of terrorism, natural disasters, or mass murders, especially as a means of ending the story. (The old favourite, it seems, is to kill off everyone in the story with a volcano exploding.)

2. Plan in advance. Before you write anything, plan the story. Figure out your primary characters. Jot down 2-3 keys scenes you'll include, and know your ending. I can't stress the importance of this enough. You'll have a limited amount of time to write your story, so knowing how it'll come to an end is important. Otherwise, you run the risk of simply writing until it's finished. That's fine if you don't have a time limit, and if you have the patience to rewrite anything to make it more coherent, but in an exam situation, time is precious.

For a recommended break-down on how to spend your time in the exam, see this page:

3. Have some ideas before you go in. Knowing what sort of story you could feasibly write before you go in is a good idea. (Writing it all beforehand and trying to reproduce it under pressure is not.) Have a look at different photo prompts online if you need ideas. Getting used to them beforehand is also a good idea, given the trend of there being a photo prompt question on the paper. Look through news stories for inspiration, too. You never know what will peak your interest and what you can use in your exam. Remember, in typical situations only one person will read your story.

A weekly photo prompt blog you can check it (run by yours truly) can be found here:

For easy to read, and sometimes ridiculous, news stories, I regrettably point you in the direction of the Daily Mail:

4. Know your characters. One of the easiest ways to prepare to write a story without knowing the exact conditions of the story, is to prepare a few characters in advance. Create a protagonist in love; create a protagonist who wants to travel; create a protagonist who wants revenge. Mix things up a bit. Write male and female characters. Write characters of various ethnicities. Don't be afraid to create a genre-defined character. Give your characters depth, a background, an attitude, a way of looking at life. When you get the question - sometimes a line to include, sometimes a photo prompt, sometimes a lot more open than that - you could include one of your prepared characters. If you can't, create one on the spot. You should have plenty of experience in creating an interesting character. The most important thing to remember is that how your characters act and think is more important than how they look.

5. Know how to create interesting settings. A room isn't simply defined by what you can see. Think about the other senses we possess: hearing, smell, touch, and thermoception (the sense of heat and cold) are perhaps the most relevant here. Use them to create an atmosphere in a room, a depth beyond what we can see. When you've figured out how to use those properly - I advise describing your bedroom using those six senses (the five listed above, plus sight) and try describing others areas, like a nearby park, a shop, and a restaurant - it's time to turn to the cultural and social aspects of the setting. Paper 2 in Leaving Cert English deals with the Comparative Study. One area of this is the Cultural Context question, in which you need to dissect a piece for the culture created. The greater your understanding of factors such as religion, employment, crime and education on an environment, the better. You won't necessarily need all of the information, but it helps to create a more interesting setting (and write a more interesting story) if you can make use of them.

Above all else, practice.

Going into your Leaving Cert only ever writing stories (or essays, for that matter) when your teacher tells you to isn't necessarily a good idea. You should practice writing in your spare time - call it studying, if you have to explain it to a parent or guardian. You should aim to write a story at least every couple of weeks. It counts for half the marks of Paper 1, and deserves the attention. (As a further bonus, developing your writing skills will help you across the board, science and maths based subjects aside.) If you want a change of pace from trying to come up with your own ideas all the time, try out some fan fiction.

If you have access to a Kindle (or Kindle App on a smart phone or tablet) and you want to read more from me on this area, you might consider my two books on the matter:

Available on
Available on

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