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Leaving Cert Short Story Writing - How to deal with the recent specificity of exam titles

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"The first thing students need to do is to underline key words and write them on top of your rough work page, which can be the inside of the cover sheet of your answer booklet"

"The first thing students need to do is to underline key words and write them on top of your rough work page, which can be the inside of the cover sheet of your answer booklet"

Plan your short stories by using headings

Plan your short stories by using headings

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"The first thing students need to do is to underline key words and write them on top of your rough work page, which can be the inside of the cover sheet of your answer booklet"

Like most creative or athletic pursuits, short story writing is a skill that you either possess, or do not. Wow! What a negative way to open an article about short story writing! But it's true. One of the challenges for each of us is to identify our skills and make best use of them. This is why school offers so many ways to explore and cultivate our talents. When it comes to writing, practising all of the essay types offered on Paper 1 is an invaluable part of this process.

Leaving Cert essays generally fall into two camps: Creative (Short Stories and Descriptive Essays) and Opinion (pretty much all of the others: Speeches, Articles etc). If teacher feedback suggests that you may have talent at short story writing, then you need to hone your narrative and descriptive skills by writing short story essay titles from past exam papers. That alone, however, is not enough to ensure your success on the day.

Let's look at one of the options that appeared on the 2020 exam paper: 'Write a short story in which a crime or mystery is solved, that begins with a dramatic arrival. You may set your short story in any era and may choose to include or not include the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes.' The first thing students need to do is to underline key words and write them on top of your rough work page, which can be the inside of the cover sheet of your answer booklet. Here, the key words would be 'crime or mystery is solved', 'begins with a dramatic arrival', 'any era', 'include Sherlock Holmes or not'. Thereafter, you need to brainstorm and write down any ideas that come into your head. You have plenty of time to plan and write, usually around 1 hour and 20 minutes, so don't panic! Once you have chosen your best idea, you need to plan your story.

I ask my students to plan their short stories by using headings. The first heading should always be conflict. This is the problem or issue that is faced by your main character or characters. Be as specific and succinct as possible. For example:

1. Conflict: Sherlock Holmes descendent, Sheldon Holmes must discover who killed his aristocratic Aunt Claudia. Once you are clear about the conflict of your story, the rest of the pieces, with a little nudging, usually fall into place.

The other headings that I recommend are:

2. Characters: Brief details about your characters, their ages and primary traits.

3. Setting: Where and when is this story set?

4. Opening: For this example, you have already been given an instruction: begin with a dramatic arrival. Whose arrival will be announced in dramatic fashion in your introduction?

5. Background details: What connects these characters? How do they know each other? What will the reader need to know in order to understand them and the action of the story?

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6. Climax: How is the conflict of your story going to reach the highest point of tension? There must be a climactic moment, a paragraph where the conflict is finally faced by the characters. In this particular story, this would be where the killer is revealed to both Sheldon Holmes and the reader.

7. Resolution: How are you going to conclude your story? What details will be revealed? A good way of looking at your conclusion is to see it as an aftermath, an epilogue to your story. How will this experience affect your characters? For this short story, you will need details on how the killer will be brought to justice and its effect on the other characters.


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Plan your short stories by using headings

Plan your short stories by using headings

Plan your short stories by using headings


Both your brainstorm and plan should take around 20-25 mins. This is the most important part of short story writing. Imaginative thinking and clear planning will ensure that you have the characters and their story fixed firmly in your mind, before you start writing it. Remember to look over the key words from the short story title before you start writing. Examiners will want to make sure that your story contains these key elements, a critical aspect of gaining those all-important marks for purpose. Practise these brainstorming and planning activities for the essay titles from the past exam papers. The more you practise, the better, and faster you will be at creating an excellent short story with clear focus on the title. Key skills to have in your pocket for the Paper 1 exam indeed - and a great way to sharpen your short story skills!


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