Your AQA Paper 1 Narrative Writing needs to be punchy and tightly organised. Learn how to impress your examiners with sophisticated writing techniques.
Remember: this piece of writing is 25% of your entire GCSE English Language grade. Take time to perfect your Narrative Writing and see your marks improve.
This article focuses on Narrative Writing (also known as stories). For information about writing Descriptions, check back soon.
(Narrative writing is also known as: creative writing, fiction writing, the story task.)
1. Narrative Writing organisation – The Story Pyramid
There are 24 marks on offer for ‘Content and Organisation’. Guidance on ‘Content’ is below. First, let’s look at ‘Organisation’.
There are lots of different ways to organise Narrative Writing. However, for your purposes, I recommend only one method: the five-part Story Pyramid.
This hopefully looks familiar. It is very common and versions of it are all over the Internet. It is also the pattern used in many television and film narratives.
Start the story right at the heart of the action. Your characters should not wake up and have breakfast and then decide to do something. The ‘something’ should already be happening. This is sometimes called an in medias res opening which is a Latin phrase that translates, helpfully, as ‘in the middle of things’. So, it’s simple. Start in the middle of things. Top tip: start with dialogue and start with argument/disagreement.
Rising Action + Exposition
You are doing two jobs here. The Rising Action is a series of events, decisions, actions that raise ‘tension’. Your characters are getting in too deep – things are going very badly for them. The Exposition is the process whereby you reveal (‘expose’) crucial background information about your characters. This should happen at the same time as your rising action – not before. As your characters are running from their mysterious pursuers on horseback we learn from their tense conversation that they are siblings and that their parents are dead. Be careful not to reveal unnecessary information – we probably don’t need to know that one of the characters supports Norwich City FC, unless that somehow becomes relevant later in the story.
Note that the Climax is NOT the end of the story, although it could happen quite near the end. This is the moment when things are at their most tense, when the situation is at its worst for the characters. It is also the turning point. After this point, your characters start either to solve their problems (if your story has a happy ending) or to descend into destruction (if it is a sad ending).
This can be a quite short section of the story and the tension of the climax fades away as your characters learn their lessons, realise who their true friends are, acknowledge their mistakes or look up at the stars and wonder what the point of it all is. It all depends on whether you are crafting a happy or a bleak ending to your narrative.
The ending. This connects very tightly to the falling action and could be simply a single sentence, or short paragraph, that wraps up the narrative. It could be a clean resolution – where everything is explained and solved. Or it could be an unresolved resolution – where there is still uncertainty and doubt at the end of the narrative. We might get the sense, for example, that the story is resolved, but only for today. The pursuers are still out there and they could return.
2. Fiction Text Content – The Six Decisions
You need to make some crucial decisions very quickly. Getting these wrong could cause major problems with your narrative. Or, worse, not making the decisions, and writing at random, will almost certainly lead to a messy story.
Choose one verb tense to write the story in, and stick to it. I recommend the past tense as this is the most common in narrative writing and therefore it is likely you are most familiar with it. Bear in mind that whilst the narrator will use the past tense almost exclusively your characters will speak to each other using a range of tenses.
Choose one narrative voice to write the story in, and stick to it. I recommend the third person (he, she, they) as this is the most common in narrative writing and therefore it is likely you are most familiar with it. It will also allow you to create some distance between your narrator and your characters which can lead to some interesting literary effects. However, some tasks instruct you to use the first person (I, we) in which case, of course, follow the instructions.
Decide a setting that you feel able to describe well. It doesn’t have to be a place you have been to (or even a real place) – but you should know that you MUST describe your setting in some detail so don’t set a story in Dublin unless you can name some of the key sights and sounds of the city.
Craft minimum two (maximum three) main characters. Decide their names, age group, social background, back stories and their relationship to each other.
Use the story pyramid to decide the five mains sections of your story. Keep the timeline chronological and continuous. This means you should avoid flashbacks and big time jumps. Your narrative may tell the story of only a few hours in the lives of your characters.
Finally, decide the emotional aspect of the story. Your characters should learn and grow, or fail and wither. A story without this emotional aspect feels empty – your characters do things and then stop doing them. Instead, consider a Story of Redemption: where your characters learn from their mistakes and become better people. Or a Rite of Passage, where your characters transition from one stage of life (youth) to another (adulthood) and suffer and learn as they do.
Now start the story. And remember, this should be a Spark.
Starting with dialogue in the middle of an argument/disagreement is the best way to get things moving.
In fact, starting with your characters moving, is also a great way to get the story moving. Maybe your characters are running, or dancing, or fighting, or swimming? Whatever you decide, the story is already dramatic. Now build from here.
4. Balance of Three Modes
As you write your AQA Paper 1 narrative writing, aim to move regularly between the three narrative modes of action, dialogue and description.
Don’t aim for a perfect balance but it should be clear that each mode is well represented in your story. This will create a varied/interesting story and show off your ability to your examiner as each mode is essentially a different type of writing.
Your characters should be doing things, going places. They should put themselves in danger and make quick, perhaps even foolish decisions. In fact, it is useful to remember that your characters aren’t you so don’t be afraid to put them into the sorts of extreme situations that you would never put yourself into. Your characters should move towards, not away from, the fight, the criminal, the burning building.
Dialogue can drive a story and fill it with drama. It is also useful to you as it is hard to do well and because of this, many students try to avoid it. So, why not be the student who shows off this ability to the examiner? For more info about how to write and punctuate dialogue see my article on dialogue.
Rich description creates a pleasing ‘sense of place’ for your reader and can also help with foreshadowing. With description, don’t forget the literary/poetic techniques you have learnt to recognise in others’ writing. Add them into your own: simile, metaphor, personification, imagery.
Finally, moving between these three modes can help if you ‘dry up’ and don’t know how to move the story on. Simply change mode and see if that can get some momentum back into the story.
5. Show, Don’t Tell
This AQA Paper 1 narrative writing recommendation is difficult for some to understand but it’s well worth trying as Showing rather than Telling is considered by many to be the sign of good literary writing. The prize-winning writers are likely to show rather than tell.
What does it mean? Well, as a narrator you can show a character’s emotion rather than directly tell the reader.
In the following example, the narrator tells the reader quite a lot.
“That’s not fair,” shouted Sonia exasperatedly. “Everyone’s going to the carnival!” She was angry that, yet again, her parents were stopping her from having fun as the exciting street carnival that all her friends were going to, that they’d been talking about for weeks, was in full swing just outside the door. She angrily went back to her room and slyly began planning her escape.The narrator tells us that Sonia is exasperated and angry and then tells us the reason for her anger.
This is fine and certainly gets the job done but it does not allow the reader much of a role. We don’t have to do any interpretation as everything is told to us directly.
Suggestion and implication
In the next example, however, the same information is conveyed more subtly.
“That’s not fair.” Sonia flung her arms out wide and raised her eyes to the heavens. “Everyone’s going to the carnival!” Her parents were used to this display however and stood in the doorway, arms folded. She would not pass. Out in the street, the sounds of the carnival and all the potential for joy and new experiences it represented, taunted Sonia who returned, trapped, to her room, already planning her escape.The narrator does not directly inform us that Sonia is exasperated or angry. Nor is the reason for her anger directly explained. It is however, heavily implied. And the narrator has time then to describe the setting, include some personification and then suggest Sonia’s next steps.
It is a subtle change in style and needs to be practised. One way in is to avoid using adverbs in speech tags. What the character has said and what they then do should express their emotions clearly – we do not need a narrator coming in with a clunky adverb (exasperatedly, angrily, slyly) to make it crystal clear.
This does not mean that the narrator NEVER tells information to the reader. Sometimes, it is the right decision. Getting the balance right is key and, again, takes practice.
6. Technical Accuracy
16 marks are available for technical accuracy in your AQA Paper 1 narrative writing and huge leaps in grades can be made just by taking the time to correct simple errors.
Write 5, Check 2
I recommend you write for 5 minutes then take between 1 and 2 minutes to check for mistakes and make changes. This will still give you plenty of time to write around 500 words, or maybe even more.
It is vital that you give time to checking and changing. In my experience, students say they will definitely spend time checking at the end, but then forget to do so or the time runs out before they get the chance. So many easy marks are lost because of missing capital letters, simple spelling errors or missing question marks.
Pay close attention to paragraphing. It is difficult to solve paragraph problems once you have started writing so make sure you understand the recommended paragraphing style before you start writing.
Spelling should be Standard British English except where you choose non-standard spellings to represent accent and dialect in dialogue. Use these sparingly as you could confuse your reader.
Below are two examples of the same piece of dialogue in the Norfolk dialect. The first is closer to how it would be said but would confuse a reader unfamiliar with the dialect. The second is a compromise: it uses some non-standard spellings to give the feel of the dialect but doesn’t sacrifice being understood by a wider audience
“Yareet bor. Ess gern rane ent ert? Yew gern up setty?”
“All right boy? That’s gonna rain innit? Yew goin’ up the city?”
A well planned story, with a good balance of the three modes (action, dialogue, description) will probably have a good range of sentence forms.
However, just to be sure, as you practise your writing before the exam, get used to checking that you change sentence forms regularly. There should be minor, simple, compound and complex sentences. You should aim to front adverbials and subordinate clauses occasionally. Place the main verb at the end of the sentence. Aim to craft extended noun phrases. Include one or two lists. Present a single word sentence in its own paragraph.
Avoid Comma Splicing
Check that what looks like a long sentence isn’t, in fact, lots of sentences which you have failed to begin and end (‘demarcate’) correctly. Simply using commas repeatedly, rather than full stops (or other relevant punctuation) is a major problem and will see you lose many marks.
Think carefully before you just stick another comma down: is this the beginning of a new sentence? Am I moving on the topic? If so, I am almost certainly starting a new sentence.
Another way to think about it is that commas aren’t actually that common, especially in the sort of writing you are doing. If you have used loads, there are almost certainly lots of missing full stops. Also, students regularly forget to use full stops in dialogue. A short section of dialogue could contain a surprising amount of sentences.
“No. No way. Not again. This is the last time I let you get away with it. You will pay,” said Efan advancing on his bully.Five sentences in one short section of dialogue.
If you handwrite your AQA Paper 1 narrative writing, as most do, you must make sure your handwriting is clear. It does not have to be pretty but it should be consistent and follow convention.
- make sure that your capital letters are clearly bigger than other letters
- be sure that the letters that ‘rise’ (t, l, h, k) do indeed rise higher than the letters that don’t ‘rise’ (e, a, u)
- make sure that the letters that ‘fall’ (p, j, y) do indeed fall below the line
- your loops should be rounded and closed where relevant – your a should not look like a u.
7. Read Sample Narratives
I have written a series of AQA Paper 1 narrative writing style texts that exemplify the advice that I give my students.
One is available to download as a workbook here and the others will shortly be available to download together in a comprehensive narrative writing workbook and will include:
- Planning advice
- Sample plan
- Sample opening
- Space for writing
- Full sample story
- Questions (with answers) to help improve understanding of writing technique
As always, the best way to learn about good writing is to read good writing – even if I do say so myself!
8. In Conclusion
Getting top marks in AQA Paper 1 narrative writing is hard and does not come naturally. Also, in my experience, many students have not done writing like this since primary school so are completely out of practice.
So, the message is: practise! It’s actually (possibly) quite a fun way to prepare for an exam. Better than repeating algebra equations – maybe?!