The Writing paper for Cambridge English: Preliminary (PET), at B1 level, comprises 3 parts:
- Part 1: Sentence transformation
- Part 2: Short message (35 – 45 words)
- Part 3: Email/Letter or story (about 100 words)
In this post we will see how to write a story at B1 level for your Preliminary (PET – B1) exam. The story is one of the options in Writing Part 3 and, in my view, the difficult one, the easier being the email. We already saw how to write an email or letter, but you still need to know how to write a story properly, so let’s get on with this.
What do you have to do in Writing Part 3?
In this part of the test, you are given some instructions to write a story in about 100 words. These instructions may involve the title or the first or last sentence of the story. Why do they give you this prompt? Well, if they asked you to simply “write a story”, you could memorise a story at home and simply write it out in the exam, which isn’t really fair.
The good thing about choosing the story over the letter is that you have more freedom to write. But first, let’s take a look at an example taken from Cambridge English sample papers:
What is a story?
According to the OxfordDictionaries.com, a story is “an account of imaginary or real people and events told for entertainment”. For this reason, precisely, you have plenty more freedom to write, as you can make up most of the story. But just like it happens with every other type of writing, a story must follow a particular structure which makes sense to the reader. So let’s move on to the different parts of a story.
Parts of a Story
A story can roughly be divided into the following parts:
- Title: The title should either summarise the whole story (without spoilers!) or have something to do with the main theme.
- Exposition: This is the beginning of the story, where the characters and setting are established. It serves as the introduction to the next part, the action, and the so-called conflict of our story.
- Action: In this part, the characters deal with conflict and do things to solve it.
- Resolution: This is where the conflict is resolved and the story concludes with an ending, normally without any loose ends.
Now that we know the different parts of a story, we should see an example.
Cambridge English: Preliminary (PET) – Writing Part 3: Story
Let’s take a look at the following example of a Preliminary (PET) task answer for Writing Part 3, where we can see an answer to the sample task we saw above:
In the example above you can see the different parts of a story very well defined. Just like with emails or letters, your story should be visually appealing. For this reason I recommend the following:
- Write your title in capital letters.
- Leave a clear space between paragraphs.
Expressions to use in your story
In this section, we are going to focus on different expressions you can use in the different parts of a story. While the vocabulary used in the story will vary completely, depending on the topic, there is a set of expressions which you can make use of quite frequently if you memorise them beforehand. Let’s take a look:
Beginning a story
When you start a story, if the first sentence isn’t given to you, you can use phrases like these:
- It all began…
- When I first…
- At the beginning…
- It was a hot/cold summer/winter day.
Just to be clear, these are only some simple examples which you can use, as there is no right or wrong way to start a story. That’s the beauty of it! 😍
One of the great differences between writing a letter, essay, article and so on, and writing a story is the need to pay careful attention to the time over which the story develops. In order to define the order of the events in the story, we must use time expressions or time phrases. So let’s see a few:
- After that
- Not long aftewards
- As soon as
- Some time later
- A little later
- ____ minutes later
- a moment later
- Later (that morning/afternoon/day/night…)
- Just then
It is essential to use these expressions properly. Otherwise, it won’t be clear exactly how the story develops.
When writing a story, the aim is not to inform or to convey information; the real purpose is to entertain the reader, just like when you read a novel you expect to be entertained. For this reason, a story, even a story for Preliminary (PET) Writing Part 3 should aim to do so: entertain. And a cool way to entertain is to create suspense, which we can do by using some of the following expressions:
- All of a sudden
- Without warning
- Just at that moment
- Out of the blue
- Out of nowhere
- Right away
- Straight away
In every story there are characters and they usually interact with each other, so it is always good if you know how to use direct speech, that is, reproduce the words the characters actually say or think. The tricky bit about this is the punctuation and the verbs to choose, because it’s good to use some verbs other than “say”. Let’s take a look at some examples:
- “I’m coming with you,” she said.
- She said, “I’m coming with you.”
- “Do you like it?” he asked.
- “Don’t do it!” he screamed.
Pay close attention at where the comma (,) or other punctuation marks go (?, !). Also, don’t forget to use inverted commas (“…”) to enclose the direct speech. In British English we normally use single inverted commas (‘…’), but it’s not important so choose the one that suits you best.
Finishing your story
This paragraph, the resolution, should be separated from the rest, and it’s a good idea to start it with one of the following expressions:
- In the end
- When it was all over
- After everything that happened
Again, these are just a few examples. There’s no right or wrong way to conclude a story, as long as it makes sense with the rest of the piece of writing.
One of the reasons why stories are particularly challenging for B1 students is that they tend to take place in the past, which makes it necessary to use a range of past tenses approriately. The main three past tenses you should really try to use are the following:
- Past simple (-ed/irregular form)
- Past continuous
- Past perfect
If you take a look at the example of Writing Part 3 above, you’ll see how I used these tenses in combination, when possible:
- Past simple and continuous:
It was midnight and I was trying to sleep.
- Past perfect and simple:
I had completely forgotten it was my birthday.
- Past simple:
This time I picked up the phone quickly and shouted, “Hello?!”.
So that’s how you should try to tell your story. Please avoid a simple succession of past simple tenses alone, like:
I woke up and got out of bed. Then I went to the kitchen and made some coffee.
It’s not wrong, but it’s just not good enough for a story. 😉
Another example of Preliminary (PET): Writing Part 3
Now that we know what expressions we should be using when writing a story and how to combine the different tenses, let’s take another look at another task and a sample answer:
In the story above you can see different things:
- Well-defined structure: 3 clear paragraphs.
- A variety of past tenses: past simple (was tired, didn’t want, etc.), past continuous (was getting off, was sleeping, etc.) and past perfect (had broken, had stopped, etc.).
- Time expressions: in the end, when, a few hours later.
- Suspense elements: all of a sudden, without a warning.
Top 5 Tips for Preliminary (PET) Writing Part 3 (Story)
- Learn, memorise and use some of these expressions. Make sure you already know a set of expressions to use in your next story. This will not only avoid you making mistakes, but also it will make your story so much better! It will give you points to use those expressions.
- Write a well-structured and visually-appealing story. One of the things Cambridge English examiners pay attention to is the organisation of your piece writing, so make sure not to write an incoherent story. Also, remember that punctuation matters, so be sure to separate your sentences with stops and commas and don’t write sentences which are too long.
- Brainstorm before you write. Before starting to write your story, brainstorm a couple of things and write down some ideas. This can include vocabulary related to the topic, connectors, time phrases, etc. Also, decide before writing how the story is going to end.
- Revise, edit and improve. Don’t write all at once and then move on. Once you have finished your story go over it. Look for possible mistakes. Look for ways to improve it, maybe adding adjectives here and there. You can save many points by simply reviewing what you’ve written.
- Experiment at home, be conservative in the exam. Homework is the best chance to be creative and experiment with stories. So make sure you try your hardest to keep improving when you write at home. On the other hand, when you’re doing an exam, don’t risk trying out new words or expressions, as you may be making a terrible mistake. So be safe in your exam and stick to what you already know works.
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