Opening Your Story & Setting the Scene in Writing for the 11+: Examples to Learn From

Eleven-Plus Preparation Specialists

Setting the scene is vital when attempting the creative writing section of the 11+ exam. In order to learn how to best do that, let’s look at some examples of great openings from works of literature. For each, we’ll think about what they do well, and how you could use that in your own writing. We’ll look at books that you might read at the age of 11 as a particularly avid reader, or later at school. The lessons learnt are simple, and can be applied with simplicity. Remember never to plagiarise any work that you enjoy, but instead practise writing openings that use the same tools, or elicit the same emotions as those featured – or those that you particularly like yourself.


‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.’ This simple opening line is often held up as one of the greatest in literature. Why? Because it is incredibly simple and easy to digest. There’s no excess, nothing unnecessary at all. We understand exactly when it is, and what time of day it is. We can picture a scene too – the beginning of Spring, still cool, a pale sun overheard. What can you learn from this? That you don’t need complex openings, or even to be too reliant on imagery. You can set the scene and open your piece well by being precise.

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Moby Dick

‘Call me Ishmael. Some years ago — never mind how long precisely — having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.’ This is a completely different example, and shows how vague thoughts – a ‘stream of consciousness’ as it is called – can also entice the reader. This is because the reader can easily imagine themselves thinking in this way too – it is relatable. Humans are not necessarily ‘certain’ about many things. In fact, we don’t even know if he is called Ishmael – only that we should refer to him as such. This might prompt you to start with a thought, or even a rhetorical question asked of the reader.

Fahrenheit 451

‘It was a pleasure to burn.’
Back to simplicity. A line like this would undoubtedly stop any examiner in their tracks! Indeed, it might not be too difficult to think about this and understand why it works so well – because it is dark, arresting, and appeals to that darker side of someone’s personality. How could you replicate this? Something like, ‘There was beauty in his ugliness.’ Simple, and it throws the reader off.

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‘As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.’ One of the most famous opening lines of all time, this has in fact been used in 11+ exams as a prompt – so is great to consider for your creative writing. It is surreal, and immediately grabs the reader. Why is it so matter-of-fact, yet so strange? Who is Gregor Samsa? How could something like this happen? We are full of questions, and want to read on.

Invisible Man

I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind.’ Much like Moby Dick, we have here something more like a stream of consciousness – we are in the narrator’s head, and their delivery is realistic. We follow their thoughts, and want to know what they might think – or say – next.

The Outsider (L’Étranger)

‘Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know. I had a telegram from the home: ‘Mother passed away. Funeral tomorrow. Yours sincerely.’ That doesn’t mean anything. It may have been yesterday.’ This is arguably the most famous opening line in all of literature. The themes of the book are beyond the reading level of an 11 year old, but what you should take from this is the deliberate vagueness. It is strange, utterly bizarre. How could someone care so little? We are drawn in. You could seek to replicate this strangeness – or that seen in Metamorphosis above too.

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