Understanding the Structure of a Story

Eleven-Plus Preparation Specialists

If you’re asked to write a short story as part of the creative writing section, then you’ll need to think about how to structure that story. There are various different ways of structuring a story, from basic through to much more complex – and of course there are those that eschew structure all together. However, for the 11+ your goal is to show that you understand a simple and effective structure. The best one to choose is a story in three parts – commonly known as beginning, middle and end – or as introduction, confrontation, resolution. I’ll call the sections introduction, confrontation and resolution here as I find these descriptors are clearer, and will help you to set yourself apart from other students. We’ll look at each section in turn.


This is the first part of your story. What’s the goal here? You need to introduce your reader to your character, or characters, and provide general context. Where are they? When is the story set? What is the general tone of the story? As an example, you might introduce a boy called Ralf, and provide some information about him – perhaps his age, his motivations, his fears, and his appearance. Then, set him in his scene. Perhaps he is in a countryside village, with a pub and a sweet shop. You could make it clear when the story is set too, through little details – a cart, a man on a horse riding through the square, and the vicar talking to a farmer, for example, would serve to set the story sometime in a bucolic past. Ralf riding a Ray-Bike through a neon-drenched city centre would serve to set the story in some sort of future. You don’t need to tell the reader when the story is set, or tell the reader what your character is like – show them instead. At some point in this section of the story, you should move into the ‘inciting incident’ – this is the event or cause that will lead your character into the main part of the narrative. Perhaps Ralf sees a bully in the village square.

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Here, your character needs to take on a challenge. In the example we’ve been considering so far, this means that the bully might come over to him and engage him. Ralf’s day has become more difficult, and he needs to step up. This is the ‘meat’ of the story in many ways – we begin to doubt whether Ralf will be OK, and feel ourselves supporting him against the odds that he is facing. We wonder how he will get out of this difficult situation. You might want to have the situation gradually worsen, until it seems that Ralf is out of his depth and likely to suffer at the hands of the bully. You can map this technique across to any other story – a man stealing a horse, for example, might suddenly be discovered by a guard. A young woman desperately in love with a young man might find that he is betrothed to someone else.


This is the final part of your story. Here, you will typically resolve the situation – unless, of course, you want to aim for something a little darker. You need to make sure that you tie the threads together in a satisfying way, through having your character – or someone else who has been introduced as their supporter – dealing with the problems that they are facing. Here, young Ralf might suddenly find a surge of bravery and fight back against the bully, and come to the realisation that he need no longer be afraid. The horse thief might manage to charm the guard into thinking that he works there, and make good his escape. The young woman might realise, after speaking to the man, that he is secretly in love with her, and will leave his betrothed for her.

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Top Tips

Don’t become too bogged down in creating the ‘perfect’ narrative – much of the marks are for engaging the reader, but you will always be marked for imagery, description, grammar and spelling too. Therefore, focus on a simple narrative that has a rewarding payoff for the reader. Practise writing short stories until you find a process that works for you.
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