BBC 500 Words Tips For Writers
Posted by Ruth Graham


500 WORDS 2016

It’s great to see the Chris Evans show is running this competition again. Since 2011  it’s fired up the imagination of schoolkids all over the country, encouraging them to write creatively and succinctly, whilst simultaneously entertaining the nation.

The concept is simple – just write a story in no more than 500 words – hence BBC 500 Words! Not an easy task to write a story of this length, but every year the entries manage to amaze us with their creativity and ingenuity. It’s heart-warming to think that all over the land, classrooms full of children are beavering away as part of their English curriculum, plotting these short stories, stretching their minds and boundaries in new ways.

To those who despair of the ‘youth’ of today, it’s a timely reminder that not all is lost. I’d encourage anyone with a spark of creativity to have a go. Sometimes, it’s just a case of letting go, of pre-conceptions and boundaries – you’d be amazed what comes out when you let it.

The judges are selected from librarians and teachers around the country. They whittle the entries down to the top  50. A panel of best-selling authors (including Charlie Higson and Francesca Simon – the author of the Horrid Henry series), will then pick the winners in the age categories 5 – 9 years, and 10 – 13 years.

The website has lots of advice (just type BBC 500 words into Google), and the winning entries from previous years to inspire you. But if you have time – here are a few tips on creative writing from me too:


1) Show emotion through action:
Tell us your character is happy/angry/sad by something they do, but you DON’T need to qualify it afterwards. For example – somebody is angry, so they punch the table. Or the ‘smash’ their fist into the table. By this action, we can see they are angry. You don’t then need to say, “Billy smashed his fist into the table angrily.” Just, “Billy punched the table,”  will tell us that he’s angry. When you’re writing a short piece, and every word counts, this is a useful tip.

2) Current Affairs Can Get Repetitive:
Many of the stories tend to have repetitive themes – one year it was Ronaldo. Another year many stories were based around the floods the UK was suffering. If you can stay away from what thousands of other people are doing, then you may stand a better chance.

3) Try a bit of reverse thinking for ideas. 
To generate ideas, take a place, or a theme or an object – and make it do something it wouldn’t normally do: For example: 
A dog that moos? Or a duck that barks. Think about it – what happened to the animals to make them that way? Will they ever be normal again? Have they learnt to impersonate other animals for some reason?
What about a window that you can never see through. Is it trying to protect you from what’s on the other side? 
Or how about music nobody can hear, except for animals.
Or maybe a ghost that everybody can see. It’s sick of being seen, and longs to go back to being invisible so it can get on with its job of haunting people.
Or what about a  car that will only ever drive to one place. Why is this? What is it trying to get the owner to discover?

4) The Scissor Idea Generator:
Write a name or a place or a thought on a scrap of paper. Do this ten, twenty or thirty times – whatever you feel like doing. Then put the papers out in a line or a list format. Try and link them with a bit of dialogue to see if there is any mileage in writing a story around it.

5) What’s Your Genre?
Genre means ‘type’ of writing. Are you a budding crime writer? Or do you prefer comedy, or romance. Maybe you’ve a historical twist to your story. Think about the stories you’ve read in the past that have inspired you – perhaps that’s the way to go.

6) Use The Washing Line Method For Ideas:
This is one of my favourites. Frank Cottrell Boyce (one of the judges) used this idea when he was planning the Olympic opening ceremony. It’s simple – just string up a washing line. Then write some ideas on Post-it notes. Attach them to the washing line with pegs. Add more ideas as they come. Move them around if they don’t fit or flow very well, until they do. You can pin up character ideas and traits or events – it works for everything! This is a creative timeline – it will help lift your story off the page, and put it right in front of you, making it easier to see and work with. It really helped me when I was writing a full length musical – fingers crossed it does the same for you.

7) Language is King!
We have one of the richest languages in the world – and it’s not a crime to use it well. When you have a vocabulary at your fingertips, the world opens up. You can certainly express yourself better. When I taught English in prison to young offenders, one of the things I noticed most was the lack of language. These young men of between 16 – 21 were so limited, because they literally hadn’t got the words. I watched them get frustrated and violent (almost like toddlers), because they couldn’t string together a coherent sentence to express themselves. Language is the key to a richer life. 

Use descriptive words and phrases, pillar-box red is so much better than just red. An effervescent smile brings to mind a beaming smile; an infectious personality implies a lovely sunny person. Having a selection box of words means you don’t have to write long sentences  – one great adjective can say it all. 
On the flip side –  avoid using the same word over and over again. For example:
I had a bad day at school, so as I walked home from school I was worried. When I got in mum said, “How was school?” I said, “School was OK, but I don’t want to talk about it now.”  That’s an extreme example, but you can see it adds nothing to the interest of the story. It would be better:

I had a bad day at school, so as I walked home, I was worried. When I got in mum said, “How was your day?” I said, “It was OK, but I don’t want to talk about it now.” 

8) Bring a scene to life through description:

 – Use comparisons to draw a picture for the reader (or listener).  For example – imagine a row of terraced houses, all higgledy piggledy ‘like a row of broken teeth stretching along the street’.

 – Use adjectives (describing words) to give detail. Don’t just say ‘the brown bird flew overhead’ – embellish it a little, ‘the large brown bird swooped and dived through the trees of the back garden’, makes a much clearer mental image. From that sentence, we see the bird’s size, we know what it’s doing, and we know where it is – painting a much clearer picture for the reader.

– Engage the senses – sight, sound, touch, smell and hearing. If you can describe something and involve one or two of the senses, things become vivid and alive.


I could figuratively go on forever, but I do hope some of these tips have helped. Good luck to everybody with your attempts in the #500words competition 2016.