Teaching Story Craft

When I first started teaching the science fiction class at the university, I struggled with what sort of paper I could expect from the students.  Because it was a G.E. course, I had a lot of aspiring engineers and scientists in the class and very few English majors.  I couldn’t expect them to know how to do close reading or apply literary theory.  My solution was to teach them story craft.   First, we talk about how science fiction starts from a “What if?” question, imagining a world with a fundamental change of some kind, often regarding new technology.  Then we talk about character, setting, plot, and style. As I continued to teach the course, I added some material about the difficulties of exposition, point of view, and verb tense.  Then I added some discussion of different ways of representing dialogue.

My original intention was to teach these concepts so that they could write more insightful critical papers.  However, it soon became clear that many students wanted to use these techniques to write their own stories.   I thought it was cool that engineers wanted to write stories, so I began offering a choice of assignments, a critical paper or a short story.  In current versions of the course, about 90% of the students choose to write a story.

I created a four-page handout with advice about the basics of story craft.  You can download it here.

I warn them about some of the typical mistakes new short story writers make.  The most common problem is to have two and a half pages of exposition about the world and the character before anything happens.  In every published story we read, I read the first sentence or two aloud and ask, “What expectations do these sentences create?  What does the writer imply about the character and the world?  How does this grab your interest?”  And I ask them, “How many pages of a story would you read if it is all description and nothing is happening?”  They admit that they would get bored.  But they still write these stories.

The other common problems usually involve weaknesses in characters or worlds, a lack of conflict or motivation, or too much influence from current TV, movies, or video games.  We might have a highly developed character that is some version of the writer, with not much of a world and no real conflict.  Or we might have a highly detailed and well-planned world with cardboard characters.

I don’t worry too much about these problems.  They are beginners.  It is probably the first science fiction story they have ever written and it may be their last.  Still, learning the craft and applying it causes them to read stories with greater awareness.  They learn to tell good writing from bad, as long as it is not their own.  And I always get some good stories.  I can tell because I forget I am grading and get engaged with the story as a story.

In addition to the handout linked above, I have a couple of templates for  character development and world building.  These can be used by new writers to think more deeply about their characters and the worlds they inhabit.  It is also interesting to divide the students into small groups and have some of them design a character while others build a world.  Half-way through the activity, you merge the groups and see what happens when one group’s character is thrown into another group’s world.  This requires some adjustments, as when one group’s fish-like being ends up on another group’s desert world with three suns.

This course is one of my favorites to teach and a big part of that is watching them learn to analyze and write science fiction stories using these concepts.

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