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.

Updated Gatsby Module

I have updated the module on The Great Gatsby to ERWC 3.0.  This version includes the new 3.0 cells.  I eliminated some of the possible literary approaches and streamlined it a bit.  I now have a short writing assignment after each section so that instead of one module “arc” it has four mini arcs.   It is currently being piloted by at least one teacher.  After the pilot, I will create a teacher version.  If you have a chance to pilot it, please give me feedback.

The post on the older version is here.

The Gatsby Module: A Draft

I have finished a draft of the Gatsby module (Note: new ERWC 3.0 draft here, as of 10/12/17). This is a complete student version that is ready for feedback and perhaps piloting. It has not been put into the official format, nor has it been edited for consistency. It has not been aligned with standards, though I think the alignments are easy to see.

I need to create a teacher version, so some feedback from teachers on what is unclear would be helpful. This is the first module that prominently features the “arc” language–preparing, understanding, questioning, selecting, writing, revising–so feedback on how that works would be much appreciated. Also, there are some activities here that have not been used before.

Module Description

This module is designed for 11th grade, probably near the end of the first semester. It is designed to allow students to explore multiple critical perspectives and develop their own approach to the novel. There are five possible writing prompts. Each asks students to take a position, write a thesis statement, and support their arguments with evidence from the text. The module does not require students to read secondary sources or do any research. The focus is entirely on the novel itself.

Module Background

The Great Gatsby is among the recommended texts for 11th grade in the CCSS and has been in the 11th grade curriculum for decades. It is a superbly written novel with a complex, multi-faceted structure, flawed but interesting characters, and engaging themes and issues. It is also short. Much is packed into its 180 pages.

The novel is bristling with symbols, metaphors and other literary devices, carefully deployed, but also easy to find and interpret. It is common in teaching this novel to focus on these devices. This module includes those discussions, but also enables other approaches. The overall approach is something I call “Guided Reader Response.” The activities invoke a possible perspective, focus on particular aspects of the text, and allow students to draw their own conclusions and make their own interpretations, building up to their own reading of the novel, which they will express in the final paper. As they work through the novel, they will write down vocabulary, make predictions, create summaries at various points, and share their interpretations with others.

This module has been designed to be significantly shorter than previous literary modules in ERWC, such as 1984 or Brave New World. It should take about four weeks to complete.

Kenneth Burke’s Pentad and Gatsby

As I was describing different approaches to Gatsby in the introductory part of the module I wrote a section called “People and Places” using the Burkean Pentad.  My goal was to introduce just enough Burke to be of use without confusing.  Apparently, I failed.  Several people told me that this was too confusing for 11th graders.  I thought I would post it here to see what others thought.


In A Grammar of Motives critic Kenneth Burke describes a five-term system for analyzing the motivation of characters that he calls the “pentad.”

  • Act—What was done? “What took place in thought or deed?”
  • Scene—Where and when was it done? (Place, Context, Background, Situation)
  • Agent—Who did it? (What person or kind of person, what co-agents or counter-agents)
  • Agency—By what means or with what instruments was it done?
  • Purpose—Why was it done?

Burke combines these terms into what he calls “ratios.” We often think that when people do something, they do it either because of their inherent nature (agent-act) or because of their purpose (purpose-act). However, in this novel, where someone comes from, especially if they come from the east or the west, or if they come from a poor neighborhood or a rich one, makes a big difference in how other people see them. Burke would call this a scene-agent ratio. In this ratio, the “scene,” which can be a place, a culture, or a historical moment, forms the nature and character of the “agent,” the person who acts. It is also possible for the scene in which the act takes place to motivate the act. In this novel, the action moves from East Egg to West Egg, and from East Egg to New York, passing through “the Valley of Ashes.” In each place, different kinds of action occur. Burke would call this a scene-act ratio. The place motivates the kind of act.

As you read, note where characters come from and how people feel about them. For example, at one point, Tom Buchanan calls Gatsby “Mr. Nobody from Nowhere” (130). That is the scene-agent ratio. For Tom, that is the ultimate insult. Also note what kinds of things people do in different locations and circumstances. For example, people behave differently in Gatsby’s party house than they do elsewhere. That is the scene-act ratio.

Literary Devices in Gatsby

As I write the module on The Great Gatsby, one of my concerns is how to deal with the issue of literary devices.  I don’t want the students to be intimidated by “hidden meanings.”  I don’t want them to go figure hunting as if they are bird watchers logging sightings of rare specimens.  However, I do want them to be able to interpret the novel, to appreciate the language, and not to be put off by Fitzgerald’s indirect ways.  My first move in this direction was the introduction for students which I posted earlier.

In the section below I am trying to explain how symbols, metaphors, similes, and irony work.  Many of the definitions I found on the web were too complex or confusing, even contradictory.  Others went too deep into semiotics or linguistics, attempting to describe cognitive processes or to create a host of types and sub-types.  I just want students to have a basic working understanding of figurative language so that they can read the novel with pleasure and understanding.  I want to empower them rather than intimidate them.

Please give feedback in the comments.


Although reading literature is not like an Easter egg hunt in which the reader is looking for hidden meanings buried behind symbols and metaphors, such devices are part of the novel and do have meaning. For example, automobiles are common in this novel. At this time, the automobile is a fairly recent introduction into American culture. Traffic lights to control intersections were introduced around the time the novel was written. In the novel, automobiles are meticulously described. Characters drive them, buy them, sell them, repair them, crash them, and sometimes the wheels fall off. People are killed by them. Is the automobile a symbol of some aspect of American culture? Is steering a car a metaphor for a new kind of American life? It is up to you, the reader, to decide. Maybe a car is just a car. Maybe it is more. Symbols take on their meaning from context and from the evolving value that they have for the characters and the reader. It is never a simple matter of “Symbol X equals Meaning Y.”

Let’s say that the automobile is a symbol of American technological progress. What is implied if the wheels fall off? What is implied if the automobile kills someone?

Some definitions:

A symbol is something concrete (like the automobile) that represents or stands for an abstract idea (such as progress). Symbols are usually related to major themes in the work and may reoccur several times. The symbol does not necessarily resemble the symbolized idea or share any of its qualities. For example, the American flag is a symbol of the United States, but it does not look like the country. The stars on the flag may symbolize the individual states that are the current components of the union and the stripes may symbolize the original states that joined at the beginning, but the states are not like stars or stripes in any way.

A metaphor causes us to see one thing in terms of something else. On page 2, Nick Carraway talks about “the foul dust” that “floated in the wake of Gatsby’s dreams.” There are two metaphors here. First, the dust is not literally dust, but at this point we don’t know exactly what it is. We will find out what dreams Gatsby has and what the foul consequences are as we continue reading. Second, the dust floats in the “wake” of Gatsby’s dreams. As a boat travels through the water it creates a turbulent track behind it which is called the “wake.” So Gatsby’s dreams are being compared to a boat that leaves foul dust floating behind it. But wait a minute! “Wake” is also another word for funeral. Could that be what it means here? It seems unlikely because the word “floating” is associated with water, which triggers the association with a boat. Note that these are not “hidden meanings.” The metaphors are just part of the way that the sentence creates meaning.

A simile is a type of metaphor that uses “like” or “as” or other comparison words to connect the ideas. The most famous simile ever is probably by the poet, Robert Burns, who wrote, “My love is like a red, red rose,” comparing a woman to a flower. In The Great Gatsby, when Nick is criticizing Jordan’s driving he says, to the reader, not to Jordan, “I am slow thinking and full of interior rules that act as brakes on my desires” (58). This statement compares his “interior rules” to the “brakes” on an automobile. Similes such as this are very common in fiction.

Irony is also common in this novel. The word “irony” comes from a Greek word that means to pretend. There are many types of irony, but in all types the surface meaning is different, often the opposite, of what is intended, creating a humorous effect. For example, if a person walking in pouring rain meets another person and says, “Beautiful day, isn’t it?” that would be an ironic statement. Another common form of irony is understatement. Say a woman who is very afraid of spiders finds a spider in her sink, rolls up a magazine and in a panic hits the spider 20 times. Her roommate says, “Do you think that’s enough?” In Gatsby, irony often takes the form of exaggeration, such as when Nick arrives at Daisy’s house and she says, “I’m paralyzed with happiness” (8).

You will find many examples of these and other literary devices in the novel. Take note of these, discuss them with your classmates, and think about how they influence your reading of the novel.

Using Gatsby to Teach Inference

In Common Core under “Reading Literature” the first 11th/12th grade standard states:

Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.

The following activity asks students to determine whether specific statements about the novel are implied by the text, are true according to the text, are exaggerated, or are false. Then they share their charts with a partner and discuss their choices and their reasons for making them. This activity engages the students on several levels. It is a comprehension check, but most of the answers are debatable in or way or another. It requires students to interpret the text based on evidence and discuss or defend those interpretations with others.

In the example below, I provide only the statements for the first chapter. The completed module will have statements for each chapter.


Reading: Annotating and Questioning the Text

Skim the following statements before you read the chapter (the numbers in parentheses refer to pages in the Scribner paperback edition of 2004). After reading, go back and put an X or a check mark in the box that you think best describes the truthfulness of the statement. Use the following criteria:

  • “Implied” means that the text does not specifically say that the statement is a fact, but it is a reasonable conclusion to make.
  • “True” means that in the world of the story, this statement is factual.
  • “Exaggerated” means that the statement has some truth in it, but it overstates the facts (hyperbole).
  • “False” means that in the world of the story, the statement is false.

After filling out the chart, share your answers with a partner. If you don’t agree on every statement, discuss your reasoning and your evidence for your answers.

The first six are done for you to demonstrate how it works. Number 1 is clear. Your answer to number 2 might depend on how you define “friends.” Nick and Tom know each other, but they are not close. They are more like acquaintances. Number 3 is “exaggerated” because although Daisy knows people in Chicago who miss her, it is not the whole city and those people are not “desolate.” Number 4 is clear. Daisy has a daughter, though we do not see her at this point. Number 5 is “exaggerated” because although Jordan may have been lying on the couch for several hours, she probably remembers her life before the couch. Number 6 is a difficult one. Tom has been reading a racist book and he tries to summarize the arguments in it, but doesn’t present much detail. The others don’t seem to value his analysis very much, so “implied” is a good answer. One could argue, however, that Tom is smarter than George Wilson.


You may find that something that is implied at one point in the novel is confirmed as a fact, or proven false, later in the novel. This is part of the fun of reading a novel.

Reader Response Theories and How They Might Be Integrated in the ERWC Template

ERWC has always had the word “expository” in its name. Back in 2003, English Language Arts was still mostly about teaching literary texts, although the California English Language Arts standards required the teaching of multiple genres including expository texts. The role of the course was to provide teachers with a structured way to teach expository and persuasive texts, which we always defined broadly. ERWC allowed teachers to meet standards that were often left behind as they focused on literature, which was what they knew and loved.

However, ERWC has always contained literary texts. Now, as ERWC is offered on some campuses as a replacement for traditional senior English, and as ERWC expands into other grade levels, it is important to define the ERWC approach to literature. I think it is based on Reader Response theory.

Reader Response theory is naturally rhetorical because it allows authorial intention and reader affect back into the game after being sent to the penalty box for many decades by the New Criticism, under the guise of the “Intentional Fallacy” and the “Affective Fallacy.” I think that “Guided Reader Response” (my term for it) is the ERWC way. But I don’t think that this is actually something new for ERWC. It is just a different way of thinking about what we have always done. ERWC has always been interested in how authors achieve their aims and how students think and feel about what they read.

The descriptions that follow are based on a summary of various versions of Reader Response theory in Critical Theory Today: A User Friendly Guide by Lois Tyson (173-82). I have indicated where these activities inspired by Reader Response theory might fit in the ERWC Assignment Template.

1. Transactional Reader Response (Reading/Annotating and Questioning the Text)

This approach emphasizes determinate meaning versus indeterminate meaning, which could be rewritten as “facts” (in the universe of the story or in the mind of the narrator) versus “implications” or “inferences.” So we can ask students, “What are the facts? What are the implications? Have any previously noted “facts” become questionable as the story progresses? Have any implications resolved into facts? Following Wolfgang Iser, we can also ask about “gaps” in the text that the reader must imagine. Sometimes this is a matter of “scene” and “summary,” i.e. some action is described in full, some is simply summarized. Other action happens offstage and must be imagined. A good creative writing exercise is to take something that is summarized or offstage and ask students to write it as a scene.

2. Affective Stylistics (Reading/Analyzing Stylistic Choices)

This approach involves a slow motion, phrase by phrase analysis of how the text structures the reader’s experience. We can ask, “As the sentence unfolds in time, how does it affect you, the reader? What effects do the words, the sentence structure, and the punctuation have on you?” (This approach is somewhat phenomenological.)

3. Subjective Reader Response (This is based on David Bleich.)

Experience-Oriented Response (Postreading/ Summarizing and Responding)

Discuss your reactions to the text, describing how specific passages made you feel, think, or associate. What do you think of the characters, their behaviors, characteristics and actions? How do specific word choices make you feel?

Response-Analysis Statement (Postreading/Reflecting on Your Reading Process)

Look at your “Experience-Oriented Response.” What was your response to the text as a whole? Did the text engage you? Why or why not? Did you enjoy the text, or did it make you uncomfortable or disappointed? What emotions did you experience while reading it, and why?