Today, I taught my first creative writing class for FELS. I’ve lead workshops before and I’ve taught college level classes before, but this was the first time I got to do the thing I’m going to Grad school to do.
It was fun. Nerve-wracking, but fun.
This thing I must want to talk about is what this class really responded too. There were a couple things that made some people just light up and I think I ought to lead with those in the future.
First was the explanation of Hero + Conflict = Story which is what I called the course. I started by talking about writing techniques (pantsing vs. plotting). These are different writing techniques, both are valid ways to tackle a project. A pantser “writes by the seat of their pants”, asks mainly “what if” questions, and make everything us as they go. This means they sometime write into a wall, don’t know the end, and run out of steam. Stephen King and Neil Gaiman and Nora Roberts are pantsers. A plotter is someone who meticulously organizes their story beforehand, asks mainly “what happens next”, and writes a pretty clean first draft. This means plotters sometimes think about stories and never actually write them, get blocked if they run into a section of the story they have not outlined, or run out of inspiration and write dryly. J.K. Rowlings, James Patterson, and J.R.R. Tolkien are plotters.
The basic building blocks of any story are a good central character and an interesting conflict. Someone we care about and the bad thing that happens to them.
For example, you can get away with a lot of the same story in a romance novel or murder mystery because we care about the character. Sherlock Holmes, Monk, House, all rely on the same formula crazy guy solves mystery and it’s the strength of that character that makes these successful. A romance reader knows the main characters will end up together and the writer has to have strong conflict and characters to “trick” the reader into believing they could fail.
At the same time, a writer can get away with having less interesting characters if the conflict is fever pitch height. There’s been a million movies about war, but we are still super interested in them because the stakes are so high. Action films and horror books can have flimsy characters and still be successful because of the conflict. Think about any movie or book you’ve read where you can describe the car chase or the plot, but refer to the lead as “that blond guy” or “the woman- you know… her-”
Obviously a writer wants to do both of these things at the same time. We want a Rick from Casablanca, who’s cynic and romantic, a coward and a hero and we want to see him facing against the Nazi’s while choosing to lose the love of his life. We want Isla from Frozen to have terrifying life-ending powers and free herself from confusion, repression, and fear at the same time.
So the most important things are having strong characters and getting them into trouble.
The final thing I talked about was the seven points of storytelling.
- A person
- in a place
- has a problem.
- They strive and fail to resolve it.
- Strive and fail.
- Strive and fail.
I read two stories to the class: “Carpathia” by Jesse Lee Kercheval and “Strongman” by Wendy White-Ring and walked them through seven points with those as examples.
Then I had the class point out to me the seven points in Little Red Riding Hood:
- Red Riding Hood
- Is in the woods between two safe places
- Where she meets a wolf.
- She fails to recognize the danger of the wolf’s charm
- She fails to listen to her mother’s advice to stay on the path
- She fails to recognize the wolf.
- She is eaten by the wolf (saved by hunter and learns her lesson).
I went on to tell the next part of the story and how the same structure is used as she gains knowledge and power.
- Little Red
- Goes into the woods a second time
- Where she meets a second wolf.
- She succeeds in not speaking to this wolf.
- She succeeds in staying on the path.
- She succeeds in getting wisdom from her grandmother.
- She and her grandmother drown the wolf.
The second part of the story is not as well known as the first because: sexism probably. But also because the first can stand on its own, while the second on its own would be dull. When Red never loses, when she does everything right she is not as interesting.
Then as a plotting exercise, we plotted a story based on the seven points. The homework was to flesh this story out and to send me a story less than 10 pages to workshop by July.
Next class will start out with by using prompts we wrote that day to pants a story. Then we will talk about some basics of character development.