I am teaching Creative Writing for the first time, and we have finally reached the short story. Do you have any suggestions on how to help them to write a good short story? I have helped them to brainstorm ideas, but would like some exercises or activities to help them to actually enhance the quality of their stories on all fronts. Any help is appreciated! Thanks!
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Perhaps charting the plot might help. That is, drawing the pyramid that has exposition at the left base with rising action, then climax at the apex, followed by falling action, and finally the resolution at the right base. Students can fill in these parts of the plot as a plan for their stories.
Deciding on the structure of the plot helps, too. i.e. Do they want to use flashback, stream of consciousness, surprise ending, etc.
Singleness of idea is the key, Poe stated, for a short story. Looking at some of his stories or those of other authors as models may assist some. Too often students want to put too much into their short stories. (too many characters, etc.)
"Sketching" the character(s) helps, too. i.e. How will they develop character? Through dialogue, etc? Almost every artist first sketches his/her work before painting the picture. In short, it seems if students plan out their 5 elements (plot, theme, point of view, character, setting) before writing their drafts, their story will be "tighter."
You can cut parts from short stories and let students begin or end them based upon what you have given them. Then, they can discuss what they have done as practice.
I have found that creating a good character first helps with the story. Create a "person" and then imagine what sorts of things that person would do or get into. You could have them create characters first, then choose from a hat a situation or problem. Then, have them let their characters deal with that as they see the personalities unfold.
One thing I did was spend some time looking at "show vs. tell" (Part of this is more useful after a draft has been written). We did some exercises where I would write telling sentences on the board ("Bob was angry."). Then, I would have students in groups rewrite the sentence as a showing sentence: ("Bob's cheeks reddened and he gripped the steering wheel tightly."). Then I had students read peers' stories and mark some sections that seemed to have a lot of "telling." As homework, students needed to rewrite at least one telling section into a showing one.
Students also seem to have trouble with dialogue, so I like to spend time looking at texts that are rich with dialogue. Hemingway's stories work well for this and we can often have a good discussion about what is said outright and what is left for the reader to infer.
I like to use models for other techniques as well, and in groups I have students look at very short stories and identify the techniques that are working well. (Again, Hemingway works well, as does "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.")
In my science fiction class, we did something similar to what was suggested in #3. One of the basic tenets of sci-fi is "what if...?" As a class, we brainstormed some "what if?" scenarios: "What if world leaders were decided by lottery?" "What if all machines suddenly stopped working?" Etc. Obviously those are tailored to sci-fi, but the basic premise could work for generating other short story ideas: "What if you got lost on the way to your own wedding?"
I also stressed to high school students that a short story plot does not have to be filled with explosions, kidnappings, deaths, etc. Sometimes the little things make better stories.
This applies to the short story plot sequence mentioned above. I take my students out into the parking lot and draw the plot sequence chart on the black top with chalk. We label it, and then we add elements to the chart while creating a plot sequence for a class story. This helps make it tangible for them, and they are then more understanding of how to create their own.
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