Monday, January 17, 2011

The Short Story Workshop - Writing Your People

The short story workshop is your opportunity to write whichever story you wish to share.  Be it science fiction or childhood, a ghost story or a mystery, write the kind of story you've always wanted to write.  Read on for guidelines and tips.

Please Note: the Deadline for this assignment will be 9pm on Wednesday.  This is a hard deadline - this is to allow your classmates enough time to read and comment.  I recommend posting your story earlier if it's ready.

The Workshop: A Critical Component of Creative Writing Education
Writing workshops are a relatively new phenomenon, having only become popular since the 1940s and '50s.  But they offer two major benefits for writers: varied feedback from a large sample of one's peers and the opportunity to practice close-reading on works-in-progress.  The feedback you receive can help you improve your story - the feedback you give will help you see how to improve stories in general.

Subject versus Genre: Humans and Alternatives to Realism
For our course in Writing the Human, you'll most likely want to submit a story which involves some element of speculative fiction.  But this isn't required.  Focus on writing your characters first.  If there isn't room for the speculative fiction yet, that's perfectly all right.

Unlike the regular assignments, you workshop pieces will be graded based on content.  Overall, I'm looking for how well your story uses the interplay of character and conflict to develop tension in the story.  Basically, your main protagonist should have a problem, something that threatens his or her existence in some important way.  Alien invasions and zombie infestations certainly force the question of survival, but existential questions are often deeper and more subtle.  Say the prom is coming up - does your protagonist want to be known as the one who showed up wearing that electric orange dress? Well, if he really loves wearing orange and challenging our perceptions on gender, then probably yes.  But if he also knows that others in the community are "less receptive" to his thoughts on fashion...well, then we have a conflict.  And it forces our protagonist to question the kind of existence he wants to live.  Other aspects of the writing should come second to the conflict: setting, dialogue, and action should all contribute to our understanding of the character and how that character faces the conflict of the story.

Writing the Plot
The plot should arise from the character's response to the conflict.  The story is the events that happen in the story - plot comes from how you order those events in order to fix the story in the mind of your reader.  For this story about our cross-dressing prom queen, you might choose an oblique approach to the issues of gender identity.  The story might start with an entire page of how the make-up is applied, interspersed plans to meet up with Bob, Jean, and John.  And it wouldn't be until John shows up with the flowers that the story might note the protagonist's name - Joey.  And the fact that some of the other guys at school have already told him to stay away from the prom.

The oblique approach allows more development of character before the reader realizes the strangeness of the piece.  Take the trailer for War of the Worlds as an example.  Here, we see how Tom Cruise's character leads a life that's pretty much in shambles to start with.  And oh, yeah, then the aliens show up:

On the flip side, you might take a more direct approach, having Joey start the story with a line like "I've never felt comfortable as a guy."  Or, as in the trailer for the upcoming movie Battle: Los Angeles, you may wish to start with the weirdness right from the get-go, showing us from the very first moments that this is a movie about aliens invading our planet:

In both examples, though, note that the story starts with the sense of normalcy - we see how people are in their normal, daily lives.  And then the hammer falls, revealing the tension and struggle to come.  

Assignment Length: 3-5 Pages

Assignment Deadline: 9pm Wednesday

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