12/12 – Starting fiction with…PLOT

Today we’ll start our fiction unit. Just a reminder that each genre unit is two weeks. We spend the first week talking about elements of the genre and doing writing experiments together. We spend the second week on contract writing.

And since this is a week of instruction & practice, you also have an annotations assignment. For each of the three short stories you selected as mentor texts, you need to:

  • Write a short explanation of the overall plot. (1-2 sentences)
  • Write a short explanation for why you chose the story in the first place (1-2 sentences)
  • Paste the paragraphs you chose (first, last, and best) into your writer’s notebook and Annotate them, focusing on: green lines, sentence fluency, word choice, ideas, organization, conventions and voice

Daily Warm up: Start writing a story in which the main character works as a cleaning lady (cleaning other people’s homes).

Focus of the Day: Talking about one of the “Big Three” in fiction writing: PLOT. For today, we’re going to revisit the basics of plot. Often times in literature classes, we talk about plot like this:

  • Exposition – introduces the character, setting, and main conflict
  • Rising Action – shows what happens in the story, including side conflicts, secondary characters, world building
  • Climax – shows the TURNING point for the main conflict
  • Falling action – shows what happens after the climax
  • Resolution – ties up any loose ends

But I want to suggest, as Lisa Cron does, that a story is not “first, next, last.” No. In creative writing, a story is

  • Character – a person the reader/viewer has reason to care about (sometimes filmmakers call this “save the cat”).
  • Problem – ONE problem that person is facing–not a SERIES of problems.
  • Struggle – The character attempts to solve the problem, and the attempts at solving the problem sometimes cause more problems or cause their one problem to fracture into different problems.
  • Solution (or REsolution at least) – they overcome the problem in a meaningful, emotionally satisfying way…until the next problem.

We’ll look at a short Pixar Film or maybe two of them together to see how this plays out.

PRACTICE: To try this approach to storytelling, I’m going to invite you to try your own hand at a VERY short story: 55-250 words tops. Your only mission is to make sure your story includes all four elements above: character, problem, struggle, solution.

If you’re stuck, I think the advice below, from flash fiction writer G.W. Thomas, is great:

1) Focus on the small idea

 – Look for the smaller ideas in larger ones. To discuss the complex interrelationship of parents and children you’d need a novel. Go for a smaller piece of that complex issue. How kids feel when they aren’t included in a conversation. What kids do when they are bored in the car. Middle child. Bad report card. Find a smaller topic and build on it.

2) Bury the preamble in the opening

 – When you write your story, don’t take two pages to explain all the pre-story. Find a way to set it all in the first paragraph, then get on with the rest of the tale.
 We talked about how in a 55-word story,  you really only get a sentence!

3) Start in the middle of the action

 – Similar to #2, start the story in the middle of the action. A man is running. A bomb is about to go off. A monster is in the house. Don’t describe any more than you have to. The reader can fill in some of the blanks.

4) Focus on one powerful image – 

Find one powerful image to focus your story on. A war-torn street. An alien sunset. They say a picture worth a thousand words. Paint a picture 
with words. It doesn’t hurt to have something happen inside that picture. It is a story after all.

5) Make the reader guess until the end

 – A little mystery goes a long way. Your reader may have no idea what is going on for the majority of the story. This will lure them on to the end. When they finish, there should be a good pay off or solution.

6) Use allusive references – 

By using references to a commonly known story you can save yourself all those unnecessary words. Refer to historical events. Use famous situations from literature. If the story takes place on the Titanic you won’t have to explain what is going to happen, who is there or much of anything. History and James Cameron have already done it for you. BUT: Beware of using material that is too obscure. Your reader should be able to make the inferences.

 We talked about how the title can often refer to something that gives readers a clue they didn’t even know they were getting.

7) Try a twist

 – The twist ending allows the writer to pack some punch at the end of the story. Flash fiction is often twist-ending fiction because
you don’t have enough time to build up sympathetic characters and show how a long, devastating plot has affected them. Like a good joke, flash fiction is often streamlined to the punch-line at the end.


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