A couple weeks a go, my 6th grade daughter informed me that she’d volunteered me to teach a writing workshop at her middle school. I was terrified. It’s one thing to teach writing—anybody who has read enough books on writing and has an abundance of confidence can stand in front of a bunch of people and pontificate. By those standards, I’m overqualified. But a writing workshop for children, one of whom is my daughter…that’s responsibility piled on top of expectation, slathered with ‘Do not embarrass me, Father…’
After talking with my daughter’s teacher, one of the big problems the kids apparently faced was in coming up with ideas for their stories. So I resolved to give them some tools to recognize ideas; and some strategies for putting those ideas to paper in a way that is compelling and entertaining.
The writing workshops I’ve enjoyed most have focused on the practical more than the theoretical; more doing work than talking shop. That’s how I approached running this one. I admit—most of my ideas were blatantly stolen from writers like Eric James Stone, John Brown, and Orson Scott Card; I give them credit here because I certainly wasn’t going to tell the kids that I was a big fraud. :)
Okay, so I did have to talk some theory, just so the class and I had the same understanding about terminology, and so that I could set up a framework for the workshop portion. The first thing we did was identify what a story was. I was surprised at how literal the answers were: I believe, “Words printed in a book,” was the most common answer. After some discussion, we identified the four elements of a story (as opposed to an article, or essay):
Here are the definitions I used:
A character is the hero of the story—the one who faces the problem. A character, I explained, can be any thing that can think. While I’m sure some post-modernists might disagree with me, there were thankfully none in the class. A good character is interesting, and active in trying to solve their problem.
Setting is where the story takes place. There wasn’t a lot of need to explain this one.
I did spend a lot of time on problem. For me, character and problem are the heart of the story, and they are where so many of the stories I see in the slush pile fail. Everyone understands what a problem is, even 10 and 11 year olds. John Brown makes the point that a compelling problem will have the character try and fail, try and fail, try and fail… Too many stories have the character succeed too soon, or have a problem that can be resolved without any cost. We don’t love heroes because they win; we love them because they strive against the odds. I pointed out that there are few movies about undefeated sports teams because a sure thing isn’t nearly as compelling as a Cinderella story. In terms of creating a compelling story, failure and cost are more important than ultimate success.
Plot is how the character deals with the problems he faces; it is also structure and detail. Darth Vader (problem) is choking the Rebel Alliance—how does Luke Skywalker (character) stop him?
This was another element I didn’t go into that much; largely because I spent so much time ranting on about problem, there wasn’t lots of time left for this last element. And it’s one of those terms that is fundamentally ambiguous and slippery. Much like the Rebel Alliance: the more you squeeze it into a definition, the faster it slips through your fingers…