Monday, October 10, 2011


E. Ethelbert Miller asks: "I'd like to know what exercises you might have stopped using in your classes. What didn't work?  Why? And what exercises did you create for your students?" 

During my first few years of teaching the craft of writing, I came up with about twenty exercises that I would give to students returning to work with me for a second time after they had completed all thirty of the ones in John Gardner's The Art of Fiction. (When I first started teaching, my students did three of these exercises a week for ten weeks, in addition to writing three stories for me, and keeping a writer's notebook.) I remember several of the exercises I came up with for them to do focused on their becoming skillful with a variety of classic sentence forms (epanalepsis, anadiplosis, symploce, epistrophe, anaphora, polysyndeton, asyndeton, and the masterful long sentence, which I discussed in a post on the third of September.) In other words, I wanted them to see the possibilities of creating elegant, architectonic structures on just the level of the sentence alone. But on the whole, and in general, I preferred in the early 1970s JG's well-conceived exercises to those of my own invention. After a decade or so, I did cut back on some of JG's exercises that were merely descriptive. (How many times can a professor actually bring himself to read student work where they attempt to "Describe a landscape as seen by a bird, but do not mention the bird"? That one gets old pretty fast.)

 Over the course of three decades, a professor is likely to see changes in the elements of craft that students need to focus on. Based on those changes, I naturally emphasized some craft exercises more than others. But in my experience, the single most recurring and difficult element for apprentice writers, both graduate and undergraduate (as well as for many veterans), is plot. What literally happens (the external, observable and objective action) in a story that moves it forward with a sense of organic story flow. Contemporary literary stories can often be weak on that element, substituting lots of dazzle---poetic language, wit, beautiful descriptions (or "picture painting"), which always brings a halt to the story's forward momentum, or at least slows that down---for tight plotting and tight pacing. For me, the simple question of what happens next? in a story, and the feeling of suspense this creates, is a crucial aspect of great entertainment. Furthermore, plot, as JG wisely put it, is the storyteller's equivalent to the philosopher's argument; its importance lies in it being an interpretation (one based on causation) for why the world works the way it does. Occasionally, one hears literary writers dismissing the importance of plot (usually because they find good plotting hard to do), placing it in the "lesser" domain of pop (or pulp) fiction. And how many times have we heard that there are only 30 plots in the world? Or 100? (People give different numbers, but the point is always that plots are limited. Or that all the possible plots have already been written.) I've never believed any of those excuses for justifying stories that are weak on plot. (There are, of course, stories with minimal plots that are wonderful, but I think you see the point I'm making today.)
So during my last 20 years of teaching, I required that students turn in one new, fully developed plot outline (2 single-spaced pages) every week. (Back in the late '70s, I briefly made myself do this exercise, too.) In part, this was to discourage them from relying on the same story-line over and over again. It was to encourage them to become raconteurs, writers able to effortless create a new story on demand. And also so that, even though they only wrote three stories for me during every ten-week quarter, they left class with seven more developed plot outlines they could use for stories after my class ended, on their own or in another workshop. 
 In my classes, we always began with a student critiquing the work before us for that particular day. But before that student launched into his (or her) discussion of a story written by another, I required that he (or she) first break down or present the story in terms of just its plot. And to do that with just five to seven sentences. (I didn't want to hear about theme or ideas, character traits or any of that, only about what happens, then what happens next.) You have no idea how difficult some students found this to do, though the literal plot of any story can be summarized in less than ten sentences. (I can usually do this in four to five sentences, though I need something like eight sentences for the plot of Ellison's episodic Invisible Man.)  And, as I believe Aristotle suggested in the Poetics, just the bare-bones summary of a terrific story should move a listener to experience pity and fear. Try doing this yourself with one of your favorite novels, short stories, television episodes or films. It should quickly give you the basic, minimal, underlying structure---the skeleton, the spine---upon which everything else (all the literary richness and elaboration) in the story rests.

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