Sunday, March 3, 2013

Things I've Learned From Teaching A Fiction Writing Class

I teach an eight week beginning fiction writing class at the state university in the adult continuing education non-credit department.  It's two hours a night, one night a week, for eight weeks.  I teach this class twice a year and have been for fourteen years.

The eight weeks are broken up into the basics of fiction writing.  The first week is about plot, second week developing characters, and so on.  I cover things like point of view, pacing, dialogue, active vs. passive, show don't tell, and other basics of fiction writing.  I use examples from various genres without concentrating on a specific one.  The class culminates with information about publishing which includes synopsis, query letter, contests, critique groups, submitting to publishers, editing, and related areas.

I gave you that information as a prologue to what's on my mind about my fiction writing class.

I started teaching the class again next week.  It always amazes me each time I teach the class…I learn things, too.  Well, more accurately, I RE-learn them.  There are things I've forgotten that come to mind again when I'm going over the lesson for that week's class.  And then there's information I haven't thought about until someone asks me a question that requires me to pull the answer up from the back of my mind and convey it in a manner that will make sense to someone taking a beginning writing class…fiction writing technique information I hadn't considered for a while.

A technique I talk about as part of the first week covering plot is the Action-Reaction-Decision combination.  This is one of those things I use when I'm writing without consciously thinking about it.  Each time I teach this class and define this Action-Reaction-Decision combination, it seems to hit me as a surprise as if I had never heard of it before. :)   One character's action elicits a reaction from the other character, then one of the characters makes a decision concerning the situation.  It's that decision that propels the story forward and leads to the next situation.

As we know, each scene needs to do something to move the over all story forward whether it's an action scene, dialogue, or narrative internalization dealing with character development.  And this is one of those techniques that does just that.

An example:  Dressed in a scrap of slinky black, Mary strutted into the club (action).  Mark took one look and his blood pressure skyrocketed (reaction).  He had to get her out of there before she got arrested (decision).  It's that decision that moves the story forward and leads to the next action.  Mark grabbed her arm (action).  But Mary refused to budge (reaction).  She was going to have a drink and dance until dawn (decision).

This feeds directly into and helps support the basic structure of story movement which is cause and effect.  Something happens and that causes something else to happen which results in moving the story forward toward its conclusion—cause and effect.

Each week I have something (at least one thing, usually more) that teaching the class brings to mind, techniques that I had forgotten, things that I did without thinking about them.

The second week of the class is developing characters.  One exercise I give the class has them use secondary characters to maneuver the main characters in the direction the story needs. (see last week's blog, February 24, about using secondary characters)

Your hero/heroine still do the work and resolve the story's conflict, but those secondary characters make a valuable contribution to moving the story forward.  And secondary characters are fun to work with.  They don't have the restrictions that apply to your hero/heroine.  A secondary character doesn't need to be in any way honorable or heroic.  He can have lots of bad habits, be a compulsive liar, or any number of things the hero and heroine can't.

I enjoy teaching a class about the basics of beginning fiction writing.  And, of course, I enjoy getting paid for it. :)  But in addition to that, I like being reminded a couple of times a year about some of the specifics that tend to slip my mind…things I do, but don't consciously think about.

Do you have any special writing techniques you'd like to share?

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