Saturday, June 25, 2016

Things I've Learned From Teaching A Fiction Writing Class

I taught a beginning fiction writing class at the state university in the adult continuing education non-credit department.  It was two hours a night, one night a week, for eight weeks.  I taught this class twice a year for sixteen years.

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

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

It always amazed me each time I taught the class…I learned things, too.  Well, more accurately, I RE-learned them.  There are things I'd forgotten that came to mind again when I was going over the lesson for that week's class.  And then there was information I haven't thought about until someone asked me a question that required me to pull the answer up from the back of my mind and convey it in a manner that made sense to someone taking a beginning writing class…fiction writing technique information I hadn't consciously considered for a while.

A technique I talked about as part of the first week covering plot was the Action-Reaction-Decision combination.  This was one of those things I used when writing without really thinking about it as a technique.  Each time I taught this class and defined the Action-Reaction-Decision combination, it seemed to hit me as a surprise as if I had never heard of it before. :)   One character's action elicited a reaction from the other character, then one of those characters made a decision concerning the situation.  It was that decision that propelled the story forward and led to the next situation.

As we know, each scene needed to do something to move the over all story forward whether it was an action scene, dialogue, or narrative internalization dealing with character development.  And this was one of those techniques that did 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 was that decision that moved the story forward and lead to the next action.  Example: Mark grabbed her arm (action).  But Mary refused to budge (reaction).  She was going to have a drink and dance until dawn (decision).

This fed directly into and helped support the basic structure of story movement which was cause and effect.  Something happened and that caused something else to happen which resulted in moving the story forward toward its conclusion—cause and effect.

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

The second week of the class was developing characters.  One exercise I gave the class had them use secondary characters to maneuver the main characters in the direction the story needed. (see last week's blog, June 18, about using secondary characters) Your hero/heroine still did the work and resolved the story's conflict, but those secondary characters made a valuable contribution to moving the story forward.

And secondary characters were fun to work with.  They didn't have the restrictions that apply to your hero/heroine.  A secondary character didn't need to be in any way honorable or heroic.  He could have had lots of bad habits, been a compulsive liar, or any number of things the hero and heroine couldn't.

I enjoyed teaching a class about the basics of beginning fiction writing.  And, of course, I enjoyed getting paid for it. :)  But in addition to that, I liked being reminded a couple of times a year about some of the specifics that tended to slip my mind…things I did, but hadn't consciously thought about.

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

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