Class title: Story Basics, (Writing 552, 3 credits
Class Schedule: Self-paced, recommend 10 weeks
Class Location/Times: On-line. This course is asynchronous, meaning that assignments can be completed and submitted at any time within the limits specified in the college catalog.
Class Description: Story Basics asks students to read several seminal books on creating stories and to submit assignments that relate to the texts as well as to a story or stories of their own. They are required to write and submit for critique around 6000 words of original fiction or dramatic non-fiction.
Michael Tierno, Aristotle’s Poetics for Screenwriters
Jon Franklin, Writing for Story
Strunk, White and Angell, Elements of Style
William Zinsser, On Writing Well
Recommended: John Gardner, On Moral Fiction
Welcome! Welcome to a cornerstone course of Perelandra College’s creative writing program. Whether you intend to write fiction, memoir, devotions, sermons, poetry, essays, or any other kind of literature, you’ll write them better after gaining the knowledge of how stories work and the ability to construct them based on sound principles.
The class isn’t only for beginners.
In Tae Kwon Do classes, when somebody asked, “After we get our black belt what do we do?” Master Jeong said, “Start over.” And when someone asked, “What do we do after we get out second degree black belt?” he said, “Start over.” And so on, through ninth degree.
We writers can all benefit from starting over now and then, and learning the basics better every time. Writing uses such a variety of mental activity, as we make skills into reflexes, we can free ourselves from the conscious practice of some of the activities and focus more effectively on the others.
Professor’s Bio: (note, Ken Kuhlken often, but not always, teaches this class) Ken Kuhlken’s stories have appeared in Esquire and dozens of other magazines and anthologies, been honorably mentioned in Best American Short Stories, and earned a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. He has been a frequent contributor and a columnist for the San Diego Reader.
With Alan Russell, in Road Kill and No Cats, No Chocolate, he has chronicled the madness of book tours.
His novels are Midheaven, a finalist for the Ernest Hemingway Award for best first novel, The Loud Adios (Private Eye Writers of America Best First Novel), The Venus Deal, The Angel Gang, The Do-Re-Mi (a finalist for the Shamus Award for Best PI Novel), The Vagabond Virgins, The Biggest Liar in Los Angeles, (San Diego Book Awards Best Mystery), and The Good Know Nothing, (runner-up for the Los Angeles Book Festival best mystery)
In Writing and the Spirit, he offers a wealth of advice to writers and everyone looking for inspiration.
He has taught creative writing at the University of Arizona, California State University, Chico, San Diego State University, and Christian Heritage College.
Ken resides online at: www.kenkuhlken.net
Class Objectives: Students will gain the skills and should gain the confidence and motivation to begin writing and revising publishable stories, long or short, based on fact or on pure imagination. They will be able to describe the structure of dramatic stories, to summarize stories by giving the action-idea, to define the purposes and goals they intend for their writing to achieve, and to demonstrate in their writing the principles of clear, concise and compelling prose.
Class Evaluation Criteria: This is a competency based class. In order to receive credit, students must demonstrate the evidence of competency given for each lesson.
Grading is CR (credit) or NC (no credit). At the conclusion of the class, the professor provides a summary appraisal of the student’s work and progress toward meeting his or her writing goals.
Lesson 1: Writing for Story
Jon Franklin’s Writing for Story offers a practical formula for outlining a story in a way that helps the writer focus on the drama by controlling the elements of the story.
Assignment: Franklin outline — Read Writing for Story, carefully studying the methods of outlining Franklin prescribes. Then write an outline of the story you are currently at work on, or of one you have in mind, using the simple version of Franklin’s method.
Resource: Notes on Writing for Story
When I was asked to write feature stories for the San Diego Reader, I hadn’t written any non-fiction except college essays and book reviews. Writing a feature was painful at first. But I remembered a book I had used on a recommendation when asked to teach a non-fiction course at the University of Arizona. Jon Franklin’s Writing for Story.
I recalled the prescription to write non-fiction using the structure of fiction. I sat down and revised. The result was a good story.
But the formula doesn’t apply only to non-fiction. It can be applied to our short stories and, in its more developed form, which Franklin calls the saga, it can serve to keep our novels from careening out of control.
My experience as a writer has taught me to appreciate limitations, boundaries. We would all like to just sit down and let the words spill out of us. But too often, we veer off onto tangents that interest us more, or that we find easier to write, than the story we have promised to tell.
By “promised,” I mean this: the beginning of a story always sets up expectations in the reader. In other words, we have promised the readers certain reading experiences and the readers have chosen to continue reading because they trust those promises. So, we are obliged to fulfill those expectations.
Franklin’s formulas help us set and meet expectations.
Pay close attention to his insistence on using active verbs, and to limiting them to the three words he prescribes. “Joe clobbers Jim.” Subject, active verb, object. While outlining according to the Franklin formula, follow it strictly, even if you have to tweak your story to do so. In other words, don’t bend the formula to meet your preconceptions of the story.
You may need to ease your trepidation about strict adherence to a formula by reminding yourself that you never have to stick to an outline. Outlines are tools to help you look at a story in a different way. If you are attempting to make anything original, to make a story that’s honest, rules and formulas are never to be looked at as strict prescriptions. They can be seen as left-brain parts of a process that needs to come from both right and left brains. (For an explanation of the left-brain right-brain theory, see the resource for Lesson 6.)
Estimated hours: 25
Lesson 2: Aristotle’s Poetics for Screenwriters – A couple thousand years ago, the philosopher Aristotle wrote a description of the essential elements of drama. The dramatic structure he describes can still be applied to most any story, from the silliest TV show to the most ambitious literary novel. But reading Aristotle’s analysis can leave us reeling from the strain and only slightly enlightened. Michael Tierno has done writers a great service by translating Aristotle’s Poetics into modern terms and using familiar films as examples.
Assignment: Action-idea — After you have read the whole of Aristotle’s Poetics for Screenwriters, go back and reread the Introduction, entitled “The Action-Idea”. No matter what else you may gain from Tierno, this action-idea should be the part that you drill into your mind and apply to every story you tackle until it becomes habit.
For now, write and revise and submit the action idea for the story you intend to submit as your final project in Story Basics.
Resource: To supplement Tierno’s translation with the original, written in 350 B.C., it’s available for online reading or download at: http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/poetics.html
Estimated hours: 25
Lesson 3: On Moral Fiction – John Gardner’s On Moral Fiction is a highly controversial treatise on questions of the meaning of art. Does art instruct? Does art require the artist to follow moral or ethical imperatives? What is the relationship of truth to art? We recommend rather than require this book as readers may find parts of it obscure or excessively highbrow, but the central issues it raises come through with clarity and power, and Gardner’s attitude toward the meaning of art and the responsibility of the artist express core values of Perelandra College.
Quotes from John Gardner’s On Moral Fiction, collected by author Ty Johnson:
“Every hero’s proper function is to provide a noble image for men to be inspired and guided by in their own actions.”
“The gods set ideals, heroes enact them, and artists … preserve the image as a guide for men.”
“Real art creates myths a society can live instead of die by, and clearly our society is in need of such myths.”
“By its nature, criticism makes art sound more intellectual than it is …”
“… what we generally get in our books and films is bad instruction: escapist models or else moral evasiveness, or, worse, cynical attacks on traditional values such as honesty, love of country, marital fidelity, work, and moral courage. This is not to imply that such values are absolutes, too holy to attack. But it is dangerous to raise a generation that smiles at such values, or has never heard of them, or dismisses them with indignation, as if they were not relative goods but were absolute evils.”
“We are beset, to an extent few people were before us, by doubts on every side; and the doubts are increased, if not partly introduced, by the moral relativism which naturally arises in a world of rapid communications and the sort of cultural interchange both invaluable and inescapable in the American melting pot.”
“The traditional view is that true art is moral: it seeks to improve life, not debase it. It seeks to hold off, at least for a while, the twilight of the gods and us. I do not deny that art, like criticism, may legitimately celebrate the trifling. It may joke, or mock, or while away the time. But trivial art has no meaning or value except in the shadow of more serious art.”
“For the most part our artists do not struggle — as artists have traditionally struggled — toward a vision of how things ought to be or what has gone wrong; they do not provide us with the flicker of lightning that shows us where we are. Either they pointlessly waste our time, saying and doing nothing, or they celebrate ugliness and futility, scoffing at good.”
“We recognize true art by its careful, thoroughly honest search for and analysis of values. It is not didactic because, instead of teaching by authority and force, it explores, open-mindedly, to learn what it should teach.”
“To worship the unique, the unaccountable and the freaky is — if we’re consistent — to give up the right to say to our children, ‘Be good.’ ”
“… morality has become, in many people’s minds, an unattractive word … . … but the only thing wrong with morality … is that it’s frequently been used as a means of oppression …”
“Tolstoy argues, in effect, … that the ideal held up in a proper work of art comes from God …”
“Dante … had … come to the same discovery Aquinas had reached: that logical argument can support opposite and mutually exclusive conclusions with equal force, so that reason is at best … a limited guide.”
“In the name of democracy, justice, and compassion, we abandon our right to believe, to debate and to hunt down truth.”
“The true critic knows that badness in art has to do not with the artist’s interest or lack of interest in ‘truth’ but with his lack of truthfulness, the degree to which, for him, working at art is a morally indifferent act.”
“… the interaction of characters is everything.”
“Our more fashionable writers feel, as Chekhov and Tolstoy did not, that their art is unimporant; and they’re correct.”
“Religion’s chief value is its conservatism: it keeps us in touch with what at least one section of humanity has believed for centuries. Art’s chief value is that it takes nothing for granted.”
“We need to stop excusing mediocre and downright pernicious art, stop ‘taking it for what it’s worth’ as we take our fast foods, our overpriced cars that are no good, the overpriced houses we spend all our lives fixing, our television programs, our schools thrown up like barricades in the way of young minds, our brainless fat religions, our poisonous air, our incredible cult of sports, and our ritual of fornicating with all pretty or even horse-faced strangers. We would not put up with a debauched king, but in a democracy all of us are kings, and we praise debauchery as pluralism.”
“It is a fact of life that noble ideas, noble examples of human behavior, can drop out of fashion though they remain as real and applicable as ever — can simply come to be forgotten, plowed under by ‘progress.’ ”
“I would not claim that even the worst bad art should be outlawed, since morality by compulsion is a fool’s morality and since, moreover, I agree with Tolstoy that the highest purpose of art is to make people good by choice. But I do think bad art should be revealed for what it is whenever it dares to stick its head up…”
“It goes without saying, though I will say it anyway, that even the mostly lofty and respectable theories of human motivation — from psychiatrists, biologists, theologians, and philosophers — must always be treated by the serious writer as suspect.”
“… the true artist is after ‘glory,’ as Faulkner said — that is, the pleasure of noble achievement and good people’s praise. The false artist is after power and the yawping flattery of his carnivore pack.”
“Perfectly comfortable art is dead art, the product of an embalmed mind that has nothing to say to anyone, even the aesthetically dead.”
“… what … artists care about — what they rave or mourn or bitterly joke about — is the forms of truth: justice, fairness, accuracy.”
“… to write badly because otherwise one might not get published is useless compromise.”
Assignment: Defining your attitude toward your art and craft — Contemplate the principles Gardner proposes. If you read the book (recommended) during the parts on contemporary literature, don’t fault yourself for any ignorance of examples he gives. Since he was addressing trends in the 1970s, much of this discussion doesn’t apply as well now.
Using the above quotes from On Moral Fiction as a starting point, write and submit about 500 words that give your attitudes toward your choice of writing as a vocation or avocation (and tell in which of those ways you view it). Answer such questions as: Why do I write? Who is the audience I seek to reach? Am I most concerned with expressing myself, entertaining, enlightening, getting rich and famous, or what?
Estimated hours: 25
Lesson 4: Elements of Style
E.B. White’s adaptation of William Strunk’s classroom manual is essential reading for any writer of English. In our haste to write and publish our ideas, we may overlook the necessity of making our work clear and precise. The prescriptions Elements of Style presents can help us translate the stories in our minds to the minds of readers.
Assignment: How Strunk and White are changing my style — After reading Elements of Style, make a list of the ten most enlightening suggestions you gained out of this read of Strunk and White. By “enlightening” I mean the suggestions that will change the style in which you write tomorrow from the style in which you wrote before picking up the book. The changes may be slight. Even so, in combination with other changes, they may be what nudge you the last inches from mediocrity to competence or from competence to excellence.
Estimated hours: 10
Lesson 5: On Writing Well
William Zinsser’s On Writing Well should, like Elements of Style, be required reading for anyone who hopes to make a vocation or avocation of writing. It addresses issues relevant to the writing of English prose whether fiction or non-fiction.
Assignment: Quality in fiction and non-fiction — Read On Writing Well, parts I, II, and IV. While reading, think about the following question: In what ways does this book, primarily a guide to writing non-fiction, also apply to writing fiction?
Then write a narrative outline of the book, stressing the crossover (between non-fiction and fiction) elements you noted.
Estimated hours: 25
Lesson 6: An original story
A story is a narrative about a character (or characters) with a problem, a conflict (or conflicts), who sets out to solve the problem and discovers it isn’t easy, that complications arise. After confronting at least a few of these complications, the character chooses a course of action, pursues it with vigor, and is rewarded with the consequences of that action. A story can be entirely imaginary, or based upon experience, or entirely factual. The techniques presented in the texts for this course can provide some guidance and a sense of when the story might be straying from its best dramatic (or comedic) form. But no book can give us a story. We can adapt a story we have read, but the particular characters, particular events, settings and all the other elements are up to us. Our challenge is not only to make it work dramatically, make it hold the reader’s interest, but to make it unique, true to our own voices, our own beliefs, and our world view.
Assignment: A story — Write and submit a fiction or non-fiction story or the beginning of a novella or novel length story. In any case, submit 7500 to 10,000 words, using a standard novel manuscript format (see resources for this lesson).
Basics of standard novel manuscript.
• 12 point type, a font such as Times New Roman, Courier, Cambria, Georgia, Bookman Old Style. No sans serif
• Double spaced
• One inch margins all around
• Plain white paper (if of course, you are asked to send paper)
And here are a couple websites that give more detail. Before submitting to an agent or publisher, you should study one of these or another source like them.
Estimated hours required: 30
Lesson 7: Revision
To use a popular and no doubt over-simplified analysis, when we create an original draft of a story, we’re primarily engaging the right side of our brain, and when we revise, we’re primarily engaging the left side. According to a web site I googled, the right brain works with the random, intuitive, holistic, synthesizing, subjective, and it looks at wholes. The left brain works with the logical, sequential, rational, analytical, objective, and it looks at parts. Regardless of the scientific validity of this picture of the brain, it applies well to the process of writing.
Perhaps the best good fortune we writers can hope for is to find an editor who is enthusiastic about our work and who is most adept at engaging her left brain. If this editor appears, we might get away with allowing our right brains to range free and let the editor guide us through revision with her logical, objective vision. But until we find her, we need to perform both multi-faceted tasks, creation and revision.
Most beginning writers prefer writing to revision. But as skill with the language and the ability to objectively critique grow, revision often becomes less of a chore and more of a pleasure. After all, it’s where we begin to glimpse our stories in their final versions, the ones about which we can rightfully think, “Wow, this is good stuff.”
Assignment: After your story has been critiqued, write and submit a concise but thorough plan for revision, detailing your response to the main elements of the critique.
Resources: As writers, beyond learning how to live with rejection and criticism, we need to seek out criticism, even though it may feel like rejection. Because we’re trying to communicate, we must ask people how well we’ve communicated our ideas, our passions and emotions, our world view.
Everybody who reads your work is liable to respond differently. Even in a group of smart, knowledgeable writers or editors, you might get responses ranging from abject boredom to wild acclaim. Everybody brings his background to his reading. When a reader appreciates my work, I know it could mean he relates for his own reasons. Or he may dismiss my story in reaction to something personal, such as a hurt he suffered or a bias with which he has armed himself. A person who grew up with alcoholic parents may bond with a story about a boozer or recoil from it.
Suppose several readers point to the same problem with your story. Odds are good your story has failed to communicate the way you’d like it to. But that doesn’t mean the readers’ suggestions for fixing the problem are correct. They’re worth considering, but not necessarily the best way to solve the problem.
Your task is to listen to critiques with your mind open, then ponder each comment as much as it deserves, all before you decide whether to revise. And if you decide to revise, consider suggestions, but also look for alternative ways. Suggestions can come from other people, but revisions have to come from you.
Estimated hours required: 20