Teaching Story Writing

“Story Sex”

(First published in Ampheta’Zine, March, 2011)

I discovered something by accident the other day.

My students were writing bad stories in class.  Really bad.  Their stories were starting without hooks, ending too quickly, and had no discernable climaxes.  Forget resolution or denuement.

I had to do something.

So I went up by the board, wracking my brain, and said the first thing that came to mind:

“Listen up, people, good stories are like good sex.”

I didn’t know what I was going to say next, but the class was listening.  I mean listening.

And because I was hearing total, silent attention (a rarity with 17 and 18-year-olds), I continued.

I’m sure someone else has made this analogy before, but this is how I broke it down:

  1. The hook is like the pick-up line.  Too over-the-top, and it fails.  Too subtle, and it doesn’t draw the person in.  Cliché, and the person is a tool.  The goal:  A catchy and original start, something that intrigues.
  2. Slow it down.  Develop.  Be deep but not too deep.  Example of too shallow:  Any talk about the local weather or the current NFL lockout.  Too deep:  Speaking in Latin or explaining ornithological evolution.
  3. Rising action.  First touch.  Subtle but discernible.  Exhilarating even in its simplicity.  Think:  Not too much now, but building.  Then build.  Give what you promise.  Make it really, really good.
  4. Tease.  Go away from the plot – just a little.  Make the reader want it, need it, beg for it, but only for a moment.  Then go back to the plot.  Don’t lose your way here.  Be intentional.
  5. Climax.  Get there.  Have a there there.  Make sure your reader gets off as much as you get off.  Really hit.  Punch that button.
  6. Resolution or denuement.  Stop now.  Don’t fumble around.  Don’t annoy.  Be still.  Let the effect of the climax settle on the reader.  Maybe the reader needs a cigarette.  Maybe the reader needs to set the book down and stare at the ceiling for a little while.  Maybe the reader doesn’t need to hear you say anything for a long, long time.

So I thought about it afterward, and I’ve come up with three short literature lists.

Literature that can easily be taught using sex:

Romeo and Juliet (Obvious:  All scenes with the servants, Romeo and Juliet, the nurse, Mercutio, even Tybalt – What does he want to do with his sword?  Why is it always out?)

The Bean Trees (Take any scene with Estevan and Taylor just a little bit further. Think of them as romance novel scenes.)

Oedipus (Oedipus’ ship “scuds” into his mother’s rotting port – Mmmmm, I don’t think I have to add to that)

Literature that cannot be taught using sex:

Night (you understand)

Maus (same reason)

Desert Solitaire (nobody wants to watch Ed Abbey do that)

Literature that will be a stretch but I think I’ll go for it:

Catcher in the Rye

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven

Lord of the Flies (I’ll just figure out some way)

7 thoughts on “Teaching Story Writing

  1. Hi Peter, I’m about to be a teacher myself and am having trouble deciding what I want to teach and how I want to teach. I’m currently student teaching a 7th grade social studies class with some inner city youth and I find most really struggle to get interested in the curriculum we have to teach. I try current events stories, socratic dialogues, you name it. Nothing seems to land with the majority of students I have and I get frustrated. We are currently working through a writing unit where the students have to craft trade journals emulating the story of the famous Arabic explorer ibn battua. Some are great, most aren’t for the same reasons you listed in your article. I’d like to continue with literary topics in teaching so I feel like I’d like to be an English teacher, but I’m struggling to get these kids to open up. I can’t talk about sex with 7th graders, got any ideas? Thanks.


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