Creative Writing: Fiction
Just the fiction, ma'am.
War and Peace, The Hunger Games, Moby Dick, Harry Potter: they didn't pop out of nowhere. Whether you're out to achieve fame, gain literary immortality, or just tell a story that will nail people to their Kindles, you've got to start somewhere. This course will get you schooled on the basics: how to come up with story material, how to develop a character, and how to build scenes. By the end of this three-week shebang, you'll have a draft of a short story on your hands and the beginnings of a brilliant literary career.
Hey, is that your eyebrow arching? Are you maybe thinking, why go through all the trouble to make up characters and situations? Why not write memoir or opt for journalism—something real? Well, aside from the fact that nearly every Hollywood movie and prime-time TV show you enjoy is based on some form of fiction (even reality shows—news flash), think about why people build model airplanes or play The Sims: when you put things together yourself, you learn how they work. In fiction writing, you're putting together all of reality, and once you finish this class, you'll be a Master of the Universe.
Just a thought.
By the end of this course, you should be able to
- get comfortable with jacking ideas from all kinds of places.
- make characters interesting, believable, and unboring.
- Frankenstein ideas into living, breathing situations.
- spot and eradicate clichés (the termites in the condo of fiction).
- structure and pace a story from beginning to end, with no dead weight.
- take ideas, characters, and situations, and squeeze them into one tall refreshing glass of story.
- write one 3-5-page short story draft that'll end up in a museum someday.
Unit 1. What's the Big Idea?
This unit is all about ideas—where to find 'em, how to develop 'em, and when to use 'em.
Unit 2. Character Building—It Builds Character
In this unit, you'll dig into characterization—and by the end, you'll have your very own creation, Dr. Frankenstein.
Unit 3. Building the Situation
It's time to throw all those ingredients into the situation pot. At the end of this unit, you'll have a bona fide short story with your name on the by line.
Sample Lesson - Introduction
Lesson 2: Talk That Talk
You hear it every day: in person, over Skype, or on those annoying little Bluetooth earpieces. And the second people open their mouths, they can't help but spill all kinds of stuff about themselves: social class, region, age, gender, education, and everything in between. That means dialogue's probably the most efficient tool for characterization.
But it can be tricky, too.
People don't always say exactly what they mean—they can lie, misspeak, misinterpret, be ironic. And two people talking aren't always on the same wavelength, either. Say, for example, Matt has a crush on Sarah. Day and night he thinks about Sarah, refreshing her Facebook page, reading her backlog of tweets (hoping to see @MattIsPhat pop up just once), wondering whether she knows he exists.
The next time he sees her, she's coming out of the supermarket, and all he can think to say is, "Hey." And then she says, "Nice shirt." Oh snaaaaaap! Nice shirt! She likes him! He knew that shirt looked good on him! Wedding bells are ringing!
Of course, Sarah was just trying to sarcastically point out that his shirt was on inside out. But when two people are talking, they've each got their own ways of hearing things.
Characterizing with Dialogue
How can you use dialogue to give readers a sense of who your characters are? Oh, plenty of ways. Here are a few:
Sound. When you're characters are speaking, they're not just producing words—they're making sounds, too. Is your character whispering? Speaking in a raspy voice? Rattling the windowpanes with his deep baritone? Whether we mean to or not, we make a big impression with the sound of our voices. Alvin the Chipmunk is going to come off way differently than Andre the Giant.
Whom they're talking to. Do you speak to your parents the same way you do your friends? Yeah, probably not. Dialogue adapts from person to person, so keep in mind whom your characters are talking to. The way they speak will tell the reader what relationship they have to each other, and what they want from each other.
Tone. Sad, mad, sarcastic, happy, hung over—there's no such thing as a neutral tone, so think about what kind of mood your character is in when she's speaking. If it's different than the person she's talking to, that's definitely going to affect how the conversation goes. Ever had to use the bathroom real bad while listening to someone who takes forever to make their point? Then you know what we're talking about.
Slang and dialect. Like we mentioned in the last lesson, where you're from is a huge part of who you are, and so slang and dialect give your characters a pretty strong effect. Take the first sentence of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: "You don't know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain't no matter." Right away you know you're dealing with a Southerner (which is good, since the book is all about the deep South).
What's the difference between slang and dialect? Slang words are usually highly specific to a time or place ("bubbler," "y'all," "hoagie"), and it gets obsolete quickly, which is why we point and laugh when anyone uses the word "phat" these days. Dialect goes deeper: it includes the slang you use, the way you structure your sentences, and your pronunciation, and it's generally longer lasting.
Slang and dialect aren't just dependent on region (though have you seen this amazing map of regional slang differences?). They differ according to social class, time period, upbringing; there's even dialect 4 ppl who spend 2 much time on teh Internetz, lolz. So they're good ways to signal these character traits without having to spell them out to your reader.
Make sure you don't overdo it, though, especially with the spelling—thar's nuthin' mahr em-bay-ressing than sumone trah'n ta wraht an ayksent they're no gewd at, y'hear?
Sample Lesson - Reading
Reading 2.2: "Hills Like White Elephants"
Get ready to read a seriously famous story by a seriously bearded literary titan, Ernest Hemingway. Yep, we're talking about "Hills Like White Elephants," which you can find in Hemingway's famous collection Men Without Women.
Why'd we choose this particular story? Well, it's known for being almost completely made up of dialogue—and for using that dialogue in a very sneaky way. Go ahead and read the story, and see if you can figure out what this sad couple is talking about; then come back and read this rest of this section. We'll wait.
Below the Fold
Okay, you're finished. Bummer, right?
If you haven't figured it out, they're talking about getting the girl an abortion. But the story never uses the words "abortion," "baby," "pregnant," or anything like that. Not once. It's a great example of Hemingway's Iceberg Principle: he thought that, like an iceberg, most of a story's meaning should be pushed under the surface and not mentioned directly.
And that fits this story perfectly: the guy wants to be gentle and convincing and doesn't want to bring up their secret in public, so he speaks in a kind of polite code. And at the end, when the girl says, "There's nothing wrong with me. I feel fine," we know she's being honest and dishonest all at once. Really good dialogue gives you multiple kinds of layers of meaning with just a few words. Hemingway's clever like that.
P.S. As with most great stories, we've got the full scoop on "Hills Like White Elephants," so take a gander at our learning guide to dig deeper into the story.
Sample Lesson - Activity
Activity 2.2: Busted
What better way is there to get to know someone than to have a conversation… in an interrogation room?
For this activity, you're going to write a scene of nothing but dialogue.
Your character—the one you started sketching out in the last lesson—has just gotten arrested for shoplifting, and now she's going to try to talk her way out of it. It's up to you to decide what she shoplifted, whether she's actually guilty, what kind of officer she's talking to, and whether she gets away with it.
Along the way, we should get a real good sense of who your character is, based the way that she speaks to the officer (it'll help to use some of the characterization strategies we mentioned in the Lesson Intro).
Stats: 500 words and typed in a document.
Once you've written the scene, there's one more step: read it out loud. Why? Because readers are like bloodhounds when it comes to dialogue. It has to sound completely right. The best way to see if it works is to read it out loud, exactly the way you imagine your character will speak it.
You might find that a certain sentence is way too long to speak in one breath, or that there's some weird accidental rhyming in it, or that the word order sounds artificial. Your ear can always tell if a line is wrong. And if you do find some missteps, fix 'em before you upload your work below.
Oh, and one last thing: if you haven't already, go ahead and give your character a name. Nothing's set in stone yet, of course; it'll just be easier than saying "that person over there."
- Course Length: 3 weeks
- Grade Levels: 11, 12, College
- Course Type: Short Course
- High School
Just what the heck is a Shmoop Online Course?
Common Core Standards
The following Common Core Standards are covered in this course:CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.11-12.1