Teaching short fiction: a classroom exercise (tip 77) Reply

In this video, D.D. Johnston discusses a classroom exercise that he uses to illustrate an important difference between short stories and novels.

Here’s an exercise that I really enjoy setting for a group of writers. I take a selection of acclaimed, widely-anthologised, short stories, and I type out the beginning and ending of each one. I do about twenty stories, and I scatter these fragments around the classroom.

Now, the writers haven’t read any of these stories, but nevertheless I ask them to pair each opening with its correct ending. And they can do this because if the first paragraph is about a woman called Margaret, then almost certainly she’ll be in the last paragraph too. If the last paragraph is about a man destroying a hornet’s nest, then there’s a very good chance that the hornet nest, or at least the man, will be in the first paragraph.

Another version of this exercise is to ask writers to pair a story’s opening sentence with the story’s synopsis. Again, the two will usually match. For instance, Annie Proulx’s “The Half-Skinned Steer” is about an older man named Mero returning to the ranch where he grew up, so the opening line is

In the long unfurling of his life, from tight-wound kid hustler in a wool suit riding the train out of Cheyenne to geriatric limper in this spooled-out year, Mero had kicked down thoughts of the place where he began, a so-called ranch on strange ground at the south hinge of the Big Horns.

It doesn’t begin with a waitress serving an older man a burger – it begins with the protagonist and the key transition that drives the story: Mero returns to the ranch after decades.

So there’s a tightness and discipline required for writing short fiction. And, interestingly, the same thing doesn’t necessarily apply to novels at all. Great novels often start about one thing and go on to be about something completely different. For instance, the opening to Les Miserables begins with a lengthy account of the life of a bishop, who, after his encounter with Jean Valjean, plays no further part in the story.

Thanks for watching, and good luck with your writing.

The thumbnail for this video uses an image by Mary. It is covered by a Creative Commons license, and you can find more of her work here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/goodsardine-clean/

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