Lecture 1

[Leonora Carrington, "The Inn of the Dawn Horse" (1936-37)]

Week 1:

Lecture 1

[Course Introduction]

Fiction: What is it?


What is this course about? What is "Creative Writing"? I think it's fair to say that you need passion and enthusiasm to write well and interestingly.

As well as passion, though, you need skills. That's the aspect we can help you with most, so that's what we'll mostly be concentrating on in this course.

Luckily the skills needed to be an effective creative writer are very similar to the skills required in many other areas.

You have to be an effective communicator, for instance.

Principles of Good Communication:

Make what you want to say as clear as you possibly can. If it isn’t clear to you, there’s no way it can be clear to your readers / hearers.

What exactly is your intended audience? Children? Ten-year-olds? Intelligent, well-read adults? Fellow university students?
Too much detail can be confusing.
Too little detail can be sketchy and unconvincing

Here are George Orwell's six famous rules for writing, from his essay "Politics and the English Language" (1946):
  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Having said that, though, the question still remains: What do you actually want to say?

That may not be clear to you yet, but over time I guarantee that you'll find quite a number of things you'd like to communicate to other people.

So what does all this have to do with storytelling? What is a story, anyway?

I guess the question is about as meaningful as asking what a picture is, or what a piece of music is. On the one hand, the answer's obvious - on the other hand, what each of us considers to be an effective or interesting picture or piece of music is left entirely open.

Since each of you does have to produce at least two short stories in this course, though, I think the question can be rephrased as: "What constitutes a story for the purposes of this course?"

A story, then, must contain the following elements:

  1. Plot: Something happens in the course of the narrative. What happens, how momentous or trivial it is or might seem, is up to you.
  2. Characterisation: There needs to be at least one character in your story. What's more, your character needs to want something. He or she (or they) need to feel desire for something or someone. Again, precisely what they desire can be as trivial or momentous as you like.
  3. Setting: The story must take place somewhere. It can be a generic cityscape, or a very particular place, described in minute detail. It can be real or imaginary, past of future, fantastic or prosaic. It can be vital to the story, or completely incidental. But it must be set somewhere.
  4. Point-of-view: How is the story told? Is it told directly in the first person ("I did this, I did that"), or indirectly in the third person ("he walked down the long corridor alone")? Or have you switched to second person ("you wake up. Was it just a dream?"). All these choices have implications on the effect your story will have on its readers.
  5. Detail: Your story can be more or less detailed in its approach to the characters and settings you describe. The nature of the story should dictate just how much (or how little) detail you need.
  6. Meaning: What does it all mean? Why are you telling us this particular story? Does it have an obvious moral, or is the purpose just to give us an idea of what it's like to experience the world the way you experience it?

As far as the course prescriptions go, your story should be:

  • between 1,000 and 2, 000 words long (if you want to go over that limit, you'll need to get specific clearance for that from your tutor)
  • in any genre or style you like: Sci Fi, Romance, Detective - all are possiblities, as well as realist or autobiographical fiction (though reality and your own experience of it might be a good place to start your story writing: how many of us have actually been to another planet or met a ghost - or a talking animal, for that matter?)
  • based on one of the exercises only if you want to do that. The exercises are designed to be from a paragraph to a page long. It can be very difficult to spin some of them out even to 1,000 words if they don't greatly interest you to start with.

So let's begin with plot.

What do the critics have to say about it?

[Raphael: Aristotle]

Aristotle’s Poetics (c.335 BC):

The plot … is the first principle and as it were the soul of tragedy: character comes second.

Plots … must have length but must be easily taken in by the memory.

A plot does not have unity … simply because it deals with a single hero. Many and indeed innumerable things happen to an individual, some of which do not go to make up any unity …

The plot … must represent a single piece of action and the whole of it; and the component incidents must be so arranged that if one of them be transposed or removed, the unity of the whole is dislocated and destroyed. For if the presence or absence of a thing makes no visible difference, then it is not an integral part of the whole.

[Edgar Allan Poe]

Edgar Allan Poe’s "The Philosophy of Composition" (1846):

It is only with the denouement constantly in view that we can give a plot its indispensable air of consequence, or causation ...

Having chosen a novel, first, and secondly a vivid effect, I consider whether it can be best wrought by incident or tone – whether by ordinary incidents and peculiar tone, or the converse, or by peculiarity both of incident and tone – afterward looking about me (or rather within) for such combinations of event, or tone, as shall best aid me in the construction of the effect. …

There is a distinct limit, as regards length, to all works of literary art – the limit of a single sitting …

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