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Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Big Three

If you've taught creative writing to teenagers, you might remember seeing plot lines similar to this:  A group of friends prepares to go to a party.  The protagonist decides she needs a new blouse, so her friends take her to the mall to find one.  At the mall they get something to eat then search through one store after another until FINALLY they find the perfect blouse!  They purchase it, the protagonist wears it to the party, and everyone tells her how great it looks!  The protagonist lives happily ever after! (Exclamation points are essential here.  At least they were in the original story.)

After reading a few assignments like this, you might question why you ever consented to teach the new creative writing elective.  The happy news is that the same teen writer who created this snore-inducing attempt at a story was able to create amazing page-turners once she mastered the following principles:  1) show your story, don't tell it; 2) add tension to your scenes; and 3) create reader sympathy for your protagonist.

The "Big Three" don't magically occur by themselves.  Although a talented writer can eventually pick them up through writer's intuition, a student can quickly turn her writing around within days of learning specific techniques associated with each principle.

I still remember my own experience in a creative writing course.  Our professor constantly lectured us about "showing" our stories instead of "telling" them.  There was one problem.  She never explicitly taught any of the techniques we needed to accomplish it.

"Show don't tell.  Show don't tell."  It was as if these three magical words could instantly transform our writing.  When I finally managed to stumble upon the true meaning of the concept, the professor called me into her office to tell me, "This writing is too good to be yours."

If you expect your students to write like professionals, they need to learn the techniques used by professional authors.  Even a thirteen year-old can master them.  (It's possible!  I've seen it happen.  The challenge is getting the thirteen year-old to patiently keep at it.)  Over the course of my next few posts, I'll focus on these techniques.