How do you teach writing? (Part 2)

by Alex

To start off my PRICE tour I did the Southern California Writers’ Conference in San Diego last week. The conference is run by a WGA friend of mine, the irrepressible writer/director, Michael Steven Gregory, and his perfect straight man, Wes Albers, a writer/cop and the best of both professions. I love this conference because it feels like home, of course, but especially because of the unique dynamic between the instructors and attendees. The conference is made up primarily of workshops rather than panels and so attending authors end up doing a lot of teaching and also one-on-one sessions, and the whole atmosphere of the conference is so casual and friendly that I think students can get a lot of in-depth attention just by asking for it.

In prepping for my workshops and doing the actual teaching I realized that I have no idea how to teach people HOW to write. That is, if someone can’t put together a descriptive sentence, or a dramatic paragraph, I am not the person who is going to be able to help them with that. I can tell you how to make an existing sentence more effective and I can tell you what paragraphs you need to expand on to bring out the full potential of the situation, but I can’t tell you how to start from scratch. Honestly I think that skill starts extremely early – like, with third grade journaling. Storytellers are writing down stories from practically the time they can write (but that’s my theory – would love to hear what people have to say about late starters.).

I also have to admit that I hate with a singular passion the kinds of writing exercises in which an instructor gives you a situation, or a set of characters and you have to put together a story from those elements. I’m perfectly capable of coming up with my own elements, thanks very much.

But I am finding I am useful in explaining to people how to tell a story.

The classes I taught were “Creating Unbearable Suspense” and two sessions of “Screenwriting Tips and Tricks for Novelists (and Screenwriters)”. I’ve picked up a lot of structure tricks over the years and I’ve managed to distill them into a form that was translating amazingly well to the three classes of students I had last week. And one thing I found that worked really well was that I asked the students to give me examples of books and movies in their particular genres, so we were dealing with a set of examples that I knew would resonate with the classes. It’s a fun way to teach because you end up expanding your own repertoire and learning something (imagine that!)

Another huge perk of teaching is that in going over al these classic examples of great storytelling you remember why you wanted to write in the first place, which I admit I sometimes forget. Someone paid me the supreme compliment – he’d been ready to move on from his first novel and just send it around as is because he thought he’d taken it as far as he could go – and then after my class he said he was excited about diving in to the rewrite and taking it to a deeper level. That was especially nice for me to hear because I need to do exactly the same thing with my own book and all the back and forth with the classes jazzed me about doing it.

I like using examples of both films and books because the entire class is more likely to have seen the same movies and actually remember them than books. And the examples I find myself using over and over again are SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (which should surprise to no one), JAWS, STAR WARS, THE WIZARD OF OZ, HAMLET, THE SHINING and PET SEMATERY. I love these stories because they are pretty much perfect examples of construction, and some other techniques that I love to teach. OZ and STAR WARS are particularly good for demonstrating how the hero’s journey plot works; JAWS is a great example to kick start a discussion of high concept premises and obligatory scenes, SILENCE OF THE LAMBS is a stunning example of using fairy tale archetypes and motifs to make your story resonate (RED DRAGON is great for this as well); THE SHINING and PET SEMATERY are wonderful for demonstrating the power of fate, inevitability and the hero’s ghost; HAMLET and OZ and SILENCE and STAR WARS are fantastic for subplots and supporting characters.

I picked up some great new examples from my classes, too – BLACK FRIDAY for a knockout premise (terrorists plan an attack on the Superbowl – genius), and WITNESS for a brilliant exploration of theme, especially in the climax.

So since I’m in the mode, what I’m wondering today is – for those of us who teach, what do you think you teach well, and not so well? For example, I know RGB teaches a great seminar on character, which I’m not sure I would know how to do – would love to see him break it down for us on Murderati sometime.

And when you teach, or even just when you go off on a rant about great books and films – which are the examples that come up over and over for you, and why?

I’m really interested in hearing what stories are touchstones for our Rati readers and writers.

16 thoughts on “How do you teach writing? (Part 2)

  1. Derek Nikitas


    I’ve been teaching creative writing for a few years now, but I’ve got an entirely different situation, in that I have a whole semester (and in some cases, a couple years) to teach people how to write. I can’t imagine being able to make much of an impact in a few days, unless you concentrate–as I imagine is the case with week-long conferences–on a specific issue, like maintaining suspense or something.

    But even with teaching for a whole semester or more, I don’t think you can teach somebody how to write a good sentence or paragraph in the first draft. The teacher’s job is to teach the writer how to REWRITE well, which is exactly what you were doing.

    In fact, I think it’s vitally important to get students to understand and believe that first-draft writing is bad, will inevitably be bad, and is SUPPOSED to be bad, even for “seasoned” writers.

    I try to teach them that writing is rewriting, even dozens upon dozens of times, until you get it right. Only when you have something down on paper can you begin to analyze it and improve it in any conscious way. First draft writing is largely unconscious and inefficient, groping in the dark–as it should be. Only by groping in the dark can you get a hold of stuff your own intellect didn’t even realize you could find.

    (I don’t mean the overall structure of a novel or story here, since of course we mystery/thriller writers often write from established outlines; that’s something you can teach students to plan out. I just mean writing on a sentence-by-sentence level).

    That’s why I always write WAY more than I’ll actually keep. I don’t even WANT to improve my initial rough draft writing because that would mean I’d be writing more carefully, and writing your rough draft carefully is, I think, a terrible idea. Nobody ever discovers something brilliant while being careful.

    The hope is that, eventually, your students will begin to write better sentences and paragraphs the first time around–as in, better diction, better metaphors, better insights, etc.–but I don’t know of any writer who takes his craft seriously who also ever thinks his first draft is any good. Or his second, or third, or fourth, or fifth, or sixth.

    The trick is to teach your students how to be psychotically anal-retentive perfectionists about revision. That’s the part that I find most difficult!

    That said, I believe you can teach writers how to write less analytically and more sensually (that is, with the senses rather than the intellect), even in rough draft writing. It’s a matter of teaching them how to EXPERIENCE a scene through a POV instead of thinking about a scene in the abstract. In other words, teaching them how NOT to think while they write their rough drafts. There’s plenty of time to agonize while revising.

  2. John Dishon

    I’m not a teacher, but I think “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien is a good story for showing a different style: the list, and how mundane artifacts can enhance characterization.

  3. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Derek, thanks a million for that fabulous post. Truer words were never spoken:

    “In fact, I think it’s vitally important to get students to understand and believe that first-draft writing is bad, will inevitably be bad, and is SUPPOSED to be bad, even for “seasoned” writers.”

    And “teaching them how NOT to think while they write their first drafts”. Amen!

    I’m printing out your post and I’ll be rereading it every time I set out to do a workshop!

    (Aside from a few aberrations we know, DUSTY).

  4. Victor Gischler

    A number of novels and stories come to mind, but I’m going to go with a film. JAWS. You don’t even see the shark the first half of the film. If you don’t care about the characters, dialogue, etc. then you’re going nowhere fast.


  5. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Yeah, Victor, JAWS is one of my absolute favorites to break down. You just see how that story HAS to go from the premise, and the forces of antagonism are so great – not just the shark, but the local officials who won’t let the Sheriff close the beaches because the town would lose the tourist money.

    And of course, it hits one of our most primal fears. Ugh.

  6. Mary-Frances

    Hi Alex,Off topic. . .but when did you say your notes from your class on Creating Unbearable Suspense would be available for purchase:)

  7. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Hah, MF! Actually after I taught that class I was thinking I would LOVE to have to teach a full-day workshop on suspense because if would force me to really analyze all the suspense techniques I know.

    That’s the great thing about teaching – it sharpens your own skills.

  8. Tom, T.O.

    Gotta agree with Derek: it’s about writing that first draft of anything as quickly as possible, forgetting spelling grammar, punctuation–just getting the ideas down before you forget them (which will happen if you stop to ponder commas, spelling, et alii). It’s all in the subsequent rewrites.

    Finished THE PRICE last week! So excellent I had to wonder what “price” you payed…. (I know: you gave up the chance to have me as your boyfriend–the only thing that makes sense!)

  9. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Hey John – how lovely of you! Thanks for the link!

    And Tom, WHEW – so glad you responded to THE PRICE. It’s so dark I get nervous about how people will react. Then I think of who I’m talking to, here.

    And about my price… well. If I could talk about it, I wouldn’t have to write about it, now, would I?

  10. Rob Gregory Browne

    RGB’s character breakdown is very simple. It all comes down to four things:


    And if I haven’t already (seems to me I may have posted this here before), I’ll be happy to get into it more in the future.

    What I enjoy about teaching these things is that it forces ME to analyze process. Something I don’t usually do.

    Normally, I just start writing and hope for the best.

  11. Fran

    When I taught Shakespeare to border high schoolers, to get them into it I had to get them to relate to the characters. That meant showing them that there were bits of what they believed, thought, loved, lived in those old words.

    And then we took those ideas into writing, working with archetypes and stereotypes and innovation, but it all came back to people you can relate to in situations you can accept.

    Eh, I’ve been out of the teaching gig for a while so I’m not explaining it as well as I should, but it basically came down to “we have to care, not LIKE, but care about the people and the situation”. I loathed Stephen Donaldson’s protagonist Thomas Covenant, but I believed him, and had to know what happened because of him.

  12. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Fran, I completely agree about the difference between liking and caring. Robert McKee always said that you don’t have to have sympathy for your major characters but you do have to have empathy. Sane deal!

    Rob, if you did a character post I missed it – would love for you to do it some time.

  13. PJ Parrish

    Hey Alex,

    Good post. There are some who think writing really can’t be taught. (Reed Coleman and I have this arguement constantly!) I’m of the mind that the craft can be honed but if you don’t have some talent, no amount of practice is going to get you a gig at Carnegie Hall.

    My sister and I have several powerpoint dog-and-pony shows we do, but our most popular seems to be on creating suspense, which we tell everyone is a necessary element in every book — be it thriller, romance or literature. (Well, good literature at least)

    We, too, use JAWS (mainly because everyone has seen the movie if not read the book) and I believe it is the perfect serial killer story with a classic dramatic arc. We’ll be using it when we teach our mini-workshop at the Edgar Symposium next month in fact.

    I think the bottom line is, teaching writing is not easy. And I truly believe the one caveat we tell all the folks who attend: No one — be it teacher, how-to-write author, editor or critique group — has the answers and if they say they do, RUN LIKE HELL! Each writer has to find their own way to their truth.


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