Introduction to Fiction Writing

This course is an introduction to the building blocks of writing fiction. It is a hybrid course, combining elements of a literature course with the traditional writing workshop.


Through the study of short stories, students will learn about the various forms fictional works can take, such as  epistolary stories, flash fiction, framed storied, et cetera, the choices made by writers such as point of view and setting, and the techniques of dialog, characterization, narration, and description.


While studying published short stories, students will also write and revise their own short story. Directed reading and writing assignments will guide them through the process of invention, creation, and revision.


This course will also introduce students to “the workshop,” a fundamental part of creative writing instruction, in which students read and respond to each other’s work, addressing aspects of craft for revision and improvement. It will prepare them to participate in more advanced workshops in future courses.


By the end of the course, students will have:

  1)  investigated their creative goals and motives for writing fiction

  2)  reflected upon their reading habits and experiences

  3)  created a writer's notebook

  4)  learned the connection between character and plot

  5)  studied fictional forms such as flash fiction, epistolary fiction, framed

       stories, et cetera

  6)  explored how and why authors create different points of view

  7)  practiced various techniques of psychic distance, narration, description, and

       writing dialog

  9)  practiced revision as part of their writing process

 10) learned and practiced the skills needed to be a good writing workshop participant

Required Texts

  1)  The Art and Craft of Fiction  by Michael Kardos

  2)  course packet

  3)  a hardbound blank sketchbook or notebook of at least 150 pages

  4)  a small notebook and pen to keep in your pocket

  5)  you will also be required to print 18 copies of your story at

        the semester’s end—this can cost up to $30

Major Assignments

Great Writers are Great Readers

The purpose of this project is to have you investigate and consciously examine what you have read, why you have read these works, how you find new fiction to read, where you get information about new fiction, and reflect upon whether you want to write the kinds of stories you enjoy reading.


Step 1:  Review the handout "The Greatest Novels, Ever" and highlight the novels you have read.

After completing the highlighting, write a brief reflection essay on what the highlighting reveals. Are there areas with lots of highlighting and areas with very little/no highlighting? Is there an “empty” place that you’d like to be full of highlighting? Did you recognize many or some of the novels you have not read? Of the books you have read, how did you first hear about these novels? What made you want to read them?


Step 2: Add books to the list. The list I have created is purposefully incomplete. Add 15-20 books (novels, novellas, or short story collections) to existing categories or create a new category and suggest 15-20 books for it.

After you have found 10-15 books, write a brief reflection essay upon how you found these books. What methods did you choose? Where did you go? Who did you talk to? Is this your normal way of locating books to read? How did this process differ from the normal way you find books to read?


Step 3: Create your own “canon”—a list of 25-30 novels, novellas, or short story collections (but not plays, epic poems, ancient myths, movies, or nonfiction), which you believe are the greatest works of prose fiction ever.

Afterwards, write a brief reflection essay on the list you have created. Why did you choose the books you chose? What makes these books great? Are there any books on the list that you have not actually read? Are there any books on your list that you have not read and have no immediate plans to read? If so, why are these books on your list? Is it because they are “classics?” Do you feel obligated to read certain books, even if you aren’t excited about them? What makes you excited to read a particular new novel? What do you look forward to? What do you anticipate emotionally and stylistically that leads to your excitement?


Step 4: From your list of 25-30 works of fiction, choose one to read this semester that you have read and admire deeply, a book you have re-read before, a book that made you want to be a writer, or a book that made you say, “I wish I had written this book.” Explain why you admire this book and what about it you want to copy/imitate.


Great Writers Keep a Notebook

Step 1: Purchase a small pocket-sized notebook, and a larger 8x11 or similar blank notebook where you will record ideas for stories, characters, write freewriting exercises, et cetera. You may not just use your phone or a MS Word document. Why? Because the delete key is too easy, to tempting, and too permanent. This notebook will be your quarry that can be mined for material as you write.


Step 2: Brainstorm “chapters,” sections, or other ways of subdividing and organizing the notebook (I will show you my notebooks as examples, but there is no right or wrong way to do this.)


Retyping a Great Novel

For this assignment, sit down with a copy of the novel, novella, or story collection you chose for step 4 of the “Great Readers” assignment and retype at least seven pages, word-for-word, beginning with the first chapter. Inevitably, you will ask why we are doing this, which is why I have assigned the reading “Retyping On the Road” from Uncreative Writing by Kenneth Goldsmith, and we will discuss this unconventional assignment in class.


Intellectual and Creative Autobiography

Write a 4-6 page autobiography (formatted according to MLA guidelines). Think of this as an opportunity to explore your professional and creative goals and to take inventory of yourself. The style may be informal, somewhere between a journal entry and an essay. Among the topics you should explore are:


   Why are you taking creative writing classes?

   Where do you want to go with writing?

   Why do you want to go there?

   What will you need to get there?

   What do you have already?

   What do you need to acquire?

   What was your first exposure to art?

   Who or what led you to start reading?

   Who or what led you to start writing?

   Your primary areas of literary interest

   Areas of particular strength and weakness

   Your creative process

    Have you ever had someone read your writing? Someone other than a friend or

    family member?

   What creative accomplishment(s) are you most proud of?


4-5 Story Proposals

Write out all of your ideas for 4 to 5 stories. Provide as many details about the characters, plot, beginning, and ending as possible. Do not write the proposal like a “teaser” that would appear on the back of a novel.


Original Short Story

Over the semester, you will write an original short story of 12 to 16 pages based upon one of the forms discussed in class (dramatic monologue, epistolary, frame, fairy tale, et cetera). This must be a new story—old work written for another class is not allowed. You will turn in 4 drafts of your story over the semester. You must settle on a story idea by the end of the fourth week of class and after that point you may not begin a new or different story, so don’t ask. Professional writers work on a single story for many months, and their feelings about the story fluctuate wildly. You will experience this fluctuation—so at times, you will be excited about the story, and other times you will hate the story and want to abandon it. You need to learn to anticipate these feelings and work past them.


Your story may be about anything you want in any genre (realism, humor, noir, magic realism, sci-fi, fantasy, et cetera). However, there is one exception: you may not kill any of your characters.


Final Portfolio 

At the end of the semester, you will turn in a final portfolio which consists of three parts.  1) A final draft of your original short story, revised based upon classmate & instructor critiques, and formatted as if you were submitting it to a journal for publication.  2) A cover letter.  3) A reflection essay of 3-4 pages (formatted according to MLA guidelines), that explores your composition process over the semester, from the initial invention stages through the final revision.


Discuss any weaknesses you see in the final version as well as its strengths. How and why did you make the revisions that you did? How does the current draft compare to the first draft? How did the story evolve over the semester? What techniques did you employ or try to employ? What affect did you hope to achieve with these techniques? Did you succeed? Why did you make the choices you made with respect to form, character, and plot? Reflect upon your workshop experience. And finally, how does the story speak to you, or in other words, why were you compelled to write this story at this time?

Minor Assignments

In-Class Freewriting

Every class will begin with a prompt in the board/projector. You are expected to begin writing (in your writer’s notebook) as soon as you arrive. These exercises are designed to help you express yourself vividly, concretely and imaginatively, to provoke ideas, and to promote the development of a daily writing habit.


Character Interview

For this assignment, you will “interview” the main character of your short story. This is a common technique used by writers and the questionnaire below was invented by the French author Marcel Proust (1871–1922). Imagine you are the character and answer each of these questions with as much detail as you can. Don’t give one-word answers, but go on to explain the “why” behind each answer. Type your answers and bring them to class.


  • What do you consider your greatest achievement?
  • What is your idea of perfect happiness?
  • What is your current state of mind?
  • What is your favorite occupation?
  • What is your most treasured possession?
  • What or who is the greatest love of your life?
  • What is your favorite journey?
  • What is your most marked characteristic?
  • When and where were you the happiest?
  • What is it that you most dislike?
  • What is your greatest fear?
  • What is your greatest extravagance?
  • Which living person do you most despise?
  • What is your greatest regret?
  • Which talent would you most like to have?
  • Where would you like to live?
  • What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
  • What is the quality you most like in a man?
  • What is the quality you most like in a woman?
  • What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
  • What is the trait you most deplore in others?
  • What do you most value in your friends?
  • Who is your favorite hero of fiction?
  • Whose are your heroes in real life?
  • Which living person do you most admire?
  • What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
  • On what occasions do you lie?
  • Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
  • If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
  • What are your favorite names?
  • How would you like to die?
  • If you were to die and come back as a person or thing, what do you think it would be?
  • What is your motto?


LOCK Analysis of Your Characters

For this assignment, complete the LOCK exercise for each of your characters: the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and so on.


   My Lead character is…                                  My second character is …

   He/She is a …                                                 He/She is a …

   His/Her objective is to …                              His/Her objective is to …

   He/She is confronted by …                           He/She is confronted by …

   Who opposes him/her because …               Who opposes him/her because …

   The ending will be a knockout when...       The ending will be a knockout when …


Critiques of Classmates’ & Sample Stories

At the end of the semester, you will write one critique for each of your classmates and critique a sample bad story as practice before we begin the workshop. Details about how to write the critiques will be discussed in class.

Course Calendar

Week 1 – Introduction

     welcome & ice breakers
     class introduction & syllabus review
     lecture/discussion:  why write?


Inspiration, Creativity, and the Writer’s Life

Week 2

     lecture/discussion:  Keeping a Writer’s Notebook

     lecture/discussion:  Reading Habits


Week 3

     lecture/discussion:  Creativity

     video: “Everything is a Remix” parts 1-3


Planning a Story

Week 4

     lecture/discussion:  Avoiding Beginners Mistakes

     in-class workshop:  break into small groups for evaluation of your story proposals


Development & Revision

Week 5

    lecture/discussion: Character and Conflict

        - the 3 basic conflicts

        - what does the character want?

        - the LOCK exercise

        - the “three sources of heat”

     readings:  “Least Resistance” by Wayne Harrison  &  “The Payoff” by Susan Perabo


    lecture/discussion:  Character

      - aspects of fictional characters

      - flat vs. round characters

      - discussion of assigned stories & essays

      - external conflicts

      - characters must change

    readings:  “Everything That Rises Must Converge” by O’Connor  &  "A&P" by Updike


Week 6

   lecture/discussion:   Internal Conflict via Metaphor & Symbolism

      - definition of symbol, image, metaphor, et cetera

      - metaphor as a gateway to internal conflict

   readings:  “Chango” by Oscar Casares  &  “The Chrysanthemums” by Steinbeck


   lecture/discussion:  What is a Narrative?

     - narratives vs. non-narratives

     - dramatic monolog

     - epistolary fiction

     - microfiction

     - flash fiction

   readings:  “The Wizard of West Orange” by Steven Millhauser,  “Alligator Joe & Pancho

        Villa” by William Kanouse, & "Wing and Rain" by Fleming

Week 7

   lecture/discussion: Endings

      - plot is determined by character

      - the epiphany

      - the emotional core of the story

   readings:  “Virgins” by Danielle Evans  &  “Brownies” by ZZ Packer


   lecture/discussion: Structure

     - structure is not plot

     - how does a story handle time?

     - the structure of well-known novels

     - visual representations of common structures

   readings:  “Lust” by Susan Minot


Week 8

   lecture/discussion:  Point of View

     - 1st, 2nd, 3rd person

     - 1st person: protagonist vs. witness vs. reteller

     - 3rd person: limited, objective, omniscient

     - how and when to change POV

   readings:  “Man’s Courage” by Blassingame  &  “Tony’s Story” by Leslie Marmon Silko

   lecture/discussion:  Psychic Distance

     - what is psychic distance?

     - when to use different psychic distances

   readings:  “Chango” by Casares  &  “Hills Like White Elephants” by Hemingway


Week 9

   lecture/discussion:  Description

     - avoiding clichés

     - describing emotion

     - senses other than sight

   readings:  “Eavesdropping” by Steve Kuusisto


   lecture/discussion:  Dialog

     - mechanics

     - common mistakes

     - dialog tags

     - the trouble with dialect

   readings:  “Virgins” by Danielle Evans  & Of Mules and Men (excerpts) by Zora Neale



Week 10

   lecture/discussion:  Prose & Scene

     - the different types of prose in fiction: exposition / narrative summary / scene


   lecture/discussion:  “To Be” Verbs

     - passive voice

     - vivid verbs

     - practice revising sentences without “to be”



Week 11

   lecture/discussion:  Creative Writing Workshops

     - the value of peer review

     - how to conduct a workshop

     - review of instructions for writing critiques

   in-class exercise: mock workshop of a sample bad story


   workshop of students 1, 2


Week 12

    workshop of students 3,4,5

    workshop of students 6,7


Week 13

    workshop of students 8,9,10

    workshop of students 11,12


Week 14 

    workshop of students 13,14,15

    workshop of students 16,17,18


Week 15 Conclusion

    lecture/discussion:  Manuscript Format

     - how to submit short fiction for publication

     - undergrad literary magazines

     - manuscript formatting

     - cover letters


    end of semester self-assessment
    instructor evaluations