Somehow I’ve survived another week of writing instruction. My 3rd graders are enthusiastic and clever, but something usually seems to keep them from doing their homework. My 5th graders, ditto. Don’t ask about 4th grade.
In one of Kerouac’s early novels he talks about meeting Neal Cassady, who latched onto Jack, begging him to teach him how to write. Yet what does he know about writing, asks Jack, other than that you have to stick to it like a benny addict.
There’s a lovely story about, I think, Aldous Huxley. A young man is supposed to have come up to him at a party and announced that he intended to become a writer, and what should he do to prepare himself? Huxley (if it was Huxley) told him he should ‘lay in a large supply of paper, and then he should get himself a couple of good pens.’
There is no substitute for putting in the hours, but since I’m supposed to be the teacher I’ve had to come up with some guidelines for getting started. The ground rule, our motto, is ‘show, not tell.’ This can be difficult, but here’s a simple example:
Told: Samson heard the garage door open.
Shown: Samson’s little pink ears shot to attention at the sound of the garage door lurching into operation.
We talk a lot, in writing class, about how stories are shown in movies, about how film directors get to move their camera around, showing you now a long shot, now a close-up. We’re terribly jealous of film directors. We don’t have movie cameras, so we have to show everything using nothing but words.
Another thing we talk about a lot is the three things an author does within a story; he develops character, sets the stage, and moves the story along.
‘Moving the story along’ is the most obvious as well as the easiest. For example, in the first paragraph of our primary text, “In which Tigger comes to the Forest and has breakfast,” there occurs the following sentence: Then he got out of bed, and lit his candle, and stumped across the room to see if anybody was trying to get into his honey-cupboard, and they weren’t, so he stumped back again, blew out his candle, and got into bed. The sentence relates a series of actions essential to the story.
But Milne sneaks some stage-setting in as well. We see that candles are used in Pooh-bear’s house, rather than electric lights. We see that the house is equipped with a bed and a honey-cupboard.
And clever Mr. Milne manages to get in some character development, too. Pooh-bear stumped across the room. We can see him stumping; a lazier writer would have used ‘walked’ or ‘went.’ And where, precisely, does he stump to? To his honey-cupboard. Woken up in the middle of the night, still half-asleep, the first thought that occurs to our bear of little brain involves the safety of his honey supply.
Setting the stage is necessary, but character development is what it’s all about. Once you have fleshed-out characters, the story moves along of its own accord.
The stories that we’re writing, by the way, all have the same setup. There are two house mice: Samson and Tinkerbell. One day, the owners of the house come home, and Samson and Tinkerbell overhear a conversation. The owners have just gotten home from the doctor’s office, where they have learned that they are allergic to cheese. How do the mice solve their problem?