The Art of Short Fiction: Character and Conflict in Miniature

HONORS 200: The Shaping of the Modern Mind (HU)
The Art of Short Fiction: Character and Conflict in Miniature
Dr. Ann McBee, Honors College Lecturer
Sem 008, Class #43890: MW 2-3:15 p.m., HON 180
Instructor Information
E-mail: [email protected]
Office: Curtin Hall 292, Honors House Study Room
Office hours: M 12-2, W 10-2 in Curtin, Honors House Study Room by appointment
Course reader containing excerpts and short selections (find on D2L)
The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction, Ed. Tara L. Masih
Sudden Fiction: American Short-Short Stories, Eds. Robert Shapard and James Thomas
Diana Hacker, A Writer’s Reference
Course Description
Legend has it that Ernest Hemingway wrote a story in just six words (“For sale: baby
shoes, never worn.”), which illuminates Hemingway’s mastery of bare-bones storytelling.
The appeal of short fiction seems to have flourished in recent years. Many literary
publications, both print and online, have shifted their focus to include shorter works,
more easily read on a computer screen. “Flash Fiction” (also known as Sudden Fiction,
Short Shorts, Micro-fiction, Quick, and Skinny Fiction) is an increasingly popular genre
enjoyed by audiences at open mic venues across the country. Short fiction, however,
offers its readers much more than brevity.
In this class we will study a smorgasbord of short fiction, from the traditional short story
to flash fiction. Fiction elements such as character, conflict, setting, and point of view
will be examined along with metaphor, symbol, and tone to help us investigate deeper
structures and themes in these short, fictional forms. Emphasis will be on developing the
individual student’s critical reading of the text and appreciation for the craft of short
fiction. The class will take the form of discussion rather than lecture.
Course Requirements
Students are expected to attend regularly and to have the reading done on time. Because
the class is a seminar, attendance, preparation, and participation in class discussion
counts toward 20% of the final grade. Leading the discussion of at least one story will
count toward 10%. There will be frequent informal writing assignments (10%) and a
series of three medium-length analytical essays, each worth 20%, all of which will be
revised. The final paper has a creative option for any student who wants to write their
own short story.
Attendance: Students who avoid absence altogether during the semester will receive 20
full points for participation regardless of other factors. Students who accrue more than
four unexcused absences will be docked 10 participation points regardless of other
factors. (An excused absence requires a doctor’s note or other documentation.)
Discussion/Preparation: Students are expected to be active participants in discussion, and
to come to class with the required materials on time. The only way to be assured of
receiving the full 20 points for participation will be to do ALL of the following:
- Come to class every meeting, on time
- Contribute verbally and thoughtfully to discussion at least once per meeting
- Read assignments and take notes faithfully
- Bring reading materials and notes to every class meeting
- NEVER text or otherwise fiddle with smart phone during class time
- Never leave class early or pack up to leave early unless discussed with the
instructor before class
- Never unnecessarily and intentionally antagonize classmates (or the instructor)
- Engage in active listening (no sleeping, side conversations, etc…)
Leading Discussion:
Students receive 10 points for leading a discussion of the required readings. We will sign
up for a discussion slot the first week of class. For this assignment, each student will
compose five open-ended questions for discussion. You should have thoughts and notes
prepared that address these questions, but yours won’t necessarily be the only possible
reading of the text (hence, open-ended). The idea is to think about the story in your own
way, and then solicit ideas from your classmates about the same story which may or may
not agree with those considerations.
Informal Writing Assignments:
Some of these short writings will be responses to reading; others will be creative writing
exercises. These will be 1-2 pages typed, double-spaced, and will not be accepted late
under any circumstance. These will always be printed and brought to class in hard copy
for the purpose of discussion. None of these short informal assignments will be accepted
over e-mail.
Analytical Essays:
You will be assigned three 4-5 page essays throughout the semester. The first two will be
revised. Each is worth 20 points. Late papers (a week late or less) will receive automatic
half credit (10 points), and they will not receive comments. Papers will not be accepted
more than one week past the due date.
Essay 1: Craft Analysis (20 pts.)
Analyze 1-2 short stories with regard to methods used by the author(s) such as metaphor,
character, conflict, setting, and point of view. How does the author employ or experiment
with narrative form? What purpose does the method serve for an audience or for a
particular context?
Essay 2: Defining Story (20 pts.)
Examine what it means to be a story, using examples of narratives in the form of short
story, prose poem, or other. What makes something a story and not a poem? What are
some ways the forms overlap? What are some of the differences in the way flash fiction
defines story? This essay requires citation of at least one outside scholarly source.
Essay 3 (20 pts for 1 option)
Option 1: Literary Analysis
Analyze a work of short fiction (your choice, not necessarily a course text) according to
what scholars or other writers have said with regards to craft, theory, or literary tradition.
This essay requires citation of at least two outside scholarly sources.
Option 2: Fiction Piece or Collection
Write one or more short works of fiction, revising work you’ve done in class. This
version of the assignment will be graded according to elements of craft we discuss. It
must have a well-structured plot, well-developed character, clear sense of time and place,
balance of summary and scene, and make use of imagery and language choices that
support the writer’s purpose. It must avoid cliché and one-dimensional character.
Due dates for first drafts of all essays are listed below. Revisions are due May 13.
For a full five points of extra credit, attend a live reading of fiction either on campus or
locally. I will inform you when some of these are scheduled, but you are encouraged to
look into possibilities on your own. To earn your points, you will write a 100-word
response to this reading that talks about the content of the reading, the story-telling style
of the author, and/or what you learned from the author about fiction or narrative. Public
reading is part of the writing life, and the oral tradition is part of the history of
Hint: GO AS EARLY AS POSSIBLE. Readings may come to end before late in the
semester, and any extra credit is due the last day of class (May 6).
Syllabus Addendum (FYI):
Students with disabilities.
Religious observances.
Students called to active military duty.
Discriminatory conduct (such as sexual harassment). Discriminatory conduct will not be
tolerated by the University. It poisons the work and learning environment of the
University and threatens the careers, educational experience, and well-being of students,
faculty, and staff.
Academic misconduct. Cheating on exams or plagiarism are violations of the academic
honor code and carry severe sanctions, including failing a course or even suspension or
dismissal from the University.
Complaint procedures. Students may direct complaints to the head of the academic unit
or department in which the complaint occurs. If the complaint allegedly violates a
specific university policy, it may be directed to the head of the department or academic
unit in which the complaint occurred or to the appropriate university office responsible
for enforcing the policy.
Grade appeal procedures. A student may appeal a grade on the grounds that it is based on
a capricious or arbitrary decision of the course instructor. Such an appeal shall follow the
established procedures adopted by the department, college, or school in which the course
resides or in the case of graduate students, the Graduate School. These procedures are
available in writing from the respective department chairperson or the Academic Dean of
the College/School.
As the UW System assumes “that study leading to one semester credit represents an
investment of time by the average student of not fewer than 48 hours” (UWS ACPS 4), a
3-credit course such as this one will require a minimum of 144 (3 x 48) hours of your
time. You may find it necessary to spend additional time on a course; the numbers below
only indicate that the course will not require any less of your time.
37.5 hours in the classroom
75 hours preparing for class
31.5 hours preparing for and writing major papers
Class Schedule: (subject to change)
1/26: syllabus and introductions, samples from Ploughshares
Reading (Long Stories): Tillie Olson, “Tell Me a Riddle” and Charlotte Perkins
Gilman, “The Yellow Wallpaper”
1/28: Discussion: comparing long work to short work
featured shorts from lit mags
Reading (early shorts): Edgar Allan Poe, “The Tell-tale Heart”; Nathaniel
Hawthorne, “Young Goodman Brown”
student-led discussion on stories (1)
Writing Assignment: Why are some stories classics? Why are so many short story
writers American? Why is horror so popular when our republic was young? What
other contexts are at work here?
Discussion: rhetorical situation and the short story
Assigned Reading (classic shorts): Flannery O’Connor, “A Good Man is Hard to
Find,” Sandra Cisneros, “Women Hollering Creek,” Tobias Wolff, “Bullet in the
Brain,” and James Baldwin, “Sonny’s Blues”
student-led discussion on stories (2)
Reading Assignment (world writers): Patrick Chamoiseau, “The Old Man Slave
and the Mastiff,” Colum McCann, “Everything in this Country Must,” Bharati
Mukherjee, “The Management of Grief,” Ngugi wa Thiong’o, “Minutes of Glory”
2/11: student-lead discussion on stories (2)
Writing Assignment: Respond to one of the stories we’ve read: What was the
writer trying to do to his/her audience? What is the story “about”? What are some
differences between this story and at least one other in terms of language,
character, and narrative structure? Why do these different methods work for the
writer’s story?
2/16: Discussion: sharing writings
First Essay Assignment (draft due March 4)
Featured (very shorts): Jamaica Kincaid, “Girl”; Rick Moody, “Boys”
Reading: Introduction: In Pursuit of the Short Short Story (in Rose Metal Guide),
Robert Coover, “A Sudden Story” and Introduction & Afterwords (in Sudden
2/18: discuss readings
Reading, from Sudden Fiction: (in class) “Popular Mechanics,” “Sunday at the
Zoo” (homework) “Pygmalion,” “No One’s a Mystery,” “A Walled Garden,”
“The Hit Man,” “A Questionnaire for Rudolph Gordon” and “Reunion”
2/23: student led discussion on readings (3)
2/25: student-led discussion continued
featured shorts from lit mags
Reading, from Sudden Fiction: (in class) “Reading the Paper,” “Rosary”
(homework) “Children of Strikers,” “Class Notes,” “The Personal Touch,” “The
Socks,” “Any Minute Mom Should Come Blasting Through the Door,” “The
student-led discussion on stories (3)
Workshops: Essay One
Workshops: Essay One
3/11: Workshops: Essay One
Reading (in Rose Metal Guide): “That ‘V’ Word,” “The Myth-ing Link…” “Great
Thoughts” “Titled: The Title…” “Smart Surprise in Flash Fiction” “Staying
True to the Image” “A Short Short Theory” “Getting the Lead Out…” and “Flash
Fiction, Prose Poetry, and Men Jumping Out of Windows…”
Writing Assignment: Respond to the readings…what was interesting, surprising,
confusing? At the bottom of the page, write three questions for discussion that
address what caught your attention in the reading. Prepare to discuss it after the
3/23: Discussion: reading, defining story
Featured: lit mag samples
Second Essay Assignment (draft due April 8)
Reading Assignment: Stuart Dybek, “Gold Coast” and “The Flu” Michael
Martone, “The Mayor of the Sister City…,” “Dish Night,” and “Diagnostic
Drift” Robert Olen Butler, “Seven Pieces of Severance” and Steve Almond,
“Moscow” and “Rumors of Myself”
3/25: student-led discussion on stories (4)
3/30: student-led discussions continued
Writing Assignment: Choose one of the very short stories we’ve and analyze it in
terms the way the authors in Sudden Fiction talk about the short-short story. How
does this author seem to define story? How is it the similar and different from a
Sharing writings
featured: prose poetry
Workshops: Essay Two
Third Essay Assignment: Due May 6
4/13: Workshops: Essay Two
4/15: Workshops: Essay Two
Reading: TBA
4/20-22: In-class Writing: Creative Exercises
Scholars on stories discussion
Reading Assignment TBA
4/27-9: In-class Writing: Creative Exercises
Scholars on stories discussion
Reading Assignment TBA
5/4-6: In-class Writing: Creative Exercises
Scholars on stories discussion
Revisions of essays due in dropbox 5/13
Sign Up to Lead Discussion:
February 2:
(Edgar Allan Poe, “The Tell-tale Heart” and Nathaniel Hawthorne,
“Young Goodman Brown”)
February 9:
(Flannery O’Connor, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” and Sandra
Cisneros, “Women Hollering Creek” )
(Tobias Wolff, “Bullet in the Brain,” and James Baldwin, “Sonny’s
February 11: (Patrick Chamoiseau, “The Old Man Slave and the Mastiff,” Colum
McCann, “Everything in this Country Must”)
(Bharati Mukherjee, “The Management of Grief,” Ngugi wa Thiong’o,
“Minutes of Glory”)
February 23:
(“Pygmalion” and “No One’s a Mystery”)
(“A Walled Garden” and “The Hit Man”)
(“A Questionnaire for Rudolph Gordon” and “Reunion”)
March 2:
(“Children of Strikers” and “Class Notes”)
(“The Personal Touch” and “The Socks”)
(“Any Minute Mom Should Come Blasting Through the Door” and “The
March 25:
(Stuart Dybek, “Gold Coast” and “The Flu”)
(Michael Martone, “The Mayor of the Sister City…” and “Dish Night”)
(Robert Olen Butler, “Seven Pieces of Severance” and Michael Martone,
“Diagnostic Drift”)
Steve Almond, “Moscow” and “Rumors of Myself”
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