Fall SAVY 2016 (Day 3) – Creative Writing: (Re)Imagining the Monstrous
In our third class of SAVY, we began to combine poetry and prose techniques in our short stories. First, students each wrote down one thing they learned in our last two classes and we reviewed their comments together, having a short conversation about the complex elements of story arcs, the uses of syntax and diction, and how different kinds of perspective can change how the reader sympathizes with a character’s point of view. Afterward, students broke up into small groups to complete an exercise designed to hone their diction. In this exercise, each student chose three unique adjectives that encapsulated the personality and appearance of their main character. Students then shared their answers with each other and, as a class, we discussed the difficulties of the exercise. One student pointed out that it takes a long time “to find the right word,” while another student commented that, since they could only use three words, the diction they chose had to be especially significant.
We began a free write, in which students re-examined the story pyramids (complete with openings, rising action, crises, falling action, and resolutions) that they completed in our last class and wrote the openings to their stories. As students worked individually, they considered such questions as: Where will your opening scene take place? Is there a character or characters with whom you want your reader to sympathize? Will you have one or multiple crises? Will the conflict in your story be entirely resolved by the end, or will some of it be left unresolved? How can you use more precise diction to convince the reader to empathize with a character or situation?
Our foray into creative writing brought us to new understandings of scenery and motive, which in turn brought us to a discussion about pacing and rhythm. Students came back to the center of the room, where they sat in a circle and thought about the challenging question: How does the rhythm of a sentence impact how we sympathize with a character? After fifteen seconds of reflection, students discussed their thoughts with the students next to them and came up with fascinating answers. They argued that the tone in which a character speaks can affect the rhythm of a sentence, which in turn affects whether we feel sympathy for him/her. They also argued that a smooth, dignified rhythm can lead them to feel that a speaker is clever and that rhythm can determine how quickly we get information in a story.
After this illuminating discussion, we studied iambic meter, a rhythm that is composed of a series of iambs (one unstressed syllable, followed by one stressed syllable). To better understand this intriguing concept, we worked as a group to “scan” a line of spoken prose, determining which syllables received more emphasis and which ones received less emphasis. We then identified the iambic rhythm from the first section of J.K. Rowling’s “Sorting Hat Song” in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and reasoned why Rowling would go to so much trouble to include an iambic meter. Students reflected for ten seconds, then offered several fantastic answers. They noticed that the song’s metrical rhythm differentiated the Hat’s speech from that of the other characters, and that the steady stream of iambs made its speech seem more thoughtful and carefully constructed which, in turn, made the Sorting Hat seem more intelligent. Students again broke up into small groups to finish identifying the meter in the remainder of the excerpt by Rowling and even wrote some lines in iambic meter, themselves! While some students found themselves naturally settling into the music of the iambs, others noticed how difficult it was to choose the correct diction and syntax when you’re limited by the meter.
But what happens if you use iambic meter, which often lends itself to a friendly, conversational rhythm, to describe a character who is monstrous? A character you should be afraid of? To answer that question, we read Robert Browning’s “Porphyria’s Lover,” a poem with a strong iambic meter, but a terrifying narrator. We discussed the narrator’s unreliability and thought about how the rhythm impacts his tone and characterization. Students were excited to see how the seemingly innocent meter in his speech led them to a feeling of familiarity and safety, making the twist at the end even more frightening! Students were encouraged to think about how they might use iambic rhythm in their own stories to characterize their monsters or to control the pacing of a scene.
I’m very excited for our next class, the second in our two-part “Monsters and Music” series. We’ll continue examining different kinds of meter, as well as archaisms and neologisms, in the work of Edgar Allan Poe and Lewis Carroll!