A Fun Assignment for Creative Writing Classes

  As a contributing editor for a magazine that shares true, first-person stories, I've learned that telling our own personal stories can be extremely difficult for one simple reason: we know too much.

When we help craft a narrative with our contributors, one of the main tasks is helping them weed through the details that just don't move the story forward. For example, once I interviewed a lady for a women's health magazine. The story was about a medical diagnosis that saved her life. It was serendipitous because she went in about a minor health issue when the doctor noticed something much more severe. During the interview, the lady spent literally twenty minutes telling me about the minor issue she went in for...and guess what? It didn't matter so much. It was a lot of detail that served no real purpose in the story.

It just goes to show that what's interesting to the people who live a particular story may not really matter to anyone else. These extra details can become a burden when fiction writers try to write a story based on true events they themselves lived.

A creative writing teacher of mine in college came up with this brilliant assignment to help us learn how to weave fiction out of fact: She had each of us write down the bare bones of a family story. Then she took those papers from us and handed them out to a random classmate. We each had to write a fictional story based on someone else's true family story.

Probably the best story I wrote in that class emerged from that assignment. It gave me enough info to have characters and a plot, but since I didn't know these characters personally, I was freed from any concerns about, say, painting Aunt Martha as a gossip or Cousin Frank as a booze hound. Maybe in real life, Cousin Frank was a tea totaler, but maybe he was a more interesting character as a drunk. Since I didn't have to worry about Uncle Frank shunning me at Thanksgiving dinner for the rest of my life, I could write the story the way I wanted to write it.

So if you're looking for a seed of an idea for fiction, try telling someone else's story--but don't feel that you have to tell it truthfully. It is fiction, after all.


  1. This reminds me of my childhood - I used to assign magical powers to my neighbours and made up my stories with them. Much to the delight of the children next door:)


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