Story-seeds and a Snow Week Hangover
by Aaron Counts, Chief Sealth International High School
Before I set out to teach short story writing to 9th graders at Chief Sealth International High School, I had no idea I would get help from ill-advised face tattoos, drug-laced marshmallows and a cigarette-smoking monkey. Much to my surprise, though, “The Hangover 2” became part of my curriculum.
Sometime between my first visit with these new students and my second, Snowpacalypse 2012 held Seattle in its icy grip, and my return to Sealth was postponed just as we were starting to get to know one another. When the thaw brought us together again, I was sure most of these students, like my own kids, had spent the better part of those snow days alternating between racing down frozen hills with friends and watching rented DVDs while huddled warm in their living rooms. I knew this because my own treks to the nearest Redbox kiosk had proved fruitless, with all prime movie selections out of stock. I returned empty handed three days in a row.
“Anybody watch any good movies with your time off?” I ask them.
“Oooh, I watched the ‘Hangover part 2,'” T says.
“Who else has seen it?”
A surprising number of hands are raised.
What is it about?”
“It’s basically the same as the first one,” one of them tells me. “But they’re in Thailand instead of Las Vegas this time. This guy Stu is trying to get married but they get in a whole mess of trouble.”
When taking story structure, I often use film and television to shape the discussion. Not only is it relatively easy to find a story that everyone in the class knows, but since movies are accessible and well-liked, they are also readily discussed by 14- and 15-year-olds.
”So now you’ve done a story outline for the ‘Hangover 2.’ Stu wants to get married. That’s where it all starts. Somebody wants something.”
They’ve read Romeo and Juliet, and decided you could plot that Romeo wants Juliet. In The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian, Junior wants to fit in.
A wise writer—I’ve forgotten who—suggests that the steps for writing a story can be mapped in three steps:
- Put a man in a tree. (Somebody wants something. A character with a problem. In this case, a person is stuck in a tree, and we can presume he wants to get down)
- Throw stones at him. (There are obstacles that arise as he attempts to solve his problem. If there aren’t complications, the story could get predictable and boring—and it would be really, really short).
- Get him down. (There is some resolution to the problem. The man doesn’t have to get down safely. Not all stories have happy endings. He could get rescued; he could gain the courage to climb; he could fall and bust his head open; he could starve up there and fall down like a withered leaf).
“So in ‘The Hangover 2,'” I ask, “What are the stones that get thrown? Where do the obstacles come from?”
“The crazy friend puts drugs in the marshmallows,” they tell me. I should note here that not having seen “The Hangover 2,” I cannot verify if that drugged marshmallows are an actual plot device. They tell me it’s true, and I don’t doubt them, no matter how ludicrous it sounds.
Considering we were all giddy after a week off in the snow, our discussion was one of the best I’ve had talking fiction with students. The talk was lively, informative, and engaging. Out of that talk, every student was able to brainstorm several story-starters. Seeds we’ve been calling them. Each of them framed in a single sentence: somebody wants something.
Since that time, those story seeds have grown and flowered. Those first single-sentence seeds have become ripe with character and plot and setting and tension pulling readers in. In the weeks to come, they will no doubt become full-fledged short stories of which we can be proud.