Every writing instructor is faced with a challenge when deciding on the curriculum for his course: What texts is he going to choose to reinforce craft or stylistic elements that he’s trying to teach his students to use themselves? For most, this is a welcomed challenge, because it gives instructors an excuse to dig through their bookshelves and file cabinets for their favorite stories and essays and ruminate on comparative artistic value. (If a writing instructor ever tells you he doesn’t enjoy this, he’s lying.) And there are times when the challenge is easier than others– there are tons of pre-assembled resources for composition and remedial writing courses, for example, along with lesson plans set up that directly relate to the texts. But half the fun of teaching is being able to tailor your curriculum and get creative, and this is especially true when teaching a fiction workshop.
Below are some of my favorite short stories to teach specific elements of craft:
Ernest Hemingway’s “Soldier’s Home” to Teach Iceberg Dialogue and Subtext
The idea behind iceberg dialogue is that, like an iceberg, only 1/8th of what’s actually being said is visible or surface-level. It’s an incredibly effective tool because it forces your readers to look beyond the dialogue for the emotion entrenched in what’s being said, thus making your story deeper, without actually telling them how they’re supposed to be feeling. It involves nuance, inference, and context, and Hemingway is famous for it (or infamously cryptic, depending on who you’re asking).
The story “Hills Like White Elephants” is typically considered Hemingway’s magnum opus of iceberg dialogue, but I would argue “Soldier’s Home”– written earlier in his career, when he was less polished but no less effective– is an even better example as well as a better short story. It’s a story about a (you guessed it) solider who comes (you guessed it) home from fighting in Germany in WWI, and he has trouble acclimating back into his old, small-town life, particularly when it comes to relating to other people. It ends with a scene of dialogue between him and his mother where the words are brief and the meaning sizzles just under the surface, much like the plate of bacon fat the protagonist stares at when he can’t look his mother in the face (emotional context detail!). Great story, even better iceberg dialogue.
Bonus: Depending on the kind of course you’re teaching, it can easily be tied into a plethora of current events/dialogues about veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Eudora Welty’s “Why I Live at the P.O.” to Teach Voice and Unreliable Narrator
Here is a confession: I’m a Southerner born and bred, but I’m not particularly familiar with Southern literature outside the occasional Faulkner and years of teaching Mark Twain to high school students. That said, I adore this short story by Welty. It’s a story about a dysfunctional family, told from the first person perspective of a sister who describes how she ended up (again, you guessed it) living at the post office rather than at home. There is sibling rivalry. There is a love triangle and babies who may or may not be adopted. There are fireworks and epic, decades-long beards. There is a drunk uncle in a kimono. So basically, it has everything you could want in a story.
The voice of the narrator (one of the sisters involved in said sibling rivalry) shines through loud and clear– you can practically feel the Southern lilt slide across your skin– and at some point in the narration, you start to get suspicious that her version of what happened might be a bit biased.
Bonus: It’s funny enough that even the most stoic students crack a smile once or twice.
Ursula Le Guin’s “The Poacher” to Teach Narrative Perspective/Point of View (POV)
There is a popular trend nowadays of retelling old, familiar stories, usually fairy tales, from the perspective of an unexpected character. I’m not going to do a google search to confirm, but I’m pretty sure at least eighty Snow White retellings have come out in the past three years. (That sounds right, right?) And there’s that movie about the jive-talking, snowboarding Granny in The Big Bad Wolf story, and the musical Wicked where the Wicked Witch of the West retells The Wizard of Oz and you see she’s actually the good guy, and so on.
Ursula Le Guin basically did the same thing with “The Poacher”, a (kind of) retelling of Sleeping Beauty published in 1992. The short story tells about the life of a poor poacher growing up penniless with his father and stepmother in a hut in the woods, when he one day stumbles upon the enchanted kingdom after everyone/everything has been put to sleep. Rather than wake everyone up or even try to figure out what the heck is going on, he takes advantage of having a free, security-less kingdom at his disposal. This particular story is such a good example because it’s subtle– there are hints throughout, but most students don’t figure out what story is being told until pretty far into the plot, and some don’t figure it out until the very end, when Sleeping Beauty herself is mentioned (albeit not by name). Basically, it shows how the same basic plot or situation can be perceived in completely different ways depending on whose perspective is being told.
Bonus: The descriptions are amazingly beautiful and the story can be used to teach that, too.
Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” to Teach Setting as Mood
We all know Edgar Allan Poe. We studied “The Bells” in high school English, “The Tell-Tale Heart” probably scared us at some point in our lives, and those of us who are old enough to be familiar with it love The Simpson’s Treehouse of Horror version of “The Raven”. While Poe’s stuff isn’t exactly complicated for the most part, he’s a lot of fun to teach and there are definitely things that can be learned from his writings, particularly how to set the mood of a piece.
“The Fall of the House of Usher” is about as Poe-ian as it gets. The basic plot involves a man (the narrator) going to visit an old friend. Predictably, this friend lives in a falling down mansion in the middle of nowhere, and creepy things ensue immediately upon the narrator’s arrival, like possible zombie sisters, mysterious illnesses, voices coming from crypts, furious thunderstorms, corpse-like doctors, and…. just about every other cliche you can think of. That being said, the opening scene describes the mansion impeccably and the adjectives are picked just right to set the creepy tone of the story. It’s easy enough to underline and switch out the adjectives with different ones to see how the mood can change depending on description.
Bonus: Since “the fall of the house of Usher” refers literally to the house falling in addition to the end of the Usher bloodline (ie, the house of Usher), you can use it to discuss double meanings and extended metaphors.
Junot Diaz’s “Alma” to Teach Characterization
I absolutely love, love, love Diaz (he is one of the few writers I would fangirl all over if I met him) and this flash piece, originally published in the New Yorker, might be my favorite of his short fiction. Weighing in at just under a thousand words, it grabs you from the first line: “You have a girlfriend named Alma, who has a long tender horse neck and a big Dominican ass that seems to exist in a fourth dimension beyond jeans.” (Obligatory warning: I wouldn’t use this story with students younger than college aged, due to potentially offensive language and content.)
“Alma” is part story and part character sketch. There is definitely a story arc and a conclusion where something is different than when it began– the last line is brilliant, and Diaz actually uses that line as the title of another of his books. But more than anything, Diaz packs more vivid characterization in those 900-odd words than I’ve seen other writers do in 700 page novels. The reader knows what Alma looks like, how she dresses, how she sees the world, her ambitions, her disappointments, how she drives, her hobbies, her heritage, all through a beautifully written laundry list of carefully chosen details about her and her life. We get to know just as much about the narrator, too. If there’s one thing I want my creative writing students to walk away from my class knowing, it’s how to create character through specific, concrete details (for instance, the difference between saying “the banker had on a button up shirt” versus “the banker had on a pink pinstriped Brooks Brothers button-up, impeccably smooth beneath his nautical tie save for that one mustard stain near the hem that he always forgot about until it was too late”) and Diaz is a master of doing just that.
Bonus: It’s a great example of the second person narrative. And voice. And flash fiction. Actually, you can use this to teach pretty much anything.