Plot and Characters

Teacher:Julian Spiro,
Extra Help:Thursdays and by appointment

Plot & Characters

Course Syllabus

Course Overview:

In this workshop, you will craft your own creative fiction and experiment with writing and reading in new and different ways.  By the end of the course, you will write substantially developed short stories, attempt publication, and become an expert critic in an area of your choice.

We will focus on two essential elements of fiction -- plot and character -- as we study the works of master writers (and mediocre writers), write routinely, and workshop our own material.

Essential Questions:

  • What do good writers do?  How can we apply those practices to become better writers ourselves?

  • Can we transform as writers?

  • What do you want your writing to do?  What is your definition of artistic success (and what is art?)

  • How do I create real, engaging characters and plots?  


Unit I: Micro/Flash fiction

We will begin the semester by writing and reading micro fiction, and honing in on the essentials of storytelling.  What makes a story a story?  As we settle into the routines of a writing workshop, we will practice deploying details, peer review and editing, and giving and receiving feedback.  

Readings will include works of micro fiction and poetry by authors such as Emily Dickinson, John Ashbery,  Etgar Keret, Ernest Hemingway, and Elizabeth Bishop

Unit II: Short Stories

In this unit, we will write longer stories with highly developed characters.  Our focus will be on making characters come alive,  as we examine the relationships between characters, plot, style and meaning.

Readings may include  works  by  Tim O’Brien, Margaret Atwood, Langston Hughes,

Ray Bradbury, Maria Semple,  and Helen Oyeyemi

Unit III: Genre Choice - Fictional Worlds

Would you like to try on a different genre -- a screenplay, graphic novel, video game story, interactive story, concept album, epistolary story, or play?  In this unit, we deepen our understanding of characters and plots by examining how authors create convincing fictional worlds for their characters to inhabit, across various genres.  How do authors establish credibility?  Are genres important? Should we follow them, or challenge them?

Readings may include  works  by  Bram Stoker, Karen Russell, David Mitchell, Dante

Alighieri,   Art Spiegelman, Shakespeare, Maria Semple, and Herman Melville

Unit IV: Great Writer Modeling

We now know how to write an engaging fictional piece—can we push our craft by modeling a piece off of the work of a famous writer?  Students will identify elements of good writing of authors we have read and studied to notice how each writer uniquely and effectively develops plot and characters.  Students will select literary techniques to focus on and will use the original stories of great authors to influence their own writing. Skills taught and practiced may include: narrative techniques, such as dialogue, pacing, description, reflection, and multiple plot lines, finding the deeper meaning, development of experiences, events, and characters.

Master writers may include:  Langston Hughes, Ray Bradbury, Alice Munro, Tim O’Brien, Jhumpa Lahiri, Daniel Orozco

Major Assessments:

  • Two flash fiction pieces

  • Two short stories (of at least 1,000 words each)

  • Open-genre project

  • Writer modeling project (short story and analysis)

  • Final assessment (6-10 pages in a genre and form of your choice)

Grading and strands:



In this course, the Content strand will reflect the clarity of your thinking and how well your writing communicates your ideas.  It will reflect whether or not the goal for a particular piece was achieved, and whether or not your piece carries weight for a reader.  This strand attempts to measure the quality of your thinking, as it is reflected in your written work.



This strand measures your ability to organize the details and arguments in your writing.  The placement of details, coherence of thought, and unity of your writing is a major factor in writing well.  This strand attempts to reflect your ability to organize your thinking and present it in a way that is helpful to a reader.  

Language & Conventions   


There are many rules and conventions of academic writing that you will need to understand.  At times, it is wise to break a rule or convention for rhetorical reasons.  In order to break rules and conventions effectively, you must understand them exceedingly well.  Your reader must believe that you are breaking from convention intentionally, and not because you don’t know any better.  This strand will measure your ability to demonstrate facility with the rules and conventions of academic language and writing, and to follow or break these in order to enhance the effectiveness of your writing.

Work Habits  


This strand measures your ability to complete assignments on time, consistently engage in class discussions, peer conferences and critiques.  It also reflects your investment in your writing, taking risks, proactively seek help from others, and generally demonstrating effort and commitment.  It will also account for your ability to engage in behaviors that can help you succeed in a college setting.  As a result, your communication with the teacher, in and out of class, is an essential component.  This strand attempts to reflect your ability to adapt to a college learning environment.

Class Expectations

In order for this course to be a meaningful experience for all of us, please:

  • Come on time and prepared.  Always bring your  book.

  • Read often, and read widely

  • Listen to others in class with engagement and respect.  Be kind.

  • Don’t be shy about sharing your thoughts and writing!

  • Ask for help when you need it.

  • Complete assignments on time and with effort.

Honors Requirements:

Please see attached sheet for honors requirements.

POLICIES (see student handbook for extended explanations):

Revision Policy

Major assignments will be eligible for revisions, at teacher discretion.


Put your phones AWAY during class.  Laptops and tablets should only be used during designated times, and only for class work.

Academic Honesty

Plagiarism includes copying and pasting without citing, paraphrasing without citing, and using work that you have already submitted for another class.  When in doubt, CITE!  If it’s in the gray area, it IS plagiarism.   For more information on the Academic Honesty policy, please refer to the student handbook.  Please know that I will take cases of plagiarism to Dr. Arnold with the first offense.

Late Work Policy/Extra Credit Policy

In order for an assignment to receive full credit, it must be turned in on time.   Regular, graded homework assignments will lose 50% credit per day late.  Large projects and papers lose 10% credit on work habits per day late.   Large assignments will continue to be eligible for full credit in all other strands.

I will grant short-term extensions on major assignments, no questions asked, when circumstances allow -- as long as you communicate with me at least 48 hours in advance of the class when the assignment is due.

At the end of the semester, the lowest work habits grade is dropped to account for emergency circumstances.  If you are failing the course due to missing work, you may complete honors work for extra credit, but I will not create additional work.

Plot and Characters:  Honors Requirements

1)   Complete an independent creative project using your own analysis of master authors as a guide.

-          Due within one month:  Select three stories by three different authors

-          Due within two months: Analyze:  What do you like about each story? What are elements and examples of that author’s style?

-          Due within three months: Writing a story or other independent project (4 pages single spaced) including elements from the three works by various authors AND evidence of thoughtful plot and character development. Hand in drafts.

-          Due by end of semester: Reflection explaining what elements you would like to continue to use in your own writing and what elements you tried out and will leave to the professionals.  What are other ideas you would like to try in future writing?

2)   With other Honors students, collectively organize exhibition night projects, and display or present one piece of work themselves.