Shapes of Stories

Complete Syllabus

First drafts are seldom well-structured; it is up to the writer to find the ideal shape to hold a story. This course will expand your writer’s toolkit by experimenting with a variety of structures employed by writers of essays and articles, including the narrative arc, braid, collage, frame, circle, faucet, digression and hermit crab. You will read great examples and then try out each shape, if only briefly. Over the course of 10 weeks, you can choose to  write about one subject using these different shapes or let the shapes inspire an essay you hadn’t planned to write. 

Students are encouraged to write at least 1,000 words each week for the first six weeks to become familiar with each shape, and to choose two essays to complete during the final weeks of class.Throughout the course writers will submit work for peer and instructor critique and engage in online discussion—please see below for more details.

How it works

Each week provides:

  • writing prompts and/or assignments
  • discussions of assigned readings and other general writing topics with peers and the instructor
  • written lectures and a selection of readings

Some weeks also include:

  • opportunities to submit a full-length essay for instructor and/or peer review (up to 3,500 words)
  • optional video conferences that are open to all students in Week 2 (and which will be available afterwards as a recording for those who cannot participate)

Aside from the live conference, there is no need to be online at any particular time of day. To create a better classroom experience for all, you are expected to participate weekly in class discussions to receive instructor feedback on your work.

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Week 1: Narrative Arc
The typical story, as defined by Jon Franklin, features a character who encounters a challenge, tries several times to resolve it and eventually succeeds (or fails). This week, we will look at the elements of a typical story arc as defined by Jon Franklin and experiment with how it might apply it a story you want to tell.

Week 2: Braid
The braid interweaves complementary or contrasting threads. It can be an artful way to switch between past and present, to offer two perspectives or to introduce a metaphor that takes the story deep. Explore what happens when you interweave complementary or contrasting topics or time periods or perspectives through reading examples and trying it yourself.

Week 3: Collage
The fragmented essay relies on contrast and resonance to achieve a sense of continuity and often incorporates external material: photos, quoted material, lists, etc.

Week 4: Frame
A frame story begins with a introduction that may disappear altogether or only reappear at the end, providing an entry into a story that might otherwise seem foreign to the reader. A really complex frame story might contain several nested stories like a Russian doll.

Week 5: Faucet
This favorite shape of journalists is a braid structure, in which the writer tells a story but then breaks it off to provide information relevant to the topic, before continuing with the same or a similar story that advances the agenda or deepens the topic under discussion.

Week 6: Digression
Make a lateral move in your essay, free associating and letting memories and metaphors carry you into detours, and possibly dead ends.

Week 7: Circle
A circle essay can begin at the end and circle back around or begin at the beginning and return to the beginning at the end. This is a common move in essays which rely on parallel images in the beginning and end to achieve a sense of resolution. This week you will also choose one essay to complete and turn in for feedback.

Week 8: Hermit Crab
This essay form takes its shape from another form of written text, for instance, a quiz, a questionnaire, an instruction manual, a field guide, a bibliography, a review.

Week 9: How to Find the Right Form
Read the essay by John McPhee about how he finds the structures for his essays and write about what shape you find most attuned to your style of writing. This week you will choose another essay to complete and turn it in for feedback.

Week 10: The Flexibility of Forms
We’ve isolated these shapes for the purpose of learning how to use them but they inform and merge with each other when used skillfully.

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Questions? Check out our FAQ page, or contact the Director of Education, Sharla Yates at yates[at]