Something really interesting happened the other day when I was working with my middle school class.
We were using a prompt to generate story ideas, learning how to ask “What if…” and work out a plot for a short story in advance. Yes, I’m an inveterate “pantser” teaching them to be “plotters.” Isn’t that what the older generation always does? “Do as I say, not as I do.”
I hope they never read this.
Anyway, the prompt was this: “The only way you can pass the test is to cheat.”
The teacher I am working with always asks me to write along with the students so that they can watch my thought process on the screen at the front of the room. For me, it’s equal parts exciting and intimidating. I am terrified of a complete blackout. Thankfully, it hasn’t happened yet.
This was the last exercise of the day, and we only had about five minutes before the bell. Here’s what I came up with:
First I wondered how long the character had until the test. Days? Hours? Minutes? I started listing the ways in which she could cheat down the left side of the page (oh, yes, an honors student knows how to cheat) but ultimately, those things were fruitless as far as getting me to a story.
So I went back up and wrote: “beg for an extension.” Logical honors student approach to the problem. Also, rather adult. So be it. I’m an adult.
Coming off of that idea was the idea that her honesty (“I need more time — I haven’t studied — I’m sorry, Mr. X, I know I’ve totally blown it.”) is a big disappointment to her teacher. Then I added “Fave” because I had a lightbulb moment: this is her favorite teacher, her best class, and she has royally messed up.
Yes! Interesting beginning here, but what else can we do with only three minutes to the bell and a class to demonstrate creativity for?
Back to the top. Cheating on a test.
I wrote: “Can’t get caught again.” Then I underlined again. A couple of other ideas came off of this but more than anything, as the minutes ticked away, I realized that here was an entirely different kid.
This was no honors student trying to keep her perfect A.
This was a kid who faces getting kicked out of school if she screws up again. Why school is so hard for her, and what she will do about it, were more than I had time for.
But this one exercise was revelatory for me, because it was completely contrary to the way I usually work.
I always discover the character first and the plot comes — piece by painful piece — after that.
Here, I had the plot first, and the characters — two very different people, with two very different back-stories — emerged from it. In fact, if I wanted to, I could write this story twice with the same plot points (talk to the teacher, take the test, cheat, get caught and/or fail miserably, consequences, the end) and they would be completely different, utterly interesting short stories because of the two different characters that sprang into being.
In five minutes, under pressure, before the last bell rang.