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So for the past month or so, I’ve been trying to teach basic fiction writing classes at the cyber in Farendé. The first day of class, all of my students said they were most interested in les contes—oral stories, usually carrying some kind of moral message. The kids all seemed to have a pretty solid background in les contes, so in my mind, that basically meant all I had to do was help my students translate the words in their head into writing.

Oh—to be young and naïve! First of all, les contes are way, way less like short stories than I’d originally assumed. The main difference seems to be in the way they handle perspective. In novels and short stories, the reader is constantly inside the characters’ heads. Even if the story is written in the third person, written literature depends on the reader developing some kind of emotional connection with the people on the page. We care about what happens to them, and just about everything in a short story—tone, imagery, details, figurative language—it all contributes to our understanding of the characters’ thoughts and emotions. (Obviously, this isn’t to say the only possible goal of a short story is for the reader to sympathize with the characters, but it is a vital characteristic of the genre.)

In les contes, though, the story is told entirely from an external perspective. It’s true, the reader might sometimes admire the protagonist—but we’re never really inside their head, never really seeing things from their unique point of view. A fairly objective narrator relays the events of a story. The sympathetic relationship between the reader and the protagonist—something so fundamental to written literature we often take it for granted—simply does not exist.

At least, that’s the best explanation I’ve been able to work out so far. I’m sure it’s incomplete, possibly even flat-out wrong. And now, imagine trying to teach all that to a group of kids don’t even know what paragraphs are, let alone scenes. Kids who don’t even know the word for ‘short story’, let alone tried to write one. Oh, and you’re not just teaching this at a conceptual level, but actually trying to get students to write in a way that’s completely different from anything that’s ever been asked of them. Oh, and you also have basically no access to any short stories or instructional materials you haven’t written yourself. And it’s also all in French. Can’t forget that.

So, yeah, that’s about where I’m at right now. The good news is that the students do genuinely seem to be enjoying the class, and I think (hope) we’ve been making some kind of progress. But damn, is this stuff difficult! Best of luck to whoever takes on this project next year. You’re gonna need it.