What Most Writing MFA Programs Don’t Teach

What Most Writing MFA Programs Don’t Teach
Credit: surrey.ac.uk

Getting into my Writing MFA program was one of the happiest moments in my life. I was accepted into my school of choice and I had the luxury of delaying the real world for another three years. I was finally going to become the writer I always wanted to be.

But did I?

Sure, now my writing style is refined. I know how to make sentences evoke strong actions as well as subtly convey foreshadowing. I can shape character development and recurring themes in my sleep.

However, there’s one thing that I didn’t learn. And it’s probably why I had to write my thesis three times in order to snag a diploma. It’s something so rare and yet so simple to teach.


There wasn’t an option to take a Plot and Conflict Development class. There wasn’t a lecture on how to create a story arc. There wasn’t even a homework assignment on it to see where my storyline was weak.

In fact, plot was never discussed at all. Instructors always asked, “What happens next?” but they never explained the necessity of asking that question.

It wasn’t just my program. Even the most prestigious Writing MFA programs don’t dedicate a course to crafting a strong plot. There are a plethora of workshop sessions and literature courses as if you’ll learn the plot process through osmosis.

Some of my Writing MFA program courses tried to explain it.

In my Young Adult Fiction class, I was assigned to outline my proposed young adult novel from start to finish. But outlining a story without plot structure is like trying to solve a math problem without the formula.

My playwriting courses brought me closer. My instructor explained that a play was based on what characters want, what they’ll do to get it and how conflicting wants between characters creates—you guessed it—conflict. But that’s like saying that if you want to solve that math problem, you’ll need a calculator, a pencil and paper.

There’s still no formula on the table.

Is it because plot structure is a scientific way of breaking down a story? Are Writing MFA programs afraid to introduce science in a fine arts program? Do graduate writing programs think that left brain strategy destroys right brain creativity?

Or do instructors simply not know how to teach plot?

Whatever the reason, not knowing how to structure a story left me feeling helpless in grad school. It’s like refining every tool in the toolbox and throwing out the largest wrench from the shed. It’s like graduating with all but one skill that is the driving force for writing success.

Don’t worry. There’s a happy ending to this story.

I discovered the science behind plot and conflict development when I attended the Rochester Writers’ Conference in 2012. The keynote speaker explained not only how to create the physical plot of the story but also how to parallel the emotional plot with the story’s adventure.

My mind was blown.

Then, in 2014, I got to choose a book from the free books stack simply by signing up for the library’s summer reading program. And there on the shelf was The Plot Whisperer Workbook, a step-by-step guide to creating the plot all my stories craved.

Summer reading programs do change lives.

So, for the cost of a local writing conference and a free book, learning plot structure ended up being cheaper than taking a three-credit Writing MFA program course.

And, finally, my writing is back on course.

In next week’s blog post, I explain how to create a story arc through character development.

Did you learn plot structure in your Writing MFA program? Share your story below.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.