Writing Short Stories with the Empathic Approach

with Troy Wilderson

in their shoes fiction empathy writing course

January 25, 2023 | 8 weeks |


Text and Live Video

Write a mile in their shoes.

Our empathy—our natural urge to feel and understand our world—can produce fiction that is emotionally resonant, surprising, and a joy to write. When we take the empathic approach to fiction, our readers will feel our writing, because we feel it.

In this course, you will learn the difference between writing about something (as a plot point, something “interesting,” worthy of critique…), and the empathic approach of writing through it: connecting deeply and truly with people, places, and situations, letting them inhabit your being, and writing them from the inside out.

Whether you wish to get at the heart of what makes someone tick, to feel into an unfathomable situation, or to understand what makes a place unique, you will leave with the confidence to write resonant fiction with a strong emotional core. You’ll find a new lens on storytelling, and learn how your own stories can help you more deeply inhabit your world.

Through the course, you will use empathetic exploration to develop and complete two full short story drafts. Each week’s class will have a short lecture component, a generative exercise, and workshopping. You will post your work-in-progress weekly so that your classmates may read it. In workshop, you will receive peer feedback and detailed critique from Troy. The in-class exercises and assignments will ensure that your short story is delving into a narrative that shows deep understanding.

You can expect to spend at least five hours a week outside of the classroom: up to an hour (depending on class size) reviewing your peers’ work, and the remainder crafting your short stories.

Learning and Writing Goals

In this class, you will:

  • Learn the difference between writing about something and the empathic approach of writing through it.
  • Develop a new lens through which to your storytelling.
  • Build the confidence to write resonant fiction with a strong emotional core.

You will leave the class with a draft of two short stories around 2,500 words in length and notes on how to revise them to a polished finish.

Zoom Schedule

This course will meet on Wednesdays from 7:00 to 9:00 PM US Eastern time.

Weekly Syllabus

Week 1

Lecture—What is writing to understand? Getting to the “why” of a story.

Generative Exercise—Brainstorming and bone dumping: you will come up with potential story ideas that will allow you to write “through” to a narrative that is empathetic and resonant. Any thoughts that will help you get to the heart—or the “why”—of the story will be jotted down as “the bones” that will serve as the skeleton of the plot. If you come to class with a story idea already, focus on the “bone dumping.”

Assignment—Draft the opening of your short story with an eye on setting up the character and the central conflict.

Week 2

Lecture—Getting to know you(r character). Who are they, and why do they do the things they do?

Generative Exercise—You will create a “dossier” on the main character(s)—at least the protagonist and antagonist—that creates backstory and character traits that will inform their actions.

Assignment—Draft the second act of the first short story, expanding on the opening paragraph and setting up the action.

Week 3

Lecture—But why? Using the “what if” technique to uncover motivations, actions, and consequences.

Generative Exercise—You will draft a list of at least three questions that you’ll use to impart a level of understanding in your narrative. For example, on question could be “How did my character find themselves in this position?”

Assignment—Draft the third act of the short story, focusing on the climax and the “falling action.”

Week 4

Lecture—On track or derailed? Assessing if what is on the page is meeting your intent for the story.

Generative Exercise—Using highlighters (either using markers on a physical page or in the document with the “highlight” function) you will mark up your story to show points of inner conflict, external conflict, and moments of characterization.

Assignment—Draft the denouement of the short story, focusing on a resolution that is resonant with a memorable last line.

Week 5

Lecture & Discussion—How deep is deep? Reflecting on that first story and how your writing prism has evolved.

Generative Exercise—Examining your first story and finding the most dynamic title by pulling a line from the text, summing up the main theme, or paraphrasing the central conflict in a short sentence.

Assignment—Draft the opening of the second short story, this time including an opening line with an emotional hook.

Week 6

Lecture—Are we there yet? Asking if your narrative has gone through the stages of exploration, realization, and change that come with true understanding in your story.

Generative Exercise—What did I learn in writing this story? Everyone will write a short paragraph on what revelation(s) they had as a result of writing from a place of understanding.

Assignment—Draft the second act of your second short story with an eye on the depth of understanding that it reveals.

Week 7

Lecture—Weed Whacking 101! Trimming the parts of your narrative that do not move the plot along, build characters, or deepen the narrative.

Generative Exercise—List at least three moments in the narrative that show empathy for the character.

Assignment—Draft the denouement of the second short story, focusing on a resolution that is resonant with a memorable last line.

Week 8

Workshop intensive—Authors choose one of their stories to receive peer and instructor feedback with a focus on how well the depth of writing from a place of understanding has been achieved. Notes on any lingering narrative issues for each story will be shared for final revision to be done after the course’s conclusion.


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Student Feedback for Troy Wilderson:

I have taken many writing classes after my short story class with Troy. They never live up to her class. Troy is passionate, caring, and knowledgeable. Troy has a high expectation for her students and uses her talent and skills to ensure everyone succeeds. I finished the short story I’ve had in my head for years within her class and am so proud of it. I highly recommend taking Troy’s class – you won’t be disappointed! Jasmine B.

Troy’s short stories class was just what I needed to take my creative writing to the next level. Her step-by-step approach to building strong prose helped me understand the crucial elements needed for successful storytelling. Christine N.

Troy designed the class material so that writers of all stages can get something new out of each class. Her gentle and open-minded approach to workshops allowed me and my classmates to show up with our work with confidence and ease, knowing that our work will be treated with kindness and respect. Her apparent expertise in writing and her dedication to classes and students makes her a teacher any writing students would be lucky to have. A. L.

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About Troy Wilderson

Troy Wilderson is a New Orleans–born, Midwest-based writer, senior prose feedback editor for Typehouse Literary Magazine, educator, and freelance copyeditor. Her short fiction has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and appeared in Roanoke Review, the Tishman ReviewCrack the Spine Anthology XVII, the Louisville ReviewNotre Dame Review, F(r)iction, Still: The Journal, and Cobalt Weekly, among others. Her teaching approach is hands-on, and she strives for inclusivity. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Spalding University and is a 2019 McKnight Foundation Writing Fellow.

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