cs492 - Spring 2017

Societal Implications with Computer Science

Assignment 2: Write a Story Using TEXTs.

Due. At the beginning of class Monday, 5 June, 2017.

Human beings love stories. When we get together we bond by gossiping, which mainly consists of telling short stories about mutual acquaintances. When we meet people we don't know very well we bond by telling jokes, which are short stories about oneself or strangers. When we write expository prose we use examples, which are short stories that illustrate points we are making. The goal of this assignment is to give you some practice reading and writing short stories.

The assignment itself has two parts. In the first part you select two stories from The Luxury Trap and analyse them to give you an idea of the narrative flow typical of examples in expository prose. In the second part you create a story that takes the form of an exchange of TEXTs between two or more people, the content taken from course readings.

The Narrative Arc

Every story has what scholars of literature call a narrative arc. Try drawing an arc on a piece of paper: it has a place where it starts, a place where it ends, and a curving line between the two ends. These are the three parts of a story.

  1. The start introduces the situation or context within which the story takes place. It may be a location, a problem, a relationship or anything else that belongs in the reader/writer or listener/teller relationship. It normally includes what is called a "hook", something that makes the reader want to keep reading or listening.
  2. The end resolves the situation that introduced the story. It tells or summarizes what happened in the location, the solution of the problem, how the relationship evolved, or whatever else happened. When the story stands by itself, as a joke often does, the end often contains a twist that re-interprets the situations in a new and amusing way. When the story is part of a larger narrative it often contains a lead-in to whatever comes next in the narrative.
  3. What joins the beginning and the end is the development. The situation is elaborated; parts of the situation evolve; new elements that have a relationship to the situation appear; connections are created. In a well-developed story all these changes seem logical to the reader, especially when they are unexpected.

The First Part of the Assignment

The Luxury Trap, of which you wrote a precis for your first assignment, can be read as a sequence of short one or two paragraph stories which, taken together, comprise an interesting short essay. Not every word is part of a story; there is obvious joining material that forms bridges between the stories. In this part of the assignment you are to choose two of the stories and point out the parts of the narrative arc of each story.

(The entire essay also takes the form of a story, the start being its first paragraph, the end being its final paragraph. This pattern, a large scale story that is a collection of stories at smaller scales, is very common, another testament to humankind's natural affinity for stories.)

For each of the two stories you choose write down

To show you the format in which we would like for the answers here is an example, based on the story in the the second paragraph of the reading.

The Second Part of the Assignment

Story-tellers have used the most recent modes of writing as a structure within which to tell stories. For example, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as literacy spread through the aristocratic and middle classes people began to exchange letters a method of staying in touch. A sequence of letters might then reveal the development of a relationship. Writers saw the potential and began writing novels in which the plot was revealed through letters written to or by the protagonists. More recently, stories have been written as a series of telephone calls.

In this part of the assignment you will write a story in which the content is delivered as a series of TEXTs passing back and forth between two or more persons. The subject matter of the story should relate to the material read and discussed as part of the Artificial Intelligence or the Automation topics. You may treat your material factually, in the style you examined in the first part. Question and answer, for example, is an obvious, if unadventurous, choice of style. You may also dramatize it as if you are writing a short story or an extended anecdote. If so feel free to invent characters and situations. Creativity and humour will definitely be rewarded.

(To be clear, you are NOT to write a "cell phone novel", which merely presents a conventional story in the form of a sequence of TEXTs.)

Details. Texts are written on small form factor devices, aka mobile telephones, which give them some peculiar characteristics. You are going to write this assignment on a computer, laptop or desktop, so we expect your TEXTs to follow conventions more like the conventions that govern tweets.

  1. TEXTs have at most 160 letters. (160 letters is about 23 words.)
  2. At most 20 TEXTs are allowed.
  3. The lengths given are maxima; there are no minima, except that the less you write the fewer marks you will get for content. We simply stop reading when we hit the maxima.
  4. Consecutive TEXTs must originate from different callers.
  5. TEXTs should conform to conventional spelling and grammar.
  6. The TEXTs should stand alone, without pictures or references to other digital media.
  7. Maximizing the amount of content clearly requires minimizing the number of wasted words, so pay attention to the lesson below on weak words.

Improving your Writing

Using examples.

Using examples is one of the best ways of making your writing more intelligible. Examples take the generalities and abstractions of our message and cloth them in concrete words and vivid images. Examples that are extended beyond a single phrase most often take the form of stories. Ideally, this assignment increases your awareness of the importantance of story structures, allowing you to learn from the ones you encounter in your reading.

Weak words

When you are writing in a medium where the number of words available is limited, like Twitter or e-mail, you want to make sure that every word you write gives value. Many words, however, take up space without strengthening your message. We call them "weak words" and we are always eager to replace them with stronger ones.

Many of you have probably noticed the phrase "Extra words" or equivalent written in coloured ink somewhere in your marked assignment 1. Below it, you probably noticed many horizontal green lines. This occurs when the writer is using a lot of words that don't do much work. When one writes, "It is clearly true that black is white," five of the eight words are doing nothing. This section tells you how to recognize and remove weak words.

To get you started here are a few things you can look for in your writing. (Words that can and should be removed are enclosed in [...]. When they are to be replaced [...->...] indicates the replacement text.)

Start looking for excessive words when you edit your own writing. When you start seeing them in newspapers, magazines and books you have mastered this aspect of writing.

What I Like This Week

Marking essays is time-consuming. I like anything that makes them easier to mark. Better writing is most important, which we are working on. There are also a few concrete things you can do to help me. I like the following.

  1. Essays that minimize the number of negative words. Psycho-linguists tell us that "not a success" takes longer to understand than "a failure". It is also more likely to be misunderstood. It's generally good advice to minimize the number of negative words in your writing, for which a good vocabulary is helpful.
  2. Different parts of speech have different relative strengths: nouns and verbs are strongest, adjectives are weaker, adverbs are the weakest, especially adverbs that modify adjectives. Whenever you restructure a sentence to eliminate an adverb you strengthen your writing: don't, for example, write very large; write big, or huge.

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