You love to write and have been told you have a way with words. So you’ve decided to give writing a try—creative writing.
Problem is, you’re finding it tougher than it looks.
You may even have a great story idea, but you’re not sure how to turn it into something people will read.
Don’t be discouraged—writing a compelling story can be grueling, even for veterans. Conflicting advice online may confuse you and make you want to quit before you start.
But you know more than you think. Stories saturate our lives.
We tell and hear stories every day in music, on television, in video games, in books, in movies, even in relationships.
Most stories, regardless the genre, feature a main character who wants something.
There’s a need, a goal, some sort of effort to get that something.
The character begins an adventure, a journey, or a quest, faces obstacles, and is ultimately transformed.
The work of developing such a story will come. But first, let’s look at the basics.
What is Creative Writing?
It’s prose (fiction or nonfiction) that tells a story.
Journalistic, academic, technical writing relays facts.
Creative writing can also educate, but it’s best when it also entertains and emotionally moves the reader.
It triggers the imagination and appeals to the heart.
Elements of Creative Writing
Writing a story is much like building a house.
You may have all the right tools and design ideas, but if your foundation isn’t solid, even the most beautiful structure won’t stand.
Most storytelling experts agree, these 7 key elements must exist in a story.
1. A Theme
Plot (more on that below) is what happens in a story. Theme is why it happens.
Before you begin writing, determine why you want to tell your story.
- What message do you wish to convey?
- What will it teach the reader?
Resist the urge to explicitly state your theme. Just tell the story, and let it make its own point.
Give your readers credit. Subtly weave your theme into the story and trust them to get it.
They may remember a great plot, but you want them thinking about your theme long after they’ve finished reading.
Every story needs believable characters who feel knowable.
In fiction, your main character is the protagonist, also known as the lead or hero/heroine.
The protagonist must have:
- redeemable flaws
- potentially heroic qualities that emerge in the climax
- a character arc (he must be different, better, stronger by the end)
Resist the temptation to create a perfect lead. Perfect is boring. (Even Indiana Jones suffered a snake phobia.)
You also need an antagonist, the villain, who should be every bit as formidable and compelling as your hero.
Don’t make your bad guy bad just because he’s the bad guy. Make him a worthy foe by giving him motives for his actions.
Villains don’t see themselves as bad. They think they’re right! A fully rounded bad guy is much more realistic and memorable.
Depending on the length of your story, you may also need important orbital cast members.
For each character, ask:
- What do they want?
- What or who is keeping them from getting it?
- What will they do about it?
The more challenges your characters face, the more relatable they are.
Much as in real life, the toughest challenges result in the most transformation.
Setting may include a location, time, or era, but it should also include how things look, smell, taste, feel, and sound.
Thoroughly research details about your setting so it informs your writing, but use those details as seasoning, not the main course. The main course is the story.
Agents and acquisitions editors tell me one of the biggest mistakes beginning writers make is feeling they must begin by describing the setting.
That’s important, don’t get me wrong. But a sure way to put readers to sleep is to promise a thrilling story on the cover—only to start with some variation of:
The house sat in a deep wood surrounded by…
Rather than describing your setting, subtly layer it into the story.
Show readers your setting. Don’t tell them. Description as a separate element slows your story to crawl.
By layering in what things look and feel and sound like you subtly register the setting in the theater of readers’ minds.
While they concentrating on the action, the dialogue, the tension, the drama, and conflict that keep them turning the pages, they’re also getting a look and feel for your setting.
4. Point of View
POV is more than which voice you choose to tell your story: First Person (I, me), Second Person (you, your), or Third Person (he, she, or it).
Determine your perspective (POV) character for each scene—the one who serves as your camera and recorder—by deciding who has the most at stake. Who’s story is this?
The cardinal rule is that you’re limited to one perspective character per scene, but I prefer only one per chapter, and ideally one per novel.
Readers experience everything in your story from this character’s perspective.
For a more in-depth explanation of Voice and POV, read A Writer’s Guide to Point of View.
5. A Plot
This is the sequence of events that make up a story—in short, what happens. It either compels your reader to keep turning pages or set the book aside.
A successful story answers:
- What happens? (Plot)
- What does it mean? (Theme: see above)
Writing coaches call various story structures by different names, but they’re all largely similar. All such structures include some variation of:
- An Opener
- An Inciting Incident that changes everything
- A series of Crises that build tension
- A Climax
- A Resolution (or Conclusion)
How effectively you create drama, intrigue, conflict, and tension, determines whether you can grab readers from the start and keep them to the end.
This is the engine of fiction and crucial to effective nonfiction as well.
Readers crave conflict and what results from it.
If everything in your plot is going well and everyone is agreeing, you’ll quickly bore your reader—the cardinal sin of writing.
If two characters are chatting amiably and the scene feels flat (which it will), inject conflict. Have one say something that makes the other storm out, revealing a deep-seated rift.
Readers will stay with you to find out what it’s all about.
Whether you’re an Outliner or a Pantser like me (one who writes by the seat of your pants), you must have an idea where your story is going.
How you expect the story to end should inform every scene and chapter. It may change, evolve, and grow as you and your characters do, but never leave it to chance.
Keep your lead character center stage to the very end. Everything he learns through all the complications you plunged him into should, in the end, allow him to rise to the occasion and succeed.
If you get near the end and something’s missing, don’t rush it. Give your ending a few days, even a few weeks if necessary.
Read through everything you’ve written. Take a long walk. Think about it. Sleep on it. Jot notes. Let your subconscious work. Play what-if games. Reach for the heart, and deliver a satisfying ending that resonates.
Give your readers a payoff for their investment by making it unforgettable.
Creative Writing Examples
- Short Story
- Narrative nonfiction
- Song lyrics
Creative Writing Tips
In How to Write a Novel, I cover each step of the writing process:
- Come up with a great story idea.
- Determine whether you’re an Outliner or a Pantser.
- Create an unforgettable main character.
- Expand your idea into a plot.
- Do your research.
- Choose your Voice and Point of View.
- Start in medias res (in the midst of things).
- Intensify your main character’s problems.
- Make the predicament appear hopeless.
- Bring it all to a climax.
- Leave readers wholly satisfied.
More to Think About
1. Carry a writing pad, electronic or otherwise. I like the famous Moleskine™ notebook.
Ideas can come at any moment. Record ideas for:
- Anything that might expand your story
2. Start small.
Take time to build your craft and hone your skills on smaller projects before you try to write a book.
Journal. Write a newsletter. Start a blog. Write short stories. Submit articles to magazines, newspapers, or e-zines.
Take a night school or online course in journalism or creative writing. Attend a writers conference.
3. Throw perfection to the wind.
Separate your writing from your editing.
Anytime you’re writing a first draft, take off your perfectionist cap. You can return to editor mode to your heart’s content while revising, but for now, just write the story.
Separate these tasks and watch your daily production soar.
Time to Get to Work
Few pleasures in life compare to getting lost in a great story.
Learn how to write creatively, and the characters you birth have the potential to live in hearts for years.