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.
The problem is, you’re finding it tougher than you thought it would be.
You 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 conversation.
What is Creative Writing?
Creative Writing is prose that tells a story featuring someone who wants something.
That person runs into trouble and begins an adventure, a journey, or a quest, faces obstacles, and is ultimately transformed—for the good or for the bad.
While Creative Writing can also educate and/or entertain, but it does its best work when it emotionally moves the reader.
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.
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.
4. Point of View
POV is more than which perspective 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 amicably 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.
14 Types of Creative Writing
Novels are fiction by definition. Lengths typically fall between 75,000 to 100,000 words. The author must create a story that can carry an entire book.
Novellas usually run between 10,000 and 40,000 words and typically follow a single character’s point of view. Otherwise, they tend to feature the structural and narrative elements of a full-length novel. Example: Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome.
Short stories, including super short micro or flash fiction—which can be as short as just a few words, are usually between a thousand and five thousand words and thus must telescope the creative writing techniques and properties of a novel. This creative writing type gained popularity during the 19th century in literary magazines, and many such magazines still carry short stories.
Also known as Creative Nonfiction, this form displays techniques and literary styles such as story and tone to convey emotion in nonfiction narratives. A common example is a personal essay.
Biographies capture the stories of individuals whose lives can provide a lesson to readers.
An autobiography is written by the author, about the author, following a chronological account of their life.
As opposed to an autobiography, a memoir emphasizes takeaway value to the reader and is thus theme-oriented. Readers should be able to see themselves in the anecdotes chosen to show life transformation. Creative writing techniques similar to those in a novel will bring the story to life.
Poets use traditional structures such as rhyme, rhythm, and subject matter to tell their stories. They can also experiment with prose-poetry or free verse.
Song lyrics are another form of poetry, the aim being to tell a story in the fewest, most evocative words possible.
Speeches require creative writing to keep audiences engaged.
A blog is usually based on the writer’s own life and interests. The best ones tell stories readers relate to and interact with.
Journaling, usually intended for the author’s eyes only, can become, in essence, a creatively written diary.
Screenwriting is a form of scriptwriting specific to television shows, films, and other visual media. Screenwriting relies heavily on dialogue to tell a story, but not exclusively. The writer must include action and response takes.
Playwriting is a form of scriptwriting specific to theater productions, again relying heavily on dialogue and action. Playwriting also requires stage direction suggestions for lighting, sound, and actors.
11 Creative Writing Tips
In How to Write a Novel, I cover each step of the writing process:
That may sound obvious, but make sure it’s compelling enough to draw you back to the keyboard every day.
If you’re an Outliner, you prefer to map out everything before you start writing your novel.
If you’re a Pantser, you write by the seat of your pants, putting, as Stephen King advises, interesting characters in difficult situations and writing to find out what happens.
I cover both types and how to structure a novel here.
And though I’m primarily a Pantser, I never start writing a novel without an idea where I’m going — or think I’m going.
Resist the temptation to create a perfect character, even if it’s a superhero. Main characters must exhibit human flaws to make them relatable.
For more on character development, check out my blog posts Your Ultimate Guide to Character Development: 9 Steps to Creating Memorable Heroes, How to Create a Powerful Character Arc, and Character Motivation: How to Craft Realistic Characters.
Regardless of whether you’re a Panster or an Outliner, you need some semblance of a structure.
Dean Koontz calls this the Classic Story Structure (in his How to Write Best-Selling Fiction):
- Plunge the main character into terrible trouble
- Everything the character does to get out of trouble makes things worse until…
- All appears hopeless
- The qualities the main character develops trying to fix the trouble make him heroic enough to succeed in the end
The best fiction must ironically feel believable.
You must research to add flavor and authenticity.
One caveat: Resist the urge to show off your research by loading your story with every esoteric fact you’ve learned. Add specifics the way you would season food. It enhances the experience, but it’s not the main course.
Point of View (POV) is more than simply deciding what voice to use:
First Person (I, me), Second Person (you, your), or Third Person (he, she, or it).
It also involves deciding who will be your perspective character, serving as your story’s camera.
The cardinal rule is one POV character per scene.
For a more in-depth explanation, read my post A Writer’s Guide to Point of View.
Grab the reader by the throat on page one.
Avoid what’s called throat clearing—too much scene setting and description. Get to the good stuff—the guts of the story.
The goal of every sentence, in fact of every word, is to compel the reader to read the next.
Do not give him a break. Remember, conflict is the engine of fiction.
(For more on conflict, read my post Internal and External Conflict: Tips for Creating Unforgettable Characters)
Your main character’s trouble should escalate with his every attempt to fix it.
You’ll be tempted to give your protagonist a break, invent an escape, or inject a miracle. Don’t do it!
This darkest, bleakest moment forces your hero to use every new skill and muscle gained through battling those obstacles.
The more hopeless the situation appears, the more powerful your climax will be.
This is where your hero faces his toughest test yet. The stakes must be dire, the prospect of failure catastrophic.
The tension that has been building throughout crescendos during an ultimate confrontation, and all the major book-length setups are paid off.
Note: the climax is not the end. The real conclusion ties up loose ends and puts the journey into perspective.
A great ending:
- Honors the reader for his investment of time and money.
- Aims for the heart.
- Keeps your hero on stage till the last word.
Don’t rush it.
A fully satisfying ending drops the curtain with a resounding thud.
More to Think About
1. Carry a writing pad, electronic or otherwise. I like the Moleskine™ notebook.
Ideas can come at any moment. Record ideas for:
- Anything that might expand your story
2. Start small.
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. Keep perfectionism in its place.
Reserve it for the editing and revision stage.
While writing, take off that perfectionist cap and just get the story down. At that stage, perfectionism is the enemy of progress.
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 readers’ hearts for years.