Creative writing is rewarding, fun, and at times, frustrating.
Many writers think it would be exciting to get a great novel published but don’t know where to begin. Understanding the essentials of creative writing can help.
Works of fiction, whether novels or short stories, have these following seven elements. Becoming proficient with the essentials can help unlock your creative potential.
From our perspective, these are the essentials. The successful writer will also need to increase her skills and knowledge of: story structure (timing—where elements go into the mix), conflict stakes, opening lines, endings, sub-plots, etc.
In fiction, characters are the key to originality.
The main character doesn’t even have to be a nice person. Think Hannibal Lector. We remember great stories because of how the characters were developed. Henry James said that “character is plot,” meaning that characterization is inseparable from the story. The characters react to events as they grow and develop out of their individual natures.
It takes time and effort to develop a character with depth and distinctiveness. Begin by creating a character chart showing their desires, fears, ambitions, core beliefs, what they’re proud of and what they try to hide, etc. They may not be overtly expressed in the story but the character will react to events out of those traits.
2. Point of View
Point of view in creative writing is the lens that the writer sets up for readers to “see” the story. First person POV is I-me-we-us, and the world is sensed and seen through that “I” character, the narrator. If the narrator is a child, as was Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, she doesn’t understand adult actions or prejudices but will give information about what she sees, and the reader can understand what’s going on. Second person POV—you and your—is seldom used. Third person POV is that of an outsider looking at the action, making the thoughts and motivations of every character open to the reader.
People read fiction so they can vicariously “come along for the ride,” so to speak. For that, they imagine themselves beside the POV character. But they need an orientation of where and when the scene they’re “experiencing” is taking place. They could be … watching an Oklahoma farm house burn on a winter night in 1936 … cringing from inside the locked trunk of John Dillinger’s getaway car as bullets shatter glass overhead … staring in shock as the countess points and screams, “Call the gendarmes! He did it!”
This backdrop against which these dramas play out is called setting. The locale, time of year/day, the climate and geography, era of historical importance, mood, and cultural environment are only a few of the hundreds of possible aspects of setting. They could be explicitly stated or inferred, and the writer will use only as many descriptions as she deems necessary to create the imaginary world for the story to take place—and allow the reader to survive, in order to read again another day.
Plot is the train that carries the story—tells us what happens. A good plot is about a significant disturbance to the characters’ inner and outer lives. Scenes are the cars that make up the train. Each scene, beginning with the first line, should pull the reader inside to experience with the character(s) an emotionally intense situation, ending with something so surprising or fresh that the reader is simply compelled to ... turn to the next chapter. After all, every reader picks up a book with the expectation that it will vicariously transport him to worlds he’s never known, on experiences the likes of which he’s never had.
Dialogue must be more than “just the facts, ma’am.” Who says what, and how they say it, should aim to make characters original and move the plot along. Dialogue is often used as weapons in the plot, bringing confrontation and conflict, just what the reader wants. In my novel, Daughter of the Cimarron, insecure Claire uses dialogue to try to get her husband to show that she is precious to him.
Dialogue’s tool in creative writing is, no surprise, the tongue. Thus did James the Apostle call the tongue “a fire, a world of evil … full of deadly poison.” Competition, payback, achieving status, or putting someone else down are some of the verbal weapons used by characters trying to outmaneuver each other. A great deal of dialogue in real life is nothing more than gossip. Successful fiction mimics real life, so the writer may use that destructive tendency to disclose secrets, fracture families, or simply to give the reader information.
In creative writing, the main message, the take-home value of the story is what we call theme. It’s the big statement about the world. It’s the one-line lesson that the work of fiction conveys about people or the world. For The Wizard of Oz, the theme is “there’s no place like home.” The theme of The Brothers Karamazov could be stated as “faith and love are the highest values of human existence.”
A writer’s style is what sets his writing apart, making it unique. Diction, sentence structure, and language used are some of the elements a writer uses to establish style.
All great works of fiction have these seven elements. Once you’ve learned and understand them, you will be able to create your own work of fiction that will resonate with your readers.