What is creative writing?
According to one Wikipedia article:
“Creative writing is any writing that goes outside the bounds of normal professional, journalistic, academic, or technical forms of literature, typically identified by an emphasis on narrative craft, character development, and the use of literary tropes or with various traditions of poetry and poetics.”
The article also adds:
“In the academic setting, creative writing is typically separated into fiction and poetry classes, with a focus on writing in an original style, as opposed to imitating pre-existing genres such as crime or horror. Writing for the screen and stage—screenwriting and playwriting—are often taught separately, but fit under the creative writing category as well.”
This is a workable definition, but as the article says, it’s a rather broad one. Note that in the second quote that creative writing in an academic setting tends to avoid genre writing, meaning that it focuses on what me might call “literary” writing. This is one of the reasons that a degree in creative writing is not necessary in order for one to become a successful writer. I’ve heard it said elsewhere that in academic circles those who earn an MFA degree in writing are often expected to become teachers or editors or journalists, not writers as such, as least not in terms of a career choice. It seems that colleges and universities don’t view writing as viable way to earn a living. I find that amusing in a bizarre way because one generally considers that a college degree is designed to prepare one for a career in that degree’s course of study.
Here’s my sort-of definition of creative writing: Creative writing—as opposed to technical and journalistic writing—is one of the Arts. Words on the page express ideas, convey images and emotions, and touch the senses just as much as do physical works of art. Words have rhythm and sound as does music.
Even this is a broad definition that extends to any writing beyond the purely factual. Technical and journalistic writing tend to present facts and talks to the reader (TELLING), often without emotion. Granted, journalistic writing can evoke emotion, but that’s not its primary role, which is to inform. Creative writing leans toward the expressive, often SHOWING the reader through the eyes of the characters in a story.
However, we have several categories of creative writing. Personal essays can include factual and experiential elements. Creative nonfiction seems to elude a concrete definition, but many consider it fact that has been embellished to make the writing more expressive and perhaps to include some less than purely factual elements.
And we have fiction—and the definition of a story. How do you know if what you have written is a proper story or something else, such as an anecdote or an essay, or even just a scene?
First, a complete story must possess the following six elements:
one or more characters
conflict (internal or external or both)
resolution or resonance (or both)
I’m sure I’ll get some disagreement here on this: Stories are not about ideas (not primarily) but about the experiences of the characters themselves. Sure, stories can have a theme based around one or more ideas. Many works of classic fiction are this way. H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine and Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984 are three that come to mind.
You can write a persuasive essay on the need for gun control, but a piece of creative writing/fiction using that same idea would put a character in the middle of a situation that would SHOW the need for gun control through that character’s experience (and possibly not a happy one). By making the reader identify with the character, you achieve through the senses and emotions what an essay attempts to do merely in words. Both forms use words, but the way those words are structured is what makes the difference. Essays present ideas, while stories show the impact of those ideas on people.
Put another way: An essay is told from the writer’s perspective, while a story is told from a character’s perspective.
I’ve talked many times here in the past about the problems with first-person stories and the mistakes writers make with them. Too often they write them as if they were personal essays or the retelling of a personal experience in diary or journal form through the eyes of a character who sounds too much like the writer talking or at best is an uninteresting character—telling instead of showing.
Here’s an exercise to help you see the difference between an essay (or anecdote) and a story. Start with a personal experience (holiday or vacation or whatever) that made an impression on you. Then write it from someone else’s perspective, taking yourself completely out of the picture. That’s not enough by itself, but it’s a place to start. Now, the result is not an essay, but it could still be either an anecdote or a story. To make it into a proper story, it needs CONFLICT.
Conflict means that the character must want something and something stands in the way of that want, something that must be dealt with. Conflict can also be the character having something at stake that requires a resolution. There is no requirement that the character must get what he or she wants or that the resolution is a satisfactory one for the character, but a striving must exist.
“How I Spent My Summer Vacation,” if it’s only about what you experienced during the summer can never be a story, not even if you include some lesson learned in it. To be a story it must have conflict, something that disrupted your plans for the summer, something—possibly unexpected—that you had to resolve to put things back on track or to let you move forward and that possibly changed your life.
A proper story also needs a beginning, middle, and ending, which implies that there exists a progression throughout the story and that it ends in a different place (not a physical location, but an emotional one) from where it began—and by implication something has changed.
While not one of the basic six required elements, CHANGE is an important aspect of a good story. If nothing changes in the story, it will likely disappoint the reader. The change can be in the character, in the situation, or in the world around the character. If nothing changes, then you have a recipe for a potentially dull story.
Of course, a proper story needs one or more characters because stories are about someONE, not someTHING (yes, even a robot is a someone not a something).
The ending can be a resolution of the conflict, or a failure to resolve the conflict and something else happens. The ending can also be an emotional resonance for the character or reader.
Now, even if you have all of the above elements in place, something must happen in the story that matters to the characters AND to the reader. I’ve read a number of stories where something happened that mattered to the characters, but it did not matter to me as a reader because the writer didn’t give me a reason to care what happened to the characters.
Finally, a good story needs to start strong and remain so throughout. One of the commenters in the blog link below made the following excellent observation:
“Too often, I think writers put most of their energy into a great opening and then, especially if writing quickly, let the quality lag. Or, while the author’s voice may be engaging, that wears thin if the story and characters aren’t strong.”
The blog article, while a bit data heavy, contains some good information for fiction writers. Having all the elements of a proper story is necessary, but that’s not sufficient to ensure a good story. The story must be interesting at the beginning and continue to be interesting throughout, and the more it connects with the reader, the better its chance of success.