Like all artistic endeavours, there is no one skill that creative writing demands. Rather, it is a collection of lots of different skills and elements that need to hang well together.
Creating a compelling character, for example, is not the same skill as writing a beautiful description of a place or action. Nor is profundity and originality of thought the same as metrical fluency or ability to rhyme.
All of the different elements of creative writing require different skills – and to write a masterpiece they all need to coalesce, balance, and complement each other. A novel with a cracking plot can easily fall down if the characters aren’t convincing, or if the writing style is clumsy or jarring.
When you are writing your own work, fiction or nonfiction, poetry or prose, you will need to ensure that you practice all of the skills that you will need to make your work a marvellous whole. And that means cracking every single one of these main elements of creative writing.
So, let’s take a look at what they are – for your fiction writing, your poetry writing, and your playwriting. Whilst some elements are shared between forms, they feature in different ways.
At the end, we’ll take a look at three of the main skills that are relevant to all of the major forms of creative writing too. Find out more in our article, What is Creative Writing?
The Main Elements of Prose Fiction.
Prose fiction is the form of creative writing that is written in continuous prose – and that is fictional... Forms like the short story and the novel fall under this category, whereas prose texts such as the personal essay fall under the remit of creative nonfiction.
In prose fiction, you are going to be wanting to create compelling character and engaging plots – enabled by convincing dialogue strong descriptive writing when it is necessary.
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Some people will tell you that character development is the most important element of novel writing. And they wouldn’t necessarily be wrong.
Characters are the things through which you propel your narrative forward, and they are vehicles through which you explore your theme. But they are more than that too: they are what make people remember books, they are what allow people to relate and empathise.
Making time to think about who you want your characters to be is a crucial part of writing fiction.
What is it that happens in your novel or piece of short fiction? A novel needs to have some forward motion, there needs to be some sort of events, conflicts, tensions, crises, and resolutions. Unless you are Samuel Beckett or Raymond Queneau, of course, who determinedly wrote books in which nothing happens.
Despite this, there has to be a reason why your audience will keep reading. Plotting out the main events – even if these are purely cerebral happenings – can help you make sense of the structure of your fiction.
Writing convincing dialogue in an age of realism is a notoriously difficult skill. Yet, it is one of the really crucial elements of effective fiction.
The novelist, Will Self, has spoken of how, during his writing process, he would go to cafes just to listen to people talk. Listening carefully to the cadences of real speech enables you to render them well – whilst banal imperatives like ‘write like you talk’ are never quite as easy as they seem.
Whilst writing dialogue, think about whether the speech in your fiction needs to be directly spoken, or whether it can sit indirectly in your prose.
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Another major feature of fiction writing is writing the scenes themselves, the flesh of the world that you are creating.
And one of the most important writing techniques in this is knowing what actually needs to be said. What are people wearing and where do they live? What details does your audience need to know? What can you leave out without harm? Too much irrelevant information bogs down the flow of your piece.
Finally, how are you going to write this? To learn how to write well – in terms of the cadence, fluency, and sound of your sentences – is just as important as everything else here.
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The Main Elements of Screenwriting and Stage Writing.
Now, it is a little unfair here to collapse writing for screen and writing for stage. The professional writers among you will surely have something to say about this.
Yet, the difference between writing a text to be read and a text to be heard is huge – and if you are juggling both prose and drama, you’ll need to keep this in your head the whole time. Good writing in theatre or film is not the same as good writing when you are writing a novel.
Dialogue, of course, is the main element of these texts – and you will need to hone your dialogue skills if you hope to stand a chance in the world of scriptwriting.
A screenwriter and playwright needs to use dialogue in a different way. Dialogue is the action on stage – as much as it is the character. And it is much more alive than it can possibly be in a book.
On stage or screen, there is no way to verbally describe a character as there is in a book. You can show them, yes, or you can reveal their nature through the things that they say.
A creative writer therefore needs to feed details about their character through that character’s own words, or through the words of other characters.
The characters need to be more unified too – as they don’t have the markers that they can hide behind in novels.
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The Essential Features of Poetry.
You’ll see that creative writing courses split up those people interested in writing poetry from the writing program for novelists. This is because reading and writing poetry is completely different to writing fiction, or even drama: being a good novelist does not make you a good poet – and vice versa.
In a poetry workshop you will focus on completely different things than you would in a creative writing course for fiction or creative non-fiction. In poetry, language takes on a different form, a difference as large as that between travel writing and technical writing.
If you are a poet yourself, you won’t need to be told that the crucial feature of poetry is metre and rhythm. Take a writing sample from any poet in the history of English and you will see that rhythm takes centre stage.
Finding a way to write both naturally and within the confines of the form is the great negotiation that a poet has to make, so that metrical alertness becomes second nature within the creative process.
Structure and Form.
Are you going to write an ode or a sonnet, a ballad or a limerick? And how do you engage with the specificities of these forms once you have made that decision? Moreover, indeed, how have you made that decision, and why?
As the very essence of a poem, the form is the thing that gives the poem sense. And according to your personal poetics, you’ll give it that sense you feel most appropriate.
Meaning and Symbolism.
When we write poems, what happens to language? Does it become more compressed? More ambiguous? More symbolic, allusive, elusive?
‘Meaning’ in the conventional sense doesn’t quite function in the same way. Language shimmers here, whilst it takes on much more of a solid form in a poem.
What you are trying to say – or what you want the poem to be – matters.
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Other Creative Writing Skills You Need to Know.
All of the above are elements that you will need to decide on with the form of your creative piece – whether a prose poem or a selection of personal essays.
However there are elements of creative writing that go unseen in the finished work. These are the processes of research, planning and editing, which hold the book together and bring it into existence.
Research is everything that happens to a text before it is written into words. It is the ideas, the inspirations, the considerations of style, the factual details and descriptive phrases that you need to pin down and be sure of.
No novel is possible without research.
Planning brings together the research with the framework you will create. How is one event or idea going to follow the next one? And why? And is that the best way to do it?
Once you have finished your writing, you still have more writing to do. That writing is what we conventionally call editing.
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