Creative writing is loosely defined as more or less any form of original writing: anything that involves creativity and ‘making things up’. It can therefore be defined simply as writing that falls outside the usual bounds of journalistic, academic, technical or professional writing.
Creative writing is generally considered to encompass all fiction writing, as well as poetry, and many people also include writing plays and screenplays.
The focus of creative writing is generally, but not invariably, on the narrative arc and character development. It is therefore very different from writing such as journalistic writing, which may aim to tell stories, but is focused on facts.
Elements of Creative Writing
There are many different forms of creative writing, and they all have their own features. However, many types of creative writing also share some common features. These include:
1. A strong plot or narrative arc
The plot, also known as the ‘narrative arc’, is the unique ‘story’ of your writing. It describes what happens to your characters.
It is fair to say that this is a feature of all creative writing, and is effectively what distinguishes it from other forms of writing. Without a story, you are simply providing facts. There is a place for that—but it is not creative writing.
A plot does not have to cover a long period of time, or even have a clear ending. If you consider many short stories, they are very much a snapshot in time. You enter the characters’ lives at a particular point, and often leave them shortly afterwards. You do not necessarily know what happens next. Some of the most frightening stories are those where your imagination fills in the gaps (a good example of this is Daphne Du Maurier’s short story The Birds, later made into a film by Alfred Hitchcock).
Even a poem has a story (see box).
Narrative arc in poetry
It is possible to suggest that much poetry, especially more modern poetry is not a ‘story’, but is about feelings and emotions. However, that does not mean that it has no narrative arc.
Consider Robert Frost’s poem The Road Not Taken, which ends
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— / I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference.”
Most people are only aware of these last few couplets. However, the poem has four verses, setting out the poet’s situation (standing in a wood, having to choose between two possible roads), and his feelings about that. He then looks ahead to the future, and how he will one day look back on this and recognise the importance of the moment.
The road is undoubtedly metaphorical. However, there is still a clear plot and story to the poem.
2. Character development
The second feature of creative writing is the creation of characters, and their development over the course of the writing.
In this context, ‘development’ can describe either changes in the character themselves, or a change in the reader’s understanding of the character.
For example, in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge, the main character, undergoes an epiphany in the course of the book, and his character completely changes.
However, by contrast, in Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, the unnamed heroine—and by extension, the reader—learns more and more about her husband’s former wife over the course of the book, and comes to appreciate that all is not what it seemed on the surface.
3. A characteristic use of language
One of the features that distinguishes creative writing is the wide diversity of language use.
Creative writers often, if not always, provide visual descriptions of locations and people. This is because their readers need to be able to imagine the characters and scenes—and providing more descriptions makes this process easier.
Writers like J.R.R. Tolkien spent years creating imaginary worlds. They wanted their readers to share their vision of these worlds in as much detail as possible.
Creative writing also often features a more vivid use of language. Metaphors, similes, adjectives and adverbs abound. Unlike business writing, it is not a matter of ‘more concise often equals better’. In creative writing, more can definitely be more.
4. An underlying theme or message
Some people suggest that every piece of creative writing has an underlying theme or message.
It is certainly true that there can be some very strong underlying themes, especially in certain types of writing. For example, many fantasy novels are very much ‘good vs. evil’, usually with a strong undertone of ‘coming of age’ of characters. Journeys within books are often metaphors for a character’s own journey of development, with a sense of ‘homecoming’ or ‘journey’s end’ towards the end of the story.
This idea of an underlying theme is interesting, because it is arguable that it is not always intentional.
In other words, it is not clear whether writers sit down and decide on this underlying theme, or whether it develops with the writing. It certainly does not seem to be necessary to have a clear ‘message’ in mind in writing—and certainly not a moral one. However, there is also something intensely human about wanting to draw lessons from experience.
The real question is: does the writer do this, or is this part of what happens during the reading process?
5. An emotional appeal
Creative writing has to appeal to our emotions. Otherwise, we might as well read non-fiction.
Writers have to create this emotional appeal, but it is often part of the other aspects of a piece of creative writing. For example, writers develop strong characters, with an appealing story arc. Readers empathise with those characters, and care what happens to them. If the writer does not create interesting characters, the reader loses interest.
It therefore seems likely that the most important aspect of creating emotional appeal is that you, the writer, care about your characters and what happens to them.
After all, if you don’t care, why would anyone else?
Developing Creative Writing Skills
Creative writing is a skill like any other form of writing. It therefore follows that you can develop that skill.
However, it can be much harder to do that than with many other forms of writing. It is, for example, harder to get external opinions about your writing without going on a course (see box).
Creative writing courses and teaching
Many universities and schools offer courses in creative writing. Some of these may be general, and others may have a more specific focus, such as writing for films or screen.
If you want to pursue an interest in creative writing, but you are struggling to get started, one of these courses may be right for you.
However, as with any other course, it is worth doing your research to ensure that you will get value for money.
You can also find plenty of advice and creative writing exercises online, some of which are free. It may be worth trying some of these first, to see if they are sufficient to get you started.
A final thought
Writing is a very personal process.
Nobody can tell you how writing ‘should’ be for you, especially creative writing. Everyone works differently, and the process of developing characters and stories is different for every writer.
Probably the best advice is simply to start writing, keeping in mind the elements listed here, and then seek feedback from those around you.