The Lure of Creative Writing Courses
So, you've decided to write a story. Great.
And you're thinking that a creative writing course will help you?
Well, the certificate may be nice to hang on the wall, and you will probably learn some useful stuff about writing along the way, but remember this: Books and courses on how to write are written by people who want to sell books and courses on how to write, to people who think they don't know how to write.
What I am saying is that there's not, actually, much that anyone can teach you that you couldn't teach yourself. If you love reading, then you can write. There's no great mystery to the craft. You can learn almost everything about it just by reading the books you like to read. That's what all the famous writers did, back in the days before there were Creative Writing Courses.
That's not to say that you won't find anything useful in a book or course. Most of them cover such important things as Developing Characters; Finding the right balance between Narrative, Dialogue and Description; understanding the Ebb and Flow of a Story; and Mixing Storylines – it's just that you have to plough through pages and pages of filler to find those little gems. I mean, I've looked at some of those courses. They tell you where to find ideas for storylines, how to keep a notebook of your dreams, when to write … Honestly, do you need all that? No, you don't. So here's my concise guide to what's important, and how you can teach yourself all you need to know.
Build Solid Characters
This matters more than any single other aspect of writing, because your characters will tell their story, and if they lack depth, then your story will be shallow. When you read books by your favourite author, see how they make their characters talk to you.
The secret is that they fill every character with reality. Characters must have a reason for doing what they do. They must be believable, even the baddies, even the minor characters. Spend time getting to know each of them intimately. What makes them distinctive? Why have you made them the character for that role in the story? Give them a history. Write a biography about each one: what they look like, where they came from, how they became the person they are, any peculiarities in speech or mannerisms, anything that has affected them emotionally, morally, and sexually. Do they still have an accent that betrays their origins? It may help you to visualise a character if you base aspects of them on people you know.
Twists And Turns
A story that runs in a straight line is about as interesting as a drive across a desert. To keep your readers on board, you need to add highlights and lowlights – things go right, things go wrong – in other words, your story needs to ebb and flow. Chapters are like scenes in a play or a movie – something happens – each one is a complete little story in itself, adding to the bigger story, moving it in one direction or another.
If you watch plays or movies, you will see that they almost always follow a general story flow, known as the Five Act Structure (or an adaptation of it). Knowing this may be helpful as a rough template for novel-writing, too:
Act 1: Describes the setting, introduces the first characters, reveals a conflict. May start with a dramatic event that sets the ball rolling;
Act 2: Adds some more characters. Builds the tension, rising towards some kind of climax or catastrophe. Brings in complications and obstacles;
Act 3: The Climax or Turning Point. Suspense reaches a peak. Emotions run highest. Some dramatic event or resolution occurs;
Act 4: Mysteries are explained and any plot twists are revealed;
Act 5: The story is wrapped up, and sometimes a moral or lesson is learned.
Note that acts 2 and 3 can repeat several times before you finally lead your readers to acts 4 and 5.
Of course, this is just one of many ways of looking at the structure of a story, and you most certainly do not have to follow this or any other pattern. You can use it as a guide, if you wish, or ignore it completely, or flout it. It's your book, your story, to tell in whatever way is right for you.
Whatever plan you have for the storyline, though, a good piece of advice is to add as many sub-plots as you can think up (not just with the main characters, but also with secondary or even minor characters – it helps to make them real), and try to let them resolve at different points in the main story. These are little treats for your readers to enjoy as you keep them in suspense.
Develop Your Dialogue Skills
Dialogue is the flow of words between characters, and this is where your character-building pays off, because you will hear their voices. Listen to how people around you talk to each other, and keep that dynamic in mind as you write. Read how your favourite authors handle dialogue. Let your characters' idiosyncrasies and emotions come out. Let them stumble over words. Let them mumble or misunderstand. Let them get angry. Let their past control their present. Remember that everyone has a motive for saying and doing what they say and do.
Paint A Picture
Narrative is the storytelling part – you describe stuff so that your readers can see what you see; what your characters can't tell them in dialogue. As often as not, dialogue and narrative flow together, like two boats in a fast-flowing stream, passing and repassing. A simple conversation becomes exciting when a character waves their arms, or suddenly stands up and paces the room, or glares at someone, or starts to cry. Or something may be happening outside the conversation – elsewhere in the room, or through the window, or on the radio, or upstairs – or you may like to throw in a memory, or bring in another character.
Do not be stingy with detail. You need to weave a tapestry into the narrative – if a character is walking along a road, describe the houses or shops or fields or playgrounds, the grass verges (or lack of them – what's not there is just as important as what is there), the traffic, and perhaps their reaction to them. Describe the location, try to invoke the atmosphere of the place. Is the area run down? Do they pass a pillar box, a homeless person, a tree, an abandoned bicycle with a broken wheel? And don't forget the other senses: smells – a wind that blows smoke from a bonfire; noises – a child calling in the distance. Every scene should saturate the senses.
Is That All?
Yes, that really is all you need. Go on, read a book by an author you love … REALLY read it, so that you understand how they grabbed you, then read another one, by a different author, and figure out how they did it differently. Take your time, enjoy the learning process. Then write YOUR book.