Creative writing can be hard. Where do you start? Where do ideas come from? How do you get your characters? To help you, here are seven tips. Use these tips for creative writing in English – or in Spanish, Polish, Korean – any other language you happen to know! It’s a common approach.
Creative writing starts with reading – this is the source. You’ve got to read A LOT. This will show you what’s possible and how it’s done. It will also give you ideas. A great way to start reading more is by using Oxford Reading Club – here you can find hundreds of graded readers which are right for your level. The more you read, the more you’ll see different styles, mix them up, and then write in a way which is completely new and completely you.
Every creative idea has possibilities. It could become a brilliant story, poem, play, or song lyric. It doesn’t matter. What’s important is to get it down on paper or on screen. Don’t let it just stay in your head. After you’ve written down the idea, you can decide how good it is and what form it might take. Then you can start to write it!
Most creative writing is about telling a story of some kind. Every story has three parts: a beginning, a middle, and an end. If you’re having trouble getting started, try writing from the middle of the story, or even the end. You might discover it’s a better approach. Wherever you start, your first line really needs to ‘hook’ the reader’s attention and make them want to continue. Look at these three examples:
- There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife (The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman)
- It was a bright, cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen. (1984 by George Orwell)
- On the morning of its first birthday, a baby was found floating in a cello case in the middle of the English Channel. (Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell)
Where does your story happen? Some people think you should write about places you know really well. But you can also do research and use your imagination. Maybe the setting is one place – that dark, little wood at the end of your garden or schoolyard – or several places which are connected: Chinese megacities, for example. Or maybe it’s somewhere fantastic that no human has ever seen: inside the blood, on the surface of Saturn, or in a parallel world where teachers are students and robots are gods. What does it look like? How does it smell? What sounds are there? If you can describe it in detail, you’ll create that place for your reader.
This is where your creative writing can sometimes slow down. It’s natural – you’ve made a start, but you still haven’t reached the end. Stop … and try writing out the whole idea in just one sentence. Does it make sense? Is that the story, poem, or play which you’re actually writing? If it feels like your writing is losing speed or getting boring, introduce something quick and surprising. For example a gun, a ticking time bomb, a truck with no brakes, or a talking cat.
Creative writing is written by people (you), for people (your readers), and about people (your characters). Dealing with life’s challenges is what makes us interesting, and it’s exactly the same for the characters in a story, poem, or play. What do they want – and why can’t they get it? You also want to make your characters convincing. If you can’t invent someone completely new, try combining a few real people. Take the name of one person, the looks and voice of a second person; then add the house and car of a third person. See what kind of character appears!
By this time, you could have built up speed and be racing downhill. But don’t rush the end! Ask yourself what’s changed and – more importantly – what your characters have learnt. Before you write or type the final full stop, check the logic of the story up to this point. Does it all make sense? If so, make sure the end is definitely an end. Here are three famous examples:
- Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air. (Lady Lazarus by Sylvia Plath)
- Max stepped into his private boat and waved goodbye and sailed back over a year and in and out of weeks and through a day and into the night of his very own room where he found his supper waiting for him—and it was still hot. (Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak)
- The scar had not pained Harry for nineteen years. All was well. (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by JK Rowling)
Andrew Dilger is a Managing Editor at Oxford University Press. He has been involved in English language teaching as a teacher, trainer, and editor for over a quarter of a century. He is passionate about the power of reading and claims to have read something every day of his life since he first went to school.