The 7 elements of creative writing are character, plot, setting, point of view, style, theme and literary devices. Just about everyone agrees on what the elements are though not about how much or how often they should be used. Even if you don’t plan to use any or all of these elements in your writing, you will write better if you know what these tools are and how they are used.
At the least, characters carry out the work of the plot in a story. At the most, characters fuel and drive the entire story. Characters may be human or not, animate or not. Readers identify with characters, becoming involved enough with their fictional worlds to cheer on the luckless underdogs and hate the nasty villains.
A special kind of suspension of disbelief occurs in readers’ minds when they are reading and enjoying stories. This suspension can only be achieved when the writing has verisimilitude, which means believability. A reader who constantly has reason to question the validity of a character as it is written, cannot enter the state of suspension of disbelief. Thus characters must be authentic to attract and bond with readers.
Our connection to characters can run deep. Think of the many memorable characters you have read that still seem more real than some people you know. Who doesn’t carry a bit of Holden Caulfield’s alienation and confusion with them forever after reading, The Catcher in the Rye?
Note that you may find inspiration for a character anywhere. You may make a character out of anything. An inanimate character, such as the hat from Miller’s Crossing, may say a good many things while having no mouth.
No Plodding Plots, Please
Simply put, plot is what happens in the story. Generally, plots follow a simple arc. By the time most writers begin to write, they have already been exposed to many plots via popular culture. Every book, movie, and song has a plot–something happens. Even game shows have plots. Develop the habit of looking through the surface and perceiving the underlying skeleton of plot in almost everything.
It has been alleged that only 7 plots exist in English literature. Reading any good collection of Shakespeare’s plays will teach you those 7 plots. As an alternative, several good books on plot are available.
Pithy Old Saw
An oversimplified but pithy old saw about plot says that there is only one plot and to write it you find a character and set him looking for something. Another old saw goes that if your plot is lagging in pace or sagging in tension, kill off someone (a character, of course) to jazz things up a bit. Old saws, as a rule, should be viewed with deep suspicion and used whenever handy.
Setting is where your story takes place. You may have one or many, depending on the needs of your story. Setting may be large, such as John Irving’s use of place in Until I Find You, which is so pronounced that one or two European cities just may be actual characters. Conversely, your setting may be the living room or kitchen. Just think of the plays you have seen that unfold in only a few settings, such as in Arsenic and Old Lace.
The best advice about using this element is to ask yourself how a specific setting will underscore the themes in your work. Are you using a quest plot that would be supported best by the changing locations of the journey? If your story is about an initiation, a personal growth tale, then setting will seem less important because that type of quest unfolds primarily inside the character’s mind.
I Want to Believe!
The only way to do setting wrong is to use a setting for no reason other than you like it. A superficially selected setting will ring false to readers, so don’t do it. If you write in the Romance genre, wildly romantic settings are appropriate. If you write Science Fiction, make sure you write as a scientist first so that your settings are believable even though your world is obviously imaginary. For several a fine bits of believable SciFi world read anything by Robert L Heinlein.
In general, we know that the tale grows taller with the telling, so reliability, or the lack of it, in point-of-view quickly becomes an essential tool. Many liars’ points-of-view have been skillfully used to tell a story, such as Tom Sawyer in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, with notable effectiveness (Tom’s many explanations to adults).
In determining whose point-of-view to use, determine first whose story you are telling. Is your narrator the best character to tell the story? Imagine Lolita written from any but Humbert’s perspective! Do you need your narrator to lie or tell the truth?
There are several choices of types of point-of-view: first person, I and me; second person, you; more commonly third person, he, she, Jeanne, Richard; third person omniscient which includes seeing all characters’ minds; and lastly third person limited which tells the whole story through one character.
Choose the point-of-view that will best present the story you want to tell in the way you want to tell it. Don’t be afraid to try writing your story from a few different viewpoints until you find the right one. Just don’t be afraid of trying anything in your writing because no matter how long you have been writing or how much you have written, it is intended to be a lifelong journey on which you constantly discover new things about yourself as a writer and about this big old world you write about (or from, in the case of the SciFi’s).
Style is slippery to take hold of because it is made up of thin, smokey ephemeral things which are clearly extant but also difficult to grasp. It is a signature inside your writing and drawn from your vocabulary, syntax, rhythm, voice, and mood. It may be imitated but is mostly a natural byproduct of you. It defies most efforts to manipulate it. It is also as individual as DNA. Read anything by Kurt Vonnegut, and then follow that with some Ernest Hemingway and you will readily see that each writer is brilliant and crazy-gifted and just as different from the other as possible.
Changing your style, if you wish to, can be achieved with contrivances such as elevated diction and specific themes. It is even possible to mimic authors with more pronounced styles, but no one has suggested it makes you a better writer. Some freelancers claim they can control their styles, changing from one style to another as their assignments demand, but again, it is contrivance for a certain purpose, not an actual modification of personal style. Be yourself. It’s easier and makes for better writing.
Theme in fiction is not limited to any specific set of ideas. Your theme(s) refers to the ‘moral of the story” or the bigger ideas in your story such as murder, betrayal, honesty, and compassion. Theme is like setting in that if you deliberately use a certain theme with the intent of making a given point rather than because it naturally fits into your story, that piece of writing will probably fail.
Show Me, Don’t Tell Me
The problem with premeditated pedantic use of theme is that you invariably sound preachy. Art doesn’t preach because art teaches from the inside out, changing people in meaningful ways via the internal experience of learning, not shouting at them until they agree because they are tired of listening.
Readers like to decide for themselves what your story means or says about the larger world. Readers don’t like to be preached at nor obviously told how to interpret events in your writing. Don’t do it. Show without telling. Lead, if you must consciously lead at all, by example. Tell your story with as little of your own prejudices and interference as you can manage. Trash story lines that include heavy-handed themes. You will know when you are heavy-handed by the exaggerated need to keep on explaining why.
Ironically enough, no matter what theme you believe you have written, your readers will decide for themselves what you meant anyway. And that is the miracle and majesty of art.
No deus ex machina
The first literary device was called deus ex machina and was used in ancient Greek drama. It was, literally, a god character who was lowered down with ropes onto the stage when the hero needed rescuing or immediate godly intervention was needed to resolve the plot of the story. Even the Greeks who invented it knew it was cheesy. We use the phrase, deus ex machina, now to include all manner of cheesy, contrived plot resolutions.
Other types of literary devices include but are not limited to allusion, diction, epigraph euphemism, foreshadowing, imagery, metaphor/simile, and personification. You may not plan to use any of these, but do recall that everything written, ever, contains these devices, and they are exceedingly useful to writers. As with all tools, use the appropriate one at the appropriate time but do not use a device in place of good writing or else you too will be cheesy.
How well were you paying attention
We know our readers are always paying attention, but some of you like to be tested, so here is a quiz over this article. The anwers are not hidden just below the questions, so on your honor, no cheating.
1. It’s a great idea to use deus ex machina to solve plot dilemmas.
2. Imagery is only used in animated stories.
3. It’s a surefire good idea to use a strong preachy theme in your stories.
4. Ancient Greek playwrights invented diction.
5. Foreshadowing is a very good brand of eye shadow.
6. Fire is one of the 7 elements of fiction.
7. You must use each of the 7 elements of fiction at least one time per story.
8. Your author had far too much fun making up this quiz.
Answers: F, F, F, F, F, F, F, T