In a series of articles starting today, our Chief Editor Ella analyses the main principles of creative writing
So, you are a writer…That means that you, just like me, are part of that broad, eccentric category of people called ‘artists’. Welcome!
Let’s make two things clear from the very beginning:
- You have a special talent that not many have, which is staring at the void and see and hear, but not in a serial killer way; and
- You have no idea how you are doing what you are doing, even less if you are doing it decently or, heavens help us, well.
Being a writer means sitting in front of a blank page and not seeing the blank page at all. For you, and me, and any other just like us, it’s like a cinema screen: when the lights go out, the film start to reel and the magic begins.
How we do that, we will never know. It just happens, like it happens that a kid is able to kick a ball or solve complex math problems without blinking an eye. But talent without discipline is nothing. Just because you are able to see a story on a blank page it doesn’t mean you will actually be able to put that story on the blank page, even less that you will do so in a way comprehensible to others.
If we have to break down the act of writing to its components, we can say that writing is a bunch of basic rules, a lot of polishing and a ton of reading. To be a good writer you have to be, first and foremost, an exceptional reader. There are no two ways around it. What you read doesn’t matter: there is plenty to learn from different reads, even instruction manuals and comics.
But before we discuss point of views, grammar or the importance of being consistent with verb tenses, let’s talk about the most important thing of all: the story.
What is a story? And why does it deserve to be told?
A story is an ordered sequence of events, put together in the best possible way according to a set of rules we all agree on. It has a beginning, a development and an end. However, given essays or newspaper articles are also an ordered sequence of events with a beginning, a devolvement and an end, why are they not a story?
The key is the concept of transformation: the events in a story ordered in a sequence that underlines the transformation of one into another: we begin with a stable situation, its equilibrium is disturbed and this disruption sets into motion a series of actions that, eventually, will lead to a new stable situation.
To make a story something more than just a sequence of events, you need the plot, which is nothing more than a crafted plan of the events you want to tell.
Christopher Booker (irony!) has actually written an amazing book about it called The Seven Basic Plots. It’s a terrific read and I suggest you get a copy too and keep it on your shelf, between Syd Field’s Screenplay and the Oxford English Dictionary. The basic principle is that no matter what the story is about, there are no more than seven types of plot and every story you tell can be traced back to one of them. It’s true, and it has been true since before the first Greek authors put pen on paper to transcribe what, up to then, had only been transmitted orally. This, though, doesn’t stop the publishing of new books, as it doesn’t stop readers from reading them.
And this leads us to answer the question: why do we write a story if there are already so many out there and we stand no chance of writing something completely unheard of?
Because even if the plots are only seven, there is nothing out there like what we are writing and this distinctiveness is given by ourselves, by the experiences we lived and by the unique way we see the world. There will always be space for a new story. So don’t be afraid of not being original, because plot-wise you won’t be. But the way you will tell others how your characters met and what they had to overcome in order to have their happily ever after doesn’t exist yet. Happy Writing!
The Seven Basic Plots: An Overview
# 1: OVERCOMING THE MONSTER
A “good” main character and an evil villain that is threatening to destroy the main character or the place where they live. The main character will do all they can to avoid it.
# 2: RAGS TO RICHES
The main character starts their life as a poor, desperate soul. Throughout the narration, they gain power, wealth or a mate, will end up losing it all but getting it back and growing as a person.
# 3: THE QUEST
The protagonist, usually accompanied by a mate or a team, is set out to acquire a specific object or go to a specific place. Along the way, though, they will be tempted and diverted.
# 4: VOYAGE AND RETURN
The main character usually find themselves a stranger in a strange land. After overcoming a series of threats and difficult situations, they will make it back, enriched with a new wisdom.
# 5: COMEDY
A light and cheerful character triumphs over adverse circumstances, conflict becomes more and more confusing, since they will get themselves into bigger problems while trying to solve the previous one, but the result is a happy ending.
# 6: TRAGEDY
The main character is a hero with a major flaw, which in the end will be their ruin and cause of great pity for their fall.
# 7: REBIRTH
An unexpected event forces the main character to go out their usual path, or change the way they live their life, until they understand the source of their mistake, change their behaviour after learning an important lesson, and carry on living as better people.