The Special K Guide to Creative Writing
Please note, this is very much a Work in Progress. The intention is to fill out each sub heading with tips and examples, and to trim some of the duplication. I felt it was important to put it out, incomplete as it is, in order to be useful.
There are tips that are particularly useful for HSC Students, but are also good as general tips.
Start with a hook.
Your opening sequence needs to get the reader interested, so start with something interesting. (Sometimes, you can start in the middle of the story as your hook, and then go on to explain it.)
Show, don’t tell.
Don’t say “The teacher was angry”, it’s more powerful to say “The teacher walked over and slammed the door, he stared at us, like his eyes were boiling up inside their sockets…”
It was original once, but not anymore. Now it just sounds trite and lazy. (We’ve heard it all before…) Try and use novel similes and metaphors, but not foolish ones.
Unless your story is about a school student, you probably need to do some research. (And be careful, a story about a school student runs the risk of being boring and clichéd.) Think we won’t realise that you don’t know anything about what you are writing?
Know more than in the story
To construct a good story, you need to have background details about the characters and events. You, as the author, need to understand these, and whilst much of this will never make it into the story, it creates a more well adjusted and realistic character.
Now in 3D!
Two dimensional characters are boring and feel fake, (see above) so know more. It can be helpful to have a character profile – really, you should know the character so well that you know how they would react in any situation. This makes them easily adaptable.
A fancy way of saying that it seems realistic. It may well violate all known laws of physics, but if it seems ‘real’, it is okay. Interestingly, sometimes real stories don’t sound realistic, and it’s better not to use them. Within this, we also have the concept of ‘conceits’ something within the story that we will accept without explanation due to our ‘willing suspension of disbelief’. (See the Portrait in ‘Dorian Gray’) Don’t push it though, we’ll accept on faith that in your story that vampires exist, but if you make them do something stupid (like sparkle), no one in their right mind will accept it.
Know your conventions.
Play with them, mess with them, invert. Just know them. (We do.)
Think outside the box
We don’t want to read 120 stories that are basically the same… BUT, not too far out of the box, it’s likely to come off as babbling incoherency. Originality, not psychosis.
Know your audience.
Or, to put it bluntly, your markers. (This ties in with thinking outside the box) So, choose your subject area wisely and choose your language appropriately. Will your audience really understand when the 1337 guy pwns some noobs and then spawn kills them?
Maintain internal consistency
Tense, voice, numbers, conceits, infractions, characters… make sure that they all agree internally. (Don’t switch from ‘I’ to ‘They’ or from past tense to presents tense unless it is being used specifically as a technique.)
Don’t Leave Us Hanging
A short story is no place for a ‘to be continued’. All key plot elements need to be resolved at the end. If your scope is too big to be contained in a short story, it shouldn’t be in a short story.
Avoid Mary Sue.
That super character who is amazing, and yet misunderstood and is clearly an embodiment of the author and the angst that he/she feels because ‘people just don’t get them.’
In Soviet Russia, Story Tells You.
It’s better to stay true to the character rather than try and shoehorn them into a plot. If the character you have wouldn’t react the way you want them to, you either need to change characters or change the plot. Things that are ‘out of character’ disrupt our suspension of disbelief (and the verisimilitude of the story). Let the events be real and modify accordingly.
To Thine Own Self, Be True
Obviously, no plagiarism, but more importantly, it is your story, so you don’t have to take on other people’s advice. That said, it is worth listening to, because maybe you aren’t actually saying what you think you are saying (or sufficiently conveying meaning).
All those techniques that we’ve studied in other people’s work? Use them (or at least the appropriate ones). The aim is to have the narrative work on multiple levels (superficial, a straight read, deep, an engaged read, and wider context references). The key is to reward the good reader, but never punish a bad one. (Basically, if someone doesn’t get the reference, they should still be able to understand the story.)
Sometimes, things don’t work. Chuck it out, start again. Sometimes, things could be better. Don’t be afraid to try doing it a different way. Okay, don’t actually chuck anything out, it might actually come in handy later. Don’t be too proud (or vain) to not start again.
Yes, use your spell check, use your grammar check, but always, ALWAYS, proof read it. Read it out aloud to make sure it sounds right, AND get someone else to read over it. There is no good reason for typos or spelling mistakes
Read it again
You think it’s perfect, but it isn’t. Trust me.
It Was Not an <Expletive Deleted> Dream!
Seriously, that’s like the comic sans of technique… maybe it’s okay if you’re an eight year old girl, but you aren’t, so don’t.
Some Rules Are Meant To Be Broken
Except if it Science Fiction or the central conceit, violating the laws of physics just means you lose verisimilitude. It’s also about your word choice – you can have juxtaposition, parting really is such sweet sorrow, but it doesn’t work as well if you are trying to collide past something…
Too Many Cooks.
Not too many characters, it’s a short story. If you put too many characters in, the story becomes unwieldy and it doesn’t allow any of the character’s to show any sort of depth or development.
Shut up! (AKA STFU)
Or at least, keep the dialogue to a minimum. This stems from your word/time constraint. The first question to ask is, does this add anything to the story? If it doesn’t, kill it. The second question is, can I say this in a more effective, succinct manner? If yes, kill it, kill it with fire.
Kill It With Fire!
Okay, maybe not so extreme, but be willing to put things aside, discard them, try again. It may be a brilliant sentence, but if it no longer fits into the narrative, sacrifice it to the Elder Gods. (Or if its really good, save it in a different file for use later.)
Make it appeal to the senses. The trap is to appeal to only sight, or sound, but don’t forget smell, touch, taste. Be specific, details, vividness…
The Tyranno-Thesaurus Rex
Don’t just look up a word in a thesaurus, make sure that you know it and that its appropriate. The worse thing is when you choose a word in place of something that we know is more accurate and appropriate. (‘After lack of use, my muscles mitigated’, uh, atrophied is the word you’re looking for.)
You Keep Using That Word, I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means.
You may love a word, maybe you read it somewhere, thought it sounded awesome, but firstly, you should avoid that much repetition, but if you are using a word incorrectly, it just compounds a negative impression. Also, it makes you look stupid.
Rolling In Glitter
I can’t all be effect, it diminishes the story. You need to look at contrast. If everything has a seven or eight word description, the reader has no idea what is important. (It’s also called ‘Purple Prose’.)
Reward The Good Reader
But Don’t Punish The Bad
Story first, it must work as a narrative
You’ll find it helpful if you choose a topic that resonates with you – that you have an interest in.
Use imagery that is fresh, clean and elegant.
Play the Meta Game
Rule of Three
If its important, mention it three times. It doesn’t need to be as blatant as a giant neon sign, but it strengthens your story.
From The General To The Precise
You should move from the ‘Big Picture’ and then ‘zoom’ in.
Begging the Question
If you leave a major question unanswered, the reader will be annoyed –
If You’re Bored Then You’re Boring
Show Me The Money… Well, The Gun At Least
Your ending can’t come out of nowhere, you must avoid Deus Ex Machina.
Romeo And Juliet Die At The End
Generally, you don’t want your characters to be dead at the end, especially if they are the ones telling the story. (Talking Corpse narratives are difficult to get right, for obvious reasons.)