Creative Writing for Beginners: Exercises to Get You Started
Creative writing makes you step out of reality and into a new realm inspired by your own imagination. As opposed to technical, academic, and news writing, which are primarily factual and dry, creative writing is characterized by expressiveness, originality, and unconventional thinking. However, this doesn’t mean that all creative writing is purely imaginative, as that would unjustly rule out creative non-fiction, which is an essential and wide-ranging kind of writing that puts a compelling spin on actual incidents and real-life characters. So before we go on to talk about nifty creative writing tips, let’s understand the different genres that fall under the boundless ocean that is this literary form and get you familiarised with the basics of it!
When we talk about creative writing, fiction and poetry often take the spotlight, but there are many other types of creative writing that we can explore. These fall under the broad categories of prose, poetry and drama, and can include:
- Novels, novellas, novelettes (depending on the length of the book)
- Short fiction (short stories, flash fiction, microfiction)
- Comics and graphic novels (combining illustration with text)
- Expository non-fiction (like self-help and how-to books)
- Sonnets, haikus, free verse (forms of poetry)
- Screenwriting (movie and television scripts) and plays
As you can see, some non-fiction types of writing can also be considered creative writing. Memoirs and personal essays that focus on pivotal experiences in the author’s life can be dramatized for fictional effect. It’s no surprise that the Dickensian classic David Copperfield has been called a “fictional memoir!”
There’s no limit to the kind of writing you can approach creatively, so there’s always a potential for new forms of creative writing. Almost anything that you write that isn’t directly reporting or stating cold hard facts is creative writing. And the way to do justice to the fictionalized and factual versions of this art form is by weaving together fundamental elements like characters, plots, setting, theme, dialogue, and emotion, to produce a beautifully told tale. With that, let’s discover some techniques that can help you get started with your own!
- Choosing the right POV: In creative writing, the point of view is the mode of narration through which a story is told. There are primarily three points-of-view that authors follow:
- First-person POV uses the pronouns “I” and “we” and narrates a story from the protagonist’s perspective. It is often told by the protagonist, like in Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë.
- Second-person POV uses the pronoun “you” to address the reader. An example of this POV type is If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino.
- Third-person POV references the characters by name or uses the pronouns “he”, “she”, “it”, or “they”. These stories can either be narrated in third-person omniscient (aware of every character’s thoughts and feelings) or third-person limited (focused on a single character’s perspective, or aware only of what certain characters say and do). Some great examples of books that use this narration style are Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen and the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling.
Different POVs have different strengths and can be employed to engage readers in several ways. For instance, a first-person POV gives readers the advantage of being in the character’s head, the second-person POV brings the reader into the story, and the third-person POV can take on the voice of an all-knowing being like God, death, or time. The key is to identify what works best for your book and stick with it.
2. Pacing the story right: The pace at which the story unfolds can be almost as important as the story itself when it comes to keeping your readers hooked. Well-considered, controlled pacing is essential, and without it, a story will feel uneven and its underlying events disjointed. One way to bring this into effect is by varying sentence structure. In a fight scene, for example, you want to keep things fast-paced and exciting. So avoid spending 1000 words on describing a 30-second scene! At the same time, if you’re writing a poignant non-fictional account, it’s necessary to have slower moments to internally reflect on relationship details, a character’s thoughts, and memories, etc.
3. Visualizing much more about your character than you’ll use in the story: Authors often suggest that character development works best when they’re made relatable and modelled on real-life persons. To do this, you might need to know a lot more about the character than you will ever use in the story. So the next time you’re around people with unique traits, quirks or eccentricities, jot down a few observations about their behaviour. Create a comprehensive list of character details to help you get started, and use personality or name generator tools if you’d like.
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However, show the reader only four critical aspects of your characters: appearance, action, speech, and thought. Remember, your book must always leave something to the imagination and not spell out every little detail to your readers! A great example of letting your reader make their assumptions is displayed in the book Anxious People by Fredrik Backman. The entire novel revolves around a bank robber, their actions, and thoughts without revealing the gender, which makes for quite a suspenseful ending!
4. Writing natural and meaningful dialogue: The best kind of dialogue isn’t just believable. It moves the story along by bringing to life characters, their circumstances, and surroundings, rather than filling up pages with wordy descriptions. It also involves distinct language, vivid character dynamics, and interpersonal drama. A few tips to remember to keep your dialogue crisp and compelling:
- Use simple dialogue tags as far as possible, and avoid exaggerated ones like “she proclaimed” or “he bellowed” unless absolutely necessary.
- Illustrate what’s happening in the scene, avoiding excessive usage of dialogue tags like “he said,” “she said.”
- Give a unique speech style to every character and make sure they don’t all end up sounding the same. Be authentic and consistent in how your characters speak.
- This one’s of particular importance when it comes to non-fiction works like memoirs and autobiographies. Allow emotions to shape and tone any internal dialogues that you might want to reflect upon. Making their emotion palpable is the difference between reporters not displaying any indignation about specific issues and an author of expository non-fiction doing just that!
5. Using literary devices: Writers use various literary devices like metaphors, analogies, and hyperboles across different genres to enhance scenes and dialogues and produce specific effects. Understanding how to correctly wield them can significantly improve your writing. Some may be characteristic of particular genres. For example, you’ll often see flashbacks and foreshadowing in psychological thrillers, alliterations, and anastrophes in poems, while metaphors and allusions can be found in just about any text.
Did these tips get your creative juices flowing? Then perhaps you’re ready to sit down and start writing, all excuses barred! While we’re on the subject of actually getting to the writing part, the following are some techniques or simple practices you could follow to hone your creative writing skills and evolve into a better writer.
- Freewriting: This is a great way to keep writing and jotting down your thoughts and perhaps ideas without any predefined structure or process. Never ignore the random ideas that pop into your head. Even dismal ones can inspire good stories if you noodle on them enough, and you never know what will trigger inspiration for a better idea later on. Make a note or record these ideas somewhere for future use. If you’re using the Pencil editor to write, you could use the helpful Notes feature to keep track of all ideas that you might want to revisit in the future.
- Read more to write better: Drawing references or even the inspiration to build on an original idea can be pretty challenging if you aren’t familiar with other superbly penned books. Read famous works by great writers in plenty of genres to get a feel for where your interests may lie.
- Journaling: Recommended by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Joyce Caroline Oates, journaling is a great way to capture some rare sightings from the world around you. It’s also helpful to capture rather ordinary things like the way people speak or the food you see around you, to help you write better scenes and dialogues.
- Prompts and exercises: For first time writers, it can be almost effortless to get stuck in a phase where you’re drawing blanks and feel like maybe you don’t have a story to tell. That’s where creative writing prompts and exercises can be rather helpful. For example, if you’re writing fiction, you could try this simple formula by Margaret Atwood, the bestselling author of the dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale. Start with an example sentence, preferably a short one, and then build on it until you have yourself a story! Consider this: John and Mary are living happily in their split-level bungalow. Now try creating an account out of that for multiple genres. Another simple trick to follow if you’re writing a memoir is to flip through photos or objects from your past. Try writing about the emotions or memories that come up when you look at them. You can find writing prompts online, choose a line at random from a magazine or a newspaper headline. Here are a few more interesting prompts and resources to get your creative juices flowing and improve different aspects of your story like setting, character development, titles, etc.
- Setting: Describe your surroundings, even if it means detailing a boring piece of furniture and making it sound like the most exciting thing you’ve seen.
- Character development: Practice writing from someone else’s perspective. To quote Pulitzer Prize winning author Toni Morrison:
“Think of somebody you don’t know. What about a Mexican waitress in the Rio Grande who can barely speak English? … Imagine it, create it.”
This could be especially useful when it comes to writing memoirs or describing other central characters in autobiographical works.
- Find out who you are as a writer: Above all, understand your strengths as a writer and identify what you’re good at by experimenting with shorter forms of literature first. On Pencil, for instance, you can write and publish shorts to understand what’s working for you and how you can improve upon it. You can also find prompts for different genres to get you out of the rut of a creative block and get your writing going!
As a parting note, here’s something for you to chew on. There’s no doubt that the best authors in history have been the ones who created whole new worlds that readers have fantasized about for time immemorial. But remember, they too started small with an exciting idea, a story in their head and unforgettable characters that they slowly and persistently brought to life and wove into the gripping novels that we now seek inspiration from!