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The Word: Advice on Creative Writing By Frank Martin

Writers seldom write the things they think. They simply write the things they think other folks think they think. So this is my two cents; one man’s opinion – I think.

I follow a fair number of writers and creators on social media and noticed some of them discuss their creative process a lot more than I do. I’m fairly reluctant to talk about the fundamentals of storytelling and the various projects I have in development (mainly because I have no idea what the hell I’m doing, anyway), but I feel it’s healthy to step out of my comfort zone every once in a while. So here we go.

One of the first things they teach you about creative writing is that there are five basic elements of a story: characterization, setting, plot, theme, and tone (these can vary depending on how big of an alcoholic your instructor is). A story cannot exist without any of them. You can try to remove setting by placing the characters in a void…but then the setting becomes the void. You can try to remove plot by just having everyone standing around doing nothing…then the plot becomes them standing around doing nothing. You can try to remove characterization…well, you get the idea.

To construct a story you have to make a decision about what one of those elements will be and then build up from there. I like to think of a story as a tower and all of these elements are your building blocks to create it. The bottom block is the most important as it will answer the question “why.” Why is this story important to tell? Why do you want to tell it?

Personally, I believe the most important aspect of a story is theme. It is the central tenant to which every other element can rally around. It gives my story a purpose. A punch. That said, it doesn’t have to be. There are plenty of stories that don’t start with a theme at all. Comedies, for example, are more interested in tone, as they want to set up a good laugh. Romance novels might be more focused on characterization, as they want to see their protagonist fall in love or triumph over a heartbreak. Sometimes setting is the most important factor, such as in a period piece or a story built around a particular event.

Now even though this first block might be the most important, it is also probably the easiest to develop. Because it’s your “why”, the work is already done for you. It’s your driving force behind wanting to develop a project. The trick to a good story are the blocks that come after. The ones you have to creatively mold in order to flesh out your tale. And it’s not just what you’re choosing to put in those blocks that matter. It’s also the order in which you stack them in. Since each block is built upon the last, if you realize too late that one of those blocks was a bad choice, then the others that came after it will also be affected. This process is supposed to be fun. Writing is a crazy endeavor. People isolate themselves for vast periods of time while staring at a screen, banging on a keyboard, and wrestling with their own thoughts. But we do it because it’s enjoyable! The minute this painful process starts to become…you know…actually painful…then stop, change out a couple blocks, and see what fits better. Maybe the setting should be in space instead of the Wild West. Maybe it should be a horror instead of an adventure. Maybe the main character should be a boy instead of a girl. Or you could just do what I do whenever a story doesn’t seem to be working: add zombies.

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