Whether you are an emerging writer or a seasoned professional, seeking for that next big creative idea for your writing can be like a knight embarking on an uncertain quest for adventure. The brave knight receives his commission to embark on a quest, either to save a princess in distress, to save his kingdom from destruction, or just for the sake of the romantic idea of a quest. Our quest for creativity is not fraught with untold dangers along the way like the knight's quest, but it is still a journey that can fill us with anxiety and make us doubt our abilities as a writer. But do not despair, here are six tips which can help you successfully unleash your creativity.
1. Brainstorm story ideas.
John Marsden the author of Tomorrow When the War Began provides helpful ideas for brainstorming great ideas for writing. Human stories are all around us, just waiting for a writer to pounce on them, and craft them into a literary masterpiece. You can source great ideas from newspaper articles, the nightly news and from listening to other people's tales (1993, pp. 55-58). Another great source for inspiration is your dreams.
2. Prepare and Plan.
Before a knight embarks on his quest he needs to be physically, mentally and emotionally prepared for the great journey ahead. So before a writer embarks on their creative journey into the narrative world, a little preparation can go a long way and bring unexpected rewards.
There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to harnessing your creative power, and each writer, emerging and professional, will have their unique way of unlocking their creative zone. But I believe as Alan Lakein said that “Failing to plan is planning to fail”. The best stories unfold when you are mentally prepared to embark on your creative quest, and part of that mental preparedness is to have a story plan.
When I was first started out as a writer, I would just grab a pen and write whatever came into my head. In the beginning, I would be energised and enthused and my story will happily flow along for about a chapter or so, but then suddenly everything would go wrong. It was like my creative inspiration had just rapidly evaporated. So during my university degree, I learned a valuable tip - having a story plan really helps.
3. The Story Plan.
This is how the story plan works.
- Once you have your main premise/idea for your story, write out the setting and organise your characters.
- If it is a novel, draft a rough outline of the chapters.
- If it is a short story, write a brief summary.
Now in saying this, I am not ruling out that bizarre occurrence where the characters seem to develop a mind of their own and their characterisation changes, or they seem to want to dictate the plot. But by having a story plan you will have a map which will guide you out of the narrative maze and get you back on track.
4. Join a writers' group.
Many epic medieval romances provide the hero, either a knight or a prince, with helpers. The hero is also given a magical object or supernatural power that helps him complete his quest. Beowulf had his young relative, Wiglaf, and Beowulf was endowed with supernatural strength, which helped to defeat Grendel the dragon. King Arthur had the Knights of the Round Table and more importantly, he had his magical sword, Excalibur. Although these folk heroes were brave and extraordinary people, they would not have succeeded in their quests without helpers or a mentor.
Writers can struggle and flounder when they live in a creative void. Even famous writers need someone to bounce their creative ideas off. Most novels have an attribution to someone or sometimes many people who have helped the author along with their storytelling journey. So why not join a writer's group. In the midst of like-mind people you can share ideas and maybe even find a suitable mentor.
5. Brainstorm genres.
Sometimes we writers tend to play it safe and stick to a familiar genre, but why not try mixing genres? Be brave and experiment. Mixing genres is a great way to revitalise your writing and create an intriguing story.
- Your creative writing exercise is as follows:
- Pick two genres. e.g. contemporary romance and Gothic fiction.
- Read an article or a book about the rules or conventions of each genre.
- Try mixing the genres together.
- Evaluate your story. Has this brainstorming tip helped to revitalise your writing?
The best advice for any writer whilst on their creative quest is to never give up. Once you embark on your creative quest, you must stay on track until your quest is completed.
Keep your goal in mind as you go.
Avoid any distractions that may deter you from fulfilling your quest.
If you experience challenges from the creative writer's nemesis, 'writer's block', or your creative muse abandons you, then take a break and then continue on your quest. Even the bravest of knights has to take a break from rescuing the princess or fighting the dragon.
The creative mind works best when it's relaxed. So walk away from the notepad or computer and refresh those creative neurons. Then you can return to your storytelling journey and successfully complete your creative quest.
One of the literary formats that is very close to my heart is the short story. This fondness had grown out of my continual battle to complete a story. I had no trouble starting, but once I had written about a hundred words or so, I would lose the plot – literally! But after writing a few short stories, I think I may have finally vanquished my nemesis.
If you have been inspired by some of the stories in this magazine and would like to learn some storytelling techniques, here are some tips that may help you.
Firstly, I would like to give you some background on the basic format and history of the short story. The short story is an artistic product, which is known for its particular format: length of words, structure, viewpoint, tone of voice, etc. It provides a small literary window onto an observed dramatic event or a personal experience.
Overall, form and content are extremely important to this style of creative narrative writing because a short story is determined by a specific word count. Most of the stories in Unearthed are usually around 1000 words, but they can be even shorter, like our recent 100-word micro fiction challenge in the June edition.
Although it can be challenging for an author to create an intriguing storyline and a dynamic characterisation within the boundaries of a strict word count, a short story provides an excellent opportunity for a writer to practice brevity and to develop good writing skills.
The short story has a long history, starting off in oral tradition long before writing and the arrival of the printing press. Some well-known forms are Homer’s Iliad, folk tales, fairy tales, etc. Many of these short story forms were used to mask socio-political issues or had didactic or teaching purposes– such as Aesop’s Fables, or in a biblical context – the parables of Jesus Christ.
In our fast-paced 21st century world, the short story format is a perfect fit as it does not require so much reading time like a novel. A short narrative may not provide as much content as the novel, but a short story can exist for the sole purpose of just posing an idea or a question to the reader.
When it comes to writing a short story there are three important elements to remember:
1. The beginning of the story.
2. Choosing the right amount of characters.
3. The ending of the story.
As you start to plan your story ask yourself these three questions.
No. 1. How will I begin my story?
A story’s opening paragraph should be designed to capture a reader’s imagination and inspire them to read more. The opening paragraph acts as a pivotal gateway through which your reader must enter so that they can journey successfully through your story. There are many ways of beginning a story: setting, character description, action, or posing a question.
Your setting could be a location: a windswept beach, a dark Dystopian city, a magical underwater world, or a simple Hobbit’s hole as described by J. R. R. Tolkien on the opening page of The Hobbit– “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or eat: It was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”
The opening lines can introduce your main protagonist, for example –“Ella leaned back against the cold damp stone wall. Her porcelain skin was pale and drawn, with deep lines etched around her eyes and mouth, and her once glorious golden hair hung in matted tendrils around her face.”
Starting your story with strong action is a great choice as it thrusts the reader into the thick of the story. “The baying of the hunting dogs drew closer as she dashed through the thickly wooded forest. Like a mad woman, she fought her way through the close-knit trees, until she was suddenly redeemed by a burst of bright sunlight as she stumbled out of the forest into a small clearing.”
“Where’s Papa going with that axe?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.”Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White. Beginning your story with a question sets up intrigue in the reader’s mind. You have provided them with a question that needs to be answered and they must commit to the whole story to discover the answer.
No. 2. How many characters will I choose?
A story needs action and emotion to connect with the reader. Your characters provide the action and the emotion in your story. They are the eyes, ears, and heart of the story-world. A short story works best with minimal characters – about two or three is good depending on your word count.
No. 3. How will I end my story?
The ending like the beginning is pivotal to writing a short story. You can choose to end your story with a satisfying conclusion – with all the loose ends tied up or you can decide to defy traditional storytelling techniques and leave the reader wanting more by choosing an unresolved conclusion.
Now that you have some tips on writing a short story, why not try these two creative writing exercises.
Write a Story Based on a Dream.
Dreams can provide a writer with a wealth of storytelling ideas. So leave a notepad next to your bed and in the morning jot down some details from a dream that you think would make an interesting story.
Write a Narrative Based on a Media Story or Your Own Real Life Event.
A lot of what we see or read about in the media world is derived from true events and our everyday lives can sometimes prove to be more riveting, inspiring or shocking than anything that is created in Hollywood.
The next time you are watching the nightly news or reading a newspaper or magazine, write down the details from an unsolved crime and create your own ending, or take a television personality (change their name of course) and weave a story around them.
Draw upon an event from your own life and craft it into a compelling story.
I have provided just a few tips for writing a short story, but there is plenty of information out there on the Internet or in the library if you want to dig a little deeper. You are the creator of your infant literary world – so have fun with writing your own short story.
Writing a story can be a great experience, seeing your own little micro world come to life, but sometimes it can be a struggle to come up with an idea for a story. Even experienced writers need to think outside the 'creative' box in order to find unique story ideas. That blank sheet of paper or that glaringly white computer screen can be so intimidating. Even when we finally have a firm grasp on that elusive idea, we can struggle to develop it beyond the chrysalis stage.
If you are struggling to find some creative inspiration, then do not despair, we have four writing exercises that will help you to kick-start your imagination.
Not all writers start off writing a best-selling novel, so starting small is a great way to begin your storytelling journey. A short story is a little gem that can provide a wealth of unlimited possibilities and rewards.
You can begin by flexing your creative muscles with the Ernest Hemingway challenge, write a story in six words, or write a story in 100 words. I like this style of writing because it stimulates the right side of the brain that is responsible for creativity and holistic functions. A short story can also:
help you streamline your writing skills by practising the use of specific word choice and brevity.
generate a whirlwind of creative ideas.
be developed into a longer narrative and maybe even become your first best-selling novel!
Story ideas can be found in the most surprising places. Commonplace items around our home can be a great source for an intriguing story. Boris Glikman used the mobile phone for the subject of his story, 'The mePhone', which can be viewed in the Solstice issue. Why not start creating your own.
Exercise 1. Write a short narrative about a household item.
Choose five everyday items from around your home.
Write a short narrative about each item, giving them human-like qualities, feelings etc.
Here is an example of an everyday item, a mobile phone.
Her bright exuberant face tantalises me with the happy expectations of friends and unlimited social invites, none of which I am invited to. As a solitary observer of the many delights and distresses of her daily existence, I am her constant companion, but I am no more than an expert supplier for her excessive demands for sometimes useless and unnecessary information.
My revenge upon this fanatical digitally obsessed ogre who relentlessly taps away at my delicate silver skin is my shrill shrieks and incessant clanging when she would rather be snoozing. I am an electronic prosthesis that is also an extension of her inner life. As she sleeps, I dream of an imminent future where I will have the power to invade her innermost being and control her body, soul, and spirit.
This short whimsical piece can be turned into a longer science fiction story, where the owner of the mobile phone battles her digital device, which is threatening to control her life in terrifying ways.
Exercise 2. Re-write a folk or fairy tale.
With so many folk and fairy tales out there, you are sure to find one that needs a re-write or a refresh.
Choose a fairy tale character like the passive princess and transform her into a butt-kicking no-nonsense princess.
Choose a folk or fairy tale and place it within a modern day setting with 21st-century socio-political themes. For an example of a modern fairy tale, have a look at one of our featured stories, The Tale of Ruthie and Grace.
Exercise 3. Interview a parent or grandparent.
Parents and grandparents harbour so many interesting life stories that are just waiting to be crafted into a story that can impact the world. The saying 'truth is stranger than fiction' can make for a compelling tale even more so that a purely fictional tale. This storytelling idea can also benefit a lonely elderly person in a nursing home or retirement village. Once you have interviewed your willing participant, and have written the story, you can print it out, and give to your real-life hero or heroine as a gift.
Exercise 4. Create a character profile.
Characters are the heart and soul of your story. Whether it is the hero or villain, characters determine how we experience the story-world, and they have the potential to leave the greatest impression on our mind and heart after we have read a book or watched a film.
Start your story by creating a character profile.
Build your story-world around that character by answering these five questions:
What is their social status, rich or poor, working class?
Who are their friends?
Do they have an enemy, a nemesis?
Do they have any internal conflicts: maybe they harbour a dark secret, or suffer from depression?
What is their goal in life?
Remember, the first step of any journey is always the most challenging, but once you start down the storytelling road, you may discover all sorts of wondrous ideas.
Creating Compelling Characters
Creating story characters is an exciting part of writing. As the creator of your own micro world, there are new heroes and villains just waiting to be born. But in order to capture your reader's attention and make them want to read your story up until the very last page, you need to create compelling characters they will care about.
How to create a compelling character.
Creating a story character can be compared to an artist creating a masterpiece. He starts off with an idea, then he begins to sketch a rough outline of a landscape or a portrait, and then he applies the paint layer by layer. The final stages of the layering process is when the artwork really comes to life. It is the same with character creation.
This is how the layering process works.
Layer 1. Create a character profile.
As you start to create your character profile, write down these five questions:
What does my character's world look like (do they live in a fantasy world, a modern-day setting)?
What do they look like?
What is their social status: rich or poor or working class?
Who are their friends?
.Do they have an enemy, a nemesis?
Here is a quote to further inspire you, from Robert McKee, the author of Story, Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting.
“Who are these characters? What do they want? Why do they want it? How do they go about getting it? What stops them? What are the consequences? Finding the answers to these grand questions and shaping them into a story is our overwhelming creative task.”
Robert has outlined some key questions that can help you to take your character creation process to a deeper level.
Layer 2. Give your character human qualities.
Once you have completed your character profile for each of your characters, you can now start to apply the second layer. The best characters are those who are complex and well-rounded, which means they have distinctive traits (strange mannerisms, a particular way of speaking).
Give your characters human qualities like sensitivity, empathy, strong values, bravery, etc. Once more ask yourself questions: do they laugh, cry, or do they struggle with expressing emotion? Just like you seek to identify with a character in your favourite book or film on some level, your reader will be looking for the same thing.
Layer 3. Give your character an inner conflict or tragedy.
Any struggle, tragedy or trauma we face can ultimately make us into stronger, more indomitable and multi-faceted human beings. No one likes experiencing pain or suffering, but difficult life events and people can transform us. Our fears can haunt us and immobile us, but when we take hold of those fears and face them, we can turn them into triumph. It is the same for our story characters.
As creative writers, we want our characters to reach out from the pages and impact our readers. To achieve this, the character should be designed in such a way that the reader can experience the character’s struggle and their personal fears. They should be able to empathise with the character's inner conflict that could be caused by a tragic past.
Maybe the character has lost a loved one, or they have committed a crime they are desperate to hide. The conflict they harbour or the tragedy they are experiencing can be the very thing that can lead to their personal metamorphosis or transformation.
Your storytelling end-game is to kindle a desire in your reader to see what lies ahead for that character in the story.
Layer 4. Character conflict.
Character conflict is one of the most important elements of a story; the power struggle between two opposing forces. There could be a power struggle between the hero and the villain. A character may struggle against a Dystopian society or they could fight against God/Fate, or even the forces of nature.
Most stories will feature the villain or the antagonist as the hero’s main source of conflict. As the hero starts out on his journey to pursue his goal, the villain will oppose the hero in some way and provide seemingly insurmountable obstacles during the hero’s journey. Opposition and conflict are important for the hero because they force him to make choices, to turn back or to push forward towards personal victory. The greater the opposition, the greater the hero will rise to the challenge.
The level of conflict between your story characters will ultimately determine how much your reader will be captivated by your story.
Now that I have outlined the layering process, why not try this creative exercise idea.
Step 1. Pick your main characters: a hero and a villain.
Step 2. Create a character profile: name, age, appearance, occupation, etc.
Step 3. What are their human qualities: distinctive traits (strange mannerisms, a particular way of speaking). Are they brave, foolish, do they have strong values, are they indecisive?
Step 4. List your character's fears, doubts, and insecurities. Do they have a tragic past?
Step 5. How will they overcome these fears?
Step 6. Who is going to provide the conflict?
Step 7. How will your characters respond to that conflict and what actions will they take?
Finally, although the process of creating story characters can involve a lot of brainstorming and planning, remember to let your characters lead you. The fictional world is their domain. Let them take you on their journey, you never know where it may lead.