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5 Key Concepts to Improve Your Creative Writing

Adjunct Professor of English at Bryant & Stratton College. He has a M.A. in English from National University.

Here are five concepts that can help you improve your creative writing.

Here are five concepts that can help you improve your creative writing.

1. Defamiliarization

This concept was formulated by the early 20th century Russian literary critic and philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin. Defamiliarization is basically "making the unknown, known." It is focusing on sights that were previously overlooked. Authors defamiliarize their literary works by using different figures of speech, such as metaphors or techniques, like point-of-view in order to shed new insights or new perspectives on objects, people, or situations that would normally appear mundane.

James Agee's short story, A Mother's Tale, is a really great example of defamiliarization in literature. Agee shifts our perspective to that of a cow. As the reader, we vicariously identify ourselves with the cow and experience what the cow encounters, see what the cow sees, and understands as the cow understands. This device can be a powerful force in reality by shifting our views on political or philosophical controversies, in this case, conundrums in animal rights.

Defamiliarization is also apparent in the way Agee metaphorically sets up his plot to resemble the holocaust by having the cows board a train that takes them to the slaughterhouse; the train carts are packed and they can't move or see, the odor is unbearable and all the cows are gasping for a particle of fresh air. Then they are corralled off the train and lined up for inspections, some pass others fail. They are forced to walk into a world surrounded by heavy machinery and their sight and smell exposed to a genocide of their own kind.

It's very powerful stuff! It defamiliarizes or makes the 'unknown, known' by a simple shift of perspective and a strong metaphoric plot. We know everyday that the meat we buy at the store comes from mass slaughterhouses. We see the cows outside in gazing and gathered in their herds (if you live in Western New York like me you sure do). We know they will be butchered for food within the next year. We know that in many regions of the country these animals are horribly abused before finally being put out of their misery. But we really don't connect those dots until something like Agee's story forces us to shift our focus outside of our normal perspective to see and experience important matters with fresh eyes.

For inspiration, look to see which of these concepts your favorite author uses.

For inspiration, look to see which of these concepts your favorite author uses.

2. Diction

When we talk about Saxonate and Latinate words within the English language, we are talking about diction, which is a different ballpark from grammar. Word choice is very important and can shed light into the areas such as literacy and education. Typically, thick multisyllabic words that derive from Latin and Greek are found in scholarly essays (Du Bois for example) or "high art" poetry (some of Dunbar's poems "Ode to Ethiopia"). Latinate words were generally a characteristic of highly educated authors from the late-19th century and earlier; it is related to how the early ruling language in England during the 11th and 12th centuries was French: Old-English was a strictly spoken language of the lower-classes. For example, the Anglo-Saxon 'cow', 'sheep', and 'swine' wore spoken in the marketplace, but in the logomachy and other places of authority these words turned into the Latinate words 'beef', mutton', and 'pork', respectively.

The early influences of Latinate words on the English language and politics is astounding. If you read the American Preamble, you will notice that 90% or more of the words derive from Latin or Greek origins while pronouns, such as 'we' can be traced back to Anglo-Saxon roots. Thus it is a common characteristic of legal or political documents to have a rich volume of Latinate words. This is also a characteristic of a ton of English and American poetry. On the flip side, typically the suppressed authors in the English language used diction to express their unique place within the English language. Irish authors did this during the 17th and 18th centuries during periods of English militaristic aggression. So too did African Americans develop their unique place within the English language. Neither suppressed group created a language of their own— only an express of the language they were immersed.

3. Suspense

Cognitive science argues that humans are wired to dispel uncertainties by creating coherent and stable world views, and, when this coherence and unity are denied, the result is suspense. Suspense functions best when the narrative withholds or delays information from readers, whether through its narrative structures or linguistic surface. This technique launches readers into a textual world that is incomplete, disordered, and disorienting. In other words, readers experience an epistemological void in which their only hope for [cognitive/textual] unity can be filled via following the trail of yarn strung by the narrator/author. As the critic, mentions, though, this technique can be risky: an author trying to create too much uncertainty may lose its hold upon his or her readers completely as they lose focus, become frustrated/confused, and simply shut the book once and for all.

Now, two common paths toward creating suspense regard the creation of terror and horror. Both terror and horror operate on the major aspects of fight-or-flight responses, namely, adrenaline, fear, and anxiety; however, the terms are not interchangeable. In fact, they are quite different. Terror refers to the emotional event during the moments preceding a potentially frightening experience whereas horror refers to the emotional event during the moments after a frightening experience. Simply put: terror is the anticipation of something horrible, and horror is the realization or reflection of something terrible. For example, when we are in a public place, perhaps within a heavily crowded place, and we feel that common contemporary [irrational] fear that someone will suddenly open fire and randomly shoot strangers is a feeling of terror-- the anticipation of something horrible. On the flip side, if you recall where you were during the events on 9/11 and you remember watching the events conspire on the television and you remember how you felt: this was a moment of horror-- the realization of something terrible and terrifying.

With this in mind, I cannot necessarily agree that terror and horror are complete opposites of each other. From the perspective of plot structures, arguably moments of terror (anticipation) would create more suspense, more tension than moments of horror, of which the latter would likely be more effective during climaxes, or other moments of shocking distress. But, even though they cannot occur at the exact same time (terror and horror are separated by an event), this does not necessarily entail that either is completely replaceable by the other. In fact, in Gothic literature, they often work in tandem, relying upon each other to create a desired effect.

4. Characterization

Oftentimes characterization can be a difficult task. Making 'round' characters that change throughout the story takes a lot of planning and interacting (with other characters, objects, and settings). For instance, making a mad man seem really convincing, a writer should focus on everything from his gestures, appearance, reactions, habits, and especially what makes them 'tick.' A comprehensive yet penetrating look at a characters personality and behavior (and a detailed account of how it changes) can make them more convincing than say a flat character that has no depth and an unflinching set of qualities. Ultimately, what creative writing scholar Diana Thiel said is true: "A rather common misconception about writing fiction is that an interesting plot is the most important element of an effective story- a plot that offers action and surprises. The truth is, however, that no matter how dramatic, action-packed, or clever the plot is, the story will only be as effective as the characters are interesting."

Psychological depth typically makes fictional characters very interesting. Complex psyches with unique desires and fears can enable characters to constantly interact and react with originality and also create distinctive tensions between characters. For instance, one of my favorite literary characters is Holden Caulfield from J.D. Salinger's "The Catcher in the Rye." Holden's psychological depth is remarkable and it is powerful enough to be the focal point of the novel. He often tells us reoccurring thoughts but every now and then he manages to surprise us with something unprecedented and shocking. His complex, irrational, and yet eerily compelling mind is what makes readers continue reading. Furthermore, this difficult-to-produce complexity is what makes fictional characters seem real. Throughout the course of "The Catcher in the Rye," readers really start to get entrenched into Holden's situation and thought process as and it creates the effect that we are really conversing with Holden. In reality we are conversing with Salinger, but there is something about the language and descriptions that bring Holden's exceptionally unique mind to life.

5. Temporality and Spatiality

The concision and precision of the language in a text is a defining characteristic of literature. The textual and linguistic density of poetry is what makes it stand apart from prose. In particular, a poet can accomplish concise and precise writing by using different forms of figurative language (we all know them: metaphors, symbols, and so on). Prose, on the other, is usually distinguished by its 'novelness' or literal language. But, as you mentioned, the temporality and spatiality of poetry and prose— within the text and outside the text (for readers)— can be drastically different.

Now, this is not to say that all poems move at rabbit-speed or all works of prose go turtle-speed. But, it is to say that poems typically have a shorter reading time than works of prose; the movement of images and actions in either, however, can move quickly or freeze entirely. For instance, if we analyze space and time in "Beowulf," we will see that we cover roughly 50 years over the course of 3,182 alliterative lines. Granted, there is two big jumps that happen within instants (Grendel rules the mead-hall for 12 years, and Beowulf returns in his old age to slay the dragon) rather than at a steady pace of 1 year for every 63 lines. Nevertheless, "Beowulf" is a poem that moves both slow and fast in terms of its movement of images and actions. For the most part, the narration is linear: meaning that the present consistently collides with the future.

For juxtaposition, another Old-English text, "The Wanderer," covers no more than the passing thoughts of a brief meditation in 115 alliterative lines. The movement of time is transitory because the narrator's thoughts delve deep into the past; however, the length of an average mediation in linear time lasts maybe only 30-60 minutes. The movement of images move quickly because the spaces of these images are contained only in memory, which is nonlinear. For this reason, the narration of "The Wanderer" is undulating, meaning that it weaves the past and the present together. In any case though,"The Wanderer," in 115 alliterative lines, moves at a linear speed of just a few minutes per line. "Beowulf," on the other hand, moved 12 linear years forward in roughly the same number of lines. How can literary scholars account for such a huge difference in the presentation of time and space?

Authors still toy with space and time in literature today. In fact, many authors today consciously manipulate them. On one extreme, Imagist poets would ultimately strive to freeze time and space (see W.C. Williams' "The Red Wheel Barrow"). At the other extreme, Postmodern poets attempted to breakdown or estrange time and space (watch the movie "Momento"— it's really trippy). To my understanding, anytime an author experiments with space and time— regardless of whether it was written 1,000 years ago or yesterday— there is a tremendous impact on readers. Asking why they did/do this can be fun, but it is usually just speculative. Instead, let's ask: how do you think the manipulation of space and time impacted/impacts readers?

© 2017 The Professor


Ray from Philippines on June 28, 2018:

Nice article. I would try to improve my creative writing using this. Thanks!

Glen Rix from UK on March 09, 2018:

Thanks for this useful article. I totally agree with your assessment of 'Catcher in the Rye' and the view that characters should have psychological depth. In fact, I sometimes wonder if I would benefit from a course in psychology. One of my favourite writers, Fay Weldon studied psychology at university and I think that her knowledge of the subject shines through in her characterisation. Regarding experimentation with time - Orlando, a difficult novel by Virginia Woolf, was probably one of the first of it's kind. I'm currently comparing it with a more recent and perhaps more lightweight offering - How to Stop Time by Matt Haig.

Michael Duncan from Germany on November 29, 2017:

Resourceful article. Well done.

Gypsy Rose Lee from Daytona Beach, Florida on November 23, 2017:

Great article. Thanks for the explanation of these 5 concepts. Fascinating about diction. When creating a character of course a writer should be able to hear in their mind in what manner and way his or her character speaks.

FlourishAnyway from USA on November 22, 2017:

Excellent article. I especially liked your discussion and example under defamiliarization.

Kari Poulsen from Ohio on November 22, 2017:

Thanks for the explanation of these 5 concepts. I agree, a book is only as interesting as it's characters. :)

Ann Carr from SW England on November 22, 2017:

This is fascinating and you give good advice for writing. Diction is so important and I like the way you've split the Saxon from the Latin. Here in Britain, of course, our Saxon words are deeply routed in the countryside and landscape and, as you point out, are used by those who work on, and live closely with, the land. There are many words now lost because of modern life and technology. Fortunately, there are a few trying to revive them as the language is all the richer for them.