Those who have taught creative writing, specifically the novel or short story, will remember being asked, at some time or another, that pertinent but most difficult of all questions: What constitutes good writing?
The question is pertinent because that’s what teachers of the craft purport to teach. It is difficult because people have been trying to provide a definitive answer to it since first picking up chisels and quills.
Here’s my take.
The First Layer: Spirit, Ethos
I like to separate the craft into three areas. The first concerns learning about the spirit or ethos of the times, and our view of it.
It concerns sharpening our powers of observation, being aware of contemporary ideas, ideals, and issues, bringing compassion to our social critiques, and learning to address old themes in new ways while acknowledging the value of the old in the new.
These insights stem from our level of maturity. They can not be hurried.
The Second Layer: Story Structure
The second area concerns the structure of stories.
“A study of creative writing that lacks awareness of the layers that make up the craft is like a rudderless ship loaded with treasure but destined to meander endlessly at sea.”
Does your tale have a beginning, middle, and end? Are the turning points, pinches, midpoint, climax, resolution, and so on, crafted in a way that encourages interest, suspense, and surprise? If not your story may lack a specific direction.
The Third Layer: Words and Sentences
The third layer has to do with mastering the craft at the micro level. Are we using vocabulary and figures of speech appropriate to our subject? Are we creating powerful textures, pictures and sounds with our words—using all five senses to do so?
Words with an Anglo-Saxon origin, for example, are grittier and more tactile, depending on the context, than their Latin counterparts—so, ‘gut’ instead of ‘stomach’, and so on. Are we using short snappy sentences or long and mellifluous ones? All of this affects how the reader experiences our story.
In my opinion, these three layers make up the craft of writing. Together they give rise to the individual ‘voice’ of the writer. Incorporating this approach when writing a new novel or screenplay increases its chances of success.
Excellence in creative writing involves mastering the three layers rooted in the micro and macro levels of the craft. Together they give rise to the ‘voice’ of the author.
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