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Tips on Writing Creative Writing
Tips on Writing Creative Writing
Creative writing is different from writing anything else. With essays and papers, there is a basic order to the way you approach your project: you choose a topic, brainstorm a little, organize your thoughts into an outline, and then write the paper.

But what makes fiction both liberating and difficult is that there is no set way of approaching it. You can start with an interesting incident - perhaps you were vacationing in a city with your friends and were approached by a homeless woman asking for change. You could create a short story out of that small occurrence. Or perhaps you have an eccentric neighbor who lives in a broken down house with seventeen cats and a pet parrot; you can start with that person as a main character and build a story around him. William Faulkner said he created his masterpiece, The Sound and the Fury, from a single image in his head - that of a little girl with muddy pants in the branches of a tree, looking into the window of her house where a dead relative has been laid out for burial. You can start with anything at all, as long as you approach it with hard work, creativity, and imagination.

Below, we've included some tips and suggestions on various elements of creative writing (short stories in particular).


The SETTING of a story - the place and time of the action - is more important than you might think. When you write a story, you are creating a world, one that you want the reader to enter for a short while and remember after he or she has finished reading. The characters you write about need a space to inhabit, and it is your job to create this space with words.

Whether you are writing a simple story based in your grandmother's house or a science fiction story that takes place on Pluto, it's crucial that you make it believable. That means including enough good details, without just having sentence after boring sentence of pure description.

There can be radically different ways of describing the same setting:

Example 1:

Tim was in a desert in Africa. There was sand as far as the eye could see, big hills of sand everywhere. The hot sun shone down on him, making him sweat. He couldn't remember the last time he had been this hot.

Example 2:

Tim wondered how it could be that the African sun was hotter than the sun back home in Florida. Miles away he could see heat rising off the buttery-smooth sand dunes in clear, watery waves. Sweat prickled and blossomed into beads on his scalp as he asked himself for the fiftieth time that day why he had decided to come to this wasteland at all.

These two paragraphs show two very different types of description. The first paragraph is much more simple and direct. The second paragraph reveals details about the setting while also telling you something about the main character, Tim. "African sun" tells you that he is in Africa without stating "Tim was in a desert in Africa." That sentence also tells us that Tim is originally from Florida. The second paragraph gives us a more detailed picture of the "buttery-smooth sand dunes" than the first paragraph does. It also gives us a sense of the vastness of the desert ("miles away") and re-establishes the desert heat, which rises in "clear, watery waves" from the sand. The paragraph tells us about the sweat that "prickled and blossomed into beads" on Tim's skin, and also lets us know that Tim regrets coming to the desert, which he thinks of as a "wasteland."

Of course, there is no right or wrong way to do things. For instance, Ernest Hemingway's descriptions of setting are spare and straightforward, almost like Example 1. But F. Scott Fitzgerald, one of Hemingway's contemporaries, uses rich, flowery descriptions of setting that are poetic and lyrical. Both are talented writers, but each has his own style.

So be accurate in your descriptions, but also describe the setting in a way that is uniquely your own. Only you see the world in the particular way that you do - no one else has had the exact same experiences as you, and no one else has seen things in the exact same way. Make sure that gets reflected in your writing.


The PLOT of a story is, simply, what happens. Obviously it is a pretty important part of any short story, since no one wants to read a story in which nothing happens. The plot generally has four parts:

  • The Exposition
    The exposition of a story is the set-up of the plot: characters are introduced, the setting is described, and the central conflict is established.
  • The Rising Action
    This is the part of the story in which the conflict develops, and complications arise that the characters have to deal with.
  • The Climax
    The climax occurs when the action of the plot hits its most intense point; the main character may here experience his or her epiphany. An epiphany occurs when the main character begins to see things in a totally different way, or realizes - to put it in a trite, cheesy way - that he or she "will never be the same again."
  • The Denouement
    This is just a fancy French word for the end of the story; it is the aftermath of the climax, the outcome, when you wrap things up.
Although pretty much all stories will contain these four parts of the plot, it's entirely up to you as to how long each part is, or even the order in which they're presented. Many stories begin in medias res - that's Latin for "in the middle of things." So, if you want to grab the reader's attention (as you should try to do at the beginning of a story), try starting your story in the middle of some exciting action:


Right before the branch finally broke and Carter tumbled down the cliff, he thought to himself, "I knew I shouldn't have listened to Roger."

See? You can start the story without any exposition at all, and go back to fill in all the background info later. Your reader will probably wonder, "How the heck did Carter get up there, and who's this Roger guy?" and read on to find out.

Choosing a good central conflict is an important part of the plot, something you'll probably want to sketch out ahead of time. There are three main categories into which conflicts fall:

  1. Person versus Person/Persons. This type of conflict happens when the main character's problem involves his or her interaction with another person or group of people. For instance, if the main character desperately wants to be a part of the popular crowd at school, that would be an example of a person versus person/persons conflict.
  2. Person versus Nature (or some other power). This type of conflict covers almost everything else - a tornado hitting the main character's house and destroying it; the main character's mother getting cancer; killer bees invading the main character's town.
  3. Person versus Self. This type of conflict has something to do with a character's inner struggle. For instance, let's say your main character kills someone in the first few chapters: for the rest of the book, he tries to decide whether or not to turn himself in and confess. This is a person versus self struggle
But you're not limited to choosing just one conflict. In Hamlet, the main character has both a person versus person conflict (he really wants to kill his uncle) and a person versus self conflict (for most of the play, he can't bring himself to murder his uncle). Complex plots will contain more than one type of conflict.

Another thing to know about plots is that you can't cheat the reader. What do we mean? Well, you can't use a deus ex machina, for instance. Still have no clue what we mean? It's another Latin phrase: this one means "a god from a machine." In ancient Greek and Roman plays, a type of crane would be used to drop in an actor who played the role of a god, and this god decided everyone's fates and fixed up the loose ends of the plot. Now, when we tell you not to use one, of course we don't mean that kind of deus ex machina. We just mean that the end of your plot can't involve some sudden "easy fix" at the end, something or someone that swoops in and solves all the conflicts, giving the readers a happy ending. One type of deus ex machina is the "It was all a dream" ending, in which your character has a crazy adventure and right when things get sticky, he or she wakes up - the whole thing was a dream! Don't do that.

Here's another example: say your main character spends the whole story being chased by a mad killer, and then at the end the killer is chasing her down the road, coming closer and closer when - a pick-up truck comes out of nowhere and runs over him. The end.

See how that's not fair to your reader? He or she will feel cheated, because it looks like you didn't spend time to figure out a better ending. If your reader is investing time to read your story, he or she will want to be satisfied at the end. All plots need to prime the reader. Just as you have to apply a preparatory layer of solution on a wall before slapping the paint on, you must prepare your reader for the climax. That means that if you want to have a truck run over the mad killer in the last scene, you should mention the truck ahead of time. Maybe in the beginning of the story the main character is yelling at her little brother about his reckless driving, but he's the one who runs over the killer in the last scene. The reader can - and should! - still be surprised by the ending, but he or she definitely shouldn't be thinking, "Wow! Where did that come from?" This doesn't mean that you have to know the ending before you start your story. You may surprise yourself while writing it, and your characters may end up doing things that you didn't originally plan. That's okay! That's the kind of exciting stuff that happens when you're writing stories. Just make sure that when the end does come, you have thought it through and made sure that it's a "fair" ending.


Think about all the stories and books and plays that have been written since the beginning of time. How likely is it that you will be able to think of a completely original plot, one that has never been thought of before in the thousands of years that stories have been around? Even Shakespeare himself recycled the plots of old folk tales and ancient fables to write his amazing plays. And as we mentioned above, all conflicts fall into three basic categories. So in other words, don't knock yourself out trying to think of a plot that no one has ever thought of before. While plot is important, it's not what sets great stories apart from the rest.

Instead, concentrate on creating completely original characters. Many would agree that a good grasp of characters - how they think, what makes them act the way they do, what they feel and why - is what defines good writing. Take Shakespeare again, as an example. Hamlet is probably one of the most famous plays in the world, but what does the plot consist of, really? It's just about a guy whose father comes back as a ghost to say, "I've been murdered - I want you to avenge my death!" Then the guy spends the rest of the play trying to do what his dad told him to. Sounds more like a cheesy Hollywood blockbuster than an amazing piece of literature! It is Shakespeare's uncanny ability to understand human nature, and depict it in all its complexity with ingenious language, that makes Hamlet a classic.

You can start by thinking about actual people you know. Neighbors, classmates, teachers, relatives, strangers - are all potential treasure troves of material for your creative writing. Jot down quick descriptions of people you find interesting, and concentrate on the little details that make them different from others. Describe facial expressions, the way they talk, what makes them laugh, where they are from, how they were raised, what you think they might hate and love - everything that makes them tick, as far as you can see.

The great thing about writing fiction, of course, is that nothing has to be real. You can mix and match different appearances and personality traits to create a person that you think would be the right character for your story. As long as you get a clear picture of your characters in your head, you can translate that to the page.

There are a variety of ways to do so. One is through direct description:

Example 1a:

She was a mean old woman. Her mouth was gathered into a tight little spot in the middle of her face and she spoke in short, clipped sentences.

Another is through indirect description. That's when a character's actions - or other people's reactions - tell the reader about the character:

Example 1b:

All the kids stopped laughing when she strode into the room. She glared at them as she tucked strands of her gray hair back into her bun, and slammed her briefcase on her desk. "Open your books. Page 342. Now."

We can tell from the description that she's mean (everyone stopped laughing when she walked in, and she glared at the kids), old (gray hair), and that she talks in short, clipped sentences.

Some writers like to give characterizations of people almost entirely through dialogue. You can learn a lot about a character from the way he or she talks. For instance, compare the following characters using only their speech patterns:

Example 2a:

"Shucks, Bob ain't got no problem with any of y'all!"

Example 2b:

"Good heavens, Bob doesn't hold the slightest animosity towards any of you!"

The examples above are saying the same thing: "Bob doesn't have a problem with you." But as you can see, you can gather clues about someone's background, education, and even age from the shortest lines of speech. You can also express emotions and personalities if you handle dialogue with care and precision.

(A quick warning - don't get too out of control with dialects. Although the dialect in Example 2a is good, going too far with unusual accents is a bad idea: you want your character to be grabbing the reader's attention, not the weird language he's using or the weird spelling you're using to depict his speech. In other words, don't let the dialogue distract the reader.)

Your job as a writer is to create interesting, realistic people that make your story come alive. The characters should be fresh and nuanced, not clich? and stereotypical. A big part of accomplishing this is to concentrate on details. For instance, compare these two descriptions of a cheerleader:

Example 3a:

Her name was Candi. She wasn't very bright, but she was always bubbly and friendly. Her blonde hair was never out of place, and her smile could light up any room.

Example 3b:

Eva was pretty in a dark, elfin way. She had dark green eyes and her black hair was cut very short, giving her a mischievous, somewhat pixie-ish look. On the football field at the home games, bouncing around and kicking and shouting with boundless energy, she looked more like a misplaced woodland sprite than a cheerleader.

You can see that "Candi" is a much less original character than "Eva," because a common stereotype of cheerleaders is that they are blonde, not very bright, and cheerful. The second example puts forth a more original character, and uses a simile, or comparison, to create an image of Eva in your mind ("like a misplaced woodland sprite"). Of course, there will be times when you want to have a stereotypical character in your story; but even those can be handled with better detail than in Example 3a above:

Example 3c:

Light seemed to attach to Candi wherever she went, surrounding her blonde hair like a downy afternoon haze. She had the biggest, brightest smile in school - you could see her flashing white teeth from the other end of the hall, accompanied by her trademark laughter: a nice "ha-ha-HA" followed by a gasping intake of breath. Sometimes it was a little spooky, that smile of hers, too mask-like. You got the feeling that she was pressed out by a machine every morning, a fully-dressed manikin with not so much as an eyelash out of place.

In this example, while Candi is still stereotypically blonde and smiley, the description is more graphic in detail than in the first example. Imagery - "pressed out by a machine every morning, a fully-dressed manikin" - and good details about her appearance and laughter make this Candi more realistic than the one in the Example 3a. Try to incorporate similar techniques in your own writing. You can practice by writing down in a notebook detailed descriptions of the various people you meet during the day. Speculate as to their family background, their histories, their various personality quirks, their physical appearances, what they like and dislike, etc.

Characters are a critical part of almost any story. With creativity and attention to detail, you can make them come alive for your readers in a way that makes your characters - and your story - unforgettable.