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The Problem With Creative Writing Tips... There Aren't Any

Ake Ødin By Ake Ødin Published on November 12, 2015

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Lucia Gannon found this witty
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Of course that sounds like nonsense. Of course there are creative writing tips, there are tips for everything, right? Certainly, if you glance at any online feed for indie authors, they’re awash with writing tips. Tips on writing dialogue. Tips for pace and structure. Tips from agents, publishers and, of course, other writers. But there’s a basic problem with tips for something like writing, same as filmmaking, art and music. And that is filtering out the technical tips from the creative ones. Technical tips are genuine tips, they are useful provided they apply to what you’re trying to do. But creative tips aren’t actually tips at all, they’re merely opinions on matters where there is no right way (or perhaps better way would be more apt) to express your own ideas.

It’s in the nature of technical tip-giving that they’re focused on production techniques, the hands-on skills everyone needs to confidently realise their creative ideas. In writing, that’s what an editor’s role is, in fact. An editor is, at heart, motivated by technical expertise. They grasp what you’re trying to do, then use their technical writing skills to make the words you’ve written do that better, but what they can’t do (even though some try) is make your ideas better. Making someone’s ideas better is impossible, because better in the context of ideas, is purely subjective. You can say it better, you can say it differently, you can question the value of saying it at all, but the idea that you’re trying to express can’t be improved. It is what it is.

To put this in perspective for writing, consider the worlds of filmmaking and theatre. Today, we all recognise and accept the role of improvisation within film and theatre, but once upon a time it caused a lot of resistance. Improvisation has a long history in both screen and theatrical writing, it’s a powerful tool to capture compelling dialogue. It’s not a huge leap to allow the improvisation process to also construct the narrative as well.

Conventional wisdom asked the question “How can you make a film without a script?” Films have scripts, so a film without a script doesn’t compute. But the problem with a lot of mainstream cinema is the fact it feels like a computer wrote it. Improvisation evolved as a response to writers hitting the limits of creative formulas, in some respects. Keith Johnstone (one of the fathers of improvised theatre and comedy) developed his Meaestro Improv methodology as a result of suffering from writer’s block. It was a solution that didn’t take the writing out of the picture, so much as construct a different kind of process to deliver writing, by challenging the basic assumption you couldn’t write in front of the audience during a performance.

It’s easy to dismiss this sort of sentiment as just some hipster gripe about Hollywood, or an indie gripe about publishing. You might see it as the same point that banjo players make about generic pop music, i.e. not enough banjo, or whatever your preferred unpopular instrument is. But there’s a rationale behind questioning formulas in writing. A great deal of modern work starts out using the classic “three act synopsis” model. You’ll recognise it. Title, logline (or elevator pitch, as it’s also called), then a three act plot synopsis. It’s a practical, workable formula. But the problems with formulas in the arts is they have a tendency to make the art formulaic. And formulaic sells too, but it’s not always what you want to produce.

Consider it like this. When your personal life becomes formulaic, we generally think it’s a bad thing. We call it the ‘same old same old’. The ‘daily grind’. Being ‘stuck in a rut’. We use adjectives like monotonous. We refer to it as ‘routine’. Does anyone ever say “Hey I saw a great movie last night, it was the same old same old”? Nope. That’s not to say formulaic creative works can’t be great, but they’re not great because they’re formulaic.

A lot of creative writing tips favour formulaic approaches. Pick a genre, build the story arc, think in terms of three acts and so on. Plan your writing out. Work out the plot before you begin writing the text proper. Many creative writing courses will use lecture notes that cite Aristotle as the first playwright to nail down the clear ‘beginning, middle and end’ structure. That was some time between 320-330 B.C. As in thousands of years ago. The influence of this approach, whilst undeniably important in the evolution of writing, seems a bit irrelevant today. We consume words and images differently now. When you consider the evolution of text, moving images and the role they play in our lives, does a viral Youtube video conform to three acts? Do you think in three acts when you upload a clip to Facebook? Does a novel comprised of letters and documents follow three acts? Does dialogue have to sound realistic? Does every chapter need a hook to link to the next one?

One of my favourite science fiction works is Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, precisely because each chapter works as a short story in its own right. There’s no three acts. No conventional plot arc. But as a novel (or is it a novella?) it works. If he was alive today, and wrote a “10 tips for writers” on his blog, I wonder if he’d suggest to write every chapter as though it’s a short story? I doubt it.

It’s a fascinating history (there’s a great essay on the role of the three act structure in history by Jennine Lanouette here). Maybe it’s the influence of Aristotle and the subsequent millennia of fiction, theatrical writing, plus a century of cinema, that makes many of us find it hard to construct an alternative approach to creating a narrative. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

There’s also an interesting history to the unwritten on the big screen. Some of the most memorable lines in modern (well, modern-ish) cinema were improvised. There’s a listing here by Raindance.org intern James Benton, well worth a read. “We’re gonna need a bigger boat” and “Here’s looking at you, kid” two legendary examples of improv at work. In text, both novel and play versions of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot illustrate a compelling narrative without a story arc, a plot, dialogue that moves the plot along or anything else. It’s close to improv in written form, but doesn’t suffer for it.

I saw a tip recently on writing better dialogue, it compared two examples:

“Where’s the suitcase?”

“it’s in the cupboard”

Vs.

“Where’s the suitcase?”

“You said you wouldn’t leave.”

Apparently the first lines are bad dialogue, the second ones are the form you should aspire to. Okay so let’s see how that pans out…

“Where’s the suitcase?”

“It’s in the cupboard”

“Christ, there’s a dead body in here!”

“I know, I’m compelled to murder people for giving me useless writing tips.”

Vs.

“Where’s the suitcase?”

“You said you wouldn’t leave.”

“Well I am.”

“Okay then.”

Okay, so that’s an obvious joke, but there is an underlying point to it. There is no measure of creativity that lends itself to creative tips. Creativity, especially in writing, is too hard to pin down. It’s more like turning fruit salad into a smoothie. Same ingredients, still sweet, but served in a plastic beaker and consumed without cutlery. There’s a lot of technical advice than can make that process work better, but ultimately, the creative element is up to you.

I’ve spent my life writing. Doesn’t everyone? We learn to do it when we’re kids and from there it never stops. Relationships live through writing. Emails. Facebook. SMS. From the moment we can ... Show More

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Lucia Gannon found this witty
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