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Introduction to Creative Writing - Topics

Key elements
How to get started
Tips for better writing
Becoming a writer
Online courses

What is creative writing?

woman with book, representing creative writing

Creative writing is an art form using written language. It can be a means of self-discovery, as well as a chance to make something beautiful and touch readers' emotions. It gives you the power to create whole worlds from your imagination. If you love books, creative writing is a way to join the authors you admire in a literary tradition.

Types of creative writing

man reading in lake

Here are some common types of creative writing.

1. Short stories

Writing short stories is a great way to learn the craft of fiction. The brevity of the form allows you to experiment with lots of different types of stories and storytelling approaches. A short story can achieve a kind of magic trick, creating the illusion of a complete, detailed world in a very small space.

2. Novels

Writing a novel offers the pleasures of a large, absorbing project. You get to spend months or even years inside your story, which can become like a parallel life that you're living.

3. Poetry

Writing poetry lets you work with language on many levels. Beyond the surface meaning of the words, you can use their sound, rhythm, and even the way they look on the page to create emotional effects in readers. Poetry includes traditional forms like the sonnet, along with free verse and prose poems.

4. Creative nonfiction

This includes memoirs and personal essays, where you write about your own experiences. Creative nonfiction is a way to preserve and explore your memories and share your unique perspective on the world.

5. Drama

Dramatic writing includes playwriting and screenwriting. It's not just about Broadway and Hollywood -- imagine the thrill of seeing your work performed in community theaters, schools, or other amateur productions. 

Elements of creative writing

woman and beagle looking at open book

Important elements of creative writing include:

1. Imagery

You can make your writing vivid by including details that speak to the five senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch.

2. Scenes

A scene is a sequence of events depicted 'in real time,' featuring play-by-play action and/or dialogue, and often including descriptive details.

3. Setting

 A setting is the specific place and historical time where a scene happens; for example, present-day Brooklyn, or 17th century Versailles.

4. Characters

Stories, novels, and plays are normally about made-up characters that readers can come to care about. Many memoirs are written like true stories where the author is the main character.

5. Point of view

Many stories are written from the perspective of a particular character. Readers feel as if they're inside that character's head, watching the story's action through the character's eyes.

6. Dialogue

Dialogue is where you represent conversations by directly quoting characters' words. Playwriting and screenwriting rely heavily on dialogue.

7. Voice

The voice that tells a story is called the "narrator," while the voice in a poem is the "speaker." You can write using your own voice or adopt the voice of a fictional character.

8. Plot

This is the sequence of events that happen in a story, novel, or dramatic work. The central thread of most plots is the character's struggle to overcome a problem or reach a goal.

9. Theme

The theme is a central idea that underlies a piece of writing. A theme isn't something you have to consciously "put into" a story. It's often better to focus on your character and their struggle, and let the story's theme evolve naturally.

10. Pacing

Pacing refers to the speed at which the story seems to unfold. You can use pacing to shape the reader's experience; for example, slowing the story at key moments to create suspense.

11. Rhythm

The rhythm and flow of language affects a reader's experience and is particularly important in poetry. Some poetry uses meter, rhythmic patterns based on stressed and unstressed syllables.

12. Rhyme

Poems often make use of repeated sounds, including rhyme. Many traditional poetic forms use rhyme schemes, while free verse might use sporadic rhymes to create emotional effects.

How to get started with creative writing

woman reading under umbrella

The best way to get started is to just dive right in! Go ahead and write something!

If you've never written a story or poem before, that's okay. The only way to learn how to do it is by actually doing it.

Don't worry about doing it wrong. You won't break anything! If you don't like what you write, you can always improve it later. Or you can put it away and try something else.

The more you write, the better you'll get!

How to start writing a story

Want to start writing a story? Here's one approach to try.

1) Imagine a character and a problem that the character has to deal with. The problem will give your character something to do in your story.

2) Imagine a step the character might take to try to solve their problem. What would happen next? Daydream the scene from your character's perspective as vividly as possible.

3) Capture your daydream on the page. During the first draft, don't worry about choosing the right words or writing nice sentences. You can fix everything later, during the revision.

How to start writing a memoir

A lot of people want to write about their memories but feel overwhelmed by the problem of how to organize everything. An easy solution is to choose one vivid or important memory and just write about that. Try to recreate the memory on the page as vividly as you can.

If you write a lot of short pieces about separate memories, you might start to see patterns and get ideas for piecing them together into a book-length memoir. Or, you might decide to publish the short pieces as essays.

How to start writing a poem

There's no right or wrong way to write a poem, but you can try this approach.

1) Choose a subject for your poem. It can help to get really specific about this. For example, instead of writing a poem about "anger" or "love", you might focus on a particular moment when you were angry, or a specific gesture of love.

2) Concentrate on your subject. Explore it from different angles, searching for aspects of it that might not obvious at first glance. For example, if you're writing about a tree, closely examine that tree. What makes it different from other trees? What parts of it are hidden under the ground? What does it smell like? What does it remind you of?

3) Quickly write down the ideas that occur to you.

4) Once you have a rough draft of your poem, you can start playing with the language, experimenting with sound and rhythm and the way the words are arranged on the page.

15 creative writing ideas

woman reading on beach

Here are some exciting creative writing exercises to try.

1) Write a modern version of a fairy tale or myth. Give it a new twist.

2) Write a haiku, a short unrhymed poem with five syllables in the first line, seven in the second line, and five in the third line. You can learn more about haiku poetry and read examples here.

3) Challenge yourself to write a complete story in exactly 100 words. You can find tips on ultra-short stories here.

4) The sense of smell is closely tied to memory. Choose a smell to use as inspiration for a memoir or a poem. What memories does that smell bring back?

5) Use a painting or another piece of art to inspire a poem or a story.

6) Listen to a piece of music that you find moving. What images does it bring to mind? Write a poem that tries to capture the mood and feeling of the music. Or, if the song has lyrics, imagine the story behind those lyrics, and write that story.

7) Think of a time when you were afraid. Use that memory to inspire a poem or a story. Feel free to change details of the situation to make it more frightening or surprising than it actually was.

8) Imagine you found a secret door somewhere in your house. What might be behind that door? Use this as the starting point of a story or a poem.

9) Browse the website of an online bookstore like Amazon, searching for a book cover that really intrigues you (for this exercise, choose the cover of a book that you HAVEN'T read). Imagine what might be inside that book. Then try to write it!

10) Write a story or poem from a non-human perspective -- for example, from the point of view of a house, an animal, or a color.

11) Write a story or poem based on something you dreamed at night.

12) Write a story or poem that is completely dialogue.

13) Write about an argument you had -- but write about it from the other person's perspective. Try to imagine your way into that person's mind.

14) Write a story or poem in the form of letters, emails, text messages, or diary entries.

15) Find an old photograph of yourself. Remember or imagine the moment when it was taken, and use that as the starting point of a poem or memoir.

Creative writing prompts

children reading in tent

1) Write a story or poem that includes all three of these elements: an eavesdropper, a secret kiss, and a fire in the kitchen.

2) Write a story or poem that includes this line: "Don't move," he whispered.

3) Every night, your character has been dreaming about the same house, a house they can't remember ever having seen before...

4) Write a story or poem that includes all three of these elements: a sinister Uber driver, a fake engagement ring, and a legend.

5) Write a story or poem that includes this line: The first time was the hardest.

6) What is one of your greatest strengths? Write a story or poem about someone who ends up in trouble because they don't have this quality.

7) Write a story or poem that includes this line: She was a wonderful liar...

8) Write a story or poem that includes all three of these elements: a dating app, a foreign language, and a nosy neighbor.

9) Think of someone very different from yourself in ways you're curious about. Write a story or a poem from this person's perspective.

10) Your character discovers a hidden door in their basement. Opening it reveals something surprising...

11) Write a story or poem that includes this phrase: Unfortunately, the tombstone...

12) Write a story that takes place entirely in the dark.

You can find hundreds more story starters and poetry prompts on our website.

Tips for better creative writing

man reading

1. Be specific.

Specific language and examples help readers form clearer mental images. For example, instead of using the word "bird", you can use a more specific word like "sparrow" or "crow". Or, instead of saying that your grandmother was a wonderful cook, you can describe some mouthwatering examples of her cooking.

2. Pay attention to all of the senses.

Beginning writers sometimes describe what things look like and forget the other senses: sound, smell, taste, and touch... Including details from multiple senses will make your writing more vivid and help to create an immersive experience for readers.

3. Show instead of only telling.

Showing something (with actions, dialogue, and imagery) tends to have a more powerful emotional impact than just informing the reader of it. For example, instead of telling readers that your character loves his son, you can show that character speaking tenderly to the son or making a sacrifice for the son's happiness.

4. Start with questions instead of answers.

Instead of setting out to teach readers a lesson you already know, you can use writing to explore issues and ideas that you struggle with. This approach is more likely to lead to interesting results because it takes you beyond the obvious.

5. Write a messy rough draft.

 During your first draft, try not to worry about choosing the right words. Instead, focus your mind on the scene or subject you're writing about. This tends to make your writing more vivid and can actually help the language flow better. Save the editing for later.

6. Rewrite.

Once you complete a rough draft, go back and read what you've written -- first from the perspective of an ordinary reader, and then as an editor -- and look for anything you can improve

Becoming a creative writer

girl reading

Here's some advice to help you succeed.

1. Become an observer.

The world is full of writing material if you pay attention. Be on the lookout for details you can use in your stories and poems, people you can convert into characters, interesting snippets of dialogue. Some writers find it helpful to keep a journal to record this raw material. Keeping a journal can also help you become more observant.

2. Establish a writing habit.

Consider committing to a regular writing schedule, even if it's only ten minutes a day. Many writers like to work first thing in the morning before other commitments get in the way. Keeping a writing schedule makes you less dependent on inspiration -- you learn how to write without it.

3. Read a lot.

Read the kind of thing you want to write -- for example, if you want to be a poet, it's important to read a lot of poetry. Pay attention to the techniques used by other authors, and try applying those techniques in your own writing.

4. Feed your imagination.

Reading feeds your imagination, and so can listening to music, looking at art, walking in nature, or exploring other subjects that excite you -- science, mathematics: whatever gets your brain firing. Instead of waiting for inspiration to find you, go hunt it down.

5. Have fun.

The more fun you have writing something, the more fun people are likely to have reading it!

6. Find a writing community.

Other writers can provide support and inspiration, as well as feedback on your work. Consider joining or forming a local writer's group. Or sign up for one of our online classes.

Creative writing courses

creative writing class - story ideas

*FREE*! Endless Story Ideas

In this course, you'll learn how to generate story ideas whenever you need them.  This three-day email course is currently available for free!  Fill out the form below, and you'll get one lesson per day over the next three days.

spiral representing story structure

Story Structure

Have you ever read a book or watched a movie where the events felt random, as if there wasn't any point?

Compare this to the experience of reading or watching a great story, which holds your attention and makes you care what's happening. In a successful story, the events feel like they're connected and like they're going somewhere. They seem to add up to something.

This structure, the way the events are connected to each other and build on each other, makes all the difference for the reader. It's like the difference between a pile of bricks and boards and a solidly constructed house.

In this course, we'll talk about how to make all of the parts of your stories fit together in a way that's gripping, meaningful, and satisfying.

By the end of the course, you'll have a detailed story plan that you can use as road map for your own stories or novels.

What you'll learn:

  • how to build a plot and character arc that work together
  • how to craft the beginning, middle, and ending of a story
  • how to organize your story in a powerful and meaningful way.

Click here for details

poetry writing course

Essentials of Poetry Writing

In his book Poetry in the Making, the poet Ted Hughes talks about how to write a poem about a landscape. "We do not want a photograph," he says, "we want a film with exactly the right music, and the music is the most important."

Like other kinds of writing, poetry can communicate information or tell a story. But at the same time that it speaks to the logical part of our brains, it also works on deeper level, speaking to our emotions.

This second level can function like the mood music in a movie, affecting and intensifying our feelings about what's happening on the screen.

When we're watching a movie, we might not always be aware of this background music, but we feel it all the same, and our body reacts -- tensing when the music becomes suspenseful, relaxing when the music is upbeat.

In this course, you'll learn to create this mood music in your own poetry. You'll learn how to craft not only the logical, informational level of the poem, but also this deeper emotional level.

Click here for details

character development course

Bringing Characters to Life

Have you ever read a book where the characters felt alive to you, where they started to feel like actual people that you cared about?

If readers care about your characters, they'll care about your story. They'll feel afraid when your character's in danger and will rejoice in your character's triumphs. They'll be gripped by suspense to find out what happens to your character, and they won't want to put your story down.

In this course, you'll learn how to perform the magic that turns fictional characters into living people in the reader's mind.

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memoir writing course

Essentials of Memoir Writing

A memoir is a true story, written by someone who was part of it.

Writing a memoir is a way to capture and preserve your memories. Your memoir might be a gift and legacy to your family, or you might decide to publish it.

Memoirs are special because they let readers live other people's lives and have experiences they would ordinarily never have. Memoirs let readers feel what it's like to be someone else.

No matter what your life experiences, you can turn them into a great memoir. This course will show you how.

What you'll learn:

  • how to find ideas and material for your memoir.
  • how to recreate your memories vividly on the page .
  • how to give your memoir a meaningful structure and focus.
  • how to make your memoir stand out.

Click here for details

dialogue writing course

Mastering Dialogue

Without dialogue, a story can be like watching TV with the sound turned off. Maybe it's still possible to follow the plot, but it's hard to get as emotionally involved. By adding dialogue, you're turning up the volume for your readers.

You can use dialogue to bring your characters to life, to move your plot forward, and improve the pace of your storytelling. This course will show you how.

You'll learn:

  • how to create a unique voice for each of your characters.
  • how use dialogue to improve your character development, plot, pacing, and setting.
  • how to achieve the right mix of "showing" and "telling".
  • how add layers of meaning to your dialogue.

Click here for details

novel writing class

Irresistible Fiction

Have you ever read a book that you really had trouble putting down?

This kind of book can make you stay up late reading. It can make you late for appointments, make you cancel other plans. "I'll just finish this page," you tell yourself. "I'll just finish this chapter. Just one more..."

This course will show you how to make your own stories more addictive so that readers will get drawn in and feel compelled to keep turning pages.

On the one hand, you'll make readers feel deeply involved in your stories, as if they have skin in the game.

On the other hand, you'll use techniques to build excitement, curiosity and suspense, for irresistible results.

Click here for details

narrative viewpoint course

Through Your Character's Eyes

"Narrative point of view" or "narrative viewpoint" is the perspective from which your story is told. It is readers' doorway into your story.

If you use narrative viewpoint effectively, it lets readers experience your story like a dream, as if they're actually inside it. You can make readers feel as if they actually become one of your characters for a while, as if they get to live the story, instead of only reading it.

In this course, you'll learn how.

The choices you make about narrative viewpoint will affect every aspect of how you write your story; for example:

  • which events you show as scenes.
  • your character development strategies.
  • how you write descriptions.

It will also affect every aspect of the reader's experience:

  • how close the reader feels to your characters.
  • the sights, smells, sounds, and sensations that the reader imagines.
  • the reader's emotional reactions to the events that take place.

In this course, you'll learn how to use narrative viewpoint to give readers the best possible experience of your story.

Click here for details

mystery writing class

Mystery Writing

Mystery stories play on our natural curiosity. The author raises a question near the beginning of the story and doesn't reveal the answer until the end. As readers wonder about the question and try to guess the answer, their curiosity builds.

Many mysteries are written as intellectual puzzles, a kind of game the author plays with readers. This gamelike aspect can make mysteries especially fun to plan and to write.

This course will take you you step-by-step through the process of planning and writing a mystery. In a way, you'll work backwards, starting with the secret that your readers will discover at the story's end. We'll look at how you can use this secret to create a fascinating trail of clues, how to pull your readers along that trail, and how to keep them burning with curiosity the whole way.

Click here for details

seagulls flying, representing creative writing course

Be a Writer Now

This is a special course where you overcome blocks and obstacles to become the writer you want to be. You’ll learn how to find time for writing, avoid writer’s block, and stay motivated, creative, and productive.

Here’s what previous students have said about this course:

  • “I had been stuck in my current work for at least a year, writing hardly anything at all. The accountability sheet forced me to write every day, and I wanted to. Now at the end of the course, I think I’m 90% done with my book.” – Anne Nowlin

  • “I find my writing flows better and ideas seem to flood into my brain. Since starting the course I have a new confidence when starting a piece of writing.” – Christine Henderson

  • “This has been the most productive, creative month I’ve had.” – Nancy Pazner

Enter your email to be notified when this course reopens.

butterfly on brightly colored plant, representing writing course

Description Writing Magic

Imagine writing fiction so vivid that readers feel as if they've physically entered your story...

The room where they're sitting seems to disappear, and they pass into a parallel world with characters who seem as real as the people they know.

Readers might even feel homesick when your story ends as if it were an actual place where they long to return.

This course will show you the techniques you need to create this kind of intense experience for readers.

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