Writing is a craft. Like any other craft, it requires the development of skills and tools. In this piece, I will define what I consider to be the key elements of writing, and I will give an example of how each element is used in literature today.
These ideas apply to all forms of writing, not just literature. Still, because the title says “An Essay about the Craft of Writing” and there are no other wordings available to me at this time, you’re going to read some literary theory.
The Craft of Writing
Have you ever read a book or watched a movie and truly found the characters believable and real? I’m sure everyone has had this experience at some point in their lives, whether through books, TV shows, or movies. But how? How is it possible for an author to create such dazzling characters that we can relate to so well as if we know them personally?
The answer lies in something all of us have experienced — life. The very nature of writing is that it is an imitation of life. Everything from the plot and setting to the dialogue should come from an author’s own experiences, if not an author’s, then those of other writers who they read and learn from.
Shakespeare claimed that all the world’s a stage, and, in a way, he was correct. We are never out of the sight of others, even when no one else is looking. Everything we read acts as a mirror held up to our lives; we imitate ourselves as we imitate life, pretending at what it feels like to be someone else in order to better understand it. For any writer, keeping this in mind means being aware that entertainment is not enough; what we create must also teach.
Good literature is often characterized as being completely absorbing. For example, some of the best-received books can cause their readers to forget about time outside the text. That is, a successful novel is one that makes it difficult for its audience to look away. Such books are sometimes said to be “page-turner.”
Books are a gateway to another world. They allow us to visit places and times that we could never experience first-hand. Whether you’re reading about an aspect of the past or a faraway place, seeing the world through a book is a great experience, and one that many people love.
The Plot is not Enough
My friend and I were having a discussion about writing the other day, and he said this: “The Plot is not enough.” He was talking about how some people seem to think that they are done with their novel when they have the basic plot worked out. How wrong they are. He went on to explain that there is more to a novel than just plotting it out. There is character development and making sure all the little details are worked out so that the story flows smoothly. After all, he said, “The devil is in the details.” He’s right. The plot is essential, but it isn’t enough. I know lots of people who can write a good plotline but can’t flesh it out into a fully fleshed-out novel without adding more detail, work, and hard labor. Even worse, I’ve read some novels where the plot was there, but I couldn’t find any characters that I could connect with or anything that made me want to keep reading! That doesn’t make for a good book at all!
I remember being told by an English professor that if he found himself caught up in a book, he would set it aside to finish later; because if he was enjoying himself, he must have missed something. I think most readers would agree that certain books are greater than the sum of their parts. This is part of what makes them memorable: a wonderful phrase, a character that endures in the memory, an arresting setting — a work of art can do something more than describe events. A novel can reveal truths about human nature and the world we live in or suggest possibilities beyond the ordinary. In explaining what fiction is about, I am at risk of sounding as if I were explaining what life is about — which is impossible. Or if not impossible, certainly fatuous: since life doesn’t come.
Characters Should Be People
Characters should be people. This is not always an easy thing to do. What makes a person? The tone is how you say it. You can have several people in a room, and each will have their own tone. One might be angry, another happy, another afraid. It’s best to show the reader who is saying what by making the character speak with their own voice.
Merely describing a character is not enough; there must be some tension in the character that makes us want to know more about them. And the plot is only one of the tools available to the writer; there are many others. If you can do only one thing well, then do that one thing, and do it as well as you possibly can.
Don’t just tell me what happened; show me. Don’t just tell me who your character was; show me how they became that way. Don’t just tell me what an experience was like; make me feel it through your character’s senses and emotions. Don’t just tell me what happened; make me care.
We all know that the deeper we get into a story, the more likely we are to invest in the characters and their plights. And yet, sometimes, this doesn’t happen. Sometimes, no matter how much we love a book, how enthralled we become with its splendid prose, or how convincingly its world is created for us, we’re never quite able to feel as though we’ve fallen into it completely.
Even if you write with the most beautiful prose imaginable, your writing will fall flat if your characters aren’t believable. The reader must be able to imagine themselves in your world and understand what it would be like to have your characters’ experiences. In other words, when you write dialogue, you must speak from “within” your character’s voice, not from your own voice or any other point of view.
If you’ve never read E.M. Forster’s “Aspects of the Novel,” do yourself a favor and take a look. It’s one of the most outstanding books about writing, and it will change your perspective on the craft. I came to it after reading an interview with John Irving, who cited Forster as his primary influence, and I’m so glad I did. The first thing that struck me was how contemporary the book feels — not in terms of its content, but rather in the way it’s written. Forster treats writing as a practical craft that can be learned and perfected through study, experimentation, engagement with other writers, and personal experience. He adds his own commentary throughout the text, often prefacing each chapter with a brief anecdote or parable that illustrates what he is about to say.