Intro to craft
Craft is the nuts and bolts of any art form. But what do writers mean when they talk about craft? While definitions may depend on who you’re asking, there are some common elements.
**These include (but aren’t limited to):
Plot outlining – The process by which a writer sketches the story’s plot, usually from beginning to end.
Story structuring – This is concerned with how the story will be delivered and considers the number of chapters, general timeline, character list, chapters’ length, narrator(s), and other related matters. Thus, structuring is more about how the final product will appear rather than an outline of events.
Characters – Backstory and character development are vital components to story-writing. After all, a story is nothing without characters and a writer must have a firm grasp on who populates the story, where these persons came from, and where they will end up on the final page.
Narrative techniques – These include the voice and tone a story will employ as well as the POV (point of view), from first person to the varieties of third person.
Conflict and tension – Without conflict, a story doesn’t exist. Granted, conflict doesn’t always have to be physical struggle, but characters should endure trials unique to them and grow and transform through the tension.
Description – Naturally, a story cannot be carried by characters or conflict alone. Description is the heart of world-building, whether a story is set in realistic locales or fantasy environs, and allows for these realms to exist in the reader’s imagination.
Dialogue – Dialogue forces characters to interact with each other as well as themselves. What is spoken in a story is just as important as what is shown. And part of the element of dialogue is determining how characters speak and how this impacts the story.
Grammar – Grammar might seem like the least flashy element but it is the most important. Without an ability to use language, a writer won’t be a good storyteller. So as tedious as it might seem, writers need to understand and execute good grammar in their stories lest their ideas, characters, and worlds fall prey to poor editing skills.
**I intend to explore these topics in greater detail in future posts. Stay tuned!
Why is craft important?
For beginner writers, craft means understanding the basics of writing. If you don’t know how to structure a story, develop characters, generate dialogue, or use proper grammar, then your story will remain just an idea inside your brain, not a concept fleshed out on paper. For experienced writers, brushing up on craft means developing and polishing their writing. It allows them to see where their weak spots are and how they can iron them out.
So craft is good and a necessity.
But there can be a dark side, too…
Sometimes focusing too much on craft causes you to shy away from experimenting in your writing. If you allow yourself to be burdened with a strict list of do’s and don’t’s of what other writers think you should do, you won’t grow and explore all the various ways to tell a story. Granted, that doesn’t mean everything goes (such as plots that purposely ramble, main characters who intentionally remain static, and nonsensical dialogue), but you should feel free to explore creative avenues within the boundaries of normalcy and genre conventions, including blurred genres.
Similarly, writers can master craft but never put it into practice so all they have is “head knowledge.” In other words, they know how to write a story but never actually do it. They spout off how to structure chapters but never execute the same techniques themselves. They give advice on how to develop characters while their characters remain flat. They act like writing coaches but never act on their own advice. It’s a bit like reading cookbooks, giving your friends culinary tips, but never whipping up anything in your own kitchen based on what you’ve learned.
Understand that each writer has his or her opinions about certain elements of craft. Books about craft, regardless who penned them, can have good points but, ultimately, it is someone’s observations about what works for them. While there are some things that are givens (such as grammar), other matters can be simply a matter of opinion. And I’m going to outline some of these below:
You need a detailed outline before starting a story.
Outlining is a critical step in determining your story’s pieces and helps you see what needs to be developed, edited, added, or even omitted. But you don’t need an outline to start. Granted, you’ll probably end up composing one, especially if you’re tackling a novel-sized work. But an outline isn’t required to get started. Likewise, don’t feel bound to your outline. It’s written on paper, not in stone. Use it as a guide but be willing to let your story change if it’s to the characters’ benefit. And that may mean scrapping an initial outline or drafting a new one.
You should always write a story from beginning to end.
Sometimes it is best to begin at the beginning, other times it works better to cement middle or even ending scenes first. This isn’t to say your story’s opening isn’t important. But you don’t have to start drafting from the very first scene or chapter. Some writers compose their final scenes first because they want everything else that happens in the story to move toward that point. Other writers compose scenes or chapters out of sequence and put them together later. So the trick is to find the method that works best for both you and your story.
You should have detailed character backstories before starting a story.
Much like real people, you have to get to know your characters in order to understand them. This is generally achieved by composing backstories so you can see where your characters came from from, where they’re headed, and where they should end up in your story. Backstory also helps you see what types of personalities your characters possess and how these can work to their benefit or detriment. But don’t let prep work consume too much time. You want to have a sense of familiarity with your characters but don’t nitpick. I’ve seen some character backstory exercises that prompt you to consider your characters’ favorite colors, cities to visit, types of shoes, etc. But unless these are important details inside the story’s framework, they’re just unnecessary. Likewise, don’t feel the need to have detailed backstories for every character. Remember that 80% to 90% of character backstories won’t make it into your story, so while it’s important to “meet and greet” your characters, don’t spend valuable time composing lengthy histories for them.
First-time writers should avoid using third person (and other myths about narrative techniques and POVs).
Point of view controls a story by directing readers to what a character, characters, or even the author wants them to feel and know. But the narrative techniques employed in your stories should fit the story and its characters. Changing POV can alter the entire perception of the story. Imagine if Moby Dick was from Captain Ahab’s perspective. Or if the Harry Potter series was in first person. And what type of story would Gone With the Wind have been if it was told from both Scarlett and Rhett’s perspectives? As you might imagine, these works would have been quite different from the versions we know. Hence why establishing an appropriate POV is critical. But don’t feel like you can’t experiment. While second person is probably not the best choice, there are other POVs you can employ. The only one who truly knows your story, characters, and the direction you wish to take with them is you.
Conflict should always be a large, catastrophic event.
Can a natural disaster, war, car wreak, an alien invasion, or a zombie apocalypse serve as a means of conflict and tension in a story? Absolutely! But conflict is more than just a physically catastrophic event. And bigger is not always better. Sometimes the best conflict arises from smaller, quieter dilemmas, such as a character at odds with others or himself. The basis of conflict and tension in your story must be fitting for the story, its characters, and ultimate payoff. So don’t feel bad if the conflict in your novel is a batch of annoying neighbors who pester your protagonist as opposed to aliens blowing up the world. Each source of conflict has its place.
You need to describe every aspect of a scene or character.
Description is crucial because its the means by which readers enter your story’s world. While not every empirical sense can be evoked in every situation, don’t feel the need to rely solely on visual descriptions if you can reveal how a person, place, or thing smells, sounds, feels, or even tastes. But don’t feel the need to describe everything. Readers will never see your world or characters exactly as they appear in your head. Just indicate details that are striking or most important, then let readers fill in the rest. For instance, if the jacket your character wears isn’t important to establishing his character or a given scene, omit it. Resist the urge to relay everything to readers because part of the interactive nature of story is allowing readers to apply their imaginations to the world you create.
Final Thoughts about Craft
You will never “sound” like another writer, so focus on being you and having your own voice. Some beginning writers make the mistake of trying to emulate the voice, tone, story structure, or even genre of writers they enjoy. It’s great to be inspired but don’t try to mesh your style or story with someone else.
Likewise, make sure to grasp the basics of craft but don’t feel obligated to use every possible technique (aside from grammar). Make use of techniques that work for you. Some writers get so burdened by reading books on craft that they need to read books in the same genre they write – not to imitate but to learn the basics of convention.
So know about craft and try to master it. Just don’t let it master you.