When it comes to creative writing any theory is, to say the least, tricky. In fact, as soon as someone comes up with a definition, whatever that may be, we can be sure that a writer is bound to come along and write a story that proves that theory wrong.
From story to plot
However, this doesn’t mean we cannot draw any interesting conclusions about storytelling. For example, paraphrasing E.M. Forster, while a story is a narrative of events exclusively arranged in their time-sequence, a plot is also a narrative of events, but one in which the emphasis is falling on causality instead.
The king died and then the queen died is a story. The king died, and then the queen died of grief is a plot. The time sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it.
This might seem a subtle distinction, yet it is essential to storytelling.
In a certain way, it’s like looking at the picture below on the left. We can present it, without any comment or explication. Or we can present it as A new day, The dying of the light, Contrasts, and so on.
As a matter of fact, each title gives the readers a different reference frame and so, to a certain extent, can drive their reactions. Can lead them to think about why the writer has chosen certain words and not others. And this even without having to recur to any external time sequence.
Writing can also be likened to the building of a house. I mean, if we want to, we can choose to use only one material. But irrespective of what we choose, we should have access to a vast array of materials if we want to make sure the one we’re going to use is the best for the project we’re working on. I mean, stone can be great for building a castle, but less so for a stilt house.
Indeed, here the essential aspect of the building lies in our ability to choose. Not necessarily in choosing many different and rare materials.
Words should be treated with the same care. We should amass a quantity as large as possible of them in our heads, but then we should choose with great care the ones we really want to put down on paper. This doesn’t mean that elaborate words should be avoided at all cost, or that short and simple words should always be used profusely. Rather, this means that we should ban any stereotypical approach to our writing.
For example, words like kids, offspring, and children all present a certain semantic aura that’s typical of them. But this doesn’t mean we cannot use them in new ways. In fact, while it’s relatively easy to spot cliches and hackneyed phrases, a writing that never pushes at the seams of language runs constantly the risk of coming across as boring and monotonous as an infomercial.
In short, it’s not that we cannot make an elderly and dignified woman utter a word like, let’s say, kiddo. It’s that in order to make that happen we have to create the right context. It’s hard work, for sure. And given that writers’ skillfulness isn’t only related to the size of their vocabulary, one might decide that this isn’t exactly an essential aspect of effective creative writing.
Unfortunately it is. In fact, having a large vocabulary allows writers a greater degree of detail, of accuracy. In this way their stories are shaped by their minds’ potential and not by their minds’ limits.
After all, as Stephen King says, We’ve all heard someone say, ‘Man, it was so great (or so horrible/strange/funny) … I just can’t describe it!’ If you want to be a successful writer, you must be able to describe it, and in a way that will cause your reader to prickle with recognition.