Internal and External Approaches to Creative Writing
When I’m working on a story, I try not to think about technique too much. I focus on forging ahead without overanalyzing every step in my creative writing process.
My top priority is to get the ideas out of my head and onto the page.
However, in retrospect (often during revisions) and between stories, I often evaluate how I approached a project so that I can better understand my own creative process.
Hindsight is 20/20. I might decide that I didn’t do enough character sketches and therefore have to do more extensive rewriting. On the other hand, I might determine that I spent too much time writing down every idea and detail when I could have focused on the narrative and gotten it done more quickly.
Every creative writing project is different. Some writers might use the exact same process over and over; I don’t seem to work that way. However, I do take what I have learned to make the next project smoother. Recently, I’ve been thinking about two basic approaches that I have used when developing a concept. The first is an internal approach, which starts with character (or in nonfiction, with a human subject). The other approach is external, which starts with a situation or an event in the greater world.
The Human Condition
A few years ago, after struggling to get past the idea phase with several novels, I signed up for NaNoWriMo and successfully completed an entire first draft in just 30 days. I played by the rules and took the competition’s advice to heart by starting with just a couple of characters and not much else.
The result was that my entire approach was character based. I situated myself inside my main character’s head, placed the camera on her shoulder and just started writing. Miraculously, a plot emerged.
I ended up with a story that explored the human condition with themes of loneliness and companionship complemented by themes of loss and gain. None of it was planned, and I was truly astounded that anything beyond a lengthy character study came out of it all. What I learned was that by going inside the human mind and heart, and using that as a starting place, we can create touching, meaningful stories that help us better understand what it means to be human.
- How does someone’s internal landscape, made up of personal experiences, attitudes, and beliefs, affect interaction with the outside world?
- How does a character react in his or her special way to various situations?
- Most importantly, how does a character handle conflict?
These kinds of stories are most often found in literary fiction, but they are sprinkled across all forms and genres of creative writing, including poetry and nonfiction.
The Social Condition
Lately, I’m working on a different type of story. I started with a situation rather than a character, although I did have a vague impression of a group of characters. My concept was borne from two things: a world (this in the science fiction genre) and a situation at the social (or historical) level. I was looking at society and history for ideas (or rather, by looking at those things, I became inspired). I started far away from the characters, seeing them only from a great distance.
This approach has been a lot more fun for me but it’s also a lot more work. World building and creating histories is no small task. Every day, as I write more and more about the world, I find myself looping around a creative cycle that is bringing me closer and closer to my characters with every go-round as I discover how their actions affected the greater society.
Starting Places in Creative Writing
Story is conflict. In a story about the human condition, it’s a personal or intimate conflict. In a story about society’s condition, we’re dealing with bigger conflicts that affect the masses: stories of war, for example. However, in the latter case, stories about big events can also incorporate character stories via subplots and therefore give you the best of both worlds.
Whether we start with an event and find the characters who were involved or start with characters and find our way through a story, we have to start somewhere.
Where do you start? Do you like to approach story from far away so you can tell a big, sweeping tale or do you prefer to start with a character and tell a more intimate tale? Or do you approach from somewhere else altogether?