Tips and Tricks for HSC Creative Writing

Everyone wants to do well in creative writing, but oftentimes we do not know where to begin. The typical advice we’re given to improve our imaginative pieces include: “just read more!” or “just write more”. Although these are ways by which we can really enhance our creative skills, I have decided to compile a series of tips and tricks that have allowed me to construct full-scoring imaginative pieces in the hopes of providing students a deeper insight into the key characteristics of successful stories. I too was afraid and intimidated by creative writing assessments as I wouldn’t consider myself a particularly strong imaginative writer, but through practice, I have been able to develop a relatively robust narratological framework and approach to this mode of writing that has worked consistently well for students. Once you realise that creative writing, like any other form of non-fictional writing like discursive, persuasive, or formal essays, is defined by a very clear set of features, this makes our job much easier to accomplish.

1. Subtlety in your storytelling is important

You should always treat your reader as if they know exactly what is going on in the story. Don’t underestimate your reader’s abilities to abstract meaning from your story or their capacity to extract the underlying purpose of the work and the reasons why it is constructed the way it is. Oftentimes, students are afraid that their stories are too abstract and that as a result, their reader will not be able to understand what is going on the work. However, for the most part, I see that students tend to be too explicit or ‘overt’ in their storytelling to the extent that their work ends up suffering from a lack of nuance. For instance, don’t use similes if you are going to state in plain terms the deeper meaning behind it e.g., “With each step forward he made, he felt as though time was passing by quicker and quicker.” In this instance, there isn’t anything terribly wrong with how it has been written, but it does lack skilful construction in the sense that it doesn’t have any sense of ambiguity in terms of what the idea behind the sentence is. We always want to give readers enough space to interpret the work and extrapolate meaning from it based on what they personally think the story is about. This means that rather than having each sentence in your work be an explicit link back to your idea, you should be considering how all elements of your work are working together in a cohesive way to represent your overarching idea, thus allowing room for more subtlety and ambiguity in the particular sentences and phrases you use to construct your piece. A much better example, if you were trying to represent the idea of passing time, would be something along the lines of: “He imagined what it feel like to no longer worry about the past or future, what it feel like to live in a world where there was nothing but ‘forever’ and ‘now’, to stop chasing things that had either already passed or had not yet existed.” In this second example, despite it being slightly more ambiguous than the first in terms of its meaning, it feels much more effective primarily because it has subtlety (something a lot of skilled writers can do because the meaning of the sentence will be derived from how it interacts with other important elements of the work itself like the plot, characters, setting etc.).

2. Always consider the elements of narrative and how you will utilise each of them to represent your idea

Although this seems like a rather straightforward tip, students tend to forget the basic building blocks of creative writing. We need to appreciate that success in creative writing fundamentally springs off one’s understanding of narratology i.e., how we use each element of storytelling to represent the overarching ideas of our work. Considering this, we need to think about what characters we are going to create and how each of them will embody some part of our larger idea or concern, our plot, and the progression of the story itself (i.e., what happens within the story and how this represents the idea at the core of our creative piece), as well as the setting (i.e., how will we create a setting or landscape that helps in the representation of our purpose). In addition to this, we need to think about the specific language devices and literary techniques that will assist the portrayal of our concepts (e.g., metaphor, simile, extended metaphor, symbolism, motif, allusions, paradox, contrast, self-reflexivity, syntax, diction, lexical chains etc.).

3. Keep things simple

My final tip would have to be the most neglected pieces of advice in English – which is to ‘keep it simple’. Whilst writing their imaginative pieces, students often get carried away by the complexity of their language, driven by the belief that the more ‘impressive’ their language is, the more marks they will gather from their teacher. Take it from me – this is not the case. Based on experience, and the many stories I have read from students over the past five years, a consistent trend I have noticed is that full mark creative pieces aren’t necessarily those which have the most complex language. Rather, ‘good’ stories are typically fashioned with relatively ‘simple’ words, with the differentiating factor contributing to their success being the uniqueness in how they actually combine these words together. Put simply, the words in isolation aren’t that impressive, but the coordination of these words and the way they are joined together to represent ideas is what is distinct (whether that be in how certain words are incorporated into metaphors or in figurative expressions, used as motifs, or even objects being used as symbols). An example of this is given below:

Verbose language but ineffective articulation: “We are miniscule entities, both confounded and spellbound by the nature of existence, yet continuously seeking to decrypt the answer to life.” Notice how this sentence feels as though the student has simply looked up a synonym for each word. The sentence feels very unnatural and quite clunky since each word is so long. Whilst the vocabulary, in isolation, is great (and there is nothing wrong with having a very diverse and far-reaching vernacular), we want to avoid this in our creative pieces. This is because imaginative writing is not a competition in who can implement the most difficult words into their stories but is rather a game of how we can represent an idea in the most effective and unique ways.

A more effective sentence might look something like this: “We’re just humans, I thought. Tiny creatures roaming around on a spinning ball, confused and perplexed, but always hopeful that there is something better out there to reach out our arms for.” Notice how the language here is much more simplistic yet captures the underlying idea of the previous sentence in a much more unique and interesting way.

Overall, creative writing can be a tricky form to navigate. Since we cannot escape this form of writing in both junior and senior high school, as well as the HSC, it is vital we have a firm understanding of the dos and don’ts. That way, we will be able to better articulate our stories and craft narratives that are effective and powerful.

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