I was listening to a podcast about creative minds from To the Best of Our Knowledge, while taking my daily walk, and was struck by a quote from Charles Limb, a surgeon and musician. He was talking about musical improvisation and said, “You start with something familiar and known, and you take it to a place that is completely unexpected. That’s what Jazz is all about.”
The same can, of course, be said for creative writing. It doesn’t seem to matter which genre we work in, the rules for creativity are the same across them all.
We start with skeletons of stories – basic outlines of what happens to someone in love, someone scorned, someone recovering from abuse, someone pushing herself beyond her usual limits. These are universal themes and the basic compost that serves as our source. It’s what we do with it that matters.
Our readers are hungry for something unexpected – whether a word, an idea, an action, or a reaction. Some genres have very strict rules about what happens where in a story. Whether you are following Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey (see The Writer’s Journey) or penning a romance novel, the rules are set. But within that framework, it is up to the writer to bring to life the unexpected, to provide the jazz for the story.
My husband used to love reading Alistair Stuart MacLean mysteries. [You have got to love this guy. He owned a bar and would close it down for three weeks at a time while he penned his current thriller.] I decided to see what the attraction was and really enjoyed the first book of MacLean’s I read. The second one felt a bit familiar, and by the third one, I knew by page 30 exactly what was going to happen in the rest of the book. It was formulaic without any jazz added – just new characters that were reminiscent of the old characters because they each played a set role.
Is your story predictable? Are you characters molded too tightly? Is the ending expected? Is the conflict easily solved? Is your language everyday verbiage? Shake it up. Look at every page and see where you can inject the unexpected. It doesn’t have to be huge, but it does have to be there. Add unexpected words, character reactions to circumstances, or decisions that shift the story in a new and better direction. Let your characters improvise, let your muse run wild. It will make for a better story and you’ll have more fun writing it.
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