If you’re a writer, you’ve probably heard this question: “What’s your genre?” Or you’ve been asked, “What do you write?”
As writers, we tend to find a creative “happy place” and stay inside of three boxes: medium, form, and genre. This allows us to find a consistent voice and target our work toward a very specific reader.
But staying inside these boxes without any deviation can have major drawbacks that will threaten the quality of your writing, and the joy of writing itself.
Why You Need to Challenge Yourself
One drawback is complacency. Write the same thing in the same way for too long, and the work becomes boring, resulting in stories that are probably boring to read.
Another drawback is a lack of imagination. By staying inside the lines of medium (what you write on), form (how poetic your writing is), and genre (what norms your writing follows), your work might be doomed to repeat itself or fall victim to old clichés.
Just like beginning a new exercise routine, or adding different lifts or stretches to your regimen, challenging yourself with new writing tasks will cause you to grow in valuable and meaningful ways.
My Writing Challenge: Host a Murder
I took up such a challenge several years ago when some friends asked me to write a murder mystery dinner party.
I accepted the challenge with smarmy arrogance. I had recently participated in such a mystery dinner party that my friends bought out of a box, and found the experience disappointing and the “Whodunit?” reveal frustratingly complex. I assumed I could do better.
I was quickly humbled. Creating a murder mystery dinner party is complex. First, it’s not a typical story or book. It’s actually eight stories (because I created eight characters) told in small chunks based on courses in a meal.
But I didn’t stop there. I added to the complexity by putting pieces of evidence in tiny envelopes that were taped to the inside of each character’s booklet. Then I decided to have a false ending, where the first killer is only a pawn of the real killer, who gets the chance to secretly kill off another character before dessert!
(When my friends hosted this, everything went well — until the uber-killer decided to knock off a dinner guest who is a great actress, who scared the heck out of her husband by pretending to choke to death!)
Challenge and Reward
Looking back, I’m thankful that I took on this creative challenge because it forced me out of my comfy writer’s box.
First, I had to write in a different form than my usual narrative prose. A murder mystery dinner game has to function as both a story and a complicated role-playing game. The materials I wrote — especially the host’s book — took on a number of different voices and styles, including everything from an instruction manual to a sales pitch.
Second, I had to write in a different medium than the typical page. Now I was writing backstory into booklets and little pieces of evidence. Suddenly the story was hidden in a receipt, or a text chain, rather than pages and paragraphs!
And third, I had to write in a different genre than I usually do. Not only was this a murder mystery, but I made it campy, calling it The Last Lap of Burt Pabsthardt and setting it in a fictionalized version of NASCAR. Think CLUE meets Talladega Nights.
By stepping outside my comfort zone in all three of these typically well-established areas, I was forced to stretch, flex, and grow.
And if you take on your own kind of challenge, I think you will too.
Your Turn: 3 Creative Writing Challenges
Ready to take on the challenge? Here are three writing challenges that will help you write outside the box and become a stronger, more creative storyteller.
Challenge 1: Write in a different medium
Think of literary medium as “delivery vehicle.”
If you write stories, your vehicle is the page (printed or web). If you make art, your medium can be oil on canvas, scraps of metal, or bits of food.
So how do you change the “delivery vehicle” for your writing?
We consume writing all the time that isn’t on the internet or a printed page. We just don’t notice.
Think posters, flyers, and signage. Think infographics and Pinterest pins. Think greeting cards, games, decorations, and other forms of “word art.”
Think of the stage and the screen.
When you decide to tell a story in a different medium, new creative muscles are forming.
You begin to see your story in a new, living way.
You also begin to think in new ways about your reader. “How will this look?” you think, which is a strange thought for a literary artist to have.
But it’s a different and powerful thought to have, and it will stretch your skills in ways you can’t predict.
Challenge: Take an existing story or chapter you’ve written and retell it in a new medium, like a play, infographic, or game.
Challenge 2: Write in a different literary form
Think of literary form as shape or structure.
This can mostly be narrowed to two categories: Poetry and Prose.
But to truly challenge yourself, try blending the two together in your writing. Tell prosaic stories with poetic moments. Write poetry that includes sections of prose.
Also try blending mediums together as you mash forms, like using found quotations in a poem, or marketing slogans in dialogue.
The goal of this challenge is to stretch your idea of what “writing a story” is, and pushing any boundaries that exist in your mind. No matter what side of the prose/poetry aisle you fall on, it’s tempting to think that the other side is too vastly different to try and succeed at.
Don’t let this false belief stop you from challenging yourself. Take some creative risks with form and feel your literary muscles grow.
Challenge: If you’re currently writing a short story, try writing it as a poem. If you’re currently writing a poem, perhaps morph it into flash fiction or a short-short story.
Challenge 3: Write in a different genre
Think of literary genre as a specific “flavor” of story.
Just as we expect “cherry” flavored candy to taste something like a real cherry, readers expect “mystery” flavored stories to feel like an actual mystery. And within that genre, or flavor, are sub-genres with distinct and unique flavors of their own.
Many writers find a genre and stick to it. This is wise, as many readers do the same thing and want authors who will consistently provide great stories to read.
But for the sake of your artistic growth (and personal sanity), writing in a different genre has many benefits.
First, you add a “flavor” to your literary buffet. Before you may have been a one-flavor author, but now you have more to offer.
And second, you’ll learn things about other genres that could serve to make the stories you “normally” write even better!
Give a different genre a try, and you’ll find yourself becoming a much more flexible and resourceful storyteller.
Challenge: Write a short story in the “opposite” genre of what is normal for you. If you write horror, try romance. If you write sci-fi, try historical fiction.
The Benefits of Growth
Creativity is a distinctly human muscle. It requires strength and flexibility of the body, mind, and soul.
And just like the physical muscles worked in gyms and YMCAs everywhere, the creativity muscle needs exercise or the risks of atrophy rise. To do that, one must stretch out beyond the bounds of comfort and familiarity.
So give one of these writing challenges a try, and enjoy the growth of your creative prowess!
How do you challenge yourself to write in different or unusual ways? Let us know in the comments.