We all have our comfort zones, in life and in writing. Throughout my first nine years of writing, the only format I attempted was the novel, though I did eventually deviate from my initial comfort zones of the horror genre and the third-person limited point of view after my fourth novel-length work by shifting towards literary fiction and first-person narration. With that being said, it wasn’t until I took a creative writing workshop in my freshman year of college that I truly learned to challenge myself by branching out into new genres, fresh perspectives and experimental formats which, in turn, gave me new ideas on content, characterization and themes.
Having to take a workshop in poetry was crucial in teaching me the weight and value of every single word choice, and how deeply this could impact meaning. Furthermore (and perhaps even more crucial to my development as a writer), my numerous creative writing workshops in fiction inspired me to try my hand at short fiction, a format I had once balked at as being far too difficult; I had a hard enough time limiting my word- and page-counts with novels, how the hell would I manage to tell an entire story in 20 pages or less?
This led me to redefine my preconceived notions about what a story consisted of, and it made me find a deeper appreciation for subtlety and the unspoken. Where, in previous manuscripts I had written in high school, I could meander for pages at a time describing something that wasn’t really crucial to the plot or to character development (thus putting the story on hold), or I could waste precious plot progression time exploring a metaphor that I found particularly pretty (though, if pressed, I would be forced to admit that it wasn’t actually useful to anything but my own vanity), crafting a short story forced me to ditch these bad habits in search of the simplest way to convey an idea. Writing short stories–something I dedicated years to after that initial attempt in my junior year of college–changed my priorities while writing, and it made me more resourceful in my means of communicating information. Instead of spending a paragraph describing a sunset, maybe I could do it in one sentence. Maybe I could do it in one perfect adjective.
Writing short fiction also made me find a deeper appreciation of subtlety and small meaningful moments instead of grand, operatic scenes. My earlier writing had many such grand (i.e. over-the-top) scenes, where every emotion had to be dialed to 11 and every consequence had to be life or death. While you can certainly achieve this in short fiction, the brevity of the format can force you to, instead, look for the hidden, deeper meaning in smaller moments, quieter gestures and more restrained themes.
Experimenting with short fiction, thereby leaving my comfort zone and branching out into a new form of story-telling, would later improve how I wrote lengthier works like novellas and novels. This is also true of writing creative nonfiction (which made me reevaluate the emotional core of a story by influencing me to view my own life through this lens), and was especially true of screenwriting (which taught me to focus on dialogue and plot structure).
Perhaps the best advice I can give on the subject is this: if you ever find yourself stuck, stagnated or plateaued in the form of story-telling that you love most, be it poetry or short fiction or writing fantasy novels, one of the best things you can do to step outside of the box (and outside of the problem) is to take a break from your preferences and branch out to a new genre or format.
Study that format intensely. Read about the mechanics of poetry. Read about plot-progression and character arcs from the perspective of a screenwriter. Delve into the work of writers who only write flash-fiction and figure out the strategies they use to tell a fully-realized story in two paragraphs. Remove the blocks of dialogue and exposition from a comic book or graphic novel and fill in the blanks based off of the images provided. Do close readings of your favorite poems, determining all of the figurative language and references that add meaning to the thematic heft of the poem.
And try your hand at utilizing these tools in your own experimentation in other genres. Some of these tools will work so well for elevating your story-telling methods that they will translate back to your preferred genre and format, improving and fine-tuning your processes along the way. If you’re enrolled in any kind of school, seek out writing clubs and writing workshops in genres you normally don’t truck with. If you aren’t currently taking any classes, research workshops and seminars in your area, or create a network of fellow writers in your community to workshop each other’s work. Try a new approach or write about a topic you would never have considered interesting in the past. Seek out writing prompts and choose at random. After all, we learn the most from new experiences, new stressors, new pressures; by only sticking to what you know or what you’re comfortable with, you will stifle your potential, and you might never discover a new, reinvigorated passion for writing.