Story in fiction and nonfiction

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever gotten is that nonfiction should be written so that it tells a story.

But… story is a fiction thing!

Actually “story” can be a fiction thing, but it is also a way of organizing information. In a story you have a beginning, middle, and end. In non-fiction you have an introduction, the thinky stuff in the middle, and a conclusion. The parts are similar and are used for similar purposes.

Whether you are doing fiction or non-fiction you are using words and ideas to move a person from a beginning point to an end point.

In both cases your beginning is a starting point, you need to catch the reader’s attention, acclimate him or her to the way you’re going to talk to her/him and instill enough faith in the reader that the reader will actually stick with you through the stuff in the middle to get to that endpoint.

In a fiction story that end point is a conclusion with a payoff (that pay off may be emotional, just having been entertained by a good story, or a range of other things). In non-fiction that conclusion might be a payoff (say being satisfied that you now know something), but often it is a CALL TO ACTION! In non-fiction you often want your reader to do something (buy a car, stop smoking, vote for XYZ, or…)

The stuff in the middle, the stuff that gets you from the beginning to the end, includes a lot of necessary information. The kind of information might change depending on what sort of story you’re telling, but fiction and non-fiction can share a lot here.

A how story (how to build a deck, how the Allies won in World War 2, how a couple of short, fat guys from a rural backwater saved the world by chucking a ring into a volcano…) is showing and teaching how something  happens. In this sort of story you are following logical steps from a pile of (literal or fictional) parts to a completed act or product.

A why story (Why you should vote for my candidate, why we should apply Feminist theory to the war on terror, why Jimmy the vampire chose to go vegan) explains the reasons for a thing happening. You might not follow a straight line from beginning to end on this one. You still have a starting point, but you don’t have to start with a stack of unassembled pieces. You can begin close to the end and catch the reader up to where you are. And then, with the built up momentum, move the reader to doing or believing something you want done or believed.

Fiction stories have a protagonist, that would be the ‘hero’, the person the writer is expecting the reader to follow and root for. In fiction the protagonist could be male or female, or for that matter a dog, a duck, a chicken or an anthropomorphized hunk of plastic.

Non-fiction writing generally also has a protagonist. This time we probably don’t have a hunk of talking plastic as the ‘good guy’, but we could have any of those others I just mentioned. In fact, the protagonist might be the reader. How will XYZ (if your name is Bob you can call him Bob. If your name is Juanita call her Juanita. Or whatever…) assemble that shelving unit? It isn’t going to happen by itself.

Story is a way of conveying information. It is a way of helping the reader follow what you’re saying from point A to point B. It is a way to present things so that the reader will find value in what you’re saying/writing and, hopefully, be motivated to do or feel what you, the writer, intended.

Like everything else in the craft of writing, story is something you have to learn how to use. One of the best ways to do that is to read. You will need to read in your genre to see what has gone before, but you may also benefit from reading outside of your genre as well. A good mystery story or medical drama could teach you something about how to write your trouble shooting text. A classic story of desire and obsession might tell you what you need to know to sell pizzas. On the other hand biographies and world history do drive fiction (Star Wars, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings… If you look for it it’s there).

We as humans love story. So, whether you write fiction or non-fiction, if you want to succeed with your readers tell them a story!

And, I’ll see you next post.

More reading and writing…

I’d like to thank the people who liked and responded to last week’s post about reading and writing. Since the post went up I’ve had a couple of interesting discussions on the subject. So, I’m adding a little bit more this week.

I mentioned I was finishing up Steven King’s On Writing. I’m not quite sure what comes next in that line (I’m thinking maybe the how to create an online class stuff my wife asked me to look at…). I’m also reading Glen Cook’s Garret for Hire and I’m about to start a book on how we got the King James Version of the Bible (Hey, um, even those among us who aren’t religious might be interested in the origins of a book that’s managed to stay on the market for a few hundred years…).

On the writing side off the house I’m finishing up a book on ‘Beach’ glass that’s due out by the end of the year, and I’m working on a novella about love and magic… (And there’s that story I’m supposed to submit for the Writer’s Digest short story contest, and…)

So, dear reader, I’ve told you what I’m doing… What are you reading and writing?

If you want to share leave a comment. And, I’ll see you next post.

Reading and writing

Well, I had planned to do a software thing this week… But, as it happens the new technology is kind of being a pain in the rear. So… We’ll talk about some old technology instead.

Woven in-between the other things on my schedule I am almost finished reading Steven King’s On Writing. For any of you who haven’t met the book it is a bit of a memoir, but a lot more of a how to write well book than a “when I was five we moved to…” sort of book. It is definitely worth a read.

One of the things Steven talks about is the relationship between reading and writing. I actually agree with him very much, to paraphrase his words “If you’re not reading you shouldn’t be writing either.”

We read for a lot of reason:

  1. We read to gain information
  2. We read for entertainment
  3. We read for inspiration
  4. We read to find good examples
  5. We read to find bad examples and to learn from other’s mistakes
  6. We… Well, you can run the list out as long as you like. The point is that there are a lot of reasons to read

Reading and writing are two different sides of an exchange of ideas. If you are going to do the writing side well, then you have to understand what the project looks like from the reading side including format, language use, punctuation, voice, etc. The way you learn about what things look like from the reading side is to read.

Reading shapes writing

It does. You pick up bits and pieces while reading that will show up in your writing (or will be kept out of your writing because you learned to avoid the mistakes…). But that doesn’t mean that your writing has to echo someone else’s too closely (that would be plagiarism…). No, reading shaping writing works best (and most ethically) as a process in which you pick up bits and pieces here and there and “try them on” in the process of finding your own voice and your own story.

I might pick up an arcane detail here, a formatting style there. I think I picked up my preference for using a polyphonic structure in large stories from George R.R. Martin, but some of my thoughts on how magic works are heavily influenced my David Eddings.

It’s a process that works over time. The stuff you read will influence how you write, but you really do need to draw in the bits you like and work on your own style (a while back I looked at some of my earlier stuff (like my first finished book length manuscript) and immediately decided I have to rewrite it before I put it out (can you say Tolkien much… And, that’s not even counting the fact that I hadn’t really figured out how to write female characters yet…)).

Don’t limit your reading

Don’t. I know you might want to write in a given genre, and you need to read a lot in that genre if you’re going to learn and write it well. But, it will help if you read outside your genre too. You might even want to jump the tracks and read some nonfiction (or read some fiction if you’re a nonfiction writer).

Reading outside of your area of specialization helps bring in fresh and interesting ideas. It can help sweep out the cliché’s and help you write things differently.

When I’m in my ‘normal’ work mode I usually have two or three books going at the same time. Usually I’m reading a novel or memoir (something where story is king), a nonfiction book about a subject I’m interested in or researching (coins, guns, history, psychology, geology (pretty much any of the ‘ologies’ really), or anything else I want or need to know more about, and one ‘worky icky’ book, one that is about writing, publishing, or marketing (you know the books that you don’t necessarily want to read but you need to in order to succeed in your craft).

One of the reasons I cycle between books is that I know the limits of my attention span, and I know how fast I can read. If I read too much of the same thing for too long my efficiency drops and it takes me longer to finish a book. Reading and rotating actually helps me pay attention and read more books in a given amount of time (your mileage may vary).  One of the keys is to make the books different. Reading three of the same kind of book at the same time would be more confusing than reading in three separate areas at the same time.

Putting it on the page

I’m a writer and an editor. I think a lot of the people who read this blog are writers, editors, and other sorts of folks involved in putting words on the screen or page. When we are reading, at least one of the things we are doing is learning about the writing process. We need to ask ourselves some questions about the stuff we’re reading and actually use our answers in the stuff we’re writing and editing.

Is that arcane fact interesting for some reason? How can you use it in your own work?

Is that opening effective? Is the writer conveying his/her meaning well? Is that an aspect you can borrow?

If the scene you just read sucks, then why does it suck? Are you guilty of the same mistake?

When we analyze the stuff we read, and then apply that analysis to our own writing, we develop our writing style and we are on the way to making ourselves better writers (you know, the ones who can write better, sell more, and actually make a dollar doing this stuff…).

It is important to put stuff into the system by reading and experiencing the world around us. And, if we want to be writers, we need to take that stuff we’ve put into the system and put it out in our own way, in our own words, and in our own works.

If you want to be a writer you’ve got to write. If you want to learn how to write better, you need to examine the written word, and that means reading.

There’s lots of other things to do (experiencing life and people is important too), but reading is a key to being a good writer (even a great one). And, of course, writing is kind of what the job is; it’s taking the knowledge and tools that we’ve gathered and using them in a satisfying and effective way. And that’s kind of what this is all about.

That’s it for this one dear reader. If you’re looking for something to read between this post and the next one, give On Writing a try, or take a look at a couple of posts here and at my other blog Words Mean Stuff (last week we actually talked about meaning, and next week we’re talking context). And… I’ll see you next post!