The title for this post is one of Dave Barry’s favorite phrases, one he trots out whenever he’s found something so bizarre, so ridiculous, it seems like there’s no way it could actually be a part of the world we live in. Except, of course, that it is. And really, for a humor columnist, what could be better than that? Why spend all his time and energy making up halfway funny stuff when Barry could let us find stuff twice as funny for him? By the end of his syndicated column’s run he actually had people all over the nation who would scour newspapers, flip through ads and watch news broadcasts just to find new absurdities to send to him.
And they didn’t even get paid!
Why do I mention this? After all, the primary focus of this blog is fiction, am I right? (Of course I am.) Well, for a moment or two I’m going to wander into the territory of nonfiction. See, while I write fiction for this blog my degree is actually in Journalism, a field that actively blends nonfiction and fiction.
Okay, I kid, I kid. To all those newspaper editors around the country who are about to denounce me from your pages, I ask that you resist the urge. In spite of some high profile cases, there are still such things as journalistic standards and fact checking. It is a form of nonfiction writing, just as humor columns, editorials and technical writing are. In this post, we’re going to look over three things nonfiction needs to do well in order to succeed and how being a good nonfiction writer can help your fiction writing succeed as well. The things that nonfiction needs to work are facts, structure by importance and a clear evolution of ideas. These things are present in all forms of nonfiction writing and, if you manage to write them well in nonfiction applying them your fiction will benefit you as well.
The first thing nonfiction needs in abundance is facts. This is kind of a “duh” thing, but if you’re making up what you’re writing about it’s fiction. You can only be writing nonfiction if you start with facts. Gathering facts and organizing them is where a nonfiction writer starts. So if you’re writing fiction, guess what you need?
Facts! Not facts in the same sense as a nonfiction writer, of course, but facts about your story. I’m not just talking about outlining here, I get that some writers don’t find that to be helpful. But you need to have facts about your story – where is it taking place, who is at the center, what are they doing when it starts, when it ends, what makes them qualified to tackle the problems the story will throw at them? The list goes on and on and on. What’s more, the kinds of questions often vary from genre to genre. A sci-fi tale will need more information about places, new technologies and societal changes than a romantic comedy.
The second thing nonfiction does is structure it’s information by importance, particularly in journalism. Rather than starting you at the beginning and working through to the end, most nonfiction starts with a premise and explains why it is relevant to the reader, then begins with the foundation of it’s argument and works it’s way through to the conclusions. Fiction is the same – not every story should begin at the beginning. Every story should begin at the part most likely to grab the reader’s interest. The ‘beginning’ of the story may not be revealed to the reader until they are part way into the story because it reveals too much about the plot, or it’s just not interesting enough. It’s important to start your story where it will interest your readers – not at the beginning.
Finally, nonfiction has to clearly work from it’s premise to its conclusion, that’s the whole reason nonfiction gets read. Fiction needs to be just as clear. Even in stories like Pulp Fiction, where the timeline is convoluted, there’s clear purpose and drive to the story and the audience can follow what’s going on all the way to the conclusion, even if the exact order of events doesn’t make complete sense to every member of the audience. Fiction is more than a series of unrelated events, no matter how clearly those events are told. If they don’t tie together into a cohesive whole with a purpose in mind they’re not good fiction. Reading (or writing) well written nonfiction gives one a good sense of how to tie fiction together in a similar way.
In short, don’t underestimate nonfiction as a resource for the fiction writer. Reading works of history and journalism in particular of great value to you as you seek to hone your craft. You could do worse than seeking them out actively.