Full disclosure: I write very little fiction. However, I have noticed a number of great fiction writers use the essential tenants of non-fiction to make their work stand out in terms of both story and craft. So, before you poo-poo the techniques of those of us from the more dismal arts, take a look at these three non-fiction essentials that make for universally good writing (including fiction).
1. Tell your reader everything up front.
In high school, your English teacher may have had you do an exercise in which you wrote out a thesis statement at the top of your essay before you ever get into any explanation. The intention was probably to help you remember to inform the reader of the purpose of the entire paper and your position before you dive into any kind of facts or supporting arguments. While it might look a little silly in a paper, new writers often get distracted by the flashy facts or salacious secondary themes that they discovered during their research, and fiction writers can fall into the same trap with other parts of their story.
Many of the greats tell their readers how the story will end on the first page, sometimes in the first line. Of course, some will decry this technique. “If they know how it ends, what will keep them interested?!” they will yell between huffs of eye rolling. To this I say, you have it backward. Knowing the end from the beginning is what keeps people interested.
A few examples. First, Shakespeare did this in many of his plays. In Romeo and Juliet, he literally starts with someone walk on stage and telling the audience everything that is going to happen. Two lovers from warring houses are going to bite it, along with a ton of other people, and that will motivate their families to bury the hatchet. So, why does anyone read or see this play if they know what happens? The introduction acts as a blurb to interest them by making the audience ask questions. Why are the houses fighting? How do Romeo and Juliet fall in love? How do they die?
Some may argue that this is a poor example, because that play is 400 years old. The Bard might be super dead, but plenty of the best modern authors use the same technique, though more subtlety. In his novel Steelheart, Brandon Sanderson opens the story with the line: I’ve seen Steelheart bleed. Do we know who Steelheart is, or who is speaking? No, but we do know that the whole book is going to be about attempting to kill the seldom bleeding person, and since this is a story, the speaker will almost certainly succeed. So, we know how it ends from the first line. Why not stop? Because we need answers to everything else.
When you put the end at the beginning, you answer the most boring question first–the what–while exposing the most interesting ones–the hows and whys.
2. Tell the reader only what they need to know
This advice might seem like it contradicts the last point, but stay with me. All writers, fiction and non-fiction, have significantly more material than goes into the final product. If this isn’t the case, then they suffer from one of two problems. Either they haven’t done enough pre-writing to figure out the background of how elements of their argument/story are connected, or they are emotionally attached to unnecessary elements and left them in (yes, non-fiction writers get just as sentimental about our facts and figures as you do to your characters). In either case, the piece is bloated with useless and confusing asides that dilute the impact of the work.
Often, beginning writers have the first problem, and up-and-coming or semi-pro writers have the second. In either case, the first step to redemption is the same: delete a bunch of stuff. Read your story and for every scene, character, and bit of narrative ask yourself whether or not it directly advances the plot and the themes of the work. If the answer is, “No,” or, “Well, it connects to this other thing that connects to a thing that connects to the main points,” then delete it.
Cutting large portions of a work can be painful for an author, so I will give you the advice that one of my political science professors gave me. Cut out the offending sentence/paragraph/page, and paste it into a different file. Finish the edit and do a second edit, and smooth out the prose. All of a sudden, the offending passages don’t fit anywhere. You aren’t so attached to them anymore, and you can delete the extra file without too much heartache. Deleting stuff might not feel productive, because your piece just got shorter, but a nugget of gold is worth more than a pile of trash.
Note: I typed another two paragraphs in this section. Then, I deleted them, because I felt that I sufficiently covered those topics in the other paragraphs. Advice in action!
3. Understand the needs of your reader
This phrase has two meanings. The first is practical, and the second has the potential to be more artistic. First, the author must consider what the reader needs to know about the elements of the story: how much background do they need to understand the themes, what is happening, etc. The previous two sections cover this well, so we won’t talk about that here.
The second way to interpret what your audience needs involves connecting with the audience in such a way that they want to do something because of your work. In non-fiction academic writing, this means fitting the voice to the context of the work and presenting the evidence in a way that will make the reader want to learn more on the subject and find applications for the research. In fiction, it is basically the same thing but the author uses story and characters to deliver the message instead of data.
In any kind of writing, the author wants the reader to come to a conclusion and feel a certain way about the world. When we think of stories with a strong message, we often think of high-stakes political dramas and cautionary works like 1984 or A Handmaid’s Tale. While these are great examples of this principle, all good fiction can change the way that people think.
In Charlie Holmburg’s The Paper Magician, the main character spends half of the book walking through the chambers of her love interest’s heart. Through this experience, the audience learns something about the nature of love; it can only come from truly knowing another person. Whether or not one agrees with that argument, the entire book pushes this theme forward, and the book implicitly encourages the reader to believe and act accordingly.
The themes or connection to the reader don’t have to be some sweeping social commentary. They just need to resonate with the target audience such that people compare the idea to real life. This is the impact of a compelling, well edited story that knows its audience–at least in the opinion of this non-fictionist.