5 Tricks Fiction Writers Can Learn From Journalism

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From George Orwell to Neil Gaiman, there’s a reason that many journalists have gone on to become successful novelists. Journalists are taught the skills necessary to capture stories from the world around them, expressing them in prose with a compelling narrative arc. Thanks to my own background in reporting and magazine writing, I’ve found that certain tricks of the trade translate particularly well when writing my own work of fiction. Here are five such tenets that I've found to be particularly effective.

1. Observe the World Around You
My own novel-in-progress takes place in Chicago, and as my characters traverse the Windy City, I find that memories of my time living there become incredibly useful in establishing setting. I’m able to describe from my own experience what it feel like for winter wind to whip between skyscrapers in The Loop and slice through your fleece coat, or what Lake Michigan looks like—vast and endless—from the rocky outcrop of Northwestern University’s Lakefill. It’s about setting the scene, and it’s a tool journalists often use to draw readers into a story—by acutely observing the world of their narrative. Even if your tale takes place in a fantastical place, try using a real-world equivalent as a model so that you don’t have to completely invent the environment in your own imagination. For instance, if your sci-fi novel takes place on a barren, desert planet, perhaps you could do some research and look at photos (or better yet, even visit) Death Valley National Park, and use that as your base.

2. Cut to the Point
Journalists know that the key to a successful interview is trimming away the fat of a conversation and homing in on the point. In fiction, this is especially important when writing dialogue. Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean every line out of a character’s mouth has to directly influence the plot. The effects can be subtle—a device for character development, foreshadowing or to establish theme. But a journalist is going to be selective in the quotes they pull from an interview, strategically choosing ones that enhance the overall story. So should you. Save the small talk for the reader’s imagination.

3. Don’t Fear Coincidence
There’s a reason that “truth is stranger than fiction” is such a common idiom. Read a newspaper or watch the evening news and you quickly realize the most fascinating stories are often born from extraordinary circumstances. The first worker to die while building the Hoover Dam was J.G. Tierny on Dec. 20, 1922. The last to die building the Dam was Tierny’s son on Dec. 20, 1935. Tragic, indeed, but you can’t tell me there’s not fodder there for a fictional story about a Hoover Dam curse. There’s an important distinction between the impossible and the implausible. The unlikeliest of events are allowed to unfold in your book. There’s a .000011% chance a person will get struck by lightening twice in their lifetime. That’s one in every 9 million people! But with 7.4 billion people in the world, why shouldn’t your character be so unlucky?

4. Keep an Ear to the Ground, Always
Good journalists are always on the lookout for an original story, whether from an anecdote heard at a dinner part or a strange detail mentioned in a local magazine that they decide to investigate further. For instance, I heard mention upon moving to Cincinnati that there was a series of empty subway tunnels under the city from a mass-transit project that was abandoned during The Great Depression. Certainly an interesting premise for a magazine story, but also a promising start to a novel about vampires who are able to freely move about the city under cover of darkness. After reading an article about the devastating environmental impact of almond farming in The Atlantic, I had a character in my post-apocalyptic satire get rich off of developing a sustainable method for watering the nuts. Such quirky plot points will make your narrative more unique, and give it a foothold in reality.

5. Be Specific
To truly paint a picture—to make readers feel as if they’re there with the writer—magazine features will describe even the most minute details of a scene in as specific terms as possible. If empty cereal boxes are scattered across the killer’s kitchen floor, tell us what kind of cereal. If your protagonist walks into a haunted house, tell us what era the house is from. What the architecture is like. That there’s a stained glass transom window depicting an orchid in blossom above the thick oak front door. The only drinking cups my main character owns are a set of souvenir shaker pints left over from an old roommate that feature cartoon illustrations of the ’98-’99 Chicago Bulls (from the first year of doomed coach Tim Floyd’s tenure, after much of the 1998 championship team had defected). Such specific details are what will transform your readers from indifferent observers into engaged voyeurs. Don’t be afraid to sharpen the focus.

These are just a handful of tools pulled from my journalist’s bag of tricks. So often we tend to think of different types of writing as disparate—even from genre to genre—but there are any number of interdisciplinary approaches that, when applied, can instantly improve your work.

Tyler Moss is the managing editor of Writer's Digest. Follow him on twitter @tjmoss11.