Writing: Journalism & Fiction

Journalism and Fiction Writing
October 22, 2014 | By judi lembke | Reply
Journalism and fiction writing are often seen as two very different beasts, but my years spent as a journalist have, without a doubt, informed my fiction writing, mostly for the better.

As a journalist you quickly learn how to grab your reader from the very first sentence, after which you slowly unspool your tale, dropping in tidbits of the story whilst using language that will keep your audience engaged. I generally approach writing fiction in the same way: What is the basic story? Who is the target audience? What sort of voice do I want to use?

While I rarely have a story sketched out from beginning to end, I do know who my main characters are before I put a single word down. Who are these people and why are their stories of any interest to anyone? That’s a big question when writing an article and it’s equally important when writing fiction. Do you have an interesting story to tell – and what is the angle? Just as in journalism, the angle of a fiction story is almost as important as the story itself. Choosing how to tell the story – what sort of voice you’re going to use, what sort of style you’re going write in – are important factors in successfully conveying your tale, no matter whether it’s fiction or non-fiction.

Once I’ve decided that yes indeed, I do have an interesting story to tell and I’ve found a way to tell it that I think will please the reader (and myself) I go back to the basics of journalism. Because I sometimes have the tendency to get a bit off track, both in my fiction and my journalism, I’ve had to learn to lose those juicy little asides that I fall in love with. Sometimes they must be put out of their misery because they detract from the main story I’m trying to tell. Journalism has taught me to kill my darlings and keep control of the story.

Who, what, when, where, why – and how? Writing fiction is really just reporting a story, albeit one you’ve dreamed up in your head, so these questions all apply, helping you see the whole picture and helping you create a well-rounded tale. If I can answer these questions I know I’m on the right track. Alternatively, because these give me the control I need using these basics gives me the freedom to leave some questions unanswered, either completely or for a controlled length of time, allowing me to titillate the reader at will.

Now, you might be saying that fiction isn’t reporting but I’m not sure I would agree. As I said, I essentially see writing a story as reporting a story, no matter what sort of writing it is. Take a story I wrote many years ago about a lobster dinner. It was told from the perspective of the lobsters. I looked at the story I wanted to tell (you’ll need to suspend your disbelief right here): what would it be like if the lobsters had the ability to understand what was happening to them.

How would they react? Where were they when they were captured? How did they feel when they were scooped up and taken away from their home? Did they leave loved ones behind? When did they first have that dawning realisation that things weren’t quite right and how did each of them (there were five lobsters involved in this story) respond? Who was the natural leader? Who was the one who fell apart at the first sign of danger? Who was the one who got everyone to band together to fight for their lives?

IMG_4822Granted, this was a black comedy with an extra dose of silly but the essentials of journalism were there: I set the scenes, gave the lobsters voices and thoughts (and even names), and allowed their observations of this wrenching and sudden change in their lives to move the story forward. I let the lobsters answer the questions and in that way told the story.

Today I’m working on yet another black comedy, this one much more complex and features actual humans, as opposed to crustaceans. But I’m using the same formula: Who are the main protagonists and what makes them tick? What are their little quirks and how do they live? What triggered this story that needs to be told and why are they reacting in particular ways? Basically, does it add up? Does it make sense?

That’s what we do in journalism: we see if the story adds up. Are the questions the reader is going to ask answered? And if they’re not answered do I have a good reason to leave those questions unanswered? I also make sure there is room for surprises because in fiction, just as in non-fiction, things often happen that you don’t expect and you need to be prepared for the story to change.

The fiction piece I’m working on right now has changed quite a bit from its inception. When I first began the story was focused on a relationship gone wrong, from the perspective of the main character. Now, many months later, the main character is still telling the story but there has been a shift; now the story is much more about her development and the relationship gone wrong aspect is merely a trigger for larger events. If I hadn’t been asking myself the basic questions of journalism as I wrote I don’t believe I would have been able to develop the story to where it is now – and I don’t think the story would be as strong or the characters as fully realised.

I think there are a lot of lessons fiction writers can take from journalism. Certainly there are any number of differences – mainly you’re dealing with real facts in one and made up facts in the other – but in the end, whether it happened in real life or in your mind you’re still dealing with ‘facts’, and telling a good story while answering your readers questions before they ask means you’ll write something full of life that engages the audience.



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