How can journalism apply to good fiction?

By Jessica Brodie

I’ve been working in journalism for more than 20 years, from my time as a community weekly reporter to my current role as managing editor of a religious newspaper. But just as strong is my call to fiction—writing and reading­.

For years, I thought the two fields were vastly different. Journalism tends to jump to the point quickly, colorfully, but rather sparingly, while fiction has full license to meander (and let’s not even address the Oxford comma debate). In the past, I liked to say I wore two “hats”: one when writing journalism, another when writing fiction.

But recently, I was giving a tutorial on the necessary components of a strong newspaper article, and it hit me that good journalism and good fiction are far more similar than I’d thought.

Here, then, are five journalism tips that apply to good fiction writing:

1. You need a strong lead (lede) to draw the reader in

Newspaper articles are supposed to start with a bang, to draw us immediately into the story with a zingy one-liner that gives the full gist of the story (or where it’s going) to catch the reader’s interest. Fiction, however, has historically been “permitted” to ease into things. It was common to have a paragraph or page or two of setting so the reader could sip a nice cup of coffee while patiently settling into the scene.

But take a look at really good fiction and, chances are, it’s got a strong lead chapter—and especially a strong lead paragraph. No matter the genre, even if we don’t know exactly what’s going on, what the character looks like, or even why we should care, we are typically catapulted into the scene with the same sort of bang you get in journalism. There’s a “zinger” of tension, of dialogue, of something that lures in the reader, then BOOM. Hooked.

2. Orient your reader with the basics

We’re old friends with Howie and the 5 Ws (how, along with who, what, where, when, and why) from high school English class, and anyone who’s worked in journalism knows a good reporter needs to first pull the reader in and then deliver what she needs to know pronto: who’s involved, what happened, where it happened, when it happened, why it happened/why we should care, and how it happened. The rest is just fluff and circumstance.

But the same goes for good fiction. You can be the best fiction writer in the universe, but no reader will go past Page 50 if you don’t set the scene a little and give some context. Most important usually is the why, but the rest are also critical. A little orientation goes a long way.

3. Write for your audience

Good journalists know the story is about the reader. What’s most interesting? What does the reader need (or want) to know? Why should the reader care?

Fiction is the same. You aren’t releasing your diary or your brainstorming notebook to the world. You’re telling a story to someone, so you’ve got to be writing for that someone. The pace, the tension, the rhythm—everything ties in to this.

4. All the details do not need to go in

Journalists know column inches are money. Tons of news is happening every day, and there are only enough ad and subscription dollars to go around. There is a finite amount of space, and if you can’t glean the most interesting and important details from a story and condense them into a short article, your article gets cut.

Same with fiction. Just because you get 80,000-100,000 words (or, for a short story, several pages of text) doesn’t mean it’s a license to ramble. Pick the most critical elements and cut the rest. We don’t need to know your protagonist went to Littleton Elementary School and used to be a math major in college unless it applies to the story. We don’t need to know the waiter’s first name unless he’s a character.

It’s fine to leave some stuff out.

5. Find the unique angle

Good newspaper articles aren’t about the meeting—they’re about what happened at the meeting. No one cares that county commissioners met Monday evening to decide on seven key things. Readers do care that commissioners passed a new law making it illegal to sell things outside city boundaries. More importantly, readers care if it’s personal: they could now face a $500 fine for letting Little Tracy sell lemonade outside their house if commissioners were to enforce that law.

Same thing with fiction. Girl meets boy has been done a million times. What kind of unique spin can you put on it so it stands out? So it becomes personal?

Make us care.

Your turn: how else does good journalism writing apply to good fiction writing (or vice versa)?

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