Inserting Nonfiction Into Your Novel

How do you insert nonfiction explanations into your novel without sounding like a textbook? There are a few secrets to this, and I’ll reveal them today.

Mimi posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

I am writing a novel and I have a question regarding plagiarism.

How do I go about presenting descriptions of non-fictional elements such as iconic locations (such as buildings and other landmarks), scientific studies and facts, etc., without making my novel look like a thesis?

How do I incorporate facts and figures in my novel without violating any copyright laws?

Randy sez: Let’s tackle these in reverse order.

How do you insert facts and figures into your novel without violating copyright laws? The most common way is to write it in your own words. That typically means you need to have several sources for your information (which isn’t always possible). But it always means that you need to understand it well enough to say it in your own voice.

Alternatively, you can quote short sections if you give credit. The key word here is short. Look up “fair use” on the internet to see how short is short. One common way to give quotes in a novel is in an “epigraph” at the beginning of a chapter or at the beginning of a new part of your section.

In most of my novels, I’ve worked in a few pithy quotes from authorities, giving full credit to the source. Normally, I have 3 or 4 major parts to a novel, and I insert these quotes on the page that begins each part.

Now how to insert all that information into your book without making it feel like an encyclopedia. The key thing here is to do two things:

  • Make it short. Tell no more of those pesky facts and figures than you absolutely have to. You are a poor judge of what “absolutely have to” means. Ask your editor, your critique buddy, or your test readers just how many of your “indispensable” facts really are indispensable. You’ll be shocked at how little those philistines care about your research. For some reason, most people read a story for the story, not for the facts.
  • Make it late. Avoid giving any facts and figures until your story is rolling — fast. Your reader will tolerate a history of the study of hummingbirds a whole lot better if the fate of the civilized world depends on that information. You can’t convince your reader of this until the story has built up enough momentum that even the dullest fool can see why those darned hummingbirds are so important.

In THE DA VINCI CODE, Dan Brown stops the story cold for three chapters right in the middle to give his view on Leonardo, the Holy Grail, Mary Magdalene, the Last Supper painting, Jesus, and numerous other things. You may think his ideas are weird or you may think they’re gospel. But you can’t deny that they matter to the story, and it’s really necessary to lay it all out somewhere. Brown was smart to wait until the story had built up a big head of steam before he trotted out his ideas. He also used the technique of telling his information in dialogue, using two character who knew all the facts, and one character who didn’t believe them and had to be persuaded. (In my view, she was too easily persuaded, but this is Brown’s novel, so he can write it any way he wants.)

Currently, Stieg Larson’s trilogy is riding high on the best-seller lists: THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO is first, followed by THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE and then THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNET’S NEST. In these books you’ll find an enormous amount of nonfiction information on the structure of democracy in Sweden, on how to hack a computer, on Fermat’s Last Theorem, and on how the publishing industry works. Larson gets away with all these info dumps because he spins a fast, tight yarn (and because he’s created an incredibly compelling character, Lisbeth Salander, the “girl” who features in all the titles). Most of this information is presented as straight exposition, not in dialogue. This is the least compelling way to present information. Larson, who was a muck-raking journalist before he died, had the skill to tell his information in a reasonably interesting way.

You don’t have to use dialogue or exposition in your fiction (as Brown and Larson do). A third way is to salt in a fact here, a fact there, just at the point in the story where it’s needed. Suzanne Collins does this brilliantly in her trilogy beginning with THE HUNGER GAMES, followed by CATCHING FIRE, and ending with MOCKINGJAY (which comes out tomorrow! Are you all as eager as I am to read the final book in the trilogy?)

Collins inserts most of her exposition in bits and pieces throughout the story, inserting lone sentences with background information directly into her scenes. Generally, this is done as interior monologue, where the lead character Katniss is thinking about the information Collins wants to tell. Personally, I think this works pretty well. There are many writers who hate interior monologue. Done poorly, it can be awful. Done well (as Collins does it), it can be awesome.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.

9 Comments

  1. Patty August 23, 2010 at 1:44 pm #

    Much as I’d love to be at the Mockingjay release party at midnight, I’m afraid if I bought the book, I wouldn’t get any sleep, so I’ll have to wait until tomorrow morning to make that purchase.

    Don’t bother me tomorrow, though. I’ll be reading.

  2. kinjalkishor August 24, 2010 at 12:30 am #

    Infodump should be –
    1.) Required only – Just the bare minimum absolute required and never more than that.
    2.) Compressed – Sentences that tell lot more in less space, when we read them again or with concentration more is revealed but does not seem like infodump to reader.
    3.) Interesting – If it is interesting while tying up with story 100%, any info can be given. Like as Randy points out in case of Da Vinci Code.
    4.) Questioning – Raise the question in dialogue of one of characters and then answer the question later in dialogue, by which time reader is himself dying for info.
    5.) Example – “The door irised out.” Robert J. Sawyer, Blue planet. see how much info, questions and technology are in this short sentence.
    Just 4 words are sufficiently short to use without fear of copyright but if they are really specific like this sentence, the writer will have difficult time proving that he came up with the exact wording himself. The longer the passage the more the danger of Libel.

    Copyright Concerns –
    Using real world and places is possible with permission as names are generally copyright. For Ex. Coca Cola is a brand name which the company has made and they are pretty aggressive about its portrayal out of their knowledge. Like if many people get ill by drinking coca Cola in writers novel the company will be very crazy, on the other hand if people are cured by drinking Coca Cola then also social workers etc. will raise concerns on such portrayal of Coca Cola, Remain neutral and avoid copyright whenever possible, find replacements. Use cleverly disguised names like “Roca Cola” or the more general term “coke” which has dictionary meaning also apart from its now construed meaning of Coca Cola soft drink.

    If a minor character is named Gildor in one novel that may be no problem but if someone’s hero is Aragon and heroine Gladriel, and their son is Harry Potter they will soon here from Tokien and Rowling.

    In short put your foot as far as away from copyright and libel. And one can always write better than what is already written and make better names then already famous.

  3. Sar August 24, 2010 at 3:04 am #

    On infodumps, I like how Chuck Palahniuck does it in his novels. They’re usually a part of how the character thinks (inner monologue), but he couches it into their speech patterns and usually ends up making a good joke or out-there statement after it that gets you thinking.

    Thanks kinjalkishor, I was wondering from the previous blog entry about places and products. I was debating whether to make up fictional names for real places, or just go ahead and use them, but I’m guessing it’s much safer to use the fictional name (though it would ruin some good jokes we had about them). If the place really does exist, and you use a fictional name, does that still count as Libel?

  4. Andrea August 24, 2010 at 8:32 am #

    For anyone else interested in Hunger Games living near Berkeley, Suzanne Collins will be at Mrs. Dalloway’s bookstore Ashby and College tonight. There’s a party and book signing and contest. We’re very excited in this household!

  5. Don August 24, 2010 at 9:28 am #

    The Coca-Cola example above concerns trademark rights, not copyright. Tom Clancy comes to mind as a writer not shy about using real brand names in his work, to achieve the effect he was after.

    On the other hand, I always remember a comment about Rex Stout (the Nero Wolfe detective series) making up “Rabson” as a brand name for a door lock (to show a respected door lock, but that the detective had to pick). The commentator thought that Stout had hit the right note to convey strength of the fictional lock and generate believability in the reader’s mind.

  6. Alastair Mayer August 25, 2010 at 3:17 pm #

    “kinjalkishor” makes a good point about how much background can be conveyed by a simple word choice with the example from Robert Sawyer — who was paying homage to Robert Heinlein’s famous line “The door dilated.”

    And speaking of homage, Lawrence Block pays homage to Stout in his Bernie Rhodenbarr “The Burglar Who …” novels, with Bernie the burglar remarking on the quality of Rabson locks.

    Michael Crichton was another author who could do multi-page infodumps and have the reader like it, because he did them well, like something from “Discover” magazine. A writer has to earn the right to infodump, either by presenting the information in an entertaining way or building up sufficient interest in the story first. Preferably both. If you can do it — and it’s harder to do well than it sounds — then better is the info-trickle, where the information is artfully distributed (as with the Sawyer/Heinlein example) through the story rather than plopped down in an expository lump.

  7. kinjalkishor August 26, 2010 at 12:20 am #

    @ Sar, Inner monologue is a very good way, though danger of using the exact thing remains, still everybody is free to make opinions in his mind, even fictional characters. This is a opinion. When the same opinion is presented as hard fact there is problem.
    Using names of real cities places is ok as everyone is doing it. Even the very large portrayal of slovakia in the film Hostel did not create problems for film makers.
    Using cleverly disguised fictional names is very much free from libel, but if someone can show that you were purposely doing it you can get in trouble. But it is very difficult to prove as you are using a different name. Roca Cola can be easily name of any other cold drink on Earth or Trantor, it is difficult to prove you are doing something to Coca Cola. More similarity like the company structure of Roca Cola, place of operation, similar names of executive (in which case you may be actually doing something to Coca Cola purposefully comes to mind) will be required.
    You are 99% safe with fictional names and no Human life is 100% safe:)

    “If the place really does exist, and you use a fictional name, does that still count as Libel?”

    You are 99% free of danger in this case. And anybody can sue anyone on anything but it is 99% difficult to prove.

    @ Don, Sorry I used copyright, trademark is the right word. But the problem and solution are the same.
    Tom Clancy is I may add, very difficult to sue right now. Why he will be shy but if we are not Tom Clancy or very rich and are beginners we should be really very careful.
    Also anything can be used without problem when PERMISSION is obtained. Hopefully Tom Clancy does that in the beginning.

    Using a fictional name in a series like “Rabson” lock and making up the name(the same way coca cola have made their own brand value), is very good. But Rabson is your own invention so you are free with it and u have given value to it. Whereas Coca Coal is given value by Coca Cola people.

    A better example is this – Recently the Open Source PC game “Nexuiz” is being ported to consoles by another commercial developer, and the Open Source Community of Nexuiz is very angry at the usage of the name for a commercial title, as till now it denoted “free and PC – cross platform”(the community worked hard to make it worthy and good) and commercial one means “paid and console only”. So they are arguably rightfully angry. They even agree to let another developer use a derivative name like “Nexuiz Arena” but they do not want anybody to tamper with the original unmodified name “Nexuiz”, and I feel they are right.

    That is the big problem of using real names.
    Use real with permission and fictional name as you want seem very safe policy to me and better safe then sorry.

    @ Alastair Mayer, “The door dilated.” is too famous and overly used example, so I decided to give something different. Also “The door irised out” does not seem like homage as considering the aliens lifestyle and body structure in Blue Planet a door irising out seemed very logical whereas dilating door shows technology but is not critical to its purpose.
    Purposeful things make solid story!

    “A writer has to earn the right to infodump, either by presenting the information in an entertaining way or building up sufficient interest in the story first. Preferably both. If you can do it — and it’s harder to do well than it sounds — then better is the info-trickle, where the information is artfully distributed (as with the Sawyer/Heinlein example) through the story rather than plopped down in an expository lump.”

    — is the best way to present info as “Alastair Mayer” sums it. Thanks Alastair:)
    Also do not forget to use raise questions. If you will read the famous short story “Nightfall” of Isaac Asimov you will see how cleverly he keeps the suspense high by asking questions in beginning and providing science concepts in easiest layman way. Though this is done by him in the Foundation series novels also very well(my favorite):)

  8. Alastair Mayer August 27, 2010 at 9:50 pm #

    @kinjalkishor, you make a fair point. The phrase “the door [opened in some way]” has been used by any number of SF authors trying to find a new spin on it. My favorite — although alas I can’t recall the author’s name right now — is “The door deliquesced.” It’s not a great example — most people will have to look up the verb, throwing them out of the story — but it’s an interesting image, with interesting technological implications.

  9. kinjalkishor August 29, 2010 at 7:58 am #

    @ Alastair Mayer, “The door deliquesced.” is a very good example. Also the 3 words paint a whole picture of setting or environment. The line in itself seems critical to functioning of organism using it. This is the best example of spin off I have seen. Though the writer should get credit for making great use of language.
    There are other gems also but they are rare to find. But door examples are a bit plenty:)

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