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.