This is an essay by Rhonda Kronyk.
The list of categories we can choose reading material from is endless. Yet, as busy people, we often choose to read in the genre we write in and forget that all writers can learn from reading outside their genre.
I admit that I’ve been guilty of letting my non-fiction reading slide this year as I work on my freelance writing and editing business. I miss reading novels, but never seem to make the time to fit them into my schedule.
That is until my son introduced me to the Game of Thrones television series. I rarely read fantasy fiction, and I never watch it on TV. But I am enthralled by Game of Thrones. So much so that I bought all of the novels.
It didn’t take me long to realize that writers can adapt George RR Martin’s techniques for non-fiction writing.
Here’s how to do it.
1. Understand your characters.
All non-fiction writing has a human at its core. Whether you’re writing a technical manual, a scientific treatise, a book of history, or a self-help article, everything is written by and for humans. The sooner you understand that, the better your writing will be.
However, for some genres this is even more important. Biographies, case studies, and memoir come immediately to mind.
Martin’s characters reflect humanity. They are incredibly complex, almost always contradictory, and are motivated by a range of rationales.
The people you discuss in your writing are the same. That means you need to hone your interview skills in order to access this complexity.
What aren’t they saying? How do past actions contradict or support their current words? What are their motivations?
I’m not suggesting that you dig up dirt on the people you write about. But you need to remember that, like Martin’s characters, people are rarely easy. That means that you need to take the time to try to understand them. Martin was once asked how he writes such good female characters. His response is classic: “I’ve always considered women to be people.”
What does this mean for you? No matter how difficult the interview or your personal feelings about a subject, you are dealing with people. None of us are easy, so take that into account.
2. Setting matters.
Have you ever read a feature article about a place and walked away disappointed? When Martin writes about his kingdom, readers can form a mental picture of dark castles, rich, walled cities and a wall of ice separating the North from the Seven Kingdoms.
You need to learn to convey this same detail in your non-fiction writing. Don’t leave your reader unable to form a mental image of the nature reserve, museum, or cultural event you are writing about.
That means it isn’t enough to say the lake water is blue. Rather, say “the clouds cause the water to change from blue green to steel grey, while the wind creates patterns of ripples across the water.” Details help your reader to see what you see.
Can you imagine the ice wall in the northern kingdom described as a barrier to separate the wild lands from the Seven Kingdoms? That doesn’t provide much of a mental picture, does it? But Martin’s ice-wall is 700 feet tall, 300 miles long, and infused with magic. It has abandoned forts built along its length and dominates the surrounding geography. It is forbidding and frightening and necessary.
When you build this level of detail into your descriptions, you provide your reader with a richer experience and draw them deeper into your writing.
3. The plot has to make sense.
It doesn’t matter if your story starts at the middle or the end. By the time the reader finishes the whole article, they have to understand the chain of events.
It sounds simple, doesn’t it? But think about the plot turns that Game of Throne takes. I can generally guess the ending of a show before the halfway point. Yet, I am constantly amazed by the plot twists that evolve. Not only that, but the twists are realistic because they reflect the characters and setting that Martin has worked into his story.
But you aren’t writing fiction, so none of this matters right? Wrong. Real life takes just as many twists and turns as a novel. It’s just as full of unintended consequences. As a writer, you need to be able to follow the various threads, sort them into a semblance of order and cut the ones that will clutter and confuse the story.
You always need to keep the facts straight so your reader can get an understanding of the events that you are writing about – no matter how complicated they are.
I’m thrilled that I was introduced to the rich tapestry that is a George RR Martin novel. It has been an excellent reminder to rekindle my love of fiction.
So expand your reading, go back to the wonderful world of well-written novels and incorporate the techniques of good fiction writing into non-fiction writing.
Rhonda Kronyk is the editor and co-author of Releasing the Words: Writers on Writing, an e-book helping writers take control of writer’s block. As a die-hard word-nerd, she explores everything word related including writing, editing, and reading.