Most everyone would agree that a good fiction story should be sprinkled with interesting and true facts and details to help the story come alive and appear more realistic. Not long ago, however, I was reading a novel (I will not mention the name) that was inundated with so much factual information that I felt like I was trying to run through mud as I read. So, what’s the balance? How do you know when you’ve added too many factual tidbits to your story, and how do you know where to put them?
Let’s take a look at fact in fiction.
I love to research! I know not every writer feels that way, but I truly think it’s fun–especially when it’s a subject I’m really interested in. It’s OK if you’re like me and love to gather a ton of research for your story. In fact, you should. You need to become thoroughly versed in what you’re writing about so that your details are accurate and you’re able to draw your reader in because of the realism your writing creates. But…
That doesn’t mean you have to use all that research in your final manuscript! Oftentimes, it’s after you’ve written your story that you can go back in and carefully and inconspicuously sprinkle in those treasured details. It might be something subtle that comes out in a conversation between your characters, or it may surface as part of a vivid scene description. But the key is to not make it obvious. You don’t want a character to spew out all the research you’ve done in a monologue just so you can show your reader how knowledgeable you are. Keep those morsels tucked away for just the right time–and only reveal traces at a time.
One way you can tell if you’ve added too much is if your facts detract from your story in any way. Always keep in mind that your research should only compliment your plot and characters. It should be the icing on the cake and not the cake itself. If, when you read through your story, you find yourself getting caught up in all the information you’ve gathered (perhaps even trying to escape from it, as I was with that recent novel), then there’s too much. One good rule of thumb is that if the facts alter the pace of your story, you’ve gone too far.
Also be careful that your facts aren’t too complicated for your reader. You never want to talk down to your audience, but you can’t expect them all to be astrophysicists either. Always put yourself in your reader’s place. Sure, perhaps you could spend endless hours studying various hand-held weapons and comparing shooting techniques and ammunition, but how much of that does your reader really need to know to better understand your suspect and his crime? Always ask yourself: Although it’s interesting, is it necessary? If the answer’s no, then don’t hesitate to omit it from your story.
Finally, evaluate the quantity and quality of your research and its necessity in your story by determining if the research is an ends to a mean, or the mean itself. Your interesting facts should simply serve as stopover roadside stands along the journey through your story. If you find you’re spending too much time at any one of these stands, or if the roadside stand takes you on too great of a detour from your main path, then you’ve gone too deep with your research.
These were just a few ways to keep balance with your research. For more information on finding and using primary sources for research, check out my earlier posts on this topic.
I’d love to hear your ideas of how you’ve managed the balance with research and fiction in your own writing.