- by Sharon Ashwood
It’s been a while since I tread the halls of academe, so I was thrilled when I had the opportunity to write a critical paper on one of my favourite book series. I hadn’t forgotten the research process or the dialectic form, but I could still hear rusty gears as I fired up my lit crit skill set and cranked out a 3K+ essay in the approved university style.
Obviously, the process of writing an academic essay is very different from writing fiction. It’s all about rationality whereas fiction, for me at least, is about evoking emotion. But I was surprised at how many useful things came up as I rediscovered the arc of thesis, counterthesis, argument, and conclusion, and I’m sure I’ll be using some of those tricks in my novels.
Take the idea of a strong thesis statement. It embodies conflict, a strong viewpoint, and a plan to advance that view. The counterthesis embodies all the opposition to your plan–the devil’s advocate, so to speak. They’re kind of like the hero and the villain, and the broad similarities between an essay and a synopsis are plain. The formality of an essay’s structure simply makes the elements easier to find. Next time I write a synopsis, I’m going to think in terms of the clean, plain structure and see if that makes my life any easier.
Synopses are hard for me, because my books are convoluted. I’m not a natural, linear plotter. I’m not averse to planning. I don’t channel books the same way a true “pantzer” does–I’m just sloppy and lazy. I plot like I shop groceries: if it looks good or it’s on sale, I’ll buy it. That’s how I end up with a full fridge and nothing I actually need to make my dinner.
With an essay, it’s critical to have an outline and examples–just like ingredients for a recipe–prepared in advance of the first draft. Sure, there’s the art of variation, but once you know it’s apple pie you’re going to make, you pretty much have to get the right stuff and follow the plan. I should try it sometime. I want to write one of those books where plot point seamlessly flows to plot point before I’ve revised it fifty-four times.
One would assume that working in two such closely related mediums as fiction prose and non-fiction prose would automatically generate crossover skills. The fact that I just now discovered how well skills from one could relate to the other shows how much I separated the two disciplines in my mind. There always seemed something nasty about applying the clinical rationalism of academics to the creative hothouse of fiction, but I think I’ve been doing myself a disservice. I should be grabbing at any tricks of the trade I can.
What other non-fiction tricks can be applied to writing stories?