By Zachary Holbrook
When I was nine years old, I became the dictator of a sprawling, shape-shifting land called Fiction, and my political party consisted of myself, a few other students in our homeschool co-op writing class, and a table where we gathered during lunch breaks to scribble in our notebooks. We even passed a law banning nonfiction, and whenever our teacher gave us an assignment that didn’t involve mythical beings like unicorns and flying hippos, we’d threaten to revolt (and then, of course, we’d obey, because she was the adult).
Ten years later, between essays for college and my job in marketing, nonfiction projects dominated my schedule instead. Much to the shock of my younger self, I enjoyed it more than writing fiction. Whether I was analyzing a passage from Plato or explaining to an email list why they should enroll in a certain singing course, I thrived on the challenge of communicating clearly and concisely.
As I improved at crafting articles, essays, and marketing emails, I worried that my career had veered away from novels and short stories. Although I appreciated the opportunities to develop expertise that could help me earn income, I lamented the fact that I was too busy to devote time to storytelling. But recently I realized that I never changed paths at all. Pursuing nonfiction doesn’t mean abandoning fiction—it hones the skills I need to excel at any form of writing. Nonfiction has taught (and still teaches) me the value of research, considering my target audience, and seeking feedback.
But this post isn’t about those lessons. It’s about the foundational question I dwell on every time I need to organize a piece—whether article, story, or sales pitch—in a coherent manner:
What Are Readers Asking Right Now?
You’ve probably heard the tip I’m about to share before, but it’s worth repeating because you may have missed part of the application: if you want your writing to be compelling, start with a question. You lure readers in with problems the characters are facing, and the solutions are the currency you use to bribe them to continue turning pages. But if you can’t predict which situations readers will wonder about at specific points, you’ll be like a tourist trying to pay a Bolivian street vendor with Turkish lira. The rewards you dole out will only be welcome if they correspond with readers’ thoughts.
Readers without questions have either reached the end of your novel (yay!) or their attention spans (uh-oh!). That’s why I designed my article’s headline to omit how writing nonfiction enhanced my fiction. If you don’t click the link, not knowing where my premise led will torment you until you enter the grave. (Just reading the article is much more pleasant, isn’t it?)
I learned the importance of bating and reeling in my audience through writing articles. Readers approach a narrative primarily expecting to be entertained, whereas they approach an article primarily expecting to be informed. Ideally, an article entertains as well, but if it doesn’t supply the answers readers are looking for, it forfeits its reason for existing.
But wait, information and entertainment aren’t so different. As Aristotle observed, “All human beings by nature desire to know.” Providing information satisfies readers’ curiosity and brings them delight, which is also the goal of entertainment. Tackle relevant questions, and your writing becomes not just useful but fun.
I recognized the connection between answering questions and bringing delight when I made progress on a novel manuscript for the first time in two years. I showed the opening chapter to my roommate, and while reading it, he remarked, “You’re such a good writer. As soon as I ask, ‘Who the heck is this guy’s wife?’ you answer.”
In my marketing work, I focus on ensuring that readers don’t get confused. When that happens, they bail, and you can’t convince them to buy your product. But for a while I failed to see that avoiding confusion is as crucial in a novel as on a webpage.
Fiction engages readers through setup and payoff. You don’t have to answer every question immediately—otherwise you’ll spoil the book in chapter one! But you do need to assure readers that you’re aware they’re scratching their heads and promise to relieve the itch later. The memo can be as simple and subtle as a character noticing a broken behavioral pattern. For example, my friend wrote a scene for her novel in which an enemy general imprisons the hero, then abruptly reverses his decision. But the inconsistency didn’t knock me out of the story. Why? Because the hero distrusts the general’s sudden benevolence. I could read on with the confidence that the play wasn’t a gimmick and the author would eventually justify it.
If your readers have too few unanswered questions, they’re bored. If they have too many, they’re perplexed. But as the omniscient writer, you’re ill-equipped to walk that tightrope. Your audience might misunderstand details you take for granted or lose interest in descriptions you find fascinating. How can you broaden your limited perspective and assemble an accurate picture of how others perceive your story?
How to Determine Which Questions Readers Are Asking
I recently prepared an article aimed at experts in the web industry. My first draft was exciting and enlightening—to me. But I’m a nineteen-year-old college student, and the data I compiled was about as scintillating to my intended audience as single-digit addition would be to a group of calculus professors.
Fortunately, I didn’t have to publish the article and watch it bomb to catch my mistake. User tests saved me from the embarrassment. As more experienced members of the company reviewed my draft, I discovered that the issues I addressed were a far cry from the ones on their minds.
In fiction, beta readers perform the same task, and their comments are essential to the revision process. But honest, constructive criticism is difficult to elicit. Either people assume that you’re requesting a full-scale edit or hoping for a pat on the back. The former often results in a no, and the latter often results in a smattering of generic praise but not much else.
If you clearly outline your expectations, you can increase the effectiveness of your beta readers. Brandon Sanderson defines the purpose of a beta reader as describing, not prescribing. Fixing a story’s problems isn’t their responsibility. Instead, they serve in an advisory role, telling you which scenes gripped them or put them to sleep, which characters they related to, and which moments convinced them to keep reading. You don’t have to accept every suggestion, but listening to their reactions can reveal your blind spots and prevent you from alienating your prospective audience.
Ask and You Shall Receive
As a nine-year-old dictator, I jotted down whatever popped into my head. A superhero snail rides a lava-surfing cow? Sure! Although my stories amused me and my parents, the concepts I dreamed up were completely out of touch with the desires of specific types of readers.
But whenever I sat down to hash out an article or marketing email over the past year, I couldn’t follow my whims. First I had to evaluate my target audience, then weave a web of words that would guide them to the answers they longed for, not the ones I fancied giving them.
Writing nonfiction forced me out of my own head so that I could draw others into my imaginary worlds and express my ideas with maximum impact. I’m grateful I had the chance to grow through this medium, and now that you’ve read my advice, perhaps you’ll be motivated to try it too.
Editor’s Note: To discover more of the benefits of writing nonfiction, check out Mariposa’s article. And if either of these posts inspire you to write an article about story craft, we’d love for you to submit it to us! We’re always looking for quality content to publish, especially tips that edify and encourage storytellers.
Zachary Holbrook attends college in Franklin, Tennessee. In between classes, he writes everything from novels to flash fiction to poetry to literary analysis to spiritual reflections. Discover his other work at his website: authorzacharyholbrook.weebly.com