For some people, the last time they had to write an essay was for a high school or college English class. Even as a fiction writer, someone who probably writes every day, you might consider essay writing a thing of the past. Though both are methods of writing, essay writing and fiction writing may seem irreconcilable. Essays are rooted in analysis and argument, appealing to our logic, while fiction targets our senses and emotions. At first glance, the essay-writing process may seem too analytical, too formulaic to be compatible with fiction. However, there are places where these processes overlap, and the strategies that make for a good essay can also make for a good story. The following five essay-writing techniques will apply to and strengthen your fiction writing.
- Explain a paradox
Although the brainstorming process differs between essays and fiction—and, in fact, differs for each individual essay or piece of fiction—explaining some paradox or discrepancy is an idea-generating tactic that works for both. In an essay, attempting to explore a contradiction lets you argue against an accepted interpretation of a text or idea. By necessity, this forces you to write something non-obvious. You must look beyond the status quo and make claims that go against the grain. The same applies to fiction. If an essay is the theory behind a paradox, then fiction is the chance to show the paradox through lived experiences. By having characters or plot points that explore seemingly oppositional ideas, you can not only center your work on original ideas, but lend your story nuance.
- Define your terms
Whether you’re writing an essay or a story, one great way to start is establishing your parameters. In the introduction of an essay, you need to define your terms. No matter your topic, you must explain what each term means, not only in other texts but within the context of your own argument. In a story, you have to do the same. You should establish your world and its laws in the beginning, then adhere to those for the rest of your story. In genre fiction and literary fiction alike, world-building makes your reader privy to the rules of your world and shapes their expectations. Though the way your world—or essay—functions is up to you, you must be consistent with those limits and define them for your reader.
- Establish the significance
Like in an essay, you can add significance to your story by giving it a “so what.” For essays, the “so what” addresses the stakes of the argument: why your argument is important. Including this focuses a piece and differentiates it from other writing. As a fiction writer, you should consider your own “so what.” Though you may not state it as explicitly as in an essay, it’s still important to figure out why your story, in particular, is significant. Doing so will help you focus your writing, honing in on the specific message you intend to send.
- Develop reader-based prose
In addition to focusing your writing, essays can help you develop reader-based prose. In an essay, you write directly to an audience. Since you’re making an argument, you have to think about your readers’ perspectives to convince them of your own opinions and interpretations. For fiction, it’s just as important to keep your reader in mind. Though it can be tempting to write solely for yourself, considering your audience helps make your work more accessible. Especially if you’re hoping to be published, writing to an audience will help you best tailor your work to appeal to your readers.
- Be specific
Not only do essays indicate the importance of writing for a reader, but they show the necessity of being specific. In order to prove a point in an essay, you must avoid broad statements and generalizations, both in claims and in examples. In an essay, being specific make your argument more arguable. In fiction, specificity makes your story more memorable. Rather than talking about people in general, you should focus on one character’s specific thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Doing so will make your story stronger, creating details that stick with the reader and allow for deeper connections.
By using these essay-writing strategies, you can improve your fiction, making it more complex, nuanced, and specific. Of course, the same can be said of the reverse. Essays themselves can be creative, and aspects of fiction can make an essay more engaging and resonant. In fact, there are even instances where essay and fiction combine, as creative nonfiction. Despite their differences, essays and fiction can inform each other, and considering this introduces us to new ways of approaching writing.