Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Commonalities Between Technical Writing and Fiction

At first glance, technical writing and fiction have nothing in common beyond being documents Technical writing is frequently about process steps: how to get from here to there. Fiction is a story from the author's imagination.

Ah, but fiction stories also have a starting point and an end, just like technical writing. Even serial stories generally come to a conclusion at the end of each story, though they leave the door open for more to come.

First-time fiction writers can learn a few techniques from technical writing that can improve the quality and appeal of their stories, simply by applying a similar logical, methodical process to their stories.

Start by looking at process technical documentation. This form of writing generally uses a Step-Action table listing a series of steps, many of which contain multiple actions. A common single step in a Step-Action table document includes:

  • The first sentence, known as a "stem" sentence, which introduces the reader to the action.
  • Level one bullet points list what actions to take. A single action is not bulleted; two or more actions are.
  • Level two bullet points provide additional details related to the level one bullet point directly above. Not all level one bullets contain level two bullets but all level two bullets must be preceded by a level one bullet
  • Notes provide additional clarification for a bullet point but do not require action on the reader's part.
Some process steps within a Step-Action table include embedded tables such as "If... Then...",  "Step, Who... Does What..." or lists of terms and definitions or actions.

Embedded tables contain at least two rows since they list actions and a single action is not a list. For example, an "If this... Then..." table has different responses for each action. If the answer is...  Yes, Then... take this action. If the answer is... No, Then... take this different action.

So how does this method apply to fiction?

Consider the example of a hero responding to a phone call for help from a friend. The stem sentence is, "Harry, I need to your help, right now," one character says in the story. That creates a starting point. The end point is the hero delivering (or failing to deliver) the aid.

Level one bullet points, but written in paragraph style, are:

  • How is the request for help sent? Is it a voice call on a cellphone phone, a text message, an email or a blood curdling scream heard through an open window?
  • How does the hero or heroine get from the current location to the victim's? Does the hero run, take a private car, use a taxi, jump on a bus, or fly?

Level two bullet points could be descriptions of the vehicle used to get from one spot to another. For example, "She ran down to the street, and jumped into her older, bashed, rusting but still powerful Ford Mustang before laying a streak of rubber on the asphalt while tearing off to the rescue.

An "If... Then..." moment could refer to a decision the hero has to make on the route they use to drive to the victim. For example, "Cheri thought, "do I take Broadway, which is likely to be jammed with traffic right now, or the back way through the bad part of town, which I never use?"

These are just some examples of applying technical writing to fiction. Keeping these non-fiction techniques in mind while writing fiction allows novelists and short story writers to keep readers engaged using believable plots and action sequences.

Note: David B. Reynolds is a Certified Technical Writer and author of Love Comes With a Leash, available now through Liquid Silver Books

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