The Role of Research in Fiction: Balancing Fact and Imagination

“Write what you know” is a sound strategy if you don’t know where to start. But that doesn’t mean you’re limited to fictional tales that mirror your own experiences. Just because you’ve never been a pirate sailing the high seas in the 17th century doesn’t mean you can’t write about one — you have to do your homework first. Here’s where research can help. 

Facts are a crucial component of writing fiction, whether you’re reimagining history or creating an entirely new world. Because you don’t know firsthand what it’s like to escape a prison, flee a war zone, or live in a dystopian society, you need research to fill in the gaps. Particularly when it comes to specific elements like:

  • Setting
  • Culture
  • Technology
  • Historical events
  • Professions or expertise

However, too many facts can bog down a story and make it feel more like a textbook than an engaging narrative. Imagination gives fiction its magic. You don’t want to snuff out the spark of a rags-to-riches racing tale with a detailed description of how a car engine works. You also don’t want to lose the part where the driver realizes his car is alive (and can talk) just because it isn’t factually accurate.

Balancing research and imagination means having enough facts to support your story without letting them drive it.

But how do you strike that perfect balance between an outlandish novel and a history lesson? Author Jake Wolff recently shared on Literary Hub how he kept his research in check while writing his debut novel, The History of Living Forever.

His advice? Identify, lie, and apply.

Identify

As authors, we’re often oblivious to problematic details in our own work. After spending so much time immersed in a story, it’s easy to overlook areas where we used too much (or too little) research. Wolff advises every writer to go through their novel page-by-page and highlight every piece of research used. It’s tedious work, but it is essential to identify where your story may be bogged down with too many facts or lack necessary details.

Once you’ve identified all the facts, ask yourself: Do they serve the story? Can they be cut without affecting the plot or characterization? Remember that research should enhance your story, not detract from it. By visually identifying these sections, you can see where you may have over or under-researched and make adjustments as needed.

Lie

Two Truths and a Lie is a great icebreaker and an excellent exercise for balancing fact and fiction. If you’re overwhelmed with research and trying to come up with imaginative ways to stretch the truth without losing the essence of your story, Wolff suggests playing this game.

  1. List two facts you’ve learned from your research.
  2. Invent a third fact that is plausible but not actually accurate.
  3. Use this “lie” to enhance the story and add some unexpected twists and turns.

By incorporating a “lie” into your story, you can add an element of surprise and creativity without sacrificing the factual basis of your research. You can also play with different scenarios and outcomes, taking your story in new directions while still staying true to some core elements.

Apply

Now that you’ve got a solid grip on the facts of your story and a few inventive (and convincing) lies.  It’s time to apply them in a way that supports your narrative. Wolff’s method is highly technical and won’t appeal to everyone, but the core idea can still be applied in a simpler way.

For each chapter, he creates a table with three columns: one for facts, one for lies, and one for the central conflicts within that chapter. Then, he looks over the information to see where either a fact or lie could apply to a particular conflict and strengthen the overall story.

Whether you use tables or another form of organization, the key is to be intentional with your research and how you incorporate it into your fiction. By visually laying out all the elements, you can see where you may need to add more imagination or scale back on the facts. This allows for a smoother and more cohesive blend of fact and fiction in your writing.

Need help finding the right balance?

As with any aspect of writing, balance is key — but sometimes it’s hard to find that balance on your own. As a book coach for fiction writers, I often help authors smooth out their research and ensure it’s enhancing their story rather than hindering it. Random facts thrown in for the sake of proving your knowledge do more harm than good, while a carefully crafted blend of fact and imagination can elevate your story to new heights.

So, if you’re struggling to find that balance on your own, click here to check out my book coaching services. Together, we’ll make sure your story is both factually sound and creatively captivating.

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Story Coach, Story Development

I’m Pam, Your Story Coach

I help busy professionals write and polish the book of their dreams. Let’s bring authenticity to your speculations, flow to your structure, and heart to your words.

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