In his 2000 craft book On Writing, Stephen King says,
When you step away from the “write-what-you-know” rule, research becomes inevitable, and it can add a lot to your story. Just don’t end up with the tail wagging the dog; remember that you are writing a novel, not a research paper. The story always comes first.
Now, of course, there are such things as really compelling research papers.
I wrote at least two research papers during my five years of graduate school, one that was published in a book of essays, and one that’s so far unpublished, that I believe are absolutely compelling reads.
I’ve also read research papers from some of my writing colleagues that swept me away in that opening paragraph and kept me engaged all the way until the last sentence, the way that great fiction often does.
There is nothing wrong with research papers. I think there’s validity and skill and talent that goes into writing them. But at the end of the day, when it comes to your fiction, you have to remember to tell your story first, and deliver any research you might have conducted second.
If what you found out about a disease that takes a center role in your latest narrative, by all means, integrate it in some way. If you discovered something mesmerizing about architecture for your latest novel that features an architect as your protagonist, then hey, try to find a place somewhere in the story where that piece of research can somehow come through in a way that helps the story.
But please don’t ever show off your research in your fiction writing. Don’t stop the story cold to tell us what you learned.
This can be really hard for writers, especially when we’ve come up with a couple of pages or more of really fantastic research that we believe any person out there with a pulse will find vastly interesting.
You spent many hours conducting that research, after all. You don’t want it to have been a total waste of your time. You don’t want to have spent hours and hours discovering twenty, thirty, fifty amazing things about your topic… but only one or two of them end up in the finished novel.
Trust me, I know the frustration when it comes to the balance of researching things for a story and actually including much of that research in the story.
On Monday I start writing my twentieth novel, about a girl who has an allergy to water. I have three pages of pretty spectacular notes about everything involved with this very real allergy that many people young and old deal with on a daily basis. I have found so much interesting information, you guys.
And I’m at a point right now where I kind of want to include all of it in the novel, whether it’s through description or dialogue or whatever. One tactic I’ve been thinking about trying is actually showing this character’s blog entries she’s becoming famous for, so that the reader can discover more about her allergy through her own words.
I want to include it all… and then ultimately I need to step back and re-address the situation.
I need to remember that the research I’ve conducted should serve the story, not the other way around.
I’m going to include some of this research in my latest novel, but first and foremost, especially for the initial draft, I need to tell the best story I can, in terms of the characters and conflicts and emotions and surprises. I need to put most, if not all, of the research completely out of my mind.
Now, when I get to the second draft, and especially the third and fourth drafts, I might by then figure out a way to incorporate some of this research I found that doesn’t sound expositional or awkward to a reader. It has to feel natural. It can’t be shoved into the middle of a giant block paragraph that seems to only be there to deliver information to the reader.
So my final note about research is this: do it if you need to (and for most stories and novels, you need to at least do a little). Read through your research a few times before you begin writing the first draft. Read it through so that you have the most important parts of it at the back of your mind, especially the research you know at some point will need to be included.
But then let the story come first. The story should always come first. You don’t want to put in so much research that your short story or novel for a few pages or more begins to read like a research paper, and a boring research paper at that.
You want to make sure your story comes alive in every way it possibly can.