The Ten Commanments of Fiction Writing, Part Ten

As a student of the art of fiction, there are several axioms and pieces of advice that I come across again and again; "show, don't tell", "write what you know", "don't trick the reader", etc. These aren't items from a single book, they're everywhere. Some of them surely originate with specific authors, but as ideas they've taken on a life of their own, becoming more than something one person said.

In this series, I will try to gather all those admonitions, encouragements, and adages into a single, definitive list; the Ten Commandments of Fiction Writing. Hopefully this will be as fun and educational for you as it is for me.


Commandment Ten: Thou shalt write what thou knowest, and know all thou mayest.

I think I might have gotten the "Olde English" wrong in the title. Wanna fight about it?


This last commandment is one you're sick of hearing: write what you know. It means you should share your experiences in your stories. It means you should create characters you understand. It also means that if you're a middle-class white guy like me, you don't try to write from the point of view of a poor black single mother during the civil rights movement. Wittgenstein put it best; "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent."

But there's another side to this old adage, and it's this: as a writer, it is your business to learn and experience everything you possibly can.

Direct experience is best. Every experience available to the human mind has its own secrets. People don't always talk about all the emotional subtleties, and as a writer you can make the experience more real for your readers by exposing them. But sometimes direct experience isn't a wise option. You shouldn't try heroin so you can write about being a junkie. You shouldn't murder someone so you can capture the mind of a killer more accurately.

In those cases, the best resource we have is other stories. Books, movies, and quality TV shows have a lot to share, and they have one additional advantage that direct experience doesn't: they're already structured into stories. Art imitates life, but it is not equal to life. Life is messy. Stories, in order to be comprehensible, should be much more orderly. So it behooves the writer to experience as many stories as he or she can.

But as long as you're living, you might as well try to have some life experiences too. They don't necessarily have to be the big, earth-shaking ones. Every day doesn't need to be a passion play. But the world is subtle and complex, despite its humdrum appearance. There is poetry all around you; from regional dialects, to the unique flavor of a particular coffee, to the unexpected struggles of your fellow humans.

If you've taken my advice about taking notes, you know what I'm talking about. Writers should be keen observers of everything around them, particularly human nature. Watch the people who come through your life. Listen to the way they talk. Study their body language. See the face they present to the world, and try to guess what's behind it.

Never turn down an opportunity to learn about something. Be curious about the things you don't see in your everyday life; from the secret pain of a depressed person, to the daily routine of your local garbage man.

Even the most menial things like the floors you walk on contain hundreds of things you never think about. You never know what might spark an idea. Open yourself to the physical world around you. Pay close attention to all five of your senses, and always be on the lookout for details that aren't obvious. 

I remember the exact moment I started doing this myself. I was in a subway station in LA. Other than the years I spent there, I've never lived anywhere with a subway system. I had been on the NY subway when I was younger, but my senses weren't as keen then. This particular day in LA, I happened to notice the rush of air that proceeds the arrival of a train. You can feel it even before you hear the squeal of the train's brakes. This detail isn't particularly life-changing, but it gave me pause. It makes perfect sense why it happens; the air is being displaced by the train just as water is displaced when you slip into the bathtub. But I had never heard anyone mention it before. And its exactly those kind of details that make a setting real.

Details like that exist for all the five senses, and they cover the entire spectrum of human interaction. If you tune in to them, they will begin to populate your writing even without deliberate effort. The mere act of observing them plants them in your subconscious, and they begin to naturally emerge in your work.

Being open to the world around you is one of the most important habits a writer can develop. If we're to write what we know without writing exclusively about ourselves, we'd better know everything we can. (Like this quote? Click here to tweet it!)