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Exercise: Fictional non-fiction

These exercises were written by IWW members and administrators to provide structured practice opportunities for its members. You are welcome to use them for practice as well. Please mention that you found them at the Internet Writers Workshop (http://www.internetwritingworkshop.org/).

Prepared by: Rhéal Nadeau
Posted on: Sun, 6 May 2001
Reposted on: Sun, 23 April 2001

Exercise: Fiction vs non-fiction

We sometimes think of fiction and non-fiction as exclusive domains with no overlap, but this is not really the case. Both deal with the same human realities, each feeds off the other. For example, I've seen fiction writing exercises that suggest finding a short newspaper article, trying to imagine the reality behind that report, and writing a corresponding fictional story. (This exercise will do the opposite.)

Fiction and non-fiction also share many common techniques; the differences are usually more a question of emphasis or degree.

Finally, even a writer doing only fiction writing will need at times to include fictional news items within the story, and too often these come off as unrealistic (think of the movie cliché where the protagonist turns on the TV just in time to get just the news item that concerns him, with that item providing only the information of interest to the character.)

For this exercise, please remember the following journalistic principles:

  • a good article will answer the 5 "W"s: who, what, where, when, why
  • a good article answers those questions in the first paragraph for
       readers in a hurry, then in greater detail in the rest of the
       article for those wanting more.

OK, here's the exercise:

Pick a classic work of fiction, something the other members are likely to know at least in general terms. In 300 words or less, write up the story as a newspaper article, meeting the principles above. (For example, how would one report the events of Romeo and Juliet or The Merchant of Venice as an article?)

Your article may cover any point in the story - for example, I could write an exercise based on Hamlet giving the initial situation (King dies, brother takes over) or the end point.

(I think this is one we can have fun with - be creative!)

Comments added April 28, 2002:

A couple of additional comments. Last year we had a lot of fun with this exercise, writing humoristic reports of classic fairy tales. For this year, I would suggest (but it's not mandatory) a more serious approach, trying instead to get to the roots of the issues in one of those classic stories. In addition, last year, some of the submissions tried to cover an entire novel or play in one news article. That's not how news really works - news reports on isolated events, so make sure not to get too ambitious. Whatever work you pick (unless it's a simple work covering a simple event), don't try to address the whole story, but rather one of the incidents that make up that story. (Of course, a good journalist will provide context for even the most trivial of events...) I know I'm being contradictory here, but this is consistent with journalism, the struggle to inform quickly without getting lost in background. Let's see how well we can handle this challenge!

Rhéal Nadeau's wrap-up
Posted on: Sun, 13 May 2001

Well, I must admit I'm impressed with the results of this week's exercise - both the quantity and quality of the contributions. And most of all, it's been fun.

I did find out that the exercise as I had original phrased it was too broad, too ambitious - we were left facing the difficulty of telling the story of a complex novel or play in a short article. Many of us got around this by choosing a simpler story: fairy tale or nursery rhyme (and the submissions presented us at times with a very different take on familiar stories.) Others chose to deal with a single incident in a classic work; and yet others tried (sometimes with considerable success) to tell us the essential of some complex work.

The submissions also covered a range of reporting styles, from the formal to the folksy.

When I use this article again in future, I will narrow down the scope to a single incident in a classic story, to make it easier.

(By the way, the difficulties dealing with complex stories, and the need to research to get the story right - how many of us *do* remember the details of Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet? - are something real journalists face every day.)

This topic also turned, indirectly, into an exercise on point-of-view - with familiar story being told from a different point of view, often with a very different effect. (This is also something I'd like to explore again in a future exercise.)

Anyway, my thanks and congratulations to all the participants, and I hope we all remember the lesson that writing *can* be fun!

Web site created by Rhéal Nadeau and the administrators of the Internet Writing Workshop.
Modified by Gayle Surrette.