Want to Write a Realistic Story? Read Nonfiction


I’m reading a book titled Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker, PhD.

It has nothing to do with creative writing. I got it because I’m an insomniac and have been one for over a decade now. Yet it’s given me so many new and improved ideas on how to write a realistic story.

Now, the book’s whole purpose is to prove the holistic importance of sleep. And let me tell you…

After reading 292 out of 342 pages, I’m convinced. It’s awe-inspiring how intricate the act of sleeping turns out to be, effecting us physically, psychologically and emotionally. Plus, it strengthens our memories, encourages healthy eating habits, and allows us to solve problems.

You know the saying “sleep on it” that implies people will wake up with the solution they’re struggling to find? There’s actual science behind it.

Honestly, if I didn’t already believe in God, I think I’d have to after reading the non-religious Why We Sleep. Our body’s natural sleep cycles are every bit as unbelievably complex as our genomes – to the point where it becomes very far-fetched that mere chance could create something so intricately essential.

In the same way, it’s not mere chance that turns a story idea into a story manuscript. And there has to be something intelligent involved if you want to write a realistic story as well.

There’s a reason why I titled this post “Want to Write a Realistic Story? Read Nonfiction.” It’s because reading nonfiction fills your creative writing brain with so much material.

Every time you do, no matter the subject matter, you learn more about at least one of these topics:

  • Human nature

  • Scientific concepts

  • Historical interpretations

  • Philosophical ideologies.

And potentially much, much more.

Incidentally, that’s one of the things I loved about being an English major (an otherwise useless pursuit). It included the study of history, philosophy, psychology and art, all areas I find fascinating.

Fascinating and useful for myself or anyone else who wants to write a realistic story. Every single one of those nonfiction subjects tells us something about developing convincing and credible characters… as in what and why and how real people do what they do.

That much might be rather obvious. But did you know that reading nonfiction can also help you develop more realistic plots and settings too?

To prove my point, let’s turn to p. 207 of Why We Sleep, where Walker writes:

This was the theory of overnight therapy. It postulated that the process of REM-sleep dreaming accomplishes two critical goals: 1) sleeping to remember the details of those valuable, salient experiences, integrating them with existing knowledge and putting them into autobiographical perspective, yet 2) sleeping to forget, or dissolve, the visceral, painful emotional charge that had previously been wrapped around those memories. If true, it would suggest that the dream state supports a form of introspective life review to therapeutic ends.

Translation: Healthy sleep behavior help us better process negative experiences.

As the book explains, that information is now being used to help people who suffer from PTSD… a fairly frequent topic that comes up in story writing.

(At least my story writing.)

Yet I probably never would have known about it – or been able to use it in upcoming manuscripts – if I hadn’t been reading nonfiction. Just like if I’d never read In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette, I never would have known that intellectuals used to think the North Pole a tropical paradise.

Once you got past all that ice, of course.

No joke. I actually hope to use that information in my next novel to further establish the setting.

There are thousands of other examples of absolutely interesting, exceptionally useful tidbits you can pick up from nonfiction. So if you really want to know how to write a realistic story, ease up on buying more novels.

Add some nonfiction to your list instead.

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