I worked as a bookseller and library clerk in multiple places. I enjoy talking to people about books and offering them recommendations. My best selling display was one where I offered cross-media recommendations (for example, if you enjoyed the Netflix series Stranger Things then you should read the graphic novel series Paper Girls). I love giving people comparative recommendations because I think it’s a great way to encourage people to step out of their reading comfort zones. Doing that is especially important for writers.
Joss Whedon has a process he referred to as “filling the tanks” where he and his then-wife would take two weeks out of every year to take in as much content as possible from books to plays and concerts. It was during one of these sprints that he ate up a nonfiction book about the Civil War and ultimately developed Firefly as a result. I worked as a ghostwriter for three years and came up with the idea for my second book from a manuscript about artificial intelligence that I was tasked with writing.
There’s lots of benefits to breaking out of your reading habits and taking in new genres and new mediums, but here are five of the best ones.
1) See plays
Plays are something of a disregarded art form, when most of the world is flocking to the theatre to see musical blockbusters like Wicked or Hamilton. We were forced to read plays in school English classes and forced to watch the drama club put them on for extra credit. But plays can be a powerful tool. After all, plays are a showcase of dialogue. If you can tell your story through the course of a 2-hour conversation, you’ve got yourself a play. Death of a Salesman and August Osage County happen inside a single family home. The Crucible is mainly court proceedings.
Though the single, closed setting isn’t a rule, the ability to force your characters to talk is. Look at Chekhov’s plays, which take place inside Russian estates, over dinner and social callings. Reading scripts and watching plays is a great way to take notes on writing dialogue, how to make what your characters say and don’t say matter, and how to write concisely, without flowing descriptors or commentary.
2) Read nonfiction books
Everyone loves a good epic story, but there’s a lot of them that actually happened. After all, it was Chernow’s tome about Alexander Hamilton that inspired Lin Manuel Miranda to write the famous musical. As I mentioned, Firefly, a sci-fi western, was born from a Civil War book. Even Star Wars came from Joseph Campbell’s long meditation on classical mythology in Hero With a Thousand Faces. Jennifer Percy’s memoir, Demon Camp, about a soldier’s very bizarre and terrifying form of PTSD, is practically a horror novel and has already been optioned for a film. There’s stories everywhere in life. There’s a reason the biopic is one of the biggest genres in film.
3) Watch documentaries
There are several feature-length films out there that came to life from documentaries. Just look at Making a Murderer, a true crime documentary series that people binged on Netflix like it was the next season of Game of Thrones. The idea of the documentary is what inspired the found footage horror trend, beginning with Cannibal Holocaust in the 70’s (a found footage movie about a group filming a documentary in the jungle) and made most famous by Blair Witch Project, a film that billed itself as a real life failed documentary. One of my favorite documentaries, Killer Legends, is about the real life events behind terrifying urban legends.
4) Read fanfiction
I know fanfic can get a bad rap, but there are valuable pieces of it out there; and those that are valuable are very valuable. After all, the bestseller Wicked, which inspired the second highest grossing musical of all time, was essentially Gregory Maguire’s Wizard of Oz fanfic. John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost was a Bible fanfic that inspired entire theological schools of thought and literature.
Fanfic is a great, free way to experience new writing styles in an already developed piece of media, so it also requires less work on your part. For writers, writing fanfic can be a sandbox to play with tenses and POV choices. And it’s a great way to stay reading in between books and projects. Even NaNoWriMo allows fanfic pieces as qualifying work.
5) Read the classics
This is cliche, but it’s also true. You can’t skip out at looking where storytelling has been, otherwise you’re writing blindly into the future. The greatest modern horror writer, Stephen King, would have gone nowhere fast if he wasn’t inspired by Shirley Jackson’s groundbreaking “terror fiction” work in the 60’s or Edgar Allan Poe’s famous macabre poetry. Anyone writing high fantasy today can learn a lot from Lord of the Rings. Even The Hunger Games came from Suzanne Collins’s interest in the Greek myth of Theseus. The internet’s most successful web series to date, Lizzie Bennet Diaries, is a modern adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.
There’s always smaller ways of stepping outside your reading comfort zone, of course. There’s picking a sci-fi book if you’re more of a true crime person, or giving YA a chance if you’re somewhat of a more adult contemporary reader. But if you want to truly stretch yourself, and your writing, the above ways are a great starting point.
Melanie Moyer is a ghostwriter and debut author of the YA novel The Rules of Me currently residing in Philadelphia. She earned a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Pittsburgh as well as a Master of Library and Information Sciences. She has work published in Ghost Parachute, Meat for Tea, and Woman is a Cinema. When not writing she co-hosts a horror podcast, Splatter Chatter, and animation podcast, Overly Animated. She’s an accomplished axe thrower, pizza maker, and working on her next book.