#5onFri: Five Tips on How to Add Facts to Fiction Without Sounding Wonky

by Diane Cohen Schneider
published in Writing

The main character in my novel, Andrea Hoffman Goes All In, is an institutional equity salesperson. Don’t be alarmed if you don’t know what that is. Neither did I until I became one. But it is important that my readers understand the basics of the job and some facts about the stock market and investing in general. 

In fact, one of the reasons I wanted to write the book was to introduce readers to a world that was new to them. But, I didn’t want to write a textbook. I wanted the book to be fun, so as I was writing I kept in mind that fiction doesn’t have to be true, it just has to be believable. Adding too many facts detracts from the plot flow, which is another way of saying it makes the book boring. So, if you need to add information to make your character’s actions understandable and make your story believable, here are five tips. 

1. Have the reader learn along with one of your main characters.

I started my book when Andrea first got her job. The reader learned along with her as she grew in her role and her understanding of finance expanded. The reader doesn’t feel like you are lecturing them or that they are dumb. Readers hate feeling stupid! If your reader learns as your character learns, they get to have a lot of AHA! moments along with your main character, and this builds a connection between them.

2. Have your main character be a teacher.

If your main character is already an expert in his/her field, they can teach someone else the information you want to include. They don’t have to be an actual teacher- just a mentor or even a parent. The way they instruct someone will very much be part of their personality—are they patient, enthusiastic, condescending? But be careful not to have your teacher spew a long lecture. Are you relating information that is crucial to your plot or is it just material that is interesting to you? If it’s the latter, cut it out!

3. Context

When you are in the middle of an action scene, readers can pick up information from the action. For example, while a patient is having a heart attack in a hospital setting, the meaning of Code Blue, crash cart, or the command “clear” needs no explanation. The reader will just accept that these are the terms used to direct the doctors and nurses to save the patient’s life.

4. Use everyday language

This might seem obvious but when you’ve done a lot of research, it is tempting to use the information you have gotten from experts verbatim. But that information most likely came from a non-fiction source. Your job is to make that explanation sound like a real human being said it at an appropriate time. You need to smoothly integrate the information into the flow of the book.

Nope: “I just got a cancer diagnosis. According to 2020 data from the American Cancer Society, men have a 40.14 percent chance of developing cancer in their lifetime. For women, the odds are slightly lower at 38.7 percent.”

Yep: “Guess I’m not special. Like 40% of all guys, I just got handed a cancer diagnosis.”

5. But sometimes, it is okay to just be wonky!

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir is a great example of all of the above. The main character Ryland Grace wakes up on a spaceship with amnesia, so we learn what is going on as he does. But, it turns out he was a teacher and also has a fellow traveler to explain things to so information is disseminated that way as well. Frequently, scientific equipment is used with a minimum of explanation but in context it is clear what its purpose is. And finally, because he is communicating with a non-English speaker, Ryland has to find simple ways to explain complicated issues. But overall, there is A LOT of technical talk in this novel proving that you can break the rules when you have the talent and audacity to do so. 

One last thought. My book covers three plus years in the life of my protagonist and I was having trouble indicating that time had moved on at the start of every chapter and a friend told me that Alan Hurst – who writes fiction set in the years around World War II was good at this and I should see how he does it. I checked out his books in the library. He titles each chapter with the date! Simple is sometimes best. Save your creativity for plot, setting and characters!

Diane Cohen Schneider grew up in Illinois but spent most of her adult life in Stamford, CT, with her husband and their three children. Her career as a finance sales executive during the 1980s inspired her debut novel, Andrea Hoffman Goes All In. After leaving Wall Street, she continued her love of finance. Believing everyone should have basic financial literacy skills, she has taught courses and workshops and because she feels money management is not only necessary but fun. She has an Instagram account called @Moneylikeuhmother. Seeking to expand their horizons, Diane and her husband recently moved to Santa Fe, NM.

You can find her on her website, and follow her on Facebook, and Instagram.

Enjoyed this article?