Unconventional Content in Your Fiction

Award-winning Australian author Sophie Masson provided her thoughts for writers about using unconventional content in a recent Writer Unboxed column. Masson is an internationally published author of more than 70 books. Unconventional content includes “newspaper articles, extracts from books, diary entries, audio transcripts, records of phone calls, email chains, text messages, social media posts,” and the like to enhance and extend a story.

Such content can be a succinct way to sum up a situation, convey factual information, or provide another perspective without having to delve into lengthy exposition. (The worst example of this I’ve seen was a description of the merits of a particular weapon reduced to bullet points.)

Susan Rigetti’s exciting new novel Cover Story consists entirely of these scraps. Much of it is a diary kept by the main character, Lora, Ricci, in which she reveals her personal take on her situation much more candidly than dialog likely would. Like a troublesome Greek chorus, messages between an FBI agent and prosecutor, interspersed among the diary entries, make clear that not everyone sees the situation as Lora does. Messages, emails, and other scraps of information also serve to build the fictional edifice.

As Masson points out, such unconventional content “allow authors to create a richly-textured story-world with many varied strands to its narrative tapestry.” The most familiar form of this is the epistolary novel. You probably know that Jane Austen liked the epistolary form and that Pride and Prejudice was originally written that way. Letters (remember them?) play a large part in that story, even after she converted it to a more conventional narrative.

Masson says these different forms shouldn’t be introduced arbitrarily. They need a real reason to be there;  to “really belong in your story.” I’ve written four short stories featuring Brianna Yamato, a rookie reporter at the Sweetwater, Texas, Register. Each story ends with the newspaper article that results from her digging. It’s fun writing those stories in newspaper style, and in them, each clue Brianna followed is slotted in place so that the whole picture of events emerges. There’s a sound reason for the newspaper story to be there; that’s her job.

Masson ends with some advice: do your research to make the unconventional content sound appropriate to its era and style, whether an 18th century newspaper story or 21st century texts; similarly, read aloud any audio transcripts or social media posts to check their voice; use these pieces strategically and fairly sparingly, unless the story consists solely of them, like Cover Story, or another example Masson provides, the crime novel The Twyford Code, by Janice Hallett.