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Want to Write Good Fiction? Study Psychology

Knowing the unspoken ‘rules’ of behavior will get you far, both in life and in art

When I was in high school, my twelfth grade writers’ craft teacher told me that majoring in psychology for undergrad was one of the best decisions she made for her writing.

The school she had gone to at the time had given her two distinct choices for a degree in psychology: the bachelor of arts or the bachelor of science. The school has since merged the two into one and kept it as a science degree, complete with all the necessary calculus prerequisites. But the idea remains that psychology is both an art and a science, and it is useful in both arenas of thinking.

All forms of communication rely on psychology

When we engage in conversation and other vocal communication, we rely on unspoken social cues and mirror neurons to dictate how we respond to one another. So for a conversation to be successful, our mind needs to have at the very least a rudimentary grasp of the psychological process that make up behavior in a conversation.

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Written communication is similar. It’s not as direct since it isn’t face-to-face, and so it requires less instant psychological markers to pick up on. But it still requires the psychological knowledge of how people who read your work — your readers — will react to your words.

Writing creative fiction or nonfiction is a form of indirect communication. Whether it’s direct or indirect, it’s still communication.

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Writing creative fiction or nonfiction is a form of indirect communication. At any point when readers interact with something you’ve created, you have communicated with them, and so you have used psychology.

Psychology is important for any kind of writing that people will read. When people read your work, they are often looking for — consciously or unconsciously — whether you are following subtle psychological rules that exist among human beings.

How many times have you cringed at dialogue in a story? That’s your subtle psychological instincts at play. There is something wrong with the dialogue. It holds too little or too much info. It’s not relatable or believable. It’s not natural enough.

The real world has a place in even the most fantastical book

I’ve since had my own experiences with psychology being a huge help for my writing. Now, when I enter a bookstore and scout out books to help improve my craft, I go straight for the books that either help me delve into 1.) how a certain process works in the real world or books with examples on 2.) how people react to different stimuli in the real world. The best example I can give of a book that encompasses both of these parameters is the book I’m currently reading and loving: Violence: A Writer’s Guide by Rory Miller.

This book has helped me immensely. Out of all types of scenes I write in my stories, I have always had the most trouble writing action scenes. So I picked up this book to help me learn what actually happens when one character picks up another and throws them across the room. How would they feel? How would they react? What would they think? What would they see, smell, hear? I want to be able to paint a realistic picture for the reader, to tap into something that’s based in reality.

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I know I’m talking about fiction here. But I think it’s important for even the most fantastical books to have elements of relatability and humanity within them to be of interest to a potential reader. And the more you follow these psychological rules of human behavior, the more your reader is likely to connect with your work when you throw in all the fantastical creatures and monsters that aren’t a part of their reality.

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Take Stephen King for example. Why is Stephen King one of the best-known writers out there? It’s not because everyone loves the genre he writes in. I’ve recommended his books to people who say they never write or read in the genre his books are in, and even they are affected by his books. Why is that? He is a good storyteller. And what makes him a good storyteller?

He understands psychology — both the psychology of his characters and the psychology of his readers. He understands what his readers want from a story, and he delivers it to them. Would his story be great even without all the fantastical elements he weaves in with the psychological? I think so. A good writer knows that how they write a book is just as important — if not more important — than what they write about; that ability to connect with the reader and communicate with them is what keeps readers hooked and immersed in your tale.

The psychological grip gives your story importance

When I talk about how a book is written, I am talking about the psychological subtleties of how you communicate all the information in your story to the reader.

There are two parts to the how: 1.) the pacing of your story and how you weave your sentences together (this is what the line editor deals with perfecting) and 2.) the surface grazing of your words or the grammar (this is what the copyeditor deals with perfecting). Don’t neglect or skimp on these two hows. The way you handle these two is what readers will evaluate even before they get to the plot and what the story is really about (we offer both line and copy editing, so be sure to check out our professional editing services if you are looking to edit your work).

Note that a thing doesn’t have to be flawless to be psychologically endearing. But it does have to find a way to connect to the reader. That’s the most important thing.

Connecting with your readers is the most important thing.

Grammar is a good example of where the rules can be broken and still work. Take the book The Road by Cormac McCarthy for example. It breaks so many grammar rules but it’s still a national bestseller and even the winner of the Pulitzer Prize.

The same is true for one of my favorite books: The Reapers Are the Angels by Alden Bell. The main character is not educated, and it shows in the language she uses. But that doesn’t stop her from communicating how she views the world in her own personal way, and its touching to read.

This doesn’t mean you can go around breaking grammar rules and not have any consequences from your readers. The grammar rule-breaking in these works are intentional, and the readers can feel it.

Readers can feel when something is intentional or not.

The grammar of a piece of work is a psychological communication too. How do your readers feel when they see mistakes? It takes them out of the story and halts their immersion. When you have too many mistakes that aren’t purposeful or integrated, you are communicating to them that you don’t care enough to keep their immersive experience and fix a few mistakes.

Readers evaluate these subtle psychological rules more than they evaluate your spelling and punctuation — whether you dotted your ‘i’s or crossed your ‘t’s.

Grammar and punctuation issues in your writing are important for the first impressions of your work, before the reader gets to the plot and the meat of the story they hunger for. Once you get past that, it’s all about the story and its elements.

Psychology can be studied just by living and having experiences

The great thing about psychology is that you can learn it from anywhere. You don’t necessarily even have to read books or obtain a degree in it. You can learn by interacting with and observing others, by being social and existing in the world. And the more experiences you have, the better equipped your psychological repertoire will be.

As both a writer and a resident of this earth, you have the whole world at your fingertips. Go forth and learn from it. And then make great art from it.

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