I'm faced with a writing dilemma where every real life situation I've tried to write feels forced/inaccurate. I'm a fairly young person and I don't have a large amount of experience regarding offices, traveling, relationships, etc. Experiences that are often just a part of regular life prove difficult to write convincingly. I've tried fantasy writing, but there's still a "believability" aspect that I can't seem to pin down.

I'm fairly shy by nature and I spend a lot of time observing rather than interacting. Is my problem a lack of confidence? Or tenure? Or maybe something else?

If anybody has some advice to offer in this area, I'd really appreciate it. This issue is really demotivating me in my writing.

  • @sonics gave a great answer but I'd like to suggest pinpointing exactly what feels false in your writing. I'm a shy person myself and I had this problem when it came to interactions and, especially, dialogues. It isn't easy to write about, say, a character's work day when I have no idea what a particular job entails in reality. Still, one can look for answers online. Much trickier is to make your character sound and act naturally. Observing, as you say you do, is of great importance here. Reading books about body language, psychology and social chronicles is also helpful. Good luck. Commented Aug 7, 2017 at 7:39
  • Do what writers in your situation have always done: write science fiction.
    – adfasdfasd
    Commented Aug 7, 2017 at 18:56
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    @adfasdfasd With all respect, and while I suspect this was meant as a joke, your comment could easily be taken as an insult to an entire genre of well-developed fiction. Please have a look at our be nice policy. Commented Aug 7, 2017 at 21:27
  • I'd say, avoid writing words plucked from the thesaurus, at least, don't lean on them. Writing something that uses simple words to explain something profound, is better than using fancy words to describe something shallow. Best of luck! Persist, persevere, and have patience. Good things will be discovered in due time. Commented Aug 8, 2017 at 5:24

7 Answers 7


As a young writer, it is completely understandable that you haven't been able to experience or deal with a variety of situations in life. However, contrary to this fact, almost all writers regardless of age and divine wisdom will experience difficulty in writing certain themes and issues due to unfamiliarity that will arise at some point when writing.

The best example I can use is writing fantasy, as you said you have tried. Of course there are the stereotypical fantastical elements and themes given to the genre that can be seen as a 'starting point' for many fantasy writers. However, those who write fantasy have never been in such situations in their life, and probably never will. I'm sure J.K Rowling isn't a witch or wizard, and wasn't one around the time she wrote Harry Potter.

So what is it that allows for writers to write scenes and themes that they don't know? Either by creating their own dictating rules of their universe that allow them to govern aspects with what they already know or have imagined, going out into the world and trying to experience what they're writing about, or more popularly – by doing research.

Research, in general, doesn't have to be the monotonous task of finding information and writing notes. There are many ways one chooses to find information, but when writing, research can often be quite fun and eye-opening. As well as this, research allows for writers to be led astray from stereotypes, as what one probably already knows about something that they are unfamiliar with is probably the utmost cliché of the idea.

Of course, writing notes may be fine for some people. And, in general, I would say writing notes is very efficient to come back to when writing. However, there are a vast array of things one can do to look more into the situations and themes one chooses to write. A great way to research for novels is to read other books and examine other texts dealing with similar themes and issues. And often, if you enjoy your book and have developed a general enthuse for your story, you will begin to really take an interest in the majoring themes within your book. I tend to do this often; if I am writing a distinct story about a fictional sporting team, for example, other books, TV shows, and movies about the same thing will generally begin to appeal to me.

Another way to obtain an idea of experience is to read accounts of or talk to people who have gone through similar situations as the ones you're unsure about. For travelling, as you said, it may help to read blogs of people who have gone to or live in the country you are writing about. Writing about polygamy, for example? There are many real, public accounts of relationships in this dynamic that you can find online and in non-fiction literary form. This method, combined with accurate research, would also be ideal for any medical situations you may need to write about, as fictional examples aren't as reliable of a source. Of course, in these situations it always pays to be respectful – again, by developing interest in the themes of your story, you tend to acquire a believable curiosity in the experience you're looking for and have a large will to write about said themes as accurately as possible.

All in all, there are many ways to try and obtain familiarity without actually experiencing the situations you want to write about. Just know that you don't have to actively have participated in something you wish to write about in order to write it well. After all, writing is about the execution of your ideas. Even the most wise and experienced person in a field may have a great understanding of their expertise, but their plan of execution if ever they want to write about their knowledge may be completely off or uncharismatic. It may also help for you to write a small portion of your story that contains an attempt at writing a theme you are unfamiliar with, and then pass off said excerpt to a beta or anyone that is familiar with what you are trying to write and allow them to make a judgement on your accuracy. It also pays to continue to write in the theme you are wishing to master. With dedication, even just by having frequent attempts at writing themes that allude unfamiliarity, you will eventually allow yourself to drastically gain experience in just writing said topic! Good luck!

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    This is an incredible response. I'm glad that this website has such amazing information on it. Thank you sonics29, you have brought me a big step closer to my destination. Commented Aug 8, 2017 at 5:20
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    Yes, research. As an old teacher once told me, "Don't write what you know; write what you want to know." You might like his article about the subject. Commented Aug 8, 2017 at 13:08
  • Thank you so much for this fantastic advice! You've given me a lot to think about and I already feel much better. I'll definitely start putting your suggestions into practice. Thank you again for your help! Commented Aug 9, 2017 at 4:33

There is no substitute for experience, but when a story feels forced or inaccurate the root of the problem is almost always motivation.

Authors can and do divert wildly from how actual places look and how actual institutions work all the time. Real forensic labs are not staffed by the gorgeous people working in wide bright rooms in soaring architecture and they don't solve crimes in a day. Nothing about any of the plethora of forensics shows on TV is remotely true to how forensics actually works.

Impossible technology, ridiculous coincidences, implausible timing, ignoring normal procedures and policies -- an author can get away with all of this, as long as they get motivation right. Motivation is the one false note that no reader will forgive in a story. Characters must act in a way that is consistent with their character and the things they want.

This is often inconvenient for the author. Having established several characters, each with their particular motivation and desire, you put them together in scene in which you want a particular outcome in order to further the plot. But that outcome is not the one that you would really get given those people, what they want, and how the operate. You are forced to choose between letting your plot go off the rails or letting one or more of your characters behave contrary to their motivation or character -- the one thing the reader will not forgive.

Authors are often so wedded to their plot, and sometimes to the believability of the plot, that they keep the plot and sacrifice motivation. It is the fatal step -- the thing the reader will not forgive.

What they should be doing instead is either reinventing the character from scratch or manipulating events of the plot (perhaps by some absurd technology or outrageous coincidence) so that the characters acting in character still walk through the door with the tiger instead of the door with the lady.

You can be absurd about everything else (though you should try to be consistent in your absurdity) but you must get motivation right.

  • I really appreciate your comment. I'll spend more time looking at my character's motivations and trying to be consistent. Thank your for your advice! Commented Aug 9, 2017 at 4:41

Because I think you're possibly on the wrong track, I'll weigh in four or five areas for you to think about.

(1) Writing your experiences isn't fiction. It may be good practice for writing in general, but it's not fiction. If we were all limited to the some of our experiences - Lord help us.

(2) "Write what you know." If your daddy is a hedge fund manager and you live in The Hamptons don't make your MC a single mother on welfare, living in the Bronx - no matter how much research you do you'll get it horribly wrong.

(3) "What you know and your interests provide the natural framework and focus of your story. It should affect even the most inane areas."

  • Even at the breakfast table, Sophie has little interest beyond her phone - Instagram, Whatsapp, and Twitter ruled her life.

  • Even at the breakfast table, Sophie has little interest beyond her phone - the mouthwatering aroma banana pancakes and maple syrup could not distract her from the temptations of social media.

It's not case of which is better: the alternatives represent the interests of individual writers. One is into food, the other has more experience of social media.

(4) You seem to believe that people should behave and react in a certain way during events and within scenarios. We are all individuals. Personally, I take issue with anybody questioning my characters' behaviour. Almost in contrast to what you're saying . . . your character's extraordinary behaviour is what got them into the story in the first place.

(5) Once you're confident in writing what you know you can beginning mapping and projecting. If, when you were an only child, your little brother was born, and there was that brief period of jealousy when you thought he was getting all the attention and stealing your mommy, can you apply those same feelings to when you're in college and your bestie gets a boyfriend? Maybe you've never gone out got drunk and woken up in a strange bed, but you've been camping, woken up in the night, and spent a few seconds panicking before you worked out where you are and what was going on.

  • Nice answer. You seem to be our resident contrarian and that's a good thing. On a lighter note, "If we were all limited to the some of our experiences" - some/sum was probably a typo, but it seems to work even better! ;)
    – Joe
    Commented Aug 9, 2017 at 5:52

I'll keep this short and simple. I'm just like you and had the same difficulty. My solution was this: I watch movies, YouTube videos, and read articles about the topic I need to write about. Sometimes, I imagine myself in a certain role/situation, then write.

For example, if I wanted to write about a guy hitting on a girl successfully, I'll do my research as stated above, then create my dialogue/scene.

Or maybe you have an office scene of someone being fired. Do the research, then write.

FYI: You're not going to have every experience in your book/literary work unless it's an autobiography. I'm certain every author does his/her research before he/she writes fiction to make it believable.


I am an old writer. My advice is simple: Steal experience!

To be more specific, you need to study some existing fiction that is in the best-seller, well-reviewed, or highly acclaimed realm. When I say study I mean you should consume it once to enjoy it, then consume it again, and again with your analytic mind firmly in charge.

What did the author do to make you love Alex? What did they do to make you hate Brittany? How exactly did they manage to show you that Charles was the villain, but make you root for that jerk anyway?

Reviews are done by fans and usually adults that already have experience, and if the review is good, it means the scenes did not sound forced or contrived but seemed like actual adult experience. Stories falling into that category are what you must seek out, and then figure out for yourself why so many people agree that, for example, the romance (from meeting to consummation to breakup) did not feel contrived; the sexual aspect is rated "Hot" instead of "comically inept", the abusive boss seemed unrealistic, the man would cheat on his wife or the woman would try to murder her rival.

Obviously do not plagiarize scenes and dialogue; the point is to generalize for yourself, and invent for yourself, rules that these good stories seem to follow. So if you have never murdered anybody IRL, try to find three or four well-reviewed stories (by multiple authors) where characters murder other characters (preferably victims they know, not just a thug shooting somebody for fun). Then you have work to do: What do these murderers have in common? How bad is their grievance or greed or need to kill somebody? How long did the author have the character plan the murder? How detailed did the characters get in their plans? What did they do to keep their victims unaware? Importantly, what do you think was the most ridiculous thing the author got away with in writing this scene? (If watching a film you don't need the script, presume all the action and dialogue was written and focus on that.)

What you want to develop for yourself are guidelines that you can use to keep your own fictional characters in one lane, without raising red flags or causing the suspension of disbelief: So look to authors that succeeded in this task and pick apart how they did it.

Real experience is over-rated. Authors write scenes of crime, cold-blooded murder, rapes, torture, paedophilia, assassination, genocide, death camps, slavery and all sorts of magic and interactions with aliens, they have never experienced and would never commit or want to experience. In the case of American Southern slavery, for example, they are always stealing the experience from the historical accounts, hearsay and diaries; nobody is left alive that was actually a slave or slave owner back then.

In your case, steal the experiences you need from adult writers whose work is praised by other adults. Something "real" must be in there, or it would not have resonated so strongly with their audience.

Learn to watch/read it without becoming absorbed in the fantasy; learn to stay above it, in an analytic mode. Figure out what the tricks or boundaries must be, and turn those into a guideline for yourself. If this sounds hard, it is: but you will get better at it within weeks. Unlike life, you don't have to grow up to become an expert on office scenes, or sex scenes, or crime scenes (and approximately 0% of fiction writers have actually committed any serious crime or assault that they have written; that is all stolen experience from other works or police reports, or other real-life reports).

Do not take notes, go directly to the next step: generalization into guidelines for your writing. Also, your guidelines do not necessarily apply to anybody else, they are about how you understand and enjoy stories, so you can write stories that sound good to you and you would enjoy.

Do not plagiarize, even if the words sound perfect: When that happens, try to figure out why exactly they sound so god damn perfect. Because listen: if you can pull a guideline out of that, to help you create your own original god damn perfect lines, it can be priceless.

  • I would make a distinction here between stealing setting and stealing experience. You can and often must steal your settings. No historical novelist has ever lived in the settings they describe. But the more human aspects of experience are much more difficult to reproduce from second hand. This may not matter in a potboiler, but in a more serious novel it is very difficult to be serious without some experience of the essential conflicts and emotions you are writing about. It is also hard to see what your motivation for writing about these things would be if you have never experienced them.
    – user16226
    Commented Aug 7, 2017 at 15:51
  • "Stealing experience" is just dramatic phrasing, not an actual theft: It is learning from the success of others; which we do every time we plot a screenplay. but I've written about female sexual experience without ever being a female, written about drug addiction without ever having been addicted, and in detail about various crimes I have never committed. The motivation is not to write a biography, but to tell a compelling story the audience won't dismiss out of hand. So distill from what gets applause some general guidelines about what can work.
    – Amadeus
    Commented Aug 7, 2017 at 17:02

In my experience, you write best what you love most. If you love people, you write good characters. If you love conversation, you write good dialog; if you love to observe, you write good settings and descriptions; if you love stories, you write good plots.

I can see two possible ways forward for you. First, you could refocus your writing on own existing experiences and/or interests. Compelling books have been written about young protagonists with limited and/or stunted experiences of the larger world (Room, A Secret Garden, Catcher in the Rye, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, To Kill a Mockingbird), even if most of those still have the larger world in the background. And if plot and dialog aren't your strengths, maybe you should try non-fiction, or poetry.

Second, you can try to live a bit more, and also "love" a bit more. By living more, I mean things like traveling, if you can, making new friendships, going on blind dates --things that will put a few more experiences in the hopper. By "loving" more, I mean putting more focused attention into the areas that you are weak in. For instance, since I'm not great with descriptions, I sometimes spend time trying to carefully observe a particular setting with loving attention to details. Otherwise, I know my descriptions will be as fuzzy as my usual careless observations of given places. Maybe you can do the same with whatever part of your writing is ringing false.


Because I had it on the top of my mind when I read your initial post and then someone dropped it in the answers, it's this sort of mentality that is the reason I like to say that "Write what you know" is the worst possible advice you can possibly give a new writer. Never ever be afraid to write what you don't know, so long as you write it in such a way that your readers will thing you do (i.e. RESEARCH).

The fundemental flaw of saying "You never lived this life so you cannot possibly know" is betrayed by looking at the three best selling book series that were written with for children in the 90s-00s are Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling (Also doubles as the best selling book series that is not a religous doctrine (yet) of all time and to date the only series to net over one billion dollars in value), Animorphs by K.A. Applegate, and Goosebumps by R.L. Stine. Now, again, I'll remind you that these are books that are aimed at young males primarily in elementary and middle school ages and features characters that those readers can identify with. Of the three series, only one, the worst performer of the three, was written by anyone who had any experience growing up as a elementary or middle school boy. And even then, he featured girls as lead protagonists quite often despite his lack of experience being a girl. If you want to turn to television, which is dominated by male writers, then one of the most praised and scholarly critiqued television shows of the past 30 years is Buffy The Vampire Slayer, who's glut of strong female characters, television's first lesbian kiss, and humor are widely considered to be a high bar even after all these years... all created by Joss Whedon, a man who was never a high school cheerleader let alone a lesbian in high school in the 90s... but still managed to somehow give us some good ones.

You do not have to write about a character who meets your gender, sexuality, race, socio-economic situation, cultural background, or any other situation you don't know about. If your father was a hedge fund dude that no more qualifies you to being a great writer about hedge fund guys than it qualifies you to write about single parents on welfare.

"Writing what you know" helps you only to get comfortable with writing things. But if that's only where you stay, then you miss the point of writing (especially fiction). Fiction is the art of using lies to tell the the truth. After ally, fiction is not real, it never happened, and it might never happen... but if it's done well, it lead you to some places you've never been before, gives you perspectives you've never considered before, and opens up minds to new things. Consider the famous first interracial kiss on Star Trek depicted between caucasian actor William Shatner and African-American actress Nichelle Nicholes. Nicholes would later recall that she received more fan mail for that one scene than anything she ever did with Star Trek but her favorite came from someone who wrote in to tell her that he still was opposed to mix-marriages but, he did recognize that Nicholes was quite attractive and could see why Shatner's character would be comfortable with kissing her (and I am very much paraphrasing here. The letter is humorously backwards by today's standards. Given that the writers used mind control to explain why the two characters, kissed, with context, it could be reasoned that the letter's writer was calling BS on the out the writers gave to the accusation that Shatner's character wanted to do that... in effect, no one tells Kirk what to do and if he didn't want to kiss a black woman, he would have fought off the mind control and not done so.). Yet, in this example we see the power of fiction using lies to tell the truth: A man who admitted his own biases against interracial love was taken to what could be an uncomfortable place for his belief... and was able to recognize that the only thing "wrong" with what happened was the mind control... that's not real and real white people do kiss real black people all the time. Clearly no one is forcing to do it so they must actually find each other attractive and there's nothing wrong with kissing an attractive woman.

Like that example, fiction is not always going to keep the reader to a place they are comfotable with. But if you're going to lead your reader there, well, you got to first go there yourself.

Now, enough scaring the new writer... lets get you to some good resources:

I highly recommend TVTropes.org, but just beware it's like Wikipedia but WAY MORE ADDICTIVE. I'd say start with a look of their UsefulNotes section which are factual based topics on real life historical events, culture, religion, politics and political systems and unlike Wikipedia, a good number of them have some humorous wit to them. I'd also see what they have on various media depctions on things you're trying to do (they have sections on proper dialog, and sections on elements of fiction common to offices, traveling, relationships, and fantasy) AND SO MUCH FREAKIN MORE. Just give yourself some decent time, because if you're gonna write... or you're just gonna consume some kind of media, than there's a lot to read about in that site.

Personally, I've found dialog is typically incidental to the plot. I tend to plan events that need to happen, and when I need to do dialog, I wing it (unless the dialog is heavy heavy heavy plot critical... like "No, I am your Father" critical... then it gets planned out just a little more...).

I'd also let people read some samples and ask for feedback. I did that towards the end of high school. You'd be surprised how many people asked if you have any more... And hey, if you're not comfortable in social situations, that's going to make a lot of human interaction look wrong... because you're not comfortable with it in the first place... but remember, "Write what you know" is going to lock you into your comfort zone in writing... which is why it's terrible advice... and here's a secret about asking people who don't write: if you tell them you'd value your input and it's still a work in progress, but you'd like their input into your work... well... guess who's nervous... cause they can't write stuff... but you asked for their input into writing something which means you must think they are capable of writing to some degree... and they won't let you down. I've asked a lot of people to read my stuff in all sorts of terrible states... never once have I been given a critique worse than I give myself.

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