Do you have to be smart to write fiction?

Recently I was asked to contribute my thoughts about this topic, for an upcoming book about creativity and intelligence.  And I’ve come to the conclusion that the answer is no, you don’t have to be smart – not if by “smart”, you’re referring to the sort of intelligence that’s usually measured by IQ tests.  I know a number of doctors and engineers.   These are classicaly “smart” people — the straight-A crowd who dazzled their classmates in college and graduate school.  They’d probably ace a Mensa qualifying exam.  They excel in logic, they’re up on current events, and they know all the nuances of grammar.  They know how to spell.  Every so often, one of them will write a novel, and beg that I take a peek at their first chapter.

Most of these people can’t write worth beans.

What is about writing fiction that’s beyond these brilliant people?  How does it happen that a high-school drop-out can write a bestselling novel, while a PhD can’t even write an interesting query letter?

If anything, it’s been my impression that people who are highly educated in the sciences have a disadvantage when it comes to fiction.  It’s so ingrained in scientists to think objectively, to come to logical conclusions.  But real life — and human beings — are not logical.  And what we writers must do is create characters who seem like real people, with all their imperfections, all their inconsistencies and craziness.  People who don’t always compute.  In order to do that, you have to be a little bit illogical yourself.  You have to hear the voices of people who don’t exist, and know instinctively what unexpected things these non-existent people will do next.

Most important, you have to FEEL what they’re feeling, channel their emotions.  Feel the same stab of betrayal, the same giddiness of falling in love, that your make-believe people experience.  To do this requires a different kind of smartness, something that’s not measured on those IQ tests.  Some people might call this “emotional intelligence”, the ability to connect with the feelings of other human beings, to understand what’s going on in their heads.  Whatever it is, it’s an instinct one absolutely has to have to be a powerful writer.

And it’s not something they teach you in school.  It’s not something you can read in textbooks.  I think you’re born with it.  Or maybe you learn it from your parents and your siblings, by watching them scream and cry and throw tantrums at the dinner table. 

Maybe it’s that same understanding that makes some people talented actors.  I think that a good novelist must also be a bit of an actor.  Maybe the writer’s too shy to ever get up on a stage.  But in the privacy of his office, a novelist will suffer all the joys and agonies of his characters.  He’ll say aloud the dialogue and dribble tears on the page.  I know that people seldom use the word “actor” and “intelligent” in the same sentence.  But by golly, a good actor will have special insights into his fellow human beings that most rocket scientists simply won’t have.

Finally, there’s the fact that some people are just born boring.  No matter how smart they are, how accomplished in their particular fields, they just don’t know how to tell a good story.  Most of us know someone whom you dread sitting next to at a family gathering.  Someone who, within a few minutes, has you ready to scream from boredom.  

What they lack is a sense of the dramatic.  They don’t know what other people find interesting: conflict, crisis, fear, anger.  They think that it’s just as interesting to talk about what they had for breakfast this morning, and how it gave them heartburn, and have you heard the latest about that antacid?

Can someone who lacks a sense of the dramatic ever become a good storyteller?  I don’t think so.  I don’t think it can be taught, either.  Writing workshops may teach them how to get their manuscript looking neat and how to submit it to agents and editors, but it can’t give them the insight to understand that “John finds spiritual growth” is a boring plot while “mary fights to get her husband back” is a lot more interesting.



19 replies
  1. Eric
    Eric says:

    This reminds me of how Charles Dickens went on tours performing scenes from his novels. He also kept mirrors in his room so that he could “create” characters using his own face.

  2. BA
    BA says:

    I am a believer in different brain styles and talents. For instance, I am a reader, not a writer – and where would all the writers be without us?! You spoke of writers making their characters and stories believable. And you do that so extremely well! One reason I am a reader is that I cannot communicate stories in a believable way – and that is the about even true ones.
    Once I was working with an out of town boss. During car rides, I entertained him with stories (true experiences). I could tell my boss did not believe me because I recognized the familiar look of disbelief. I shut up. We stopped for lunch and the subject of one story was at the next table. Tim, a physician who owned a large national company introduced me to his colleagues and brought up the story of that day we worked together in a country south of here, detailing the events with the machine guns aimed at my head, the flying tackles, the arrests, the bribes, the embassy….. Only then did my boss believe my stories. That is why I can’t write. But I LOVE to buy my TS books!

  3. struggler
    struggler says:

    Tess, you seem to answer questions that haven’t been asked yet spin around inside the minds of countless budding writers such as myself. I agree with you, telling a story is a gift and not something that can be acquired by way of education and if there’s one precious piece of confidence I have (in my otherwise insecure world) it’s that I do have the ability to tell a story. Admittedly I seem to be at my best when I’m telling long drawn out jokes but I’ve been told that my ‘way of telling the story’ is funnier than that of others telling the very same story. The challenge for me though is taking the big step from telling a true story or a well-practiced joke on to a story that simply did not happen and using characters who have never existed – yet I must of course make them interesting, they must stir some kind of emotion in the reader’s mind – hate, jealousy, love, fear and so on. I have a story at the ready which is based on horrific but real-life events, so in that regard I’m blessed with much of the plot-line and I need only adapt it rather than create it. But where I have come to a sticking point is in the creation of the central character – a male with a necessarily unusual background/childhood in order to justify the actions I plan to describe. So having failed to create the character, I have semi-decided to model him on someone I already know well – he had a very traumatic upbringing and his adult life has been peppered with events that have been driven by his short fuse and accordant wild temper. In order to understand what makes him tick I want to try to get inside his mind in very much the manner in which you described above : FEEL what he’s feeling, channel his emotions into myself, feel the same stab of betrayal, the same giddiness of falling in love. It will hopefully be made easier by my experiences of having been on the wrong end of his wild temper on dozens of occasions over the years!

    I wonder how many writers do this; for example, is Rizzoli a purely non-referenced creation from your own imagination, or did you put her together in jigsaw fashion using pieces of personalities of people you already know? I find it hard to believe that a character is absolutely fictional and that the creator has not been influenced (consciously or otherwise) by parts or wholes of real people. My slowly developing plan is to make sure my characters are interesting (and convincing) by basing each and every one of them partly or completely on the extraordinary people I know in my own life.

  4. joe bernstein
    joe bernstein says:

    fiction writers are artists-how does any good artist get it done?there has to be a certain amount of technical competency,but then something else comes in – a creative spark-it can’t be defined but you know when you encounter it-i for one never confuse actors with personalities-i can tell good stories-i had some truly bizarre experiences in my former occupation,but if i wrote them down,they’d be BORING because i am not creative-i can’t make up a story and people-tess,only you writers can get away with saying you hear voices of imaginary people!

  5. Kristin
    Kristin says:

    I think good writers have to be somewhat smart. Not in sciency or math-y kind of way. Definitely not. But I will say that my education gave me a diverse vocabulary, an understanding of what makes great literature, and the confidence to create.

    My high school honors English class and my college English classes were the first places I got meaningful feedback on my writing. Plus, I got the encouragement and support from my teachers/instructors that gave me the belief I could succeed.

    But *wanting* to write a story and *knowing* how to write a story are two totally separate animals. I do believe, too, that creativity is something you are born with. Some of us can tap it better than others.

    Without my education, however, where would that creativity alone take me?

  6. patry
    patry says:

    This post really struck a chord. No one else in my family ever wanted to write, but my father was a terrific oral storyteller. For him, recounting one of his often told tales was a performance, and he always had a crowd around him. His stories encompassed all the drama and emotion and humor of life–just like the best novels do.

    I’ve often thought that what he did at parties and in lines at the supermarket and anywhere else where he could command an audience was the same thing his more introverted daughter tries to do in the privacy of her office.

  7. Tess
    Tess says:

    I use bits and pieces of various people I’ve known when I create my characters. I find that if I stick too closely to real people (e.g., if I was to use myself as a heroine) it gets uninteresting. Because then I’d be constrained by what I would do or say, and there’s no room for them to have unexpected impulses.

    As for telling long, rambling stories, you’re right — they don’t have to be boring one bit, as long as you know instinctively what makes a detail interesting. I have a friend from the south who can’t tell a story in a straight line, but wanders all over the place. But every single little side-trip is amusing.

  8. JanetK
    JanetK says:

    Once upon a time, I dated a guy who not only had a Ph.D. in biochemistry, but who also did his post-doc at Yale. He was certain that the smartest people naturally gravitate toward advanced degrees.

    I spent way too much time trying to convince him that education and intelligence are not synonyms.

    The relationship didn’t last long 🙂

  9. Gabriele
    Gabriele says:

    Lol Janet,
    I want both. 😀 That’s why I’m still single, I suppose. 😉

    My brain has always been wired weirdly; I can do that logical, analytical stuff (Biology and Chemistry were among my A subjects at school), but I’ve also always had stories on my brain, and the way I learn languages defies every traditional concept, it’s purely by instinct, not by grammar books and such. Thus, I have the whole university and degrees stuff down and now I write novels (hopefully to be published one day).

  10. Cece
    Cece says:

    LOL Funny enough you just described the difference between both of my kids. #1 is the left handed analytical, grounded in fact, almost too literate child while #2 is well, more like his mom *ggg*

  11. vividexpression
    vividexpression says:

    Yesterday was a bit of a rough day for me and reading this really perked me up. I’m studying Professional Writing in college right now and I have been having some doubts. Your words reminded me what writing is all about. Getting inside the emotions of the character and connecting with the reader.

    About a year ago I finally admitted to myself that I am a bit of a drama queen. Infact most of the time I crave drama. Anything interesting to talk about or write about. Otherwise stories would be boring. I’ve always seen reading as an escape. Why would people want to read about their own mundane lives? They don’t.

  12. Zinza
    Zinza says:

    Do you have to be smart to write fiction ? I have read the above contributions, and they are all valid — each a facet to the overall composite truth. Three days ago I randomly picked out a Gerritsen novel for the first time, as inoculation against the boredom of a brief layover. Here is my 2 bits : Don’t anyone kid themselves about this somewhat sensitive, politically charged topic — you don’t write a NYT best-seller unless you have a minimum of cerebral matter between your ears. And that minimum, my friends, is actually a very, very high pinnacle of natural talent. With the easy accessibility to higher education in our times, it is a very rare occurence that a genius is doomed to a career as a 7-11 clerk ( although amusingly, it does happen with comical and tragic regularity among Mensa members ).

    Its the difference between a Dali, Picasso, Rembrandt, and the Elvis Presley reproductions on black velvet which you find in cheap motels and Goodwill stores. A few chapters into her novel I realized I was looking at the handiwork of a highly intelligent woman, and at the end of the book I became as interested in her, as I was enthralled at her storytelling. I hate to be the bearer of sad news for those of us less talented — but the truth is, yes it does take a high level of innate intelligence to write superb fiction. After I finished the book I found myself staring and smiling for a long time at her photo on the back cover. A KNOWING smile!

  13. struggler
    struggler says:

    “the truth is, yes it does take a high level of innate intelligence to write superb fiction”

    oh dear. I’m doomed….

  14. Zinza
    Zinza says:

    To ” struggler ” : please note, I agree with others here that education or advanced degrees reflect only one type of intelligence — a PhD physicist often cannot compose a simple memo, and end up drawing stick figures like a 5 year old child. Its like finding a mate; virtually impossible to find the complete laundry list of requirements in one person. Some years ago I lived in a beauiful seaside town not far from Silicon Valley where the young wives sent their high – earning ” nerd ” hubbies off to work in the morning, and spent the rest of the day at the mall trolling for ” bad boys ” to take care of their adventure / sexual needs. ( okay, I know that was a bad segue, ha ha ).

    If you have a story to tell, start writing, and don’t stop. Its all about judgment in pruning what is appropriate dialogue, pacing, and structure — that comes with practice and experience. The greatest impediment to writers is self – doubt; you have to be persistent.

  15. mtkr
    mtkr says:

    Boy can I relate to this. A lot of my friends are either authors or are working on books. Sometimes it seems like I’m the only one who isn’t. But when people ask if I’ve ever considered writing a novel, my answer is a most definite NO.

    I’m a scientist. And I’m a pretty good writer compared to a lot of scientists. But that’s not saying much. As a whole, we tend not to excel at writing. I can write a perfectly fine scientific paper. I might not even put the reader to sleep (unlike many papers I’ve read). But I’m not going to entertain or enthrall you.

    I look at it in a way similar to singing. We can all sing, just as we can all write. But not everyone has the talent to sing well, just as not everyone can write well. I’m not in either the writing or singing group, but I can tell you how variations in the gravity field of Venus can reveal what is going on beneath the planet’s surface 😉

  16. struggler
    struggler says:


    I have been telling people for years, over and over again, that I’m a complete loser. So I have no doubts about my persistency. I just doubt myself. I may sound glib here but there’s more than a hint of sincerity; in almost all walks of life, and especially any that involves independent thinking and doing (as self-employed people must be) there is no substitute for confidence. I wish I could teach myself how to be absolutely confident. Then I could do anything.

  17. slwaterman
    slwaterman says:

    I was getting an eye exam and mentioned to the doctor that I had written a book. He was ‘still working’ on his and had a PhD in Literature. I am just barely a high school graduate, but the secret, if there is one, to writing is to have something to say and be able to say it. Of course everyone wants to ‘have written a book,’ but nobody wants to slam their butt in a chair and crank one out. Tess works harder at writing. To her it is a job and one she loves and is very proficient at. If I was half as enthusiastic about writing as she is, my second, third and so on, books would be out there now.

  18. JimMc
    JimMc says:

    I’m trying to write historical fiction novels despite having a Ph.D. in Chemistry. It’s taken me two and a half years to go from an opening paragraph of:

    The young girl sat still on the hard wooden pew, her left hand clasped tightly in her mother’s hand, the right hand fidgeting quietly with the unfamiliar fabric of the black dress. She tried to think, but thinking was too hard, too confusing. So she sat, mind blank, absorbing her environment but not reacting to it.


    “Miss Penelope Kent,” said Elder Williams, seated in the center of five middle-aged men, “you’ve been summoned to this inquest to answer an accusation of infamous behavior that brings scorn and embarrassment upon this congregation.”

    So persistence can pay off. Thanks for coming to Myrtle Beach.

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