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5 Things Fiction Writers Can Learn From Non-Fiction Writing

write well in any genre

two smiling women in red sitting in snow with books
Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

Writing is writing, and stories are stories. Perhaps the only true genres are fiction and non-fiction. And even there, who can be sure?
Tanith Lee

There are two kinds of people in the world; those who like fiction, and those who have no time for anything but facts. Although creative non-fiction has blurred the boundaries between the two types of narrative, classic non-fiction is rooted in verifiable truth as seen by the writer.

Even if you write fiction exclusively, good non-fiction has much to teach you whether it is memoir or exposé. Every writer wants their message to be heard in the way that they intended, so let’s see what non-fiction has to offer.

Just The Facts

When you write non-fiction, you sit down at your desk with a pile of notebooks, newspaper clippings, and books and you research and put a book together the way you would a jigsaw puzzle.
Janine di Giovanni

Research underpins non-fiction, providing both material and evidence for that material. When you write highly imaginative fiction you might feel you can skimp on research, but this is a mistake. The action might take place in a distant galaxy or your home town, but get the details right and convince your reader that the events you describe could really have happened.

Andy Weir’s book The Martian took an improbable situation – astronaut stranded alone on Mars – and resolved it using actual science. That solid grounding in truth ignited its early popularity with readers who preferred authenticity rather than hand-waving the explanations.

Historical fiction such as Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See clearly requires in depth knowledge of the period setting. However, only the salient facts need appear on the page. Like an iceberg the majority remains hidden, but familiarity with all your source material will allow you to write your characters and settings with conviction. 

Avoid dumping facts on the reader unless they serve the story. Nothing halts narrative flow as much as indigestible lumps of information. Find a way to feed it into dialogue or action instead.

The Shape of Things

One of the underestimated tasks in nonfiction writing is to impose narrative shape on an unwieldy mass of material.
William Zinsser

Any piece of non-fiction sets out to tell a story or make a case for something. Achieving that aim depends on a solid structure that takes the reader through the facts and arguments in a logical way. A traditionally published non-fiction book starts life as a proposal in which the author sets out chapter headings and content before it’s even written.

Sometimes it’s difficult to get started on a piece because the main theme or endpoint is not clear in the writer’s head. If you can’t define your own ideas it will be impossible to take others with you.

You need a plan that you can work with before starting to write. If like me you’re a pantser who writes to discover what happens, you’ll find this more difficult to accept. But it will save you wasted hours and unfinished pieces if you have some concept of the ending and a few of the high points along the way. 

Study story structure using the hero’s journey or screenwriting beats or whatever you prefer. Then apply what you’ve learned. Be open-minded enough to try a different way of doing things. Having a defined structure is not death to creativity. In fact you’ll find your creativity can truly blossom inside constraints.

If your stories tend to fizzle out, go back to basics. Are you telling a story with a beginning, middle, and end, or is it an anecdote? Knowing where the story ends and what changes the characters undergo on the way is vital to crafting a satisfying tale.

Nothing But The Truth

Creative nonfiction writers do not make things up; they make ideas and information that already exist more interesting and often more accessible.
Lee Gutkind

 We consume much of our reading online, and time is of the essence. Since your reader is subjected to a fire-hose of content every day, your duty is to make time spent with your words worthwhile. 

The best non-fiction is written with clarity and economy of expression. Fiction also benefits from both. Perhaps the tone of Strunk and White doesn’t suit your historical family saga, but consider the time you’re asking your reader to invest in it. Edit and edit again to remove padding and tighten your prose. Run your work through the Hemingway app to make sure it’s easily understood by your target audience.

Most first drafts can be cut by at least 10% without losing meaning or voice. Write freely, let it rest for a while, then edit with a ruthless hand. 

A Clear Focus

I don’t read for amusement, I read for enlightenment.
Joyce Carol Oates

The non-fiction author follows an outline which focuses on the central argument of their book. Their book must inform and might also entertain, but it has to be relevant to be successful. Some readers believe that fact is more exciting than fiction, so they expect a factual read without flights of fancy. Non-fiction writing styles and subjects reflect that preference.

Fiction readers vary in how they want their entertainment served up. Some want real facts woven into their historical fiction, some want real science woven into their science fiction, and some want entire flights of fancy that never were. 

Know who your reader is and what they want. Make sure you supply a happy ending for romance, a solution for the mystery, or whatever your genre requires.

If you’re not clear on genre conventions, read more books until you’re sure. Study blurbs and reviews until you have a good grasp of the current landscape. Always keep your reader in mind and leave them better off, whether cheering for your characters or more informed about a current issue.

A Certain Freedom

In fiction, when you paint yourself into a corner, you can write a pair of suction cups onto the bottoms of your shoes and walk up the wall and out the skylight and see the sun breaking through the clouds. In nonfiction, you don’t have that luxury.
Tom Robbins

The image above might be fanciful, but the basic idea is true. Even creative non-fiction doesn’t normally include making things up. The writer must stick by their research. That being said, some writers argue that since memory is reconstructed there can be no absolute truth and the lines are blurred. 

Although there’s no one way to approach non-fiction, it always starts with facts.

But as a fiction writer you are free. Free to reimagine, embroider, and invent what you need as long as it’s consistent with the world you write in. You can populate your real world with imaginary characters, or your imaginary world with real characters. As long as your story has something true to say about being human, you can start and finish where you like. 

That freedom is both exciting and scary. Use it to elevate your fiction. Use all the tools at your disposal, wherever they come from, and show us what you can do.

If the memoirist is borrowing narrative techniques from fiction, shouldn’t the novelist borrow a few tricks from successful non-fiction?
Darin Strauss

2 thoughts on “5 Things Fiction Writers Can Learn From Non-Fiction Writing”

  1. Research is one of my favorite things about the writing process. Research has given me so many cool story ideas that I would have never ever thought of on my own!

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