For Fact & Fiction: Borrow Non-fiction Techniques for your Fiction

By Christine Hennebury

Stories are stories, whether you are reporting them or inventing them.

While non-fiction writers and fiction writers each develop a specific skill set, there are lots of overlapping skills and lots of opportunity to learn from the other’s approach.

In addition to my fiction, I also write community news for a variety of newspapers in my province. I’ve found that my fiction skills and my non-fiction skills both come in handy no matter which type of writing I am doing. So, I use my fiction-writing description and character development skills to enrich my non-fiction and fact-based non-fiction skills to keep my fiction sharp.

Perhaps your fiction writing could also benefit from incorporating some non-fiction approaches into your writing?

Obviously, I’m not saying that you can only use facts from now on. You don’t need to drop fiction for non-fiction. I’m just thinking of this as an experiment for you.

Why not try some or all of these approaches and see if they bring anything new to your writing process?

  1. Decide what you want your audience to know

In Daphne Grey-Grant’s excellent book ‘8 ½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better’’, she says that one of the keys to writing faster is to know what you want your audience to understand when they have finished reading. I find this enormously helpful in writing both fiction and non-fiction.

So, as you are considering your next sentence, section, chapter, ask yourself – What does the reader need to know here? How can I make that information clear?

For fiction, you will want to parcel some information out slowly so that will affect your choices about each section. However, you still need to consider what information each section should contain. Asking yourself what your audience needs to know at this point in your story can help you decide what to share and when.

Sidenote: I know that lots of people have similar advice but her phrasing is the one that really helped me ‘get’ it – this is an example of why you shouldn’t worry about something having been said before. It hasn’t been said by YOU and you will reach people that others won’t.

2) Give Context (i.e. Why is this important?)

When I write stories for the newspaper, it’s not enough to say that someone won an award. I have to explain why the award is important or why it is significant that this person won it.

The same is true in your fiction. There has to be a reason for telling the story. There has to be a reason for including this sentence or this section.

And you have to give your reader enough information for them to understand all of those reasons. You have to make the see why the character, the action, or the situation is important. All of that requires you to give enough context, enough details so we care about what is going on.

3) Choose your Sources

Who is the best person to tell this story? Who will give the clearest perspective? Whose perspective will make the story matter?

In non-fiction, we make sure that we interview the people closest to the story – either the people who know the most about it or the people most directly affected.

Good fiction also requires you to take a perspective. Is the story being told by an outsider? An observer? Someone directly involved in the action?

Depending on the perspective you choose (and, yes, omniscience is still a perspective), you will describe different things and different aspects of your story will be highlighted.

By carefully choosing your ‘sources’ in your fiction you will have more control over how your story unfolds and the pace at which that happens.

4) Identify ‘Characters’ Clearly

One of the first questions I ask in any interview is ‘How do you want to be identified in this story?’

Asking the same question of your characters can be enormously helpful.

There can be a big difference between characters who want to be known by a nickname versus their full name and people who want all their titles included versus being listed as ‘a witness.’ These things matter to people in real life so it will matter to your characters.

Listing one character by a nickname while everyone else goes by a full title gives you lots of room to talk about attitude, about relationships, and about the power structures in the world you are creating – make good use of that information.

5) Place Information Deliberately

In a newspaper article, I’m careful to put a lot of relevant information up front, then to add a quote from one of my sources, and then move back and forth between the facts and further information from my sources.

I do that so the story unfolds in an interesting way while ensuring that all the needed information is in there.

While fiction would not be as straightforward as a newspaper article, it’s still valuable to think about when you are going to reveal certain facts and how it should be done.

Is someone going to reveal the information in dialogue? Can the reader observe the information in a description? Will someone’s inner thoughts expose the fact in question?

You are the only person who can answer those questions but it is worth making a conscious decision about *how* you are going to reveal what you need to show your readers.

Take Charge of the Story

This list of non-fiction techniques can really all be summed up in the phrase ‘Take Charge of the Story.’

I know that a lot of writers talk about how a story seems to have a life of its own, and that *can* be true but the shape of your story’s life will come down to the decisions you make in the telling of it.

Take a few minutes during the writing (or revision) process and make conscious decisions about the mechanics of your story and I believe your fiction will be stronger for it.

Christine Hennebury’s storytelling career began when she was four and her parents didn’t believe her tale about water shooting out of her nose onto the couch – they insisted that she had spilled bubble solution from the empty jar in her  hand. Luckily, her skills have improved since then. Christine makes up stories, shares stories, and coaches other people who are working on stories, in Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada. Find out more about her  at  christinehennebury.com  or visit her on Facebook .