Life in the Slow Lane

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Transitioning from Writing Nonfiction to Fiction — April 4, 2018

Transitioning from Writing Nonfiction to Fiction

Previously on The Writing Studio…

Some time ago I shared my decision about publication of my memoir. Since then, I’ve done lots of reading and research on orphanages in the late 19th to early 20th centuries. Not much writing, other than taking notes.

My fingers itch to begin writing this novel. Yet, I’m stymied because I’ve written only nonfiction for several years. I’m proud of what I’ve written and published but I fear the quality of my work will falter with a new genre.

So I’ve also taken some time to read about the transition between nonfiction and fiction. Perhaps others of you have dabbled on both sides of the divide, and perhaps others are toying with the possibilities. Today I want to share with you what I’ve learned about writing fiction so far.

I tell myself writing fiction shouldn’t be hard.

And yet it is. Just because I write nonfiction, and I believe I do it well, doesn’t necessarily lead to my writing great fiction.

I sit down at the computer and, despite my research and understanding the story, I draw an absolute blank. How do I make my protagonist come alive? How do I set the scenes of the early 1900s? What does a four-year old boy think of being taken to a huge building called an orphanage? What do I put into my document? Please, somebody tell me!

Enter a time for reading about the nonfiction genre and a transition into fiction. What should I be aware of in writing my fictionalized story about my dad’s life as an orphan?

Here are some tips I’ve discovered.

1. Get to know your character by getting into his/her head–and working from there.

To catch your reader’s interest start in your protagonist’s point of view. Write through the eyes of your character, show his internal reactions. Readers want to establish an “up close and personal” relationship with your protagonist so make it easy for them to engage with the story and the character. Basically, make sure your readers are sucked into your story.

Show your character’s perceptions, reactions, thoughts, opinions and feelings about what’s happening in the scene. Don’t head-hop other characters’ feelings in the same scene. If another character’s viewpoint is essential to the story, then get in that character’s head and create a scene for that character.

2. Show, Don’t Tell.

How many times have we heard this advice? Too many to count! As the author, you shouldn’t step in and tell about the story, characters or something that happened. And don’t describe through your characters tell one another about critical events happening offstage.

The best way to bring your characters alive is to describe them realistically. Show their physical reactions, emotions, sensations, and facial expressions.

Using the five senses–see, smell, taste, hear, feel–describe your character’s responses and reactions. You don’t want to show only what your character sees, but what he feels, smells, and more.

3. Build in conflict and tension.

Without conflict and tension, even in the lightest of stories, readers quickly lose interest. No conflict, no story. Too little conflict and tension equates to boring. Build in conflict and change in each scene. Make sure every page holds tension, even if it’s only an undercurrent. Readers will keep turning pages with something sparking their interest.

4. Write snappy dialogue.

Give your character’s dialogue some attitude and tension. You don’t want your dialogue sounding as if the author is lecturing. A character’s words and speech pattern should reflect the character’s personality and background.

In dialogue, it’s perfectly okay to use partial sentences and even some imperfect English. Try to use partial sentences, short one- or two-word replies and questions, abruptly change topic, and allow your characters to fall silent.

It is good practice to read the dialogue out loud to make sure it sounds natural and authentic. Also role-playing can be helpful in determining the realistic sound of your dialogue.

5. Handling Time.

Most people wanting to write fiction would likely not be concerned with handling time within a story. However, time is essential to connecting with your reader. A writer must put events in logically presented sequential order. Unless, of course, your character experiences a flash back. When writing a flashback, you must make sure that you pick up the current story thread as soon as our character returns to real time.

6. Don’t Get Caught Up in Explaining Things.

When writing a nonfiction book or essay, it is normal to explain the facts surrounding your topic. But in a fiction story, it is not necessary to continue along in narrative explaining everything. If your fictional facts are drawn with clarity, the reader will understand the writer’s intentions. Good fiction writers allow their readers to walk into a scene and size up the details. Writers also expect that readers will discover their own truths.


If you are considering a move from nonfiction to fiction, there are some good resources in the marketplace to read and study:

Most importantly, read all you can on writing fiction as well as reading good fiction. Both will help build your confidence and skills.

Do you have any tips to add about the transition from nonfiction writing to fiction writing? Please share in the comment section below.

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