Making the Switch from Nonfiction to Fiction Writing

I started out writing non-fiction with no thought of even trying fiction, mainly because I thought I had to write like Umberto Eco in order to be considered a literary success.

penBut, I decided to give it a try for NaNoWriMo 2009, and I haven’t looked back! In this article Jodie Renner, editor, author, & speaker, talks about how to make the switch.

You’re already confident with writing nonfiction, so making the transition to fiction should be no big deal, right? Not. There’s actually a significant learning curve to recognizing and mastering the essential elements of writing fiction that captivates readers, sells well, and garners glowing reviews.

As an independent editor specializing in popular, fast-paced fiction, I often receive manuscripts from professionals and others who write a lot of nonfiction and are attaching a draft of a novel or short story. They often assume that since they’re used to writing, the transition to fiction will be easy.

Not so.

Nonfiction writers and first-time novelists often don’t realize the importance of issues they’re simply not aware of, so they ask me for “just a light copyedit.” When I start reading their manuscript, I often notice right away the story seems to lack sparkle. It doesn’t engage me and make me want to keep reading.

The writers, although accomplished in their field, have little or no concept of the critical aspects of point of view and showing instead of telling.

Other issues I see are writing that is just too “correct” and distant for storytelling, with stilted dialogue, too-frequent author intrusions, and bland, neutral narration. Finally, the writing often meanders along at too leisurely a pace, lacking sufficient conflict, tension, intrigue, and general zing.

The following tips, for anyone wanting to master the art of storytelling, will help you bring your characters and story world to life by loosening up your language, getting up close and personal with your characters, letting them tell the story, and showing their emotions and reactions. Of course, you’ll need to start with a charismatic protagonist, a critical problem, plenty of conflict, and an intriguing plot.

1. Get into your character’s head – and stay there.

Start right out in the point of view of your protagonist and show the events through his eyes, with his internal reactions. Forget omniscient point of view – it’s no longer in favor, and for very good reason. Readers want to get “up close and personal” with the main character, so they can become emotionally engaged and sucked into the story.

Show your character’s thoughts, perceptions, and inner reactions to what’s going on right away, so readers can identify with her and bond with her. Don’t head-hop to other characters’ thoughts within a scene. To get into the head of others, like the antagonist or love interest, give them their own viewpoint scenes.

2. Stay out of the story as the author.

Let the characters tell the story, in a natural way that is authentic to the story world you’re creating. This will keep the readers immersed in the fictive dream. Don’t interrupt the story by stepping in as the author to explain things to the readers. In other words, avoid info dumps and other author intrusions.

3. Make sure your story has plenty of conflict and tension.

Conflict is what drives fiction. No conflict = no story. Not enough conflict and tension = boring. Every scene should have some conflict and a change. Every page should have some tension, even if it’s just an undercurrent of unease, disagreement, or resentment.

4. Loosen up your language.

Again, “let the characters tell the story.” Forget perfect English, complete sentences, convoluted phrasing, or fancy-schmancy vocabulary. Use direct language and strong imagery, in the character’s thoughts, colored by their personality, education, background and attitudes. In other words, stay in your character’s mood and voice, using words and phrasing they would use, which also fit the overall tone of the story, rather than a more correct, neutral language.

5. Show, Don’t Tell

Don’t step in as the author to tell your readers about your characters or their background or to relate something that happened. And don’t have one character tell another about a critical event that occurred offstage. Show important scenes in real time, with action and dialogue.

Also, to bring your characters alive, be sure to show their emotions, internal and external reactions, and physical sensations.

Evoke all or most of the senses. Don’t just show what the character is seeing. What is she hearing, smelling, feeling? Even tasting?

6. Use snappy dialogue.

Dialogue needs lots of tension and attitude. Be sure your dialogue doesn’t all sound the same – like it’s the author speaking. Each character’s words and speech patterns need to match their personality and background.

Avoid complete sentences and perfect English in dialogue. Use frequent partial sentences, one- or two-word questions and answers, evasive replies, abrupt changes of topic, and silences. Read your dialogue out loud, perhaps role-playing with someone else, to make sure it sounds natural and authentic.

Also, skip the “Hi, how are you?” and other blah-blah lead-up and filler. Cut to the chase in your dialogue.

7. Even your narration should not be neutral.

Avoid bland, authorial narration.

Any backstory should be the character’s thoughts, colored by their feelings about it, and keep it to a minimum, preferably with flashbacks in real time. Even your description, exposition, and narration should not be neutral – these are really the POV character’s observations, and should reveal their personality, goals, attitude and mood.

Do you have any more tips to share for nonfiction writers or anyone else just getting into writing fiction? Please do leave a comment below.

Jodie RennerJodie Renner, a freelance fiction editor specializing in thrillers and other fast-paced fiction, has published two books to date in her series, An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: WRITING A KILLER THRILLER and STYLE THAT SIZZLES & PACING FOR POWER, both available in e-book and trade paperback.

For more info, please visit Jodie’s author website or editor website, or find her on Facebook or Twitter.

Image: Flickr Creative Commons pen by Gregory Wake

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  1. says

    Thanks for hosting my craft-of-fiction article, Joanna! It’s an honour to be a guest blogger on your excellent blog! I look forward to comments, questions, and suggestions from writers and readers on both sides of the pond!

  2. says

    I’ve had fun merging fiction and nonfiction to make creative nonfiction (nonfiction writing style, but the content is fiction). I guess it could conceivably be used as a transitional phase for nonfiction writers who are stuck in their ways.

    • says

      Good luck with your creative nonfiction, Tom. Usually that’s used for content that is mostly or almost all true, but written in a narrative style, like a fiction story. Creative nonfiction (narrative nonfiction) should follow most of the style guidelines for fiction, to make the story more compelling for readers.

      Good luck with all your writing projects!

  3. says

    Jodie, some excellent advice. I have written 40 books now, mostly non-fiction and am starting out on my third fictional one. Your words make absolute sense. I have just completed a four week course on writing fiction and am amazed at what needs to go into the novel before the writing even starts. I am busy with this now and feeling quite daunted. Your advice will be firmly on my desk in the months ahead as I plough through the first draft. And thanks Jo for another excellent topic.

    • says

      Thanks for your comments, Grant. Wow! You’re a prolific writer of non-fiction! I’m impressed. It’s great that you are well aware of the learning curve to writing compelling fiction that sells. My Style That Sizzles & Pacing for Power (link above) has tons of concrete before-and-after examples for relaxing overly formal or “correct” writing to create a natural, casual, appealing fictive voice – with attitude!

      Keep on writing! I look forward to reading your fiction when it comes out! :-)

  4. D.F. Barrett says

    I have written a few short fiction and non-fiction pieces that have been published. My friend has asked me to help her get her mother’s novel to print. The story is interesting, but lacks edginess. It is well written, but has rather tight and formal language. Thanks Jodie and Joanna, now I have the perfect list to forward to my friend.

  5. says

    These are great tips Jodie!

    Jodie edited my first non-fiction book (back in 2009). She is one incredibly gifted woman! This year I’m finally making the leap into fiction and participating in National Novel Writing Month. I’ll be sure to print Jodie’s tips and keep them close at hand. Thanks again Jodie!

    • says

      Thanks for stopping by and leaving such a nice comment, Renia! It was obvious to me back in 2009 that you’re an excellent writer, so I’m thrilled that you’re trying your hand at fiction now! I hope you’ll check out my Style That Sizzles craft of writing book, which just won a Silver Medal.

  6. says

    Great tips, I really like number 7. In a short story I’m working on, I continuously struggle with finding a balance between, describing the city/world, and moving the story forward. Now I know to focus on what the character sees and encounters. She will build the world for me.

    • says

      Yes, and be sure to color what she’s observing with her personality, mood, and goals, Brian, to bring both your character and scene to life, and drive the story forward. Good luck with that!

  7. says

    Hi Jodie, an excellent post. As a writer of both fiction and narrative nonfiction I believe the craft is pretty much the same, but you identify the main features that we need to focus on for fiction. To me, POV and voice are key and often hard to grasp, which is why (if you’ll forgive my mentioning it), Collca has released my book that goes into these topics in detail (Inside Stories for Writers and Readers). I love to write in different genre and to see other writers doing so, although the pressure to brand oneself can feel restricting. It’s good to see the positive comments here of so many people writing both fiction and nonfiction. Thank you.

    • says

      Trish, I lump narrative nonfiction or creative nonfiction in with fiction. Both are a lot different from informative, nonfiction writing on a topic, which is what I think of as “nonfiction.” Creative or narrative nonfiction is storytelling and needs basically all the same elements as fiction, including dialogue and a character arc, and point of view and voice are critical for narrative nonfiction, as they are for fiction. So is the concept of showing instead of telling. All of these help to bring the story to life for the readers.

      Thanks for dropping by and commenting!

  8. says

    Hi Jodie, thank you for a very insightful article. The dramatic possibilities in POV seems to be overlooked with many new writers. You’ve certainly nailed it succinctly. I find the best way to capture voice is just listen to the conversations going on around you. The way that certain people from different backgrounds talk to each other. I make notes of the words they use. I always advise new writers to be a spy. Listen. Take notes. We’ve all got smart phones these days so it can be unobtrusive to capture a particularly useful exchange you may have overheard at a bar, a cafe or even on the street. Listen to the way your friends and family use language. The words they omit. The ones they repeat. If you can get a handle of the vocabulary your character would use in real life, it makes writing dialogue much easier, more authentic and fun! Thanks again for a wonderful guest blog post.

    • says

      Geoff, thanks so much for your excellent ideas! Writers definitely need to be spies and lurkers! LOL.

      Get familiar with the “Record” button on your cell phone – you never know when you’re going to want to use it. If writers want to know how cops talk, go to a bar or café where they hang out and sit as close to them as you can and take notes or record their conversation. Of course if your novel is set in a different area than your home, this gets a little harder, logistically. But you can always watch movies and TV shows depicting the type of people you’re writing about, in their own locale. And I don’t advise you to hang out in the dangerous parts of town, so that’s where TV, movies, and novels will help you nail the dialogue so it sounds real.

      Then after you’ve written your dialogue, read it out loud or role-play it with a friend or two to see if it flows out naturally and authentically.

      Thanks again for your great observations, Geoff!

  9. says

    Thank you, Jodie for yet another excellent and informative piece on one of the coolest blogs for independent writers out there.

    I loved working with you on my debut novel, Terminal Rage. I’d say becoming a better fiction writer also impacts your non-fiction and technical writing.

    With fiction, you pay far more attention to how the readers will react to it. Paring down your writing, respecting their intelligence, avoiding time wasting waffling and “small words that add up” – all things we pay little attention to when we write work emails, reports, proposals, academic pieces.

    For example, I’m trying to diminish the use of the word “that” among my staff and consultants when we are working on writing projects. Now I am working on diminishing their use of gratuitous adverbs, and encouraging them to come up with strong verbs instead. I am sure they all LOVE me for it! Right?

    • says

      Thanks for dropping by and commenting, A.M. I loved working with you on your riveting thriller, too!

      I like your list of aspects to pay attention to when writing fiction – they’re all important points for writers to keep in mind, and all tie together. My book, Style That Sizzles & Pacing for Power, provides numerous tips and before-and-after examples for streamlining your writing for a more seamless flow of ideas and a tighter, brisker pace, which keep readers turning the pages in anticipation. Don’t let readers’ minds wander to what’s for dinner!

      Of course, it goes without saying that dedicated writing blogs like The Creative Penn are invaluable to writers of both fiction and nonfiction, with all their excellent tips for writers! I applaud my host, Joanna Penn, for her hard work and dedication to the writing craft and the challenging business of succeeding as a writing entrepreneur!

  10. says

    Great post, Jodie. I made a transition from journalist to novelist, but like with any other endeavor, I had to study the craft and practice to get good enough to publish. I’m still a lean writer though and love to get the story down first, then go back and fill in the details that make it feel real to readers.

    • says

      Thanks for dropping by and commenting, LJ. Studying the craft is so important to new writers, and your success is a testament to the importance of that! Of course, your talent, dedication, work ethic, and open social presence all contributed to your popularity as a writer as well!

      Speaking of going back and “filling in the details that make it feel real to the readers,” I’m talking about showing character emotions and reactions over at The Kill Zone blog today.

  11. tom combs says

    Jodie (Editor of my novel – Nerve Damage) –

    Great points of emphasis presented clearly and succinctly (as always!)
    I worked as a technical writer briefly before becoming a physician specializing in Emergency Medicine. In my physician group I was responsible for educating my partners and hospital staff on aspects of clinical care and documentation for medico-legal and regulatory purposes.

    Educational, technical or marketing directed writing is essentially different from creative fiction. In the educational or non-fiction writing the focus is generally or often educational. Content must be accurate, exact and must be clearly understood by the reader. The writing style that most effectively accomplishes this involves, imo, clarity, some degree of repetition and presentation of concepts from varied perspectives(enhances understanding of concepts). This allows the reader to grasp and retain the how and why of the goal-directed content.

    It has taken me five years of Loft literary center classes, books by authors such as yourself, James Scott Bell, Donald Maass along with thousands of hours of writing to change my style. The effort has (I hope) trained me to avoid the explanation and repetition that worked well in technical and educational writing but smothers creative, engaging fiction.

    I feel education helps (as has a great editor) but also feel that reading extensively and critically in one’s genre is invaluable. Your list is a great guideline to keep handy!

    • says

      Thanks for dropping by and commenting, Tom. Your explanation of the main differences between technical, professional nonfiction writing and fiction writing is excellent!

      Writers like to learn a little while reading fiction, but not in a way that interrupts the story, as the main purpose of fiction is of course entertainment. Story trumps all. So enlightening the readers on the most critical points of a topic through an animated discussion often works well – as long as it doesn’t go on for too long.

      I applaud your dedication and hard work in developing a new writing mindset and successfully making the transition from exact, technical writing to creating an absorbing, intriguing story that grabs readers and keeps them turning the pages!

  12. says

    I’m not a “transitioner”, Jodie. But I may have a tiny bit of advice for those making the switch.

    It seems to me that non-fiction exists to supply as much information as possible on a given topic. A nonfiction book, or article, is essentially one enormous source of data.

    If a non-fiction writer does that anywhere in their novel, it’s called an information dump and leads to the reader being taking completely out of the story. The pacing is disrupted and it becomes easy to close the book and walk away.

    Research, though important, needs to be used as one would spice up a dish… lightly.

  13. says

    Awesome article, Jodie. I have been told that I am a great expository or persuasive writer (college writing, for instance) but have only recently attempted to break into writing fiction. Yeah… completely different. And difficult. I think I’ve made every error you listed, to the point that I’ve had to completely re-write whole stories as I learn more.

    In the past, I have hesitated to spend too much time in the protagonist’s head. But the more I do so, the easier it is to write the story. And now you’re telling me that it’s a superior way to tell a story? Great news! I’ll keep doing it.

    My formula for writing is 25% external and 75% internal, meaning only the amount of writing contained in the former simply describes the events and the latter is the character’s internal reaction to those events. Of course, it can’t always be that way, but it helps me be more disciplined in spending more time on the internal voice of the character, instead of simply dumping information to the reader.

    • says

      You have the makings of a bestselling author, Matt – you’re constantly honing your craft and are willing to learn and revise. Kudos to you! I look forward to seeing your fiction in print! Also, check out my two books for concrete suggestions with lots of examples. Keep on writing!

  14. says

    I am so pleased to find your website. Your presentation of making the switch from non-fiction to fiction was on-target! I wanted to just let you know that I am re-posting your article on my website with a link to your website under NEWS & EVENTS. I’d like to see teachings on the Internet that are honestly useful to aspiring and emerging talent.

    Please feel free to visit my website (launched one week ago today).
    I am a strong supporter of OPEN EDUCATION and that includes the vocational. Nice job.

    Nancy Bell

  15. Megan Kreuger says

    I don’t think omniscient perspectives are unfavorable, especially since the point of view can still be from an onlooker, but the thoughts can still be portrayed quite easily. Look at J.K. Rowling and Nick Hornby. I often feel that my stories are limited when I am stuck inside a character’s head, and sometimes I think author’s can easily destroy characters by revealing too much of what they think. However, there are many, many books that are told from first person that are amazing, but I wouldn’t discredit the many incredible books that are told through omniscient perspectives either. Overall, this was a great read, I just wanted to defend that one, tiny thing.

  16. Toni Maltagliati says

    Wow, I loved the article and everyone’s comments. I was a journalist for 25 years, then moved into editing policy books for the federal government. I have loved all of my jobs. I’m eligible to retire in a couple of years, but the thought of not having an office structure — with lots of interesting people to talk to during the day — is terrifying.

    I recently joined The Writer’s Center, in Bethesda, Md. and have been overwhelmed at all the choices for classes. Today, a brief moment of clarity hit me: Just type “making the transition from journalist to novelist” into Google, and see what happens. Bazinga! Jodie, your article and tips cleared a path for my journey.

    Later steps for me will include your e-books. Thanks, Joanna and Jodie.

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