Writing Styles: Transitioning from Nonfiction to Fiction — Guest: Elizabeth Randolph
Many writers change writing styles over the course of their career. We might start off writing fan fiction and transition to original fiction. Or we might find success with short stories and later expand our imagination into novels. Or we might flip from nonfiction to fiction and back.
Every storyteller with a blog (unless it’s strictly a platform for posting stories) also engages in nonfiction. Some of us write nonfiction articles to further our career, and others develop nonfiction books with writing tips or publishing advice.
Yet just because we’re skilled at nonfiction writing doesn’t mean we’re skilled at storytelling (or vice versa). The way we approach the material, the types of sentences we construct, and the method of sharing information all differ between the two styles. Often, those coming from nonfiction lack a sense of their voice and must start from scratch in many respects.
As I mention in my bio on my About page, I started off as a technical writer, developing technical manuals and project plans. When I began writing fiction, I had to unlearn a lot of what I’d learned about writing over the years. It wasn’t easy.
Elizabeth Randolph and I were talking about the struggles of that transition the other day, and I asked her to share her experience. (Although I’d also gone through the process, her memories are much fresher than mine. *smile*)
A few weeks ago, Elizabeth gave us her thoughts on connecting with the primal aspects of our stories and tips on a few local promotion options. Today, she’s sharing her insights into what we need to be aware of when changing writing styles, such as going from nonfiction to fiction.
Please welcome Elizabeth Randolph! *smile*
How I Cast Off My Nonfiction Style
by E J Randolph
I had trouble shifting from nonfiction to fiction writing. The styles and guidelines differ in sometimes surprising ways, and I stumbled over a few major roadblocks.
I started out as a history major. During my long and checkered academic career, I took many history classes and finally decided to take the core courses to get a BA.
In January 2009, I put pencil to paper for my first novel and found I loved writing stories more than anything I’d ever done before. I put the first three up on Kindle and waited for the accolades.
They didn’t come. I didn’t get any reviews.
With hindsight, it is clear no one read past the first boring pages. At the time I didn’t know what was wrong, but obviously something was. I had no choice but to track down some readers.
3 Elements Nonfiction Writers Need to Adapt for Fiction Readers
#1: Virtually Every Story Needs Suspense
I found my first reader at the library looking at a science fiction book. He told me to add suspense. I told him this wasn’t a thriller.
Transitioning from nonfiction to fiction? 3 tips for how to adapt... Click To TweetHe gave me one example from what I had written. I have my diplomat get a ruler to sign an agreement to refrain from aggression. I thought I’d made the diplomat offer enough positive and negative inducements so the ruler would have no choice.
My reader said, make the ruler say no at first — even if that is irrational. Could the diplomat force him? Increase the pressure? Not easily. Not without crossing her own principles.
Although that’s a great situation for suspense, at the time I was stymied. Most nonfiction has no suspense. Proper form for books or papers is to write an introduction laying out what will be covered and what the main point is.
I went online and looked up suspense. It took me a while to translate what I read into something I could use.
What kinds of things add suspense?
Whenever possible, put an obstacle in the way:
- Always ask, what could go wrong here?
- Could this be made more difficult?
- Can some conflict be developed between the characters?
However, you also don’t want to create problems with everything because then the disasters are predictable, and there’s no longer any suspense.
2: Resist the Urge to Explain (RUE)
My second reader was a Goodreads monitor. He said I needed to remove explanations. Huh?
Honestly, this took me months to figure out. Explanations are the blood and guts of history. Facts by themselves are meaningless until the historian puts them into a context of cause and effect and develops connections and meanings. What the historian does with the facts is the magic.
Although the goal of nonfiction writers is to make complex points crystal clear and to repeat as necessary, I learned this whole mindset is wrong for fiction.
The story author must trust the reader to understand, to get the point. The fictional facts are all there is. If they are constructed with care, the reader will draw the conclusions the writer intends.
Fiction writers don’t hand predigested facts to the reader like remote authorities. They don’t explain descriptions but let the readers walk into scenes and visualize for themselves. Good writers spin tales that lead readers to discover their own truths.
3: “Don’t Explain” Also Means “Show Don’t Tell”
How could I deal with the limitations of not being able to tell the reader exactly what was going on in my stories?
That’s the challenge of writing fiction. The reader wants to see, smell, and hear what is described. The reader wants natural-sounding dialogue, not facts and interpretations inserted into the mouths or minds of characters. Yawn. Boring.
But when I wrote my original drafts, I thought I was showing, so the articles on show versus tell had no effect. I could reveal a character’s state of mind or emotions in great detail and accuracy in my explanations.
When I first ran across the advice not to name emotions, I was shocked. For example, if you describe a demonstration in nonfiction, you note the people are angry and frustrated and why. In fiction you have them shake their fists and shout.
In life, we never know for certain what someone else is thinking when we watch what they do and listen to what they say. We can draw conclusions based on our knowledge and experience and the commonality of being human.
It is perhaps a fallacy or even presumptuous to dissect the inner workings of someone’s mind even if that person is fictional. It’s better to have the characters think, talk, and act, and let our readers draw upon their own experiences for understanding.
I learned I must go vivid, use concrete words, and employ the senses. Don’t summarize. Don’t conclude. Don’t tell readers what to think.
If I haven’t convinced the reader with how I’ve constructed events, no amount of argument or explanations will make up for the lacking. If I have a dream sequence, let it speak for itself. If it doesn’t communicate what I want, rewrite the dream.
Framing, or showing and telling at the same time, is a subset of explanations. I might put “We argued at dinnertime” followed by the dialogue of arguing.
Whoa! Remove “We argued at dinnertime.” Go to the dialogue and let the argument unfold.
Other Differences Between Nonfiction and Fiction
Time in Fiction
Handling time in fiction is probably not what most people think is a problem going from nonfiction to fiction writing, but how time is handled in stories is part of connecting with the reader.
When writing history, the historian should generally keep the narrative in chronological order, but there isn’t a strict need for things to happen one at a time in the presentation. But putting events in logically presented sequential actions is exactly what you must do when you write a scene in fiction. (Transitions can skip over time.)
- Actions should occur onstage (unless they’re unimportant and we’re trying to transition over them). Avoid introductory phrases starting with when and after such as “When she finished the dishes, she left the house.” All action needs to occur directly in front of the reader. “She finished the dishes and left the house.”
- Simultaneous actions need to be examined for their time logic. In the sentence Standing, she walked to the door, she is both standing and walking to the door. But two actions work in She walked to her bedroom carrying her doll.
- Take care when characters do something in order to do something else. Check out the sentence “I ran to the barn to get my rifle to shoot the coyote.” The only action in front of the reader is “I ran to the barn.” All the good stuff happens offstage.
Time is a factor many more things:
- You don’t hear the tone of voice until someone speaks. For example, you don’t know they are whispering until they have said something.
- You have a physical reaction before you think or say something. Someone says or does something shocking. You gasp. Then you think “How could he?” Reactions come after actions.
Point of View in Fiction
Nonfiction writing is generally from the perspective of an objective, unbiased expert presenting facts and reasoning. Stories often require a definite, perceivable person telling the story with human foibles who is not objective and has biases — a point of view.
Transitioning from Nonfiction to Fiction: My Experience
At first I started rewriting and fixing some sentences based on what I read, but I was still missing the major difference between creating and explaining worlds and characters. One day I had an aha moment.
- I had explanations marbled through everything. I took out my editing sword and hacked away, but I confess tears fell when I cut some of my well-crafted prose. By the time I had cut explanations and framing, my stories were over fifty percent shorter.
- Next I found someone to read one who had more of a line-editing orientation. She taught me to cut wordiness. Now my stories were even shorter.
- I read the main character has to solve the problem. Oops! I rewrote the character arc.
- I read online articles about handling first person point of view (POV). Uh-oh! No more I thought. No more I saw or I realized. (I use first person because third person allows me to slip into an academic style too easily.) Subsequently I read several books and blogs that went into what constitutes distancing wording.
- I like deep POV and that fed into the complete rewrite of my first three stories. This is so different from the distant point of view that is the natural component of academic writing.
- Next I added action scenes. That was fun. They changed the tone of the books. By themselves, they made the stories more suspenseful. Can someone get hurt? Oh no! Is her life in danger? Yikes!
Perhaps my biggest hubris was thinking I could write fiction because I was a good history writer and I enjoyed reading fiction. Every discipline has its own methods, and I found I had to learn many basic things about writing fiction.
I have read and continue to read books and blogs on the specifics. Fortunately, writing craft can be learned.
Learning about the Differences in Craft
Writing advice must be picked with care. Not all of it applies or is relevant to how we write or our personal style. Writing stories would not be creative endeavors if we all had to follow the same rules and write the same way.
In my personal journey, Marcy Kennedy’s succinct books on editing were helpful. She takes a definite stance, but perhaps that was good for me because I had so much trouble seeing beyond what I had learned was considered good writing in academia. Most of the above section on time comes from her.
Jami Gold’s blogs are comprehensive. Much of what I have read in books show up in her blogs. Check out her archives. What she doesn’t have can be found in her links to the work of others. Best of all she isn’t dogmatic about creative efforts, and she has insightful articles on the writing life I haven’t seen elsewhere.
Don’t Forget to Have Fun
Writing stories for me is fun. I fear losing that fun because then I lose the whole reason I write.
Sometimes I get too hung up with all the new things I am learning and focus on the mechanics and not the story. Oh no! Am I repeating a word too often? Eek! I must not start a sentence with the same word as the last one.
Don't get so hung up on craft that we don't let our story live. Click To TweetI have to remind myself that craft is there to help bring the story out, clarify it, and make the book more pleasurable for the reader. Getting too nit-picky is not the point. At some point I have say the book is good enough.
I believe that if we enjoy what we write, that enjoyment transfers to the reader. Therefore, keeping writing fun is more important than getting every comma correct.
Let Our Stories Come to Life
Recent research shows that reading novels improves empathy and tolerance because it requires readers empathize with the characters. Other research shows the motor sensory areas in the brains of readers light up when they read a novel. They are experiencing what the characters are doing.
For people to experience our stories, our themes have to be lived by the characters in the novel and vicariously experienced by the reader. Stories are potent.
E J Randolph writes science fiction stories about a rule-bending Federation of planets diplomat who goes to planets troubled with internal unrest or war, and she brings about peace through unusual but historically derived methods.
She also writes children’s books about a purple dragon who saves the town when the chili roaster breaks by roasting the chilies in the field and melts snow when skiers are caught in an avalanche.
She draws on her five years of experience as a history writing tutor in her A Very Short Writing Manual for the Utterly Clueless. By asking questions, anyone can learn to write at least passably.
Website | Goodreads | Facebook | Twitter | Amazon
Retrograde: Some Principles Are Timeless
The cold steel of the assassin’s blade bites into her neck, and Kate Stevens, Federation diplomat, freezes. She has cured the king. Is that the problem? Or, does the knife wielder have something against the Federation?
She needs allies and she needs them fast. Coups plots are springing up like mushrooms after a rain, and the lord chancellor wants her out of the way or dead. Illustrations.
Thank you, Elizabeth! I love how well you explained how we have to change our thought processes to make the transition. (You remembered more details than I did, so I’m glad you were able to step in for this topic. *smile* Also, I second your recommendation for Marcy’s books, and thanks for the kind words about my blog!)
One additional aspect that I mentioned in my introduction that I remember struggling with is the concept of voice. Some nonfiction writing allows our voice to show through (such as blog writing), but other types don’t (such as my background of technical writing).
So depending on the type of nonfiction we’re transitioning from, we might also have to discover our voice. Or we might have to get out of the habit of suppressing our voice.
Here are a few posts on my blog about voice that might help if this struggle applies to your situation:
- 5 Ways to Discover & Develop Our Voice
- Need Voice? Think Out Loud
- Can We Have Too Much Voice?
- Writing Building Blocks: Paragraph Breaks & Voice
- Using Grammar to Strengthen Our Voice — Guest: Julie Glover
- Writing Craft: Balancing Rules and Voice
- 3 Acting Tips to Strengthen Our Voice — Guest: Libby Heily
Whether we’re switching from one style to another or adding a different style to our repertoire, it’s good to understand the differences. As Elizabeth and my experiences show, just because we’re good at one style doesn’t mean we’re automatically good at another. But with the right knowledge, we can learn and deepen our craft, which might help with all types of writing we do. *smile*
Do you write nonfiction and fiction? Have you struggled with the differences? Or if you’re thinking of writing both, does this help give you some guideposts of what to think about and learn? Do you have any other advice or tips about the differences we need to keep in mind? Do you have any questions for Elizabeth?Pin It
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Thank you for the comments on voice (and the links at the end of the blog). I had an Aha! moment when I read 4 Steps to Break Grammar Rules with Style.
About the idea of voice, I have read many academic articles that give me a clear sense of voice. Maybe it’s not that clear to most readers, since they’re still written in “academic language,” but I can still pick up on the author’s tone of voice, e.g. sassy, mocking, disapproving, admiring, praising, empathetic, judgmental, etc. The researchers’ attitudes come through quite transparently in many articles I’ve read. I love this because you get the feeling that researchers are human, after all, with their own biases, preferences, and personalities. Academic journal articles are not the same as technical instruction manuals, though. I always agree with the advice that not all writing advice applies to everyone. On the “show, not tell” rule, I find that it depends on your target audience, genre, culture, language, etc. Whether or not you should use emotion words again depends on your target audience and the type of novel you’re writing. Distancing words like “saw” and “realized” are also okay for some types of fiction. Anyhow, I don’t mean to dismiss the points you’ve raised, I’ve just seen a lot of books that differ from the “no emotion words; show, don’t tell” rule. And sometimes, we may assume that all readers react alike, but this isn’t true. I’ve been told that “most” people empathize more with actions than with emotion words. Yet, me and some reader friends I’ve asked empathize more with emotion words than with actions–that’s why I deliberately write actions sometimes, so that the emotion… — Read More »
1) I agree many nonfiction writers have good style and voice. It’s just different. Perhaps in more ways than I outline above.
2) First and third person POV’s follow different conventions. For instance, in first person, it’s not necessary to say “I said” or “I saw” because you’re already THERE.
3) I agree some strong emotions have to be toned down. This blog site has excellent articles on the different ways writers can handle strong emotions.
4)Which emotional display has more impact?
Someone throws a shoe at you. “Don’t you dare show your pathetic face around here.”
Someone stands. “I’m angry. I don’t want to see you today.”
The thoughts, the words, the actions can all work together to evoke an emotion. Sure, sometimes the character name the emotion. In the first example, the character can scream, “I hate you!”
It’s when we explain that the life drains out. Kate was angry and left. OK. That leaves me with no emotional involvement.
Hey! Sorry for the super late reply—been dealing with some very stressful events lately.
That’s the thing, though. I actually find the examples with the word “angry” in them more impactful. The ones that don’t have an explicit emotion word feel more distant and indirect to me. (No, I’m not saying this just to rebel. I really feel like this.) I know most people perhaps react differently from how I do. My solution is to do it both ways, or to alternate between telling and showing.
Sorry you are going through stressful times.
Perhaps you prefer emotion words because they ping upon strongly worked out meanings in your mind. Nothing wrong with that.
I prefer to call upon the reader’s senses and have the reader conclude– ah, the character is angry. That way the reader has become involved. The reader is not passive.
Thanks! I’m still stressed over it, but I feel calmer now.
“Perhaps you prefer emotion words because they ping upon strongly worked out meanings in your mind. ”
Maybe. Another possibility is that in my childhood and adolescence, I was mostly exposed to books with a lot of emotion words, so this style was the norm to me. It was only near my mid-20s that I started reading many more books with fewer emotion words. (I’m 27 now.) So our personal reading experiences may affect how our minds process emotions conveyed in books.
You have a point. In addition, writing styles change over time.
Great advice. I’m transitioning from fiction to non-fiction and it’s been interesting.
I’m interested. Much depends on how formal your writing needs to be. Thanks for the comment.
Thanks for a fine explanation! I write fiction but am currently learning academic writing -luckily I have read a good deal of it. Quite different approaches.
Absolutely! Thanks for the observation and comment.
When I started writing, it was with the intention of doing only fiction. Twenty-five years of humor writing later, half my published works are non-fiction … funny how things work out. I go back and forth, and they certainly are two different animals!
Nice way of expressing the differences.
[…] If you’re thinking of a change in genre, Elizabeth Randolph explores transitioning from non-fiction writing to fiction. […]
This has been the single most helpful thing I’ve read since I began (attempting) to write fiction. I finished my 50k first draft in six weeks. I was a machine. I had this thing! I’ve written non-fiction academic work for twenty years! This is a piece of cake! I said confidently as I slowly crashed and burned during the editing process.
That was four, no wait — five months ago. Since then, I’ve been mired in mistakes and the realization that I’ve made just about every craft error in fiction you can make. Passive sentences galore. Confusion at how to weave narrative voice with internal character thought. Explaining everything. Not to mention, no clear editing process. It’s like trying to place spaghetti noodles in a perfect line. I end up with a jumbled mess in my brain. What comes first? Do I fix everyone on one page, then move to the next? Do a few passes? I’ve got my plot holes sewn up, but that’s just big picture…. Oh how I wish there were a book telling a first-time fiction writer how to self edit enough to get it to a line editor in decent shape!
However, I DO thank you so much for this article. It’s the first I’ve seen on this topic, and I’m sure I’ll be rereading it a LOT!
Hi Lauren, Yay! I’m glad Elizabeth’s insights were helpful for you. 🙂 As for self-editing, just as everyone has to find their own drafting process that works for them, the same applies for finding the right editing process for us. In general, most authors do several passes, each looking at a different phase of editing. This older post of mine gives a list of some things to look for in each phase. The first phase–the phase before line editing–is often called developmental editing (or content editing) and should be looking at more than just plot holes. (You can check out the list of what I do in a developmental edit for another look at this phase.) Many writers also form beta-reading friendships with other writers, where they exchange work to help look at the big-picture stuff (mostly the first phase of revision but often touches on stuff from later passes too). Other options include entering contests that give feedback or getting a partial edit from a developmental/content editor. Either way, that feedback could let you know if you’ve found a good voice or balance with stuff like over-explaining, telling vs. showing, passive writing, etc. Think of it this way: There’s no point in trying to make our sentences or paragraphs perfect if the whole scene might be cut or rewritten from a different point of view. 😉 My book recommendations would be Self-Editing for Fiction Writers (my mini-review here) and First Five Pages. I have many posts here about different… — Read More »
Jami, THANK YOU so much for such a helpful and detailed reply! I could really use a bit of the “perfectionism busting” advice, so your “guide to editing” was really useful.
I did pay for a partial developmental edit, and I think that’s what derailed me. She brought up so many things, it felt like the drawing board again. So, I think the takeaway (from reading your links) is that I start with big picture and work down from there. I was polishing something that wasn’t ready for polishing (I loved your “polishing a turd” example).
I really appreciate your blog so much, even though this is the first time I’ve ever commented. Thank you for all that you do to help the writer community!
[…] I thought of these questions after blog reader Lauren left a comment: […]
[…] identify and fix overwriting (Resist the Urge to Explain (RUE)) […]
Wonderful insights. I spent a career writing technical papers including experiments in inorganic chemistry. There was suspense i real-life but never in a report! Did it take a month to get the equipment running properly? Did someone knock over the apparatus when the test was 90% done and now I had to start over? What about an experiment that didn’t work out the way I anticipated – should I admit it? I recently discovered that one accomplished author added his cat as an author on a paper to save a rewrite! https://katerauner.wordpress.com/2018/02/14/famous-physics-cat-second-only-to-schrodingers-physics-science-cats-research-quote/ I had so much to unlearn – and I like the advice to have fun.
PS from “The cold steel of the assassin’s blade bites into her neck” it soudns like you made the transition to novelist!