Making the Leap from Nonfiction to Fiction (or Vice-Versa)

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Patricia Fryby Patricia Fry

After forty years of writing nonfiction for publication, I started writing fiction. Unlike many young writers, I once dreamed of writing nonfiction. I fantasized about a byline in magazines. I wanted to be a columnist and I accomplished that goal. I decided to write a book and now have published over forty of them. I wrote nonfiction until June of 2011, when I discovered my fiction muse (or is it a folly?).

What are the main differences between writing fiction and nonfiction? Here’s my take:

  1. You still need to write with your audience in mind. In nonfiction, make sure your instructions are clear, your organization is logical, and that you’re presenting something useful to your reader. As a writer of fiction, you must ask yourself: can readers follow along with the story? Is it entertaining? If you can’t put yourself in the minds of your readers, you may not be successful at writing either fiction or nonfiction.
  2. You must make sure you have an audience. Is this book actually something that is needed/wanted by a segment of readers? How large is this proposed audience? Pointed research may be necessary to determine how many people read period novels, mysteries, or novels set in Alaska involving pilots. If you’re writing nonfiction, you should find out how many people follow tennis, are allergic to makeup, are vegans, or have horses, (for example) before writing a book on the topic.
  3. You must be consistent in both media. In nonfiction, avoid using conflicting facts, information, and statistics. In fiction, if you change a character’s name, hometown, etc., make sure to make the changes throughout the story.
  4. In either medium, you must give your book credibility and personality. In fiction, you use dialog to move the story along and to make characters come alive. Quotations from experts help give a nonfiction book credibility.
  5. Fiction must be as believable as nonfiction. In the latter, the author must strive to appear credible in his presentation of facts and figures. In fiction, your story must also have an element of truth. If you say the main character has a broken left leg, the next time you mention that leg, it had better be the left one. If you set the scene during summer in Las Vegas, don’t have a character shiver while walking down a street at noon wearing a wool coat. Fact-checking is also a necessity for novelists. If your story doesn’t make sense, readers will lose interest and you will lose credibility in their eyes.
  6. Both fiction and nonfiction must share an element of emotion. In fiction you use emotion to set a scene. In nonfiction you set a tone. How can one write emotion into nonfiction? Have you ever read a rant or a passionate opinion and felt the anger or tension in that nonfiction piece? In fiction, the dialog and descriptions set up the scenes or the mood that expresses emotion.

The elements of good writing are all there for both fiction and nonfiction writing—they are just used in different ways.

Many people have difficulty making the transition. The nonfiction author must overcome her tendency to write within strict boundaries—her narration and dialogue may be stilted and forced. The novelist might have difficulty coming across as credible when writing an instructional book because his style is too literary and disorganized.

What is the key to changing your writing preference from time to time? The key is willingness to learn, to be flexible, and to practice, practice, practice.


Patricia Fry is President of SPAWN. She has been writing for publication for over 40 years, creating a career from writing, publishing, and editing for the last thirty years. Her latest love is writing fiction. In 2012 she published the first in her Klepto Cat Mystery series. Today, there are three: Catnapped, Cat-Eye Witness, and Sleight of Paw, all Kindle books available at Amazon.com for $2.99 each. http://www.patriciafry.com http://www.matilijapress.com. Visit her publishing blog: http://www.matilijapress.com/publishingblog and her fiction-related blog, http://www.matilijapress.com/catscapades.

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