Being a Better Writer: Moving From Essays and Non-Fiction Forms to Fiction

Readers, in case you somehow missed it, Shadow of an Empire is now out! And you should definitely pick up a copy. No, seriously, you really should. Reviews are starting to trickle in, and you definitely do not want to miss this book. Just click that colorful cover to the right there, or if you’re reading this post on an archive binge, the books tab.

Now then, with that said and out of the way (buy the book!), let’s get down to business for today’s hotly requested topic: How to switch from writing non-fiction work like essays and reports to something that’s a work of fiction.

Well, for starters, if you’ve acknowledged that there’s a difference, you’ve made the first step. Believe me, this is not always the case. Not everyone realizes that the two are fundamentally different, or that the experience and knowledge that make one form of writing sing will serve only to drag the other down.

Because writing a piece of non-fiction, be it a textbook, an essay, or a news article (at least, in the days when news articles weren’t clickbait opinion pieces) is a process entirely different in execution than writing, say, a short story about a character who goes out to buy milk. So different, in fact, that we’re going to run headlong into one of the oldest battles of fiction.

Show Versus Tell.

Yup, this old rule is rearing its head again, and when it comes to writing essays and non-fiction versus fiction, this is where it pays to keep it in mind. If you’ve read my discussion on the topic before, you know that one of the things I’ve been very careful to point out is that it’s show versus tell, not show don’t tell. Well, our topic today, I think, has a bit to do with that whole “don’t” bit I’ve been so critical of in the past.

See, when you’re writing non-fiction essays, articles, and the like, you have one goal, and one goal above all else: Inform your audience. That’s the point of informative writing. Whether it be an essay, a textbook, whatever, the goal is to present a piece of information and inform your reader about it in the most straightforward way imaginable. You don’t want to beat around the bush. You don’t want flowery, over the top prose and language. Your goal is to inform. To tell the reader what they need to know. See where this is going?

That’s right, essay and article writing is tell writing. You tell the reader what’s going on. You tell the reader why it’s important. You tell them the details and sources that have come together. And you tell them what the conclusion is. You’re direct, you’re to-the-point. Don’t be fooled by terms such as “showing the reader your conclusion.” You’re telling them outright.

And that’s fine. This isn’t anything wrong with essay or article writing. The goal is to provide a clear, concise sequence of events or data without showy prose. If you’re writing about an auto accident at a factory, you don’t write “the vehicle was coming apart beneath his hands, sliding across the pavement, wheel bucking like a wild horse as he fought for control.” You write something like. “As a result of these icy conditions, the driver lost control of the vehicle.” Your goal is to present information, clear and concise, without too much showy metaphor or flowery prose.

Again, there’s nothing wrong with this. If it helps, think of it as a written version of the visual difference between a documentary film and an action film. Both are film pieces, yes, but they are fundamentally different from one another, even if about the same story. A documentary serves to inform, while an action film serves to entertain. A documentary will show a scene and explain what is taking place with direct language, while an action film will forgo any narration (usually) and instead rely on the visuals being shown to convey its information.

Now, bringing things back around, this is why so many teachers harp out the incorrect lesson of “show, don’t tell,” instead of the more correct “show versus tell.” Because when you’re a student, the education that’s given is to write essays, articles, and other forms of non-fiction writing. “Telling” is the method of writing that students are educated and immersed in, and what they’re expected to write in. They’re instructed from day one to write in as bare-bones and informative manner as they are able.

Again, there’s nothing wrong with this. Technical writing, article writing, etc … All serve a purpose. But then when it comes time to transition from writing this type of work to writing fiction … friction is the result, because all of their training has been on this straightforward approach. It becomes a bit like handing a documentary crew who’ve only ever done documentaries a large budget and telling them to film a blockbuster.

So what can be done to move past this? How can someone that’s experienced in non-fiction writing pursuits make the jump to fiction? Speaking as someone who has done both, there is a bit of a mental “switch” that needs to be flipped. I can’t say that what this switch triggers will be the same in every mind, but I can offer some pointers and differences that may put you on the right track.

First of all, if you’re a non-fiction writer that wants to write fiction, start by studying fiction. Not just reading, but studying. Much as a documentary crew wanting to make a blockbuster would start by studying what techniques action films exhibit, so must you do the same with writing. Find fiction books that are well-regarded and well reviewed and read them. Then, as you’re reading, think about what makes the writing different. When a character has an argument with another character, what makes that scene different than how it would have been written in a technical paper or an article? What attention to detail is given? How does the author show the character’s emotions or actions rather than simple stating them?

In that same vein, study up on show versus tell. If you’ve been writing stuff that’s mostly tell, learn how to show! Read up on what the difference is (warning, sometimes it’s a matter of opinion) and look at how authors show something as opposed to telling it. Again, this comes back to studying the writing of others I mentioned above.

Granted, studying is one thing, but practice is another. Try hunting down writing exercises for fiction writers and trying them out. For instance, you could write about an object with the restriction that you cannot directly describe it, a writing challenge from one of my creative writing classes that forced us to show the object in question rather than tell about it through use of metaphor and comparison. While the end result isn’t really something you’d want to read, it is a good test of your capacities for “switching” from one style to another.

Such practice writing can push you in other directions as well. One thing that is an abrupt change from article and essay writing to fiction is the jump in perspective and narration. Articles and the like are written an omniscient perspective—if you could call that a perspective at all. They’re often impersonal—again, presenting facts.

Fiction writing, meanwhile, shifts gears completely with perspectives, narrators, points-of-view … Before on this blog I’ve talked about the “lens” a character sees the world through. Part of writing fiction is finding that “lens” and learning to see through it, especially if you’re writing a limited-perspective character. Again, this is something you can study by reading others’ works, and also practice by specifically sitting down and challenging yourself to write something from a fixed perspective.

Again, much of this comes back to show versus tell. What you want to do when switching from article and essay writing to fiction writing is break out of that mold of “all tell, all the time.” You want to show the reader how your character feels when something happens. You want to show them the action, the impact, the brute force. Again, think of the difference between how a documentary and a blockbuster show the audience a car wreck. A documentary will show the viewer security footage from an external perspective while giving them facts. How much damage was done. The force of the impact on the passengers. Stuff like that. The blockbuster, however, will do a shot from inside the car, focused on a character’s perspective as the world flips around them, metal buckles under the impact, airbags deploy, etc. It shows the weight of the impact. You don’t have a voiceover that says “here’s how much force this character is experiencing,” but are shown their head whipping into the headrest.

But figuring out how to carry out each of these elements is a study unto itself, which is why I suggest studying works of fiction to see how it’s carried out, and then practicing honing your own skills in writing perspectives, dialogue, etc.

And look, it will take a lot of practice. But at some point, the differences will start to “click” for you, and you’ll find that switching from one method to the other will become easier and easier.

Will it mean you won’t have room to improve? No, not in the slightest. Accept now that your attempts at moving into fiction are probably going to suck for a while. They’ll be clunky. They’ll be full of common errors. But you know what?

That’s fine, because just as you’d expect a camera crew switching over from documentary to blockbuster, there will be a learning curve. Sometimes you’ll fall back on the wrong habits. Sometimes you’ll find that something you didn’t expect to be useful is in your new area. Things will “click” a little further.

Got it? Good. Because I really only have one more thing to add: Depending on how familiar you are with fiction, you should probably study up on fundamentals of fiction as well, such a plot arcs, details, characters, tropes, cliches … really the kind of stuff you can find in every BaBW post on this site, and plenty of writing guides elsewhere. Because article and essay writing contains none of that. It’s an entirely different set of rules. And if you aren’t that familiar with fiction, it is going to be helpful to you to know what those rules, conventions, etc, are, and more importantly, why.

So that’s it. Study and practice, looking at building you capacity to show alongside your tell instead of straight telling. Work at it, practice it, and eventually, it’ll click.

Good luck. Now get writing.

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