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Tips for Transitioning from Non-Fiction to Fiction Writing

Now that I have published both non-fiction and fiction books with traditional publishers, I have a deeper appreciation for the differences in both genres. Here are a few tips for making the transition from non-fiction to fiction writing.

Tips for Transitioning from Non-Fiction to Fiction Writing

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More Showing and Less Telling

After writing hundreds of pages of technical material I found it difficult at first to let go of “telling” about everything from the science behind my science fiction to what characters were doing in each scene. Non-fiction writing, especially in science, requires complex and sometimes lengthy descriptions grounded in accuracy. Little is left to the reader to construct, which is, by the way, the point of conveying textual information.

Fiction, on the other hand, creates a story in the reader’s mind which requires the elimination of redundancies and excessive descriptions.

Here is an example of a description written in more of a non-fiction manner:

Mark, a mid-fifties college professor, sat in his task chair at his modular desk thinking about how awful the meeting with Rose, his failing chemistry student, will be. Mark’s college, a mid-sized institution with 20,000 students did not provide private meeting spaces for professors. The cubicle farm housing the faculty offices created a less than desirable environment for these meetings. The cubicles were arranged in three rows of six cubicles producing an area of little to no privacy.

The phone rang signaling Rose’s arrival. Since students were banned from the cubicle farm, Mark had to walk over to the secured door to let Rose in.

Okay, so a bit of over-telling here. For example, information such as the size of the college, the desirability of the environment, and the arrangement of cubicles seem to be somewhat overkill.

Here’s a rewrite:

Mark, a mid-fifties college professor, sat in his task chair at his modular desk thinking about how awful the meeting with Rose, his failing chemistry student, will be. The cubicle farm housing the faculty offices created a less than desirable environment for these kinds of meetings. Mark’s desk phone rang. “Hello, Dr. Mark Donovan. Yes, is that you Rose? I will be right out to let you in.” Mark took in a deep breath, straightened his tie and strolled to the locked door.

The idea is to provide just enough of a description to create a picture in the reader’s mind. The dialogue also helps to bring the reader into the story.

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Don’t Over Plan

Planning, outlining, and researching are mainstays of non-fiction writing. Some planning and research is important in fiction writing but the idea is not to go overboard with planning detailed story lines. Sometimes over planning and then sticking to a detailed plan can affect the pace of the story. Planning is a good thing, but over-planning can get you into trouble. For example, I typically begin with a 1 or 2 page outline and then develop the story as it’s written.

Let the Story Write Itself

I can’t say enough about this one and it represents a big difference in writing non-fiction versus fiction. As I stated in the previous section, I begin with a short outline and then work to let the story develop. I pay attention to pace and plot lines and am frequently amazed at how a story pulls the writer along in a sometimes completely different direction.

Summarize Research

In writing science fiction, I sometimes find it difficult to avoid the dreaded information dump. This can also happen in non-fiction. The idea is to determine just how much information the reader needs to understand the story. Sometimes it is necessary to summarize complex information. Here is an example:

Mark swallowed the capsule with one big gulp. The capsule containing the new drug Armaset worked by facilitating the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine, an amine, works by binding to second messenger receptors in the cell membrane known as G-receptors and activating the pleasure and reward centers in the basal ganglia thalamic loop. Mark felt a strong wave of euphoria pass through his body.

Here is the rewrite:

With one big gulp Mark swallowed the capsule. The capsule containing the new drug Armaset worked by increasing the neurotransmitter dopamine in Mark’s brain, enhancing his pleasure and reward centers. A strong wave of euphoria began to pass through his body.

Develop Character Sheets

Writers can use character sheets along with their outlines. The information can include physical descriptions of the characters, their likes and dislikes, and personal philosophies. I like to search for images of people who look like the characters I’m writing about and copy and paste them on the character sheet. Sometimes I add more information such as habits or quirks that help to create depth as the story moves along.

Don’t Write Non-Fiction While Writing Fiction

This last tip is personal and may not apply to everyone. When I am deep into writing fiction I try to stay away from writing non-fiction. Sometimes this is difficult since my job requires writing a significant amount of technical information such as curriculum, exams, and labs. I attempt to avoid this conflict by setting aside some time for fiction writing during which I can maintain focus. For example, it wouldn’t be a good idea to begin a new novel while in the middle of a large curriculum project.

Fiction and non-fiction are completely different animals, however with some motivation, practice and boundaries I believe writers can be successful at both genres.

I wish you all the best in your writing…

Dr Bruce Forciea
Featured Uplyrn Expert
Dr Bruce Forciea
Anatomy & Physiology Instructor, Instructional Designer, Curriculum Developer
Subjects of Expertise: Physiology, Health Sciences, Wellness
Featured Uplyrn Expert
Dr Bruce Forciea
Anatomy & Physiology Instructor
Instructional Designer
Curriculum Developer

Subjects of Expertise

Physiology
Health Sciences
Wellness

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