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What non fiction writers can learn from reading (and writing) fiction

The words 'Once upon a time' written out in pen

I’m all thumbs when it comes to writing fiction. I tried my hand at penning short stories early in my professional career and while two of my stories came close to being published, I didn’t get any further than that.

Long ago, I realized that I’m not wired for writing fiction. I do, however, enjoy reading it. And I realize that non fiction writers have a lot to learn from reading and even trying to write fiction.

It’s definitely worth learning these lessons as they’ll give your non fiction a powerful boost. So what can you learn from fiction? Read on to find out.

Structuring a narrative

While not everything you write needs to tell a story, there are times when you need to weave a narrative in a piece of non fiction. That narrative should follow a structure. In fact, it can follow several structures. Two of the most widely-used structures are:

  • A linear narrative (which has a distinct beginning, middle, and end)
  • A non-linear narrative (which jumps around, but comes together at the end)

You can adapt a particular narrative structure to your non fiction. For example, you might start your tale at the end and, through flashbacks and eyewitness accounts, explain how that end you started with came about.

Pacing

Good fiction, no matter what its length, flows. It doesn’t move too slowly or too quickly.

Pacing is important in non fiction, too. If you’re trying to build an argument or construct a narrative, you don’t want to jump to your conclusion too quickly. Instead, you want to guide your readers to that conclusion without omitting any detail they might need.

Effectively using quotes

Good, strong dialogue makes fiction worth reading. It gives insights into the story and into the characters. It breaks up long passages of narrative.

The same idea applies to quotes in non fiction. Quotes can add colour, add authority, add a counterpoint to what you’re writing. But if you add quotes indiscriminantly, they’ll seem like they’ve just been dropped in because you didn’t have anything better to do with them. You need to carefully place your quotes in what you’re writing so they fit in and flow.

Using literary techniques

I’m talking about techniques like flashbacks, foreshadowing, and the use of descriptive language. All of that can add colour to what you’re writing to help make it more interesting and vivid.

Is that it?

No. Those are, however, the main lessons I try to take from fiction and try to apply to my work. I don’t always succeed, but I do try. And that’s what’s important.

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