What Non-Fiction Authors Can Teach Novelists

Do you aspire to write a novel as breathtaking as Huckleberry Finn? Mark Twain cheated. He brought to his fiction a skill set he developed under his given name, Samuel Clemens, as a journalist. Twain the novelist knew that a riveting opening, skillful incorporation of dialogue, and compelling details are all tools he could mine from nonfiction.
Image by erika

Lee Gutkind, editor of the literary journal Creative Nonfiction, says the best nonfiction writers “embrace many of the techniques of the fiction writer, including dialogue, description, plot, intimacy and specificity of detail, characterization, point of view; except, because it is nonfiction—and this is the difference—it is true.” As a journalist and creative nonfiction writer who has also written fiction, I’d flip that statement and say fiction writers borrow from nonfiction writers. Regardless of who claims ownership, why wouldn’t any writer not want to improve her craft? Here are some nonfiction examples that can guide novelists:

Dramatic Opening

All he could see, in every direction, was water.

In Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, Laura Hillenbrand opens with her protagonist, former Olympics runner Louie Zamperini, adrift on a raft in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. It’s been twenty-seven days since he was shot down by a Japanese Zero. He hears a plane and, anticipating rescue, fires two flares into the air. But machine gun fire quickly tells him he has signaled, not an American rescue plane, but a Japanese bomber. Hillenbrand tells Zamperini’s story chronologically, except for this opening, a scene we don’t return to for dozens of pages. But we are compelled to read until we find ourselves again at that point in the story, and by then we’re hooked, willing to devour the full 500 pages.

Characterization

We talked some, he was very shy, but after a while he said, “One thing I really like is Spanish rice.” So I promised to make him some, and he smiled kind of, and I decided—well, he wasn’t the worst young man I ever saw.

Long before novelist Thomas Harris invented a sympathetic serial killer in Hannibal Lector, Truman Capote persuaded readers to sympathize with a real murderer in his nonfiction book In Cold Blood. In Capote’s account of the brutal slaughter of the Clutter family by two ex-cons, we are led to believe the one who actually performed the murders—Perry Edward Smith—is worthy of pity and compassion. Capote does this largely through the dialogue of others, including Josephine “Josie” Meier, the wife of the sheriff who arrested Smith.

Detail

The discoveries came quickly: a vat of acid with eight ribs and part of a skull settled at the bottom; mounds of quicklime; a large kiln; a dissection table stained with what seemed to be blood.

In The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America, Erik Larson paints a horrifying portrait of Dr. H.H. Holmes, a serial killer who confessed to twenty-seven murders but may have killed as many as 200. Perhaps the most shocking part of the story is the Chicago “murder castle” Holmes built, complete with airtight rooms in which he could weaken or kill victims with gas, and a hidden chute to send corpses to his basement for dismemberment and disposal. Larson’s use of detail places us in this house of horrors, where Holmes killed dozens a short distance away from unknowing riders of the world’s first Ferris Wheel at the 1893 World’s Fair.

Scene

He looked back: The man was still there, chasing after him, still shouting angrily. Then, quite incredibly, he stopped and raised a gun, took aim, and fired.

Simon Winchester wasn’t present on that “moonlit Saturday morning of February 17, 1872,” in a crime-ridden London neighborhood known as Lambeth Marsh, but in The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, he uses his own prodigious research to place us on the scene. He in particular uses one of the five senses, sound—quoting various accounts of overheard gunshots—to show us how a peaceful bookworm, Dr. W.C. Minor, has a dark side.

Suspense

An aged, exhausted Harrison, taken under the wing of King George III, ultimately claimed his rightful reward in 1773—after forty struggling years of political intrigue, international warfare, academic backbiting, scientific revolution, and economic upheaval.

In Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time, Dava Sobel gives away the ending in the opening chapter; the English clockmaker John Harrison won the royal prize for a method of calculating longitude at sea. What novelist would want to give away her ending at the beginning? Yet Longitude is a page turner, because Sobel moves at a quick pace. She brings to life the scientists and politicians standing in Harrison’s way, while limiting details to those that both inform and intrigue.Writers are told to read, and we do. We’re also told to read what we write. But that advice can be taken too narrowly; if you’re a mystery writer, does that mean you only read mysteries? Or do you seek out any prose that skillfully poses questions and artfully builds suspense? Any novelist wishing to improve her craft would be well-advised to read non-fiction as well, to experience works in which truth is stranger than fiction. Of course, Mark Twain had his own thoughts on that: “Why shouldn’t truth be stranger than fiction? Fiction, after all, has to make sense.”

Tell me your opinion: Have you as a fiction writer found value in reading non-fiction?

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar pic

Sign up to receive K.M. Weiland’s e-letter and receive her free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.

About Patrick Ross | @PatrickRWrites

Patrick Ross is a professional storyteller. A longtime journalist, blogger, and creative writer, his first book Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road was published in October 2014 by Black Rose Writing. For four years he has blogged about writing, creativity, and living an art-committed life on The Artist's Road. He earned an MFA in Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and teaches creative writing with The Writer's Center in Bethesda, Maryland, and online with The Loft Literary Center. His wife and two teenage children tolerate his need to honor his muse through writing, which is particularly impressive since they often show up in his prose.

Comments

  1. This is excellent, thanks for sharing. As a lawyer with dreams of becoming a professional writer, a lot of this really hits home.

  2. Nicely done, Patrick. As someone who studied creative nonfiction, too, it delights me to read all these reasons why nonfiction and fiction writers can learn from each other’s techniques. Interesting writing engages readers no matter what kind it is, so using all available tools simply makes sense. Poetry techniques are another addition to the writer’s arsenal – images that take the reader’s breath away, attention to rhythm, the sound of the language on the tongue – which can make prose irresistible.
    Love your Mark Twain references. That made me smile!

  3. Borrow from what is true…can’t get anymore real than that:-) I love drifting off into another world to be taken away by the 5 senses in whatever form. I guess that all comes from experiencing what is true. Authentic, real and genuine:) Point taken! . Of course I read a lot of non-fiction when I was homeschooling my children, guess I need to get back to that:) Thanks for posting!

  4. Thank you so much for sharing with us today, Patrick!

  5. As a memoir writer, I am so used to hearing how we have to use all the tools of fiction to make our life story read like a novel so this is an interesting twist. In the end,a story has to engage,intrigued and entertain the readers to them keep turning the pages. Your Mark Twain references are great. I read both fiction and nonfiction and learn from both. It has to seem real and believable in either genre. Thanks for a great post,Patrick!

  6. Great post, Patrick. I also came into my fiction writing after working as a journalist and nonfiction writing, so your points here made a lot of sense. I believe that efficient language, vivid imagery and a compelling story are universal to good writing, regardless of the genre. And reading a variety of genres helps sharpen a writer’s eye to the elements of good writing.

  7. @Jeff… From what I’ve seen, the law can be a great training ground for writers; you learn how to research, engage an audience, and tell a compelling story. Good luck!

    @One Minnesota Writer… You know, I’ve begun to realize at my MFA residencies how much I could learn from poetry. I may sign up for a poetry class, or perhaps a poetry/prose cross-genre workshop. Maybe a blogger out there can write something like this to guide me on that exploration! And I’m so glad you liked the Twain references; I love that quote of his.

    @Lorna… Well, if you want to get back to it, here are five titles worth reading! 🙂 Great nonfiction excels when the five senses are brought in; the best feature journalists make great use of that classic tool of fiction, and I’m working on incorporating it more into my writing.

    @Kathleen… I just read a defense of memoir, pointing out that it has to be written as creatively as fiction but without the advantage of making stuff up (oh, how James Frey has tarnished a genre I’m now writing in as well). Great to have you offer your voice of experience!

    @Jessica… Ah, but this post should speak to you not just due to your journalism background, but due to the fact that your historical novel READS like creative nonfiction, because of the tremendous research you performed. The adventure seemed real while reading it.

  8. K.M., it is an honor to be featured here! Thank you for the opportunity.

  9. My favourite genre is the autobiographical novel. So there we have fiction that’s largely fact. When the story “travels” to other lands, then I’m in heaven. Paul Theroux does this, yes? And my favourite book of last year, “In a Strange Room” by Damon Galgut. My first novel fits this genre, “Smoke that Thunders”, basically a hitchiking journey through Africa. But listen…as writers aren’t we supposed to seduce our readers into believing it’s real? Sometimes when I worry I’m not sounding real, I imagine I’m writing non-fiction. Bingo! Verisimilitude.

  10. Thanks for the kind words in your comment about my historical novel, Patrick. It means the world to me!

  11. Great article! Link posted on the HUDSON VALLEY WRITERS AND AUTHORS FACEBOOK page. All best, Don

  12. Patrick, I really enjoyed this. I used to focus on fiction but lately have been more fascinated with creative non-fiction and have been surprised to see how similar the two are. My paying job is all non-fiction (and usually not the creative kind!). Anyone interested in CNF should definitely read Lee Gutkind and Creative Nonfiction magazine — great reference. I love your blog already, and this was extra wonderful. Can’t wait to read more of WordPlay, too.

    Thanks to both of you!
    Suzanne

  13. Love those examples! Now I’m going to have to read a few of those books. Very interesting post. Thanks!

  14. I read a lot of nonfiction and memoir because that is what I’m writing. I’m going the opposite direction and reading a lot of fiction to learn how to present my story in a way that reads like a novel. Thanks for your examples. I will try to get your book. It looks like it will be helpful to me.

  15. This is great stuff! I’ve even found that my non-fiction writing–particularly my personal experience essays–have enhanced my fiction writing skills. And I definitely agree about reading a variety of types of books as well. I’ve been expanding my reading repertoire and I’m learning so much!

  16. As a lawyer, I heartily concur that skill at crafting story is important for lawyers too. Good narrative makes the facts come to life. Great post.

  17. What an excellent post. I read a lot of non-fiction doing my research for my MG adventure series. I have found that non-fiction writers go straight to the heart of the matter, never losing sight of what they are telling the readers. Fiction authors can learn from this, by dispensing with all the clutter that often bogs down their story. Two brilliant non-fiction authors are Tom Holland(Persian Fire, and Millenium)and Lucy Hughes-Hallet (Heroes). Their writing is so compelling that one forgets it is non-fiction and their historical analyses of real-life charcters and events unfolds like a gripping tale should.

  18. So true. I find value in everything I read, fiction or non-fiction, in or out of my genre. I’m not trying to learn the norms of my genre. I’m trying to learn how to write good stories. 🙂

  19. @PJ… “But listen…as writers aren’t we supposed to seduce our readers into believing it’s real?” Well said! And yes, Paul Theroux really puts his readers in fantastic scenes.

    @dystenium… Thanks for the promotion!

    @Suzanne… Yes, I’m a subscriber to Creative Nonfiction, great prose. That quote is from his introduction to In Fact: The Best of Creative Nonfiction. Thank you for your kind words on my blog, I love your input there!

    @Rhonda… Thanks! You won’t go wrong with any of them. Longitude, in fact, is the book that first inspired me to consider CNF, and In Cold Blood is the Holy Grail of quality I chase.

    @heathermarsten… Yes, I have been reading so much CNF lately that I’ve set a goal to read more fiction!

    @Holly Browne… That’s fantastic, being able to leverage your writing skills across genres like that. Personal experience essays resonate when we’re put in the scene, when we see it through the narrator’s eyes. Keep reading!

    @Anne-Marie… I live in DC, I can’t throw a rock without hitting a lawyer, and many of them do pursue creative writing on the side, with each experience benefiting the other. Thanks for the feedback!

    @Fiona… “I have found that non-fiction writers go straight to the heart of the matter, never losing sight of what they are telling the readers.” Wow, I love that. Of course, the non-fiction writers who don’t do that are ones we don’t read, because they’re not going to get published! 🙂

    @Misha… “I’m trying to learn how to write good stories.” I’m going to print that out and frame it over my computer. Perfect.

  20. Patrick, I’d love to write a guide for you on poetry techniques in prose. Anytime.

  21. These are great tips! Thanks.

  22. Yes, I’ve found great inspiration through non-fiction books. Frankly, I’ve read more in that genre than I’ve read fiction novels. For me, reality waters my creative soil much more than fiction books do.
    Great post! thanks for the tips.
    Aina

  23. If I’m struggling with a fictional scene, I often try to remind myself to go into non-fiction, journalistic mode, writing only what I can observe in my mind and staying away from emotion and thought. It is amazing how helpful this is. I generally go back in and add some of what I left out, but casting a journalistic eye on the work is very helpful. As is this post. Thanks, Patrick.

  24. @thoughtsonplot… You’re welcome!

    @ainasstuff… “For me, reality waters my creative soil much more than fiction books do.” Wow, good for you! I would think any fiction writer should be reading a lot of fiction, of course, and I find it valuable as a CNF writer.

    @Charlotte… Thank you! I like that idea, of going into observer mode in your fiction. Once you get the “facts” out you can flesh them out with senses and emotion. That is very much a common approach to nonfiction feature writing as well.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.