If you write nonfiction by day—news stories, blog posts, law briefs, sales copy, collateral, tech writing, etc.—then making the transition from nonfiction to fiction holds some special challenges. As an agent, editor, and writing instructor, I teach a lot of aspiring novelists—and I can almost always spot the nonfiction writers among them.
When you write nonfiction as part of your day job but you’re writing a novel by night, your early efforts at fiction may fall short because “your nonfiction is showing.” In other words, your prose reads more—or at least partly—like nonfiction than it does fiction.
The good news is that you know how to write. You can put words and sentences and paragraphs together. You understand the building blocks of language. You know how to tell a story. Now you need to learn how to show a story. A book-length story, if you’re writing a novel.
It’s like playing the piano. You know how to play the piano, you practice the scales every day, you may even write your own songs. Which puts you way ahead of other aspiring novelists. But now you are going from playing the piano to composing a symphony.
That requires both some new learning and some unlearning on your part. Some of the habits that serve nonfiction writers well keep us from writing effective fiction. I say this having started off as a reporter myself and having gone through the same learning curve when transitioning to fiction.
Here are some things you need to look out for:
1) Forecasting and Summing Up
Often nonfiction writers turning to fiction weigh down their stories with info dumping, backstory, mini-flashbacks, and explanation. All this needs to go. Just get on with the story. The trick is to keep your story moving and weave whatever backstory and info you really need into the action as it happens.
In journalism, we say: Tell us what you’re going to tell us, tell us, and then tell us what you told us.
This doesn’t work in fiction. Forecasting simply destroys suspense. So you don’t want to tell us what you’re going to tell us. And summing up every scene after you’ve shown us the scene, is unnecessarily repetitive, slows your story down, and reveals a lack of respect for the fiction reader’s intelligence. So don’t tell us what you’ve told us. Just show us the scene.
Note: Forecasting is not foreshadowing. Which is an entirely different subject for another time.
2) Fully Dramatize Your Scenes
You may also find that you’re dramatizing the story, but not in fully realized scenes. You may be writing in half-scenes, so your story lacks narrative thrust. It’s like one very long opening shot. Narrative thrust is the taut building of story, beat by beat, scene by scene, chapter by chapter, propelling the narrative forward in a dramatic arc that peaks at the climax of the story. You must write each scene so that it leads logically to the next, as if you were connecting a model train, car by car, and presenting story questions as you proceed down the track, pushing the action forward to its inevitable if unpredictable ending. You need to make sure that each scene has a point; that in every scene it’s clear what your hero wants/needs, and whether or not he gets it.
3) Missed Opportunities for Drama
Sometimes we avoid writing the scenes that will move our readers most. These are the scenes that scare us, grieve us, amuse us, bring us to our knees. Evoking this kind of strong emotion is what good drama is all about, but you may find yourself unwilling to write those scenes, much less milk them. You may be resorting to exposition instead and missing serious opportunities for drama. You need to dramatize the action, rather than simply telling us about the action through exposition. Make us laugh, make us cry, make us sweat and swear and stay up all night. You can’t do this through exposition.
4) Watch Your Point of View
When you write nonfiction, you’re typically using the omniscient point of view. (Or camera point of view or second person point of view.) In my experience as an agent, I can tell you that point-of-view issues keep more good aspiring novelists from getting published than anything else. Here are some general POV rules that you ignore at your peril:
- No omniscient POV. (It’s considered old-fashioned these days for fiction, at least here in the U.S.)
- When writing first-person POV, stick to one POV per book.
- When writing third-person POV:
- Stick to third-person limited POV;
- Only one POV per scene;
- Only five POVs per book; and
- The protagonist’s POV should predominate.
You want to fully inhabit your POV characters, that is, get into their heads in a profound way. Reveal their inner lives.
5) Put Yourself in the Story
As a reporter, you’re told to keep yourself out of the story. But as a novelist, you must put yourself in every character’s shoes. You are the writer and the director and the producer, but you are also the actor. Writing fiction is method acting.
6) Throw In Everything But the Kitchen Sink
Nonfiction writers tend to write lean. That leanness is not your friend in fiction. All those details your editor took out of your articles and news stories and law briefs and screenplays and collateral you may very well layer into your fiction to good effect.