What Non-Fiction Authors Can Learn from Fiction Authors


Those of us who write non-fiction have the opportunity to learn three essential writing practices from our friends who write fiction. I enjoy reading novels, especially since most of my days are spent reading and writing non-fiction. Good quality fiction gives me not only an entertainment break but also provides me with some critical lessons to improve my writing.

Here are three lessons I learn when I read outstanding fiction:

  1. Character development. Fiction authors work extremely hard to create characters that are vivid in the reader’s imagination. Characters are to the fiction writer what nails are to a carpenter and what strings are to a guitar player. Fiction author’s characters are the core of their work and story.

How does that affect non-fiction writers? We tell our “stories” from a perspective. Let’s call him or her the “narrator.” This person is our main character, and we must write in such a way that makes this character memorable and approachable. It’s also vital that our narrator has a consistent voice—are they teaching? Encouraging? Convincing? Inspiring? The reader needs to develop a relationship with our narrator as they do with the protagonists in an excellent novel.

  1. Details of place. Fiction authors also work hard to describe in detail the physical locations of their characters. They put readers directly into the scene. They help the reader always know where they are in the story’s timeline.

What does this teach non-fiction writers? We need always to let our readers know where they are in our writing. Basically, we shouldn’t meander or stray down endless rabbit trails where the reader can become lost, bored, and eventually stop reading. A friend of mine just quit reading a book from a nationally recognized author because he could not keep track of the author was going. Nothing made sense. My friend was lost because the author could not bring him back to the main point of the chapter. Losing agreement of place is like rowing a boat without oars.

  1. Unity of Time. Many fiction writers always make us aware of the time in their story. They keep us informed on timeframes, time changing, and time frames. Therefore, their readers are never lost in time. Much like the agreement of place, unity of time keeps the story flowing, and the reader knows not only where they are, but also how much time has elapsed.

What does this teach non-fiction writers? If you are writing in categories like biography, history, and other time-sensitive genres, this point should be obvious. However, what about different types? What does time have to do with Seven Steps to Living a Better Life genre books? It has plenty to do as, similar to point two above; we don’t want our readers lost. We also want them to know time expectations if you’re writing a “how-to” type book. For example, if you’re writing a diet book, help the reader understand time frames of losing weight. Don’t let the reader think the weight the reader seeks to lose will fall off tomorrow. Alternatively, a DYI book needs to help the reader understand how long it will take them to build the bookshelf or remodel the bathroom.

We can learn so much from our friends in the fiction category. They know how to tell a story effectively. They know how to engage the reader with compelling characters so we can’t wait to turn the page. They help us understand where we are and the timeframe in which the story is unfolding. Those of us who write non-fiction can do the same.


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Trust is the winsome wedding of faith and hope.

Brennan Manning

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