4 Ways a Fiction Writer Can Learn to Love Nonfiction
Many fiction writers shy away from nonfiction. They are afraid it takes skills they don’t have, or that they’ll be bored in writing it. But good fiction writers already have the skills to write good nonfiction. And nonfiction has far more publishing options than fiction, so it may just be a great way to build credits and supplement your income. All you have to do is fall in love.
Find the Story in the Facts.
Finding a story to tell through nonfiction is easy with something like a biography, but it can also be done through finding anecdotes in other forms of nonfiction. Highlights for Children often publishes nonfiction about animals that include specific stories of encounters with animals or specific anecdotes from the lives of animal researchers. Keep in mind that this storytelling within the facts must be true tales. Nonfiction is not the place to make things up.
In the Beginning
Even when the bulk of your nonfiction piece isn’t narrative, many nonfiction writers use anecdotes, a kind of storytelling, as a compelling beginning to a work of nonfiction. Many informational pieces begin with an anecdote to help the reader connect with the facts ahead. Just be certain the anecdote is true and not simply something you made up that probably happened somewhere to some animals sometimes. Although some commercial publishers do allow a certain creative license in making up anecdotes, many do not. And nonfiction with made up bits can be frowned upon by teachers and librarians as they can make the entire piece off limits as a source for report writing.
Still, the value in opening with an anecdote points to another important element: beginning with a bang. Successful fiction writers know how important it is to start your story in an exciting moment of action, or some other compelling bit. Nonfiction benefits from the same thing, a compelling, grabbing opener. Anecdotes are popular, but so are really exciting, unexpected facts, or clever turns of phrase that offer a splash of humor.
In fiction, humor is one of the most popular elements editors ask for over and over. The same is true in nonfiction. If you can pick an amusing subject or find a funny way of looking at a subject, you’ll increase both your writing enjoyment and the reader’s engagement. Sometimes the humor isn’t going to make the reader laugh out loud, but may only elicit a small smile at your cleverness.
Humor can come from putting together unusual facts in an unexpected way. For example:
What creature has whiskers like a cat, tusks like an elephant, and weighs as much as a small car?
The juxtaposition of cat, elephant, and car isn’t gigglesome, but they are unexpected, and that’s an element of humor.
Go Below the Surface
Many fiction writers avoid nonfiction, because they’re afraid it will be boring. After all, if you’re writing for children, what can you say that will be really interesting? The answer is, all kinds of things. Nearly every subject you can imagine has unusual elements that haven’t been looked at very often. For example, butterflies are a topic that kids know a lot about. The lifecycle of the butterfly is part of beginning kid science everywhere. So what could anyone possibly say about butterflies that could be interesting?
The answer: the harvester butterfly has a carnivorous caterpillar stage that preys upon wooly aphids, sucking out their insides like little vampires. And what’s more, these caterpillars then stick the tiny aphid corpses to their backs, giving themselves wooly camouflage. This unique caterpillar definitely brings something new to a very overdone subject and writing about it resulted in an article sale to Cricket Magazine. Most topics have pockets of undiscovered wonder, if you’ll only take the time (and do the digging) to find them. And not only can deep research lead to better nonfiction, it will make you a better fiction writer as well as you’ll learn how to research the things you need for your fiction quickly and efficiently.
So when you think about trying nonfiction, keep in mind that there are stories to be found in most subjects and you can employ fiction techniques like humor to engage the reader as long as you stick with what’s true. And the key to falling in love with a good nonfiction topic is often to dig until you hit wonder, because it’s almost always in there.