Fiction or Non-fiction?

Recently I was at a conference where I met with a writer who was working on a non-fiction memoir. It needed work, but it was viable, I thought.

Imagine my surprise when we met again and he told me he had been advised by two others (faculty members at this conference) to write it as a novel, not as a non-fiction book. He scrapped the memoir and began his fact-based novel.

I think he was given bad advice. I’m assuming the other two faculty members believe that if you can write non-fiction, you can write fiction just as well.

I disagree. Fiction and non-fiction are not the same and, in my opinion, take a different set of talents. Yes, there’s some overlapping. Some fiction techniques are useful in writing non-fiction and vice versa. But few authors succeed at both fiction and non-fiction.

The stumbling block as I see it is that turning a true-life experience into a novel is handicapped by the reality of what actually happened. Fiction is a made-up story. When you try to pour non-fiction realities into a made-up story, you’re no longer free to tailor the story according to your creative imagination.

In my days as an editor, I rejected many novels based on “my grandmother’s life” or “my uncle’s experience in World War II.” Most of the time when I suggested a plot problem or an unbelievable scenario, the reply was, “but it really happened that way.” In fiction, we don’t care if it really happened that way. We want it to be believable and compelling. Non-fiction writers trying to turn a true story into fiction rarely succeed at either.

Don’t misunderstand. It’s fine to write both fiction and non-fiction. I do that myself. But for every book we want to write, we need to ask ourselves and ask the story itself, Is this a novel or is this a non-fiction book? And when we receive the answer, the next question is Do I have the capability of writing it that way?

Not all writers can write both fiction and non-fiction. One of our tasks as writers is to know our strengths and weaknesses and then major on our strengths and minimize our weaknesses. You may want to try writing a true story as a fiction piece as an exercise to see if you can do it well….but please don’t write it for publication without getting some input from several editors/agents/other writers you respect.

Write the story as it’s meant to be told—whether fiction or non-fiction. And then only if you have the skills to write it that way.

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8 Responses to Fiction or Non-fiction?

  1. Terry Whalin April 25, 2016 at 3:32 pm #

    Nick,

    Terrific article and I agree with you. The writing skills needed to write fiction are completely different than nonfiction. The writer was given poor advice to think he can simply turn his memoir into a novel.

    Thank you for this article.

    Terry
    The Writing Life

  2. Nick Harrison April 25, 2016 at 3:57 pm #

    Thanks, Terry!

  3. Kendy April 25, 2016 at 3:58 pm #

    You’ve answered a question I’ve had for some time. I think the term, “Inspired by true events,” is more likely the way to work non-fiction into a piece of fiction. I enjoy the last few pages of historical novels that tell you just what, in the story, was factual. I was so steeped in writing non-fiction, when it came to writing my first piece of fiction, I was terrified. Why, I’ll never know.

    Thanks, Nick
    Kendy Pearson

  4. Bob Hostetler April 26, 2016 at 4:54 am #

    I agree. I often tell people at writer’s conferences that a major difference between fiction and nonfiction is that fiction has to be believable.

    • Josh Glaser April 26, 2016 at 9:29 am #

      This is so true. As I read Nick’s post, I couldn’t help but think of Louis Zamperini’s story as told in Unbroken. If it had been written as fiction, the author would have had to cut tremendous portions of his life story because of how unbelievable it is.

  5. Rick Barry April 26, 2016 at 7:08 am #

    Bingo, Nick. Fiction writing requires an understanding of eye-catching beginnings, red herrings, foreshadowing, plot, interesting dialogue, and so much more. Non-fiction also requires interesting word choices and creativity, but it’s a different animal.

  6. BJ Bassett April 26, 2016 at 10:12 pm #

    Right on.

  7. Sharon James April 27, 2016 at 10:56 pm #

    Nonfiction has the appeal of automatic belief. It’s inherent. “This is a true story!” We think about the people involved, their lives then and now. It’s powerful. That’s why it’s so upsetting when a memoir turns out to be fudged. Nonfiction also has the power of abstract musing and turning of ideas, as in essays. It can appeal to the logical and analytical side as well as the emotions. Those who love learning enjoy nonfiction.

    Fiction lacks the power of “true,” but imagination replaces it. Characters and worlds created in detail. Freedom to fly! Concrete, sensory, and convincing, the story compels readers to enter it and live there awhile.

    I love both forms of writing. I’m glad you are writing fiction, Nick. I hope to read it someday!

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