Why ALL Writers Should Study Fiction Writing Techniques

For many writers, fiction and nonfiction writing seem like two completely different life forms, existing in two radically different universes.  

In some ways, this is true. Nonfiction is often about documenting events, examining facts, provoking thought, and educating the reader. Fiction, on the other hand, is generally about entertaining the reader, although it can also educate and provoke - sometimes even more powerfully than nonfiction.

Case in point: I learned more about El Cid and eleventh-century Spain from Guy Gavriel Kay's fictional account in The Lions of Al Rassan than I ever did from a history book. More, I was actually inspired to research El Cid's life after reading that book, whereas before I might not have cared that he existed.

And that - the caring - is where fiction and non-fiction intersect, and where many nonfiction writers miss the mark. 

We don't learn by memorizing facts and figures; if we retain such dry information at all, it's only for a short time, until we pass a test or finish a project. However, when we have an emotional stake in the information, it suddenly becomes relevant and interesting to us. When emotion is triggered, we can then use the power of imagination to transpose the information onto our own lives and experiences. 

Here's a simple example of this. If someone told you that X number of people were injured while using power saws in 2015, you would probably nod and say, "Wow. That's terrible." Then, you would go about cutting the wood for your new cabinet, and that would be that. But if that same someone told you a story about how their friend lost three fingers to a table saw, and how the doctors tried to sew one of them back on, but couldn't; how the friend, maimed, could no longer work as a finish carpenter but instead had to take a low-wage job as a janitor ... well, you might be more inclined to keep your own fingers out of harm's way. 

It's very difficult for our individualistic brains to relate our personal experiences to those of a group. However, the stories of other individuals are powerful learning tools, and can therefore be used to impart information to not only a reader's brain, but her heart as well. Once her natural empathy kicks in, she is more likely not only to care about the information being shared, but to retain it as part of her emotional memory, incorporate it into her personal narrative, and share it with others. 

Since so much of nonfiction writing relies on facts, opinions, and other "heady" elements, it can often feel unapproachable for readers, especially those who tend to be more emotional/intuitive. The best nonfiction books recognize this and balance their information with stories, case studies and other emotional elements. 

That's where the study of fiction writing comes in. Nothing creates "emotional payoff" like good storytelling - and no one tells better stories than fiction writers. 

Whether you're writing your memoir, drawing up compelling case studies, or sharing someone else's experience to illustrate a point in your book, you'll want to ensure that your story is well-crafted and relatable. Your story subjects should become your characters, and the real-life events your stories. 

Here are some key concepts to research and incorporate. (I'll explore these more in subsequent blog posts as well.)

  • Story arc. Every good story has a beginning, a middle, and an end - or, an introduction, an action/event section, and a conclusion/resolution. In general, the middle section is the longest, and contains the triggers (internal or external) which move the character through his or her personal transformation, or character arc.

  • Character Arc. Especially in "teaching stories," the transformation of the main character is vital to the reader's experience. As the character moves through the events of the story, the reader "sees" how the character is shaped by those events, and therefore relates to that character's emotions and internal shifts.

  • Show, don't tell. Since readers don't relate strongly to facts or figures, laying out a list of events is not an effective way to create emotional connection. Instead, show readers what happened by dropping them into the action, rather than giving them a bird's eye view.

  • Dialogue. As humans, speech is our primary method of communication. Adding dialogue to your story is a great way to give readers additional clues as to your subjects' personalities and motivations, and make the story more engaging.

  • Indirect information. This is an extension of the "Show, don't tell" concept. Because we are multi-sensory beings, we can infer emotion through body language, tone of voice, and even action. Instead of telling the reader that your character is nervous, show that character being fidgety, or pulling at her clothes, or pacing the room. This keeps the reader engaged while moving the story along.

Above all, the best thing you can do for yourself as a writer is to read. Read in your own genre, and in any other genre that interests you. Analyze what "hooks" you as a reader - whether you're reading Louise Hay or John Grisham - and experiment with how you can bring those elements into your own work. The more we expand our knowledge of the art and process of writing, the more effectively we will be able to communicate any concept on the page.  

Until next time, happy writing!

Photo by Kim Fuller/The Revelation Project

Photo by Kim Fuller/The Revelation Project

Bryna Rene Haynes is the founder and President of The Heart of Writing, the chief editor for Inspired Living Publishing, and the best-selling author of The Art of Inspiration: An Editor's Guide to Writing Powerful, Effective Inspirational and Personal Development Books.In over a decade as a writer, editor, ghostwriter, designer, and publishing consultant, she has helped hundreds of authors find their authentic voices and create powerful, memorable, successful works. She lives outside of Providence, RI, with her husband, Matthew, and their little Moonbeam, Áine.