Monday, September 20, 2010

Using Fictional Techniques in Nonfiction


It’s true – NovelMatters is a blog about fiction. Some of us also write and publish non-fiction, and I’m pleased to announce my new nonfiction release, The Hinge of Your History: The Phases of Faith.

I’m giving away 2 copies of this book—we'll choose at random two recipients from those who comment today.

There are three reasons why I think this book may interest you:

1) Philip Yancey said of the concept of The Phases of Faith that it “is more profound than you can imagine.”

2) This concept has helped me more than any other concept I have learned in my decades of life as a Christian.

3) The Hinge of Your History: The Phases of Faith contains some examples of using fictional techniques in nonfiction.

Why should the readers of NovelMatters learn about creative nonfiction?

1) You may consider yourself a fiction writer, but your daily writing tasks probably involve a high percentage of nonfiction writing. Examples: blog entries, newsletter articles, daily journaling and even Tweeting use nonfiction.

2) If you are a writer working on your craft, you probably read nonfiction about writing. And you know nothing puts a reader to sleep faster than dull writing.

3) You, like every other reader in the world, prefer lively, memorable writing to straight exposition.

Here’s a passage from my new non-fiction book, The Hinge of Your History: The Phases of Faith:

A woman sits outside in the gathering dusk, her back to her tent-home, her eyes straining toward a footpath worn in the soil: a footpath that begins at her doorstep but ends in the unknown.

At first, days ago, she had counted the passing time by minutes and hours. But as sunset followed sunrise again and again, she has begun to count in days the time that they have been gone. Soon she will mark a week of simmering desperation, of both heartsickness and hope.

Her husband (her only husband, though she was often not his “only”) and her son (her only son, born long past her menopause, a miracle baby now grown into a young man) have disappeared into the shifting dust beyond her sight, beyond any human sight.

She has lived decades, more than a century. Now at the twilight of her life she recognizes some things about the God she and her family have served, this mysterious and terrifying One who created the world, but who has also reclined at her dinner table, eating the food she has prepared.

This God only wants the best. And she knows her son Isaac is the best, and the husband who has both loved her and betrayed her through almost one hundred years of marriage has taken that beloved son away, to offer him as a burnt sacrifice in a place that no one has named.

And so this woman sits and waits, an outpost on the frontiers of faith.

At the time I wrote this passage I had not collected a list of fictional techniques that make nonfiction more readable and more memorable. But I recognize now that many of the fictional techniques I employ in novel writing can also strengthen nonfiction.

Here are some fiction techniques (a few of which you may find in the passage above):

1) Banish all passive verbs – the bane of all writing.

2) Use analogies, metaphors, similes and other techniques. For instance, I drew what people have described as a "powerful" and "moving" parallel in The Mormon Mirage between my loss of faith in Mormonism and my discovery that the treasured seagull-rescue story of Mormonism was also without historical foundation.

3) Make the writing personal to the reader, not necessarily to you: Give him or her a reason to feel threatened or intrigued by what you say.

4) Use scintillating chapter heads, subheadings, or other clues to what you will eventually tell the reader.

5) Use hooks of any kind with abandon on the first draft. You can always go back and take them out if they are “too much.”

6) You must have a definite beginning, middle and end in order to satisfy the reader’s need for order, yet in earlier stages leave some things unsaid to keep him or her reading on – because suspense is satisfying, too, when finally relieved.

7) Only tell when it is impossible to show without some telling. Then find a fresh way to tell. That may involve using lists, variations in genre, or arresting descriptions.

8) Use dialogue or dialogue-like techniques—this makes the reader feel like he or she is eavesdropping.

9) If your nonfiction piece has a chronology to it, consider beginning it with what we call in fiction a “precipitating event,” then fill the reader in during the exposition portion.

10) Jackhammer in sensory details with strong verbs. Only use adjectives if they’re essential, and make every non-essential adverb evacuate the premises of your story.

11) If a certain fictional technique doesn’t “work” in your nonfiction writing, you are not married to it because you wrote it. Nor must you feel that you are its mother. Push it out into the world to make its own way, perhaps fading away or finding a home in the writings of hacks. Your recognition of this principle means you are not a hack.

Comments, please?

21 comments:

writememphis said...

I agree with your points - my primary element is fiction writing; however, I do write creative non-fiction as well. Using just the right words to describe a scene works in any genre. And I have a HUGE problem with passive verbs when I free-write. Must be some sort of automatic pilot from my childhood. Thanks for the post!

Jan Cline said...

I am curious as to how many fiction writers also write non fiction. Non fiction is my first love, but since I have been writing fiction for a couple of years, I have grown so much more as a writer. What a great opportunity to learn more about merging the two. This sounds like an awesome book to add to a writer's collection.
jancline[at]ymail[dot]com

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

I am halfway through "Hinge" and finding it both inspiring and a wonderful example of the techniques Latayne presented in today's post. I am savoring each chapter, and even as she digs deeply into spiritual truths, her writing is fluid and winsome.
Great post, Latayne!

Henrietta Frankensee said...

Compared to all the mundane fiction on book shelves everywhere, non fiction can be downright wild! "No one will ever believe me." and "I couldn't have imagined that." are common phrases in the life of a child of God willing to be sensitive to His voice.
I imagine 'phases of faith' represents a life that looks like the toy 'Jacob's Ladder'....hinged in many places and defying credulity.
Thank you for clarifying these points for us. I genuinely enjoyed the excerpt and will order the book even if I win since it sounds like something my mother would enjoy.

Patti Hill said...

Like Debbie, I'm about halfway through "Hinge." Latayne's writing is melodic and oh so very heartful. I'm gaining a whole new perspective on my faith (and not so faithful) walk.

Well done, Latayne!

gargimehra said...

Excellent tips, and the quoted passage was wonderful.

Carol Harrison said...

I really enjoyed the quoted passage from your new book. It made me long to read more. Even your post drew me from point to point. I have barely begun a writing journey, starting with non fiction and devotionals and know that I have so much more to learn including incorporating writing techniques that draw the reader in and keep them coming back for more. Thank you for this post.

Sharon K. Souza said...

Latayne's non-fiction certainly reads like fiction, especially the beautiful opening to Hinges of Your History, but that's not the beauty of this book. The biblical principle she teaches is something every believer needs to understand. This is the type of book you'll read, then read again during certain phases of your Christian walk. If you don't win, I do hope you'll order it. You'll truly be blessed.

Marcia said...

LaTayne, I'm intrigued by The Hinge on Your History . I want to discover for myself the concept that helped you more than any other concept you've learned in your decades of life as a Christian. Must be a whopper!

Like Henrietta, I'll buy it even if I don't win. But of course, a free copy would be awesome :-)

Here's something I've often puzzled over. When I was young, all I read was fiction. Now that I'm older, I read a mix, but probably more non-fiction. Why, when I'm so passionate about writing fiction, do I gravitate toward non-fiction? It's almost like I read non-fiction as fiction fodder.

My mind moves along this line: How might I gather this straw and spin it into gold? How might I tackle this principle and turn it into a parable? Thus I struggle through The Antichrist to understand the mind of my villain, peruse the pages of Unchristian for my unbelieving hero, and savor Spurgeon's Treasury of David or Andrew Murray's Humility for the development of the mentoring character.

I apparently read non-fiction for the purpose of fiction. Is that weird or what?

Nor do I criticize a non-fiction book like I do a novel. That might be why I often choose NF over F; I don't get tangled up with my measuring tape while I'm consuming it.

But as you pointed out, writing non-fiction is an art form, too. (Thanks, LaTayne. Now I can start critiquing non-fiction and never have fun reading anything!) Kidding aside, good writing is good writing, no matter where you find it—even on a blog.

Which is why I sometimes struggle with commenting on NovelMatters. I don't have time to “get it perfect” before I post it. It's kind of like blurting out your first rough draft. It's...rough. Hopefully we all realize that and extend each other grace.

And there's nothing like a contest to loosen the tongue--or should I say "fingers."

Anyway, you compiled a great list for improving writing of all kinds. It, along with many other gleanings from this blog, will sail into my “how to” folder.

Thanks, LaTayne!

--Marcia

vonildawrites said...

I love the idea of the last one--it's hard not to be married to something you wrote. But it's a very necessary concept.

Marcia said...

Looks like a great read. I'd love to win it. :) Marcia Laycock

Ellen Staley said...

This article will be so helpful when I return to the nonfiction I'd intended to write first.

I am intrigued by your book, Latayne, and look forward to reading it.

Marcia, the titles you listed sound fascinating and are now on my list to find.

(Please don't put me in the drawing for the book since I was just drawn in the other contest.)

Sara said...

I'll definitely be looking for this book. :)

Megan Sayer said...

Latayne that passage about Sarah is beautiful and evocative, not only in the sensory language, but in the "silences" - the things it doesn't say that say so much. I loved it.

I write (mostly) creative non-fiction. I devour any information I can about fiction writing because I know it can only strengthen my work, but it's lovely having a post specifically about my area.

(p.s. I bought "Latter-day cipher online yesterday...won't get it for another few weeks, but am so looking forward to reading it, especially after your exerpt from today's post!)

Kathleen Popa said...

Dear readers, win this book or buy it, but get your hands on Hinge as soon as you can. I'm reading it now, and - I've never said this about a Bible study - it's a page-turner! I find myself staying up later, squeezing in just one more chapter. I so recommend this book.

Wendy Paine Miller said...

Oh so good.

I missed my Novel Matters fix while away at ACFW.

Ladies, you really need to stop writing such compelling books. You are all making me poor.

This one sounds awesome.
~ Wendy

Pat Jeanne Davis said...

Enjoyed this post, Latayne. I write non-fiction and fiction. Your book "Hinges of Your History" sounds like one I need to read. Would love to win a copy if I'm not too late for the drawing.. And a belated congratulations to Ellen on winning the teeth and bones edit by Bonnie.
patjeannedavis[at]verizon[dot]net

Ellen Staley said...

Thank you for the congrats, Pat. I think it's going to be an awesome edit with Bonnie, I just have to survive the process. But my eyes are open and I'm determined to learn. That's a good thing, yes?

Latayne C Scott said...

Winners Marcia Laycock and Henrietta, email me at latayne at latayne dot com with your snail mail addresses...

Henrietta Frankensee said...

oh! This is marvelous. Thank you! My mother gives me so many books it is a joy to be able to reciprocate. We'll both have a copy because I shall buy one at the same time as Latayne sends my prize. You can expect my e-mail today. With thanks....

Latayne C Scott said...

Dear ones -- I've been traveling and also preparing for a seminar I'm giving this weekend -- if you're in West Texas, here's where I'll be: http://www.sunset.cc/WomensRetreat

I think the comments/questions about creative non-fiction point out a reality: In financial terms, building a reputation and collecting clips of non-fiction publishing (such as in magazines) is like a college degree. It allows you to have credibility when you "apply" for the next magazine article job, for instance. In my case, nonfiction has been what "paid the bills" and that (along with the fact that I have a husband with the blessing of a good job) allows me to write fiction (which does not have the same kind of income stream.)

I appreciate more than you will know the supportive comments about Hinge, both from beloved ones who have read it, and from those of you who show interest. It truly is the most edifying and useful thing I have ever learned.

Megan, thanks for buying Cipher too -- and again, congrats to those of you who won books. I'll be sending them when I return from my trip.