Nonfiction writers who write fiction need to retrain their brains.

There are some out there who believe that writing is just writing. If you have training in writing of one nature, surely you can write other stuff too. Well…

There are certain aspects of writing that hold true no matter what type of writing you do. The rules of grammar, for example, don’t care if you write fiction, a scientific paper, or a cookbook. However, there is a massive difference between all three of those particular types of writing.

It is becoming increasingly common for those who have nonfiction writing backgrounds to shift into the fictional realms. Let’s face it, we have big imaginations and we want to share that with the world. Rightly so. Our stories should be told. However, nonfiction writers, you need to retrain your brains if you are serious about pursuing fiction.

This is something that I know about first hand. My formal writing education was in scientific, academic writing. I’m talking about those journal papers about the latest scientific research — the ones that often put people to sleep. They are written in formal language, and can be very detached and sterile. There is a formula to those papers, and with good reason too. They are structured to help researchers get to the snippet of information that they need quickly (before they fall asleep).

Shifting into the world of fictional writing required a significant level of retaining my writing brain. Letting go of those business and technical writing skills long enough to generate fiction was challenging at times, but one worth the effort. As a consequence, I have now mastered the conversational tone needed for blogging.

So, if you’re a nonfiction writer interested in turning your attention to fictional writing, here’s some of the things that you need to be aware of.

Dialogue is conversational and often breaks grammar rules.

The first drafts of my high fantasy story were loaded down with formal speech. It took a long time to convince my fingers that it was okay to actually type a contraction. I’m talking about words like can’twon’t, and should’ve. These are all words that come so naturally to us when we speak, but writers who come from a business or technical writing background will have it grilled into them to not use these words.

Occasionally, I’ll come across a client’s writing that includes dialogue lines using can notwill not, and should have. They’ll even use I am. In my comments, I always say the same thing:

Unless you are writing a character who deliberately uses formalized speech, you should be using contractions. Read your lines aloud pretending to be the character, putting on an accent if you need to. How would your character really say that line?

There are a few characters in fiction who do use formal language. Data from Star Trek didn’t use contractions until he got his emotion chip, and even then it wasn’t often. Reading your manuscripts aloud is one of the best ways to retrain that nonfiction writer brain into the little nuances of breaking some of those grammar rules.

Dialogue tags are not always necessary.

Many new fiction writers (including those who have a nonfiction writing background) fall into the trap of using a said after each line of dialogue. Then they’ll hear about not using said, so they flip to using cried, whisperedroaredexclaimed, and whatever varied dialogue tag they can think of. There are even books out there that will give you lists of alternatives to the word said.

Tagging every single line of dialogue, even if it’s not with the word said, is what I affectionately call the he said/she said fest. Let me confess right now that I too was one of those nonfiction writers new to fiction who did this. Understanding the mechanics of dialogue and how to weave in narrative really does help.

I wrote a post on this some time ago, complete with examples (as poorly written as those examples were). There is no need to use said at all, if you don’t want to. You can create an engaging piece of prose using action descriptors. This comes down to the concept of show.

Show what you can; tell the rest.

The concept of show vs tell is what distinguishes the difference between creative writing and business/technical writing. It is where a writer elaborates on the little details to help build a setting, feeling, or some other element to the story.

Instead of saying that a character is sad, you would say that their shoulders drooped and they wore a frown. Their eyes might even glisten with moisture.

Another usage of show would be to elaborate on story elements.



The phone rang. It was Veronica telling me she wasn’t going to be able to make it to the movies.

Possible rewrite:

The phone rang. A quick check of the caller ID indicated that it was Veronica.

“I know I’m running late, V. I’m almost ready.”

“Don’t sweat it,” she said. “Hey listen, Bobby has come home, unexpectedly. I really should stay home tonight and catch up with him. I mean, let’s face it, we can go to the movies any time.”

My shoulders sagged as I slumped on the bed. “I totally understand. Have fun with Bobby.”

“Thanks, Sal. You’re a gem.”

The concept of show does add to the word count, but it also adds that little bit more to the story.

For writers desiring to pursue fiction, I highly recommend the Thesaurus series by Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi. There are currently five printed books in the series (a sixth is on Kindle only, but is free). These books are all about adding the little descriptive elements into your stories to help elude to a particular situation without telling your readers exactly what it is that your characters are experiencing. I use these books myself when writing.

In The Emotion Thesaurus, each emotion listed has a list of physical manifestations, as well as internal manifestations. For example, hatred could be accompanied by fists that shake and flaring nostrils, as well pain in the jaw from clenching or grinding teeth, and a heaving chest. As a reader, you see these descriptions and you know right away that the character is angry without being told that they’re angry.

(Emotion Amplifiers is the free book, containing a different list of emotions than what is in The Emotion Thesaurus, but is structured in an almost identical fashion.)

Getting the balance between show and tell takes time. While in most instances, writers should show their fiction stories, sometimes it is better to just tell. A writer should never show the ride through the countryside from Oxford to Cambridge, unless something interesting, and relevant, happens during that journey.

A good storyteller doesn’t need formal training in fiction.

Learning the mechanics of fiction writing is actually not as bad as I make it sound above. Learning about dialogue, show vs tell, and letting go of the grammar Nazi, are things that one can learn. However, in my opinion, a good storyteller has a vivid imagination that they are born with.

Yes, you can learn about story structure and how to create pictures in your reader’s mind. However, stories burst forth from the writer, and there is nothing you can do to control them. They drive you crazy, fueling the obsession that writing can so easily become. If anyone tries to convince you that only those who have formal fiction writing training can write fiction… Well… Complete and utter hogwash!

Many best-selling writers have no formal training in writing at all — not even nonfiction — except for what they picked up at high school. Within the field of fiction writing, there really is only one criteria to become a good writer: a vivid imagination.

For the nonfiction writer transitioning to fiction, your biggest hurtles will come in the editing phases. Just be prepare to retrain your brain.

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© Copyright, Judy L Mohr 2017

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