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Fiction Techniques for Nonfiction Writers

19 Feb 2024 Nonfiction, The Writing Craft

Fiction and nonfiction are separate genres, but though their labels imply otherwise, they are not wholly opposites. While the first is created from your imagination and the other pulls from real life, both require creativity and vivid expression to become compelling. 

Ironically, the definitions of the two genres could almost be flip-flopped. Fiction works best when it’s believable, and the best nonfiction seems unbelievable and is most effective because the reader knows it’s true.

If your nonfiction reads flat, maybe even boringly, it could be because you’ve failed to use fiction’s literary techniques to make it come alive. 

Nonfiction does not enjoy the freedom inherent in fiction—the ability to inject any creative idea you wish. But still, to work, it must captivate readers.

How? By the use of fiction writing techniques to communicate truth in a most engaging way.

Does it seem counterintuitive to include elements like story structure and theme in your nonfiction?  Allow me to try to disabuse you of that notion.

Using fiction writing techniques does not constitute stretching the truth. 

Readers of both fiction and nonfiction love stories. So if your nonfiction does not include stories—admittedly true ones—you’re neglecting a valuable tool. When you tell a true story, bring it to life. There’s no need to twist the narrative. Just tell it in the most engaging way you can.

That means weaving in imagery and emotion while structuring the overall sequence in the most creative way you can. 

That’s the very definition of Narrative Nonfiction. It uses fiction writing techniques. Done well, it draws readers in and keeps them turning the pages. For instance, in a historical piece, you want to season the main course of your theme with details you’ve gleaned from research to build the world of the figure or time period you’re trying to portray.

If you’re writing about ancient Rome, describe the sounds of the crowd in the Colosseum, the spectacle of gladiator combat, or what it was like to be a Roman citizen in the largest civilization in the world.

Use writing techniques that bring all this to life, that put your readers into such settings to create a more engaging world and compelling story.

Fiction Tips That Will Improve Your Nonfiction

1. Use Imagery 

Vivid language creates a mental picture, a sensory experience for the reader. Evoking sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell in readers enhances the reading experience and gives them a role in the learning process.

You’re showing them, including them, allowing them to deduce truth rather than just telling them.  Imagery is commonly employed to evoke emotions, convey abstract concepts, and make the language more memorable.

Engaging your readers’ senses can transport them across the world or even back in time.

How? What fiction writing technique accomplishes this? 

Show, don’t tell.

While in a nonfiction book you may be reporting facts that inherently fall into the category of telling.

But you’re not writing a textbook. The goal isn’t just to educate and inform. It’s also to emotionally move readers. You’re saying something more.

Immerse your reader in the story and make them forget they’re even reading.

Types of imagery:

  • Visual (“The man’s face bore the smear of soot and ash as he carried his son from the house.”)
  • Auditory (“The sky grumbled, thunder rumbling in the distance.”)
  • Olfactory (“The tang of the saltwater assaulted his nostrils.”)
  • Taste (“She puckered as the lemon reached her tongue.”)
  • Tactile (“The stone felt cool and smooth.”)
  • Motion (“The bus ride tossed him to and fro.”)
  • Emotional (“Guilt haunted him.”)


Telling: “The emperor arrived at the Senate to find a group of senators eyeing him. Conspirators?”

Showing: “Caesar’s slow footsteps resounded off the walls of the Theatre. One group of senators seemed to eye him warily.” 

2. Appeal to Human Emotions

Anger, pride, love, grief, sadness, and any other emotion you can think of are common and easy to relate to.

But here again, don’t simply tell an emotion. Show it. For instance, if something horrible happened to you, don’t simply write in your memoir, “I was devastated.” Rather, SHOW the devastation. “I couldn’t even cry. I pressed my back against the wall outside my bedroom and slid to the floor. My mother mounted the stairs, no doubt to try to comfort me, but all I could do was wave her off. Now was not the time for an embrace or even encouragement.”

Readers remember what moves them. Fiction writers try to craft characters the audience empathize with so they’ll become invested in them and care what happens to them.

The same is true if you’re writing about your or someone else’s true experience.

Evoke the same human feeling you experienced during a pivotal moment in your life and you’ll draw readers deeper into your world.

3. Have a Strong Beginning, Middle, and Ending

Nonfiction needs structure, sequence, and flow just as much as a novel does.

Effective narrative nonfiction exhibits a strong beginning, middle, and ending.

But the unpredictability of real life rarely makes for tidy beginnings and endings, does it?

Yet your story, just like most everyone else’s, has a beginning, a middle, and an ending—even if that ending is simply the present. 

You may not want to write about your or someone’s entire life. It might be most effective to write about specific moments that buttress a theme. Or, you might write about a meaningful place, moment, or event.

The key is identifying where the story best begins and ends.

For a powerful beginning using a fiction writing technique, start in media res.

That’s Latin for “in the midst of things”.

That doesn’t mean your opener has to throw the readers into immediate action—unless that works best for your project. 

Starting in the midst of things could also mean simply dropping readers into the world or theme you choose. 

Get right to the guts of your story, avoiding scene setting, backstory, description, and anything else that could be considered throat-clearing. Something should happen in that opener that gives readers the sense that they’re in the middle of something and want to find out what happens next.

Fiction writers also introduce their main character early.

Your main character will be yourself if you’re writing a memoir or autobiography. If you’re writing someone else’s story, of course, it would be them.

It could even be a historical figure like Napoleon Bonaparte, but it could also be a French soldier marching into Russia.

Whoever they are, introduce them quickly. Don’t dawdle, setting the scene and establishing surrounding characters. Get to your star quickly and build the world and the other characters around them.

And avoid description as a separate element. Rather, layer it into the story, the action, what’s happening.

Instead of: “The year was 1876. A small house in Missouri sat surrounded by trees,” layer such details throughout the story. Readers may not even realize they’re also getting the setting and the weather, etc., as they follow the story.

Give readers credit. If you show your main character—in the case of historical narrative nonfiction this will, naturally, be a real person—getting somewhere, take the reader with you.

While your subject is on the way to an important meeting, his inner monologue and angst reveal the problem, the challenge, the quest—what it is he wants or needs and what stands in the way of that.

What will he do about such obstacles? 

Answering that becomes your story, and while the reader is engaged and, hopefully, riveted, by the character’s issues, you’re also layering in the weather, the location, and myriad details that evoke the time period.

You can establish the time period with a simple date and location tag, flush left and in italics before your first paragraph:

London, 1838

That saves you a lot of narrative. Then, when you show your subject emerging from a Hansom Cab and slogging through horse manure in the street and shoving his hands deep into his pockets while he averts his face from the biting wind, readers are getting the setting by osmosis while concentrating on the story itself.

So, how do you get from your opener through the middle and to a satisfying end? Endings start at the beginning and must be kept in sight through the middle.


First, know where your story is going. That may seem easy in nonfiction, because you’re obligated to tell the story of precisely what happens. The key is to tell it in a fresh way—again, using fiction writing techniques.

For a deep dive into writing what I refer to as The Marathon of the Middle, check out my blog here

Once you’ve learned to not just survive but also to thrive in the middle, your ending can shine. Readers should feel as if they’ve earned it. 

Whatever you do, don’t rush it just to wrap things up and be done.

Be sure you have woven details throughout your story that make the ending truly satisfying for the reader.

You want the ending to come across as shocking or as relieving as it felt in real life. And always reach for the heart. Rework your ending until you’re happy with every word and it moves you. That’s the best way to ensure it’ll move readers too.

Make sure things actually end.

That may seem simple enough, and yet many writers miss the mark, leaving readers scratching their heads, confused or unsatisfied with the resolution. 

That doesn’t mean your narrative nonfiction must end with every ribbon tied in a neat bow and everyone living happily ever after. That’s not real life. 

But do tie up loose ends and resolve any puzzles.

Finally, just as in a novel, your central character should be on stage, affected and changed by what has happened. That’s where character arc comes into play even in nonfiction. If you or whomever you’re writing about has not experienced change, you may have chosen the wrong subject. 

Your ending should have your story’s subject standing center stage.

So, Use Fiction Techniques in Your Nonfiction Writing

Imagery, emotion, and a powerful beginning, middle, and ending are every bit as necessary to nonfiction as to a novel.

Using these tools will make clear to readers why you’ve chosen to write the story you have.

What drew you to it in the first place? Why was it so compelling that you had to tell it? What do you want your book to do for others? What is its takeaway value?

Take that enthusiasm and allow it to shine through the creativity and imagination of the nonfiction writing process.

If you struggle to implement the techniques I recommend, broaden your reading horizons and consume fiction to see how it’s done. This is sure to expand your skill set.

For examples of excellent narrative nonfiction, check out two of my all-time favorites: In Cold Blood by Truman Capote and All Over but the Shoutin’ by Rick Bragg

Those books are living proof that the elements of great storytelling cross both genres.