Miss Snark Does Not Embrace Reality--she sneers at it

Dear Ms Snark:

After four successful nonfiction books -- one a Literary Guild alternate selection, and another a True Crime Book of the Month -- I keep running into the phrase "writing fiction is different than nonfiction." I find this interesting since many of my readers say "Your books read just like fiction." However, I've had no luck with fiction.

Could you please offer your views on the differences between fiction and nonfiction. I do recognize the obvious that one is true and the other isn't. That starting nonfiction means you already have the beginning, middle and the end as opposed to a blank future when starting a fiction work. That your characters are pretty much developed, and you are limited to report only the truth, and not embellish it.

Well, I'm open to contributions from the Snarklings on this one.

One difference is you can see into a someone's thoughts and feelings with fiction whereas with non fiction you can deduce that only from action. This sets up the delicious nuance of intention and execution.

You can also have people change and develop in fiction, whereas in real life "that's how he is and you aren't going to change him" is a staple of Cosmo advice columns (and also a good rule to live by IMO).

Fiction has to make sense; real life is often so perplexing as to defy explanation, thus the popularity of Dr. Phil et al.

And in fiction, you can kill people. That's damn appealing.


Justine Musk said...

Does this writer read fiction? Good fiction? If he sat down and read (and analyzed) twenty or fifty or a hundred good novels he'd be able to answer the question himself.

Plus, selling fiction -- from what I understand -- tends to be more difficult than nonfiction. And it's not a given that someone who writes good nonfiction can easily make the switch to fiction (and vice versa), just as it's not a given that a good novelist can also write a decent screenplay (and vice versa). Maybe this person just hasn't been at the process long enough...

tin301 said...

Fiction is good, it's entertaining. You can manipulate the story for as long as you want. Thus, fiction and non fiction should not be compared. They are far different from each other.

Anonymous said...

Miss Snark,
Thanks for your post on this. Perfect timing (for my lesson to the students at my middle school). Of course, I know these things and could tell them, but they'll believe you!

To the writer who submitted the question, if it helps, I know a children's writer who has more than 1000 nonfiction articles published in popular children's magazines. Yet for years, her fiction was rejected. She finally received good news about a picture book mss.

So good writing is a start, but obviously, there is a difference. Perseverence pays off. Good luck (and enjoy the process).

pjd said...

I think the key difference, besides those that Miss Snark pointed out, is the opportunity to create plot holes.

In nonfiction, you're representing the truth, as the questioner noted. Plot holes may exist, but you don't need to worry about them. In fact, sometimes they make the story more interesting. With fiction, a good plot hole can ruin your whole story.

You don't want to have your story look like that old cartoon where the scientist is at the blackboard with complex calculations at the left and complex calculations at the right, with "here a miracle occurs" in the middle. (OK, some genres that's expected.)

Or, you don't want people read your story and then ask, "Well, why didn't he just call the police?" or "Well, why didn't he just use the gun he's been carrying around since page six?" or "Well, why didn't she just Google it?"

TheWriterStuff said...

I could understand a nonfiction writer having difficulty writing fiction. After all with nonfiction your story is already there you just have to put your own spin on it. In fiction you're starting from scratch. You have to have imagination.

Cynthia Bronco said...

Fiction doesn't start w/ a blank slate, it starts with ideas and desires, obsessions and ideals. The fiction writer breathes life into people and worlds who have never existed before. That's the fun of it!

Anonymous said...

I write both, and I have had the disconcerting experience of trying to transpose a real-life experience into my fiction, only to have my critique partner say, 'Uh-uh, that doesn't work.' I say, 'But it worked in reality.

Miss Snark is so right. Sometimes nonfic just does not survive the transition to fiction. In fiction, everything has to make sense and contribute to the overall picture, there must be a logical development, a dramatic flow, believable characters. Unlike real life. Writing the two is just not the same.

Frainstorm said...

Fiction can't have coincidences to save your protagonist, whereas real life is chock full of 'em.

type, monkey, type said...

The biggest difference for the reader is the truth factor. When writing fiction, we have to create a character who seems real enough to care about. In nonfiction, that job is taken care of. There is a built in fascination with "this really happened" that allows some nonfiction to be more straight forward craft and less art.

Of course, there is also plenty of bad fiction that relies on hooks and teasers to keep you reading, too.

Julie said...

I write both fiction and non-fiction. In my fiction the hardest thing for me to learn was writing the emotional conflict. I just wasn't getting into the character's head enough.

Sherry Decker said...

I've written both non-fiction and fiction, sold both and enjoyed writing both. However, fiction (to me) is more difficult because it takes a creative imagination, while non-fiction requires educated organizational skills. If I must choose I'll write fiction, even though it's harder. It's also more satisfying, and I'm more proud of my successes.

kis said...

Who says you can't kill people in real life? I tell ya, after the summer I've had, prison's looking not bad. Roof over my head, three squares a day, and no kids. And if I want to be reminded of home, I can always work in the prison laundry..

angie said...

Here's the way I see it. Writing fiction is kind of like oil painting. You get the basics down, push & pull the the colors & compositions, wipe out or add until you're happy with what you've got.

Writing non-fiction is like photography. You can crop, change the exposure, blow up or reduce, dodge & burn, but you can only work with what you've got on that frame of film.

I hated photography & loved painting in college. Any guesses what I like to write best? Yep. Fiction.

Sha'el, Princess of Pixies said...

In nonfiction, you're representing the truth

There is much that is shelved in the non-fiction section of your library that isn't anything near the truth.

I think the question focuses on the wrong thing. A better question would be: In what ways are great fiction and great non-fiction similar?

Fiction is usually much less expository than non-fiction. Compare Sir Walter Scott's History of Scotland with his Ivanhoe. They're both still readable, but the differences between fiction and non-fiction couldn't be better illustrated.

A historian (Quick! grab one and give them a hug! We like hugs.) must drag you off, usually kicking and screaming, into a world you'd rather not visit. To really hold your interest she must tell the story in elegant, flowing prose that makes you visualize lives and worlds past. If she does her job well, you will be able to visualize a red-headed, none too clean, slack-faced Merovingian idiot sitting on France’s throne. (Honest to God! If the anti-Christ comes from the Merovingian line, he’ll drool at lot and find it difficult to find followers.)

This is much harder to do well than writing fiction. Some highly praised historians don't really do it well. (I'm not naming names, but Michael, as much as I respect you, you're boring.)

Fiction allows freedom to create one's own world. Non-fiction is supposed to have a semblance of reality, though one wonders what reality some writers actually see.

The reality behind the question that started this discussion is found in another similar phrasing. Instead of, "Your books read just like fiction" we might consider these two statements about flowers: Of artificial flowers we might hear, "They look just like real flowers!" And of real flowers we might hear, "They look artificial."

The first emphasizes the accuracy of representation. The artificial ones are convincing. The second phrase emphasizes perfection. The divinely-made flowers, those grown from the earth's bosom, are flawless. So in the speaker's mind they look "artificial" or wholly perfect.

The real issue is not how the two formats differ, but how they are the same.

Good writing is good writing. It might have a word or two that challenges your vocabulary, but it is plain, flowing, unobtrusively musical, and elegant. It makes you read on until, eventually, you say, "Oh! That was good."

Grendel's Dam said...

Fiction is what you write when you can't stop yourself. Nonfiction is what you write when you want to get paid.

Inez said...

I would also say that fiction has to be plausible, while nonfiction does not.

Robert Billing said...

Your Royal Snarkiness is so right about killing people. I once used a school teacher who hated me as a villain. And in the ending, when the two spaceships collide and all the air gets out, guess who doesn't get his spacesuit closed up in time...

Isn't writing fun?

Frainstorm said...

It strikes me that one author (probably many more, but this one comes to mind) you might want to read is Jon Krakauer. His narrative non-fiction reads a lot like fiction, so you can see where the two might intersect some.

Into Thin Air.
Into the Wild.
And another book about the Mormon church whose title escapes me.

Couldn't hurt, right?

Tanya said...

Characters in fiction need to stand out and be 'larger than life'. The writer also needs to work from the character's viewpoint and build the story through the main character's eyes (mostly - novels can take a bit of jumping around from one character's viewpoint to another. Short fiction not so much). With non-fiction, the writer doesn't necessarily have to build believable characters and make the reader want to know what happens to them. The non-fiction reader's aim is to get facts, not be entertained.

Virginia Miss said...

Fiction is more complex, with POV, character development, dialogue, and plot. And the market is soooooo competitive. It doesn't surprise me that a successful nonfiction author would have a hard time getting a novel published.

Anonymous said...

Non-fiction is often written about people and events the reader will already know about and be interested in. Also the line "based on a true story" seems to fascinate people.

Fiction has to work harder at interesting a reader, because unless the book is a from a series, the reader comes to it cold.


Anonymous said...

The difference between fiction and non-fiction is one is true and the other isn't? What universe does this person live in?

Anonymous said...

If the writer's books read similar to novels, then my guess is he/she has the skills to write a novel (providing he has an imagination!). But it's a tougher market. I think he just needs to stick with it.

Being a successful nonfiction author shouldn't be a stigma or cause editors to automatically believe you can't write a novel. Go forth!

Bernita said...

Non-fiction writers MAY have the tendency to supply too much exposition and/or backstory, from habit.

The Curmudgeon said...

"I do recognize the obvious that one is true and the other isn't."

Really? Oprah might have something to say on this....

Cheryll said...

The difference is not as obvious as one would think...

I offer in example, "Why Cats Paint," (Heather Busch & Burton Silver).

Our friends down under have pulled of a wonderful hoax, it would appear, since in the US the book is most often placed on library shelves in animal behavior instead of satire.

LOC itself did this!

And much of what sells as 'reality' right now seems to be equally fictional. (Maybe because as other Snarklings mentioned, it's difficult to interest folks in dry facts and photos...unless they are juiced up a bit)

For me the main difference has always been that with non-fic I knew what I wanted to say and worked with outlines, etc., to get there.

With fiction, I always wrote to find out what was going to happen next!

Terry said...

In a moment of synchronicity, today's "writer quote of the day" is from Ernest Hemingway, who says:


You know that fiction, prose rather, is possibly the roughest trade of all in writing. You do not have the reference, the old important
reference. You have the sheet of blank paper, the pencil, and the obligation to invent truer than things can be true. You have to take what is not palpable and make it completely palpable and also have it
seem normal and so that it can become a part of the experience of the person who reads it.
--Ernest Hemingway


BertGrrrl said...

I offer a quote attributed to Stephen King, paraphrased by Miss Snark:

"The difference between fiction and reality? Fiction has to make sense."

I would extrapolate thusly (having written both fiction & nonfiction):

Real life can be so bizarre that if I used the story in a novel, no one would buy it. As proof, OJ Simpson & The Glove, Anna Nicole & That Old Guy, Dick Cheney & the Shotgun, Both Keith Richards AND Ozzy Still Having a Pulse . . . I'm sure you can think of other examples.

Anonymous said...

On the face of it, the questions seems naive and uninformed. If this successful author can't tell the difference he or she is in trouble. But there is a move on to use the tropes of fiction and apply them to so-called "creative non-fiction." So on second consideration, the question isn't as dumb as it seems. Our sense of nonfiction is that its linkages to actual observed event are a primary feature. But even then you have non-fiction authors interpolating dialogue, possibly even making up scenes that might have happened. The line between fiction and non-fiction blurs. Then you get James Frey who simply obliterates it.

Kim Yunmi (Surname first) said...

The only genre that kisses the line is memoirs. Memoirs are often wrought with factual errors from how one person remembers it and views it, to how it actually was. There have been several fictional novels that look at that very question.

Memoirs have to have a fact in basis, if they don't you'll be crucified on Oprah. However, they have many of the same elements of fiction. You have a narrative going that tells a story, and even if in your view that story is not fiction, others who viewed the same events might think that they were.

The only difference between fiction an non fiction in the technicality is one is fact, the other is made up. And it's easy to cross the two, as is with any genre. But any falsehood usually gets it shelved fiction, rather than non-fiction.

Anonymous said...

As a writer of non-fiction, or, as John McPhee likes to say, "the literature of fact," I think it's just as challenging to tell a true story well in a narrative as it is to make it up from scratch. Try it sometime.

Deadiquette said...

Difference between fiction and nonfiction? I struggled with that for years. The my thirteeh year old summed it up for me. Fiction must be believable. While I'm paraphrasing, let's face it. It boils down to that old stock phrase, "WILLING suspension of disbelief." Had the OJ trial been fiction...well, would you have suspended disbelief for that circus? :)