Creative Nonfiction Lessons for the Novelist

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Is there any divide in writing as clear as fiction and nonfiction? Well, maybe prose and poetry, but fiction has more in common with its realistic shadow than you might think, and creative nonfiction has plenty of lessons to teach aspiring novelists.

Tell It Slant

This is a better take on the old “show don’t tell” rule. Advanced storytellers often withhold a lot of information from the reader, even important things like characters’ emotions, motivation, and goals. Readers pick these things up along the way, often putting together the pieces independently as the story trucks ever onward.

“Tell all the truth but tell it slant.”

Emily Dickinson

It took me an embarrassingly long time to learn that in fiction as well as life, naked honesty is not the best policy. Dickinson summed it up perfectly. You should tell the truth, but you should sneak around through the side door.

For instance, if a king is particularly evil, simply saying, “He was an evil king,” good writers let readers figure that out on their own as the king bends his own rules, sentences superfluous crimes to beheading, etc. This technique even helps the author understand what makes the king evil on a different level. Instead of announcing his villainous role and just moving forward, they have to explore what makes his rule miserable, dangerous, or morally questionable. Why does he do what he does? Is he evil because of his goals or in spite of them?

Real Life Is Material

Lives are stories. Your family has plenty of stories to share with in-laws, everyone remembers the shenanigans of great uncle so-and-so, and somewhere, someone has already told a story about you. Gather these, pare them down to their cores, and throw them in the story-making fire. Real life fuels the best characters. It creates the most cringe-worthy encounters, the sweetest love scenes, and the most surprising twists.

Learn to Eavesdrop

This isn’t a joke. Discreetly breaching a few social boundaries can make you a better writer. It’s hard to judge or objectively remember your own conversations, but strangers offer a master class in casual dialogue. They’ll tell some remarkable stories, too. If you struggle to create unique characters or escape your handful of well-loved models, spend an afternoon in a coffeeshop, café, bookstore, park, or other public space. Keep your hands busy with a notebook or tablet (which helps you discreetly take notes) and begin dropping some eaves. You’ll be surprised how strange and relatable the lives of strangers really are.

Have a Discussion with Yourself

You cannot write well without understanding who you are. In nonfiction, biases and rose-colored glasses blur the story. The same is true in fiction. If you don’t recognize your own damage, it’s very hard to prevent your characters from becoming ideals and caricatures. The best fiction often explores the writer’s own fears, passions, and dreams. But you need to really know what those are before you can even find the emotional cave entrance. Spelunking into the depths of your soul comes with practice and honesty.

Fiction draw from reality, just like creative nonfiction. It just uses a more exaggerated slant. Remember, you are not playing football; there’s no need to tackle subjects head-on. Gather fuel from your own life, and keep your ears curious and open. Smash the rose-colored glasses, and you’re ready to see the world clearly – fictional or otherwise.

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