Several of my clients have talked about writing fiction lately, wanting to know if they can bring what they’ve learned about writing non-fiction into other areas. The short answer is “Sure!” In this blog, I’m going to examine the situation in reverse, looking at fiction to see what lessons there are for writing non-fiction.
Poets and fiction writers think of language in terms of the collective effect of the language itself. What they say is not always as important as how they say it; the opposite is true for non-fiction writers. Non-fiction writers need to get themselves out of the way of the point they make, which usually means being direct rather than ebullient. Fiction and poetry writers (whom I will summarily lump into the category of “creative writers” henceforth) inject as much personality as they can get away with to bring readers into their world.
Creative writers use short words and sentences to inject speed into the reading, and longer, more descriptive words to slow the reading down. For a truly fine example of this, go read Ernest Hemingway’s short story “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” In it, he switches perspectives via the omniscient narrator to the point of view of a hunter who is terribly afraid of a lion he has wounded, then to the lion in his panic and fury, and then to the safari guide with his detached practicality. Here is the story online, if you don’t have a printed version handy. http://www.geocities.com/cyber_explorer99/hemingwaymacomber.html. Go ahead and read it. I’ll wait.
Pretty good, eh? (You can follow this discussion without reading the story if you’re cramped for time. But eventually, do find the time for this truly fine example of twentieth century literature.)
Look at the text for its physical attributes. You can see that the straight narrative is broken up by dialog about every page and a half all the way through to the end. This is a neat parallel to what I’ve been telling you about providing images or other visual interruption to avoid reader fatigue.
Now let’s look at the plot-development devices. First, notice that Hemingway doesn’t waste any time telling us we’re
In fact, Hemingway doesn’t initially tell us what the problem is, why the first protagonist seems to be having such a bad day, and how that works with the title. He doesn’t really tell us what the problem is until seven or eight pages in (I’m looking at a printed version), when Macomber thinks back on his day. This is a pretty good literary device, if you have a captivating scene to set, but it’s dangerous in technical writing. In non-fiction, you can set the scene for a big revelation, if you like, but you need to give readers a very compelling reason to plod through to the revelation.
Switching perspectives is a pretty risky thing in fiction, but it’s pretty much unacceptable in non-fiction. The first time Hemingway switches conspicuously, he’s mid-paragraph (he’s switched subtly among the various humans as omniscient narrator before). Macomber has just stepped out of the car to face the lion. At first, the omniscient narrator tells us what the lion sees, and then he tells us what the lion feels as he is shot. Previously, we have been encouraged to relate to Macomber, but now we pull back to a larger perspective, then close back in to the lion’s perspective. It’s an interesting device to close in, pull back, and then close in to a different place. You can definitely use this technique of refocusing when analyzing technical topics. Just don’t switch to the perspective of the software, with anthropomorphosis.
If you read this switching paragraph out loud (I’m talking about the one that starts “Macomber stepped out of the curved opening at the side of the front seat, onto the step and down onto the ground.”), you’ll find yourself getting a little breathless. The length of the sentences changes, the length of the phrases changes, even the length of the words changes. This device is used even more obviously about four pages later, in the next paragraph to focus on the lion’s perspective. (The paragraph begins, “Thirty-five yards into the grass, the big lion lay flattened out along the ground.”) Hemingway uses this device throughout the piece, to compel the reader toward the conclusion, and to create empathy with the various protagonists.
You can use this same device in technical writing. Let’s look at a sentence.
Each version makes pretty much the same point. You’d use the first sentence to explain something that was not part of a previous discussion. The second version might comfortably follow a discussion as its conclusion, reiterating a point, or it might start the discussion, leaving a bit of information for the discussion itself. The third version tells readers why they should follow steps that are coming. The fourth and fifth versions are instructions.
Think about those sentences for a minute, and imagine them in inappropriate places. Imagine, for instance, the last version as the start of a discussion. It’s not very compelling, is it? Likewise, the first sentence makes a tedious and didactic conclusion. As a non-fiction writer, you can play with how much information is too much—or not enough—to bring your reader to the ultimate conclusion. You can do this for the whole piece, for each section, for each paragraph, and for each sentence.
A final point is the way Hemingway ends the story. We aren’t really sure if there was an accident, and we’re not really sure how any of the characters feel about the situation. Even the attitude of minor characters (such as the gun-bearers) is in question. As a creative writing effort, this kind of unfinished business is great stuff. There are as many interpretations of the ending as there are readers.
Most likely, you don’t want to end non-fiction up in the air. There are a lot of interesting ways to conclude a non-fiction piece, but it’s probably a bad idea not to make a declarative statement about the subject of the piece. Readers should finish agreeing or disagreeing with you, or having learned something.
If you read this short story a few times, you’ll probably come up with more parallels to use writing non-fiction. I hope you’ll let me know about them.