Writing Nonfiction with Fictional Techniques (Part 7)

Set the Mood

As well as painting a scene, you need to set a mood within your nonfiction piece. Is your story lighthearted? Is it somber? The mood you set will show the readers what is coming and help them to better identify with you.

This excerpt is from a story in my book, Rest Stops for Single Moms.

Loving Too Little, Loving Too Much

Susan Titus Osborn

Staring out of my hotel window on that winter’s day in Washington, DC, I watched huge chunks of ice drift lazily down the Potomac River. I rubbed my arms and shivered—partly from the cold, but mostly from the memory forming in my mind.

I recalled the morning several years before when my husband, looking tired and tense, walked into the kitchen. He sat down at the breakfast table and said, “I care about you, but I don’t love you enough to live with you anymore.”

Writing Nonfiction with Fictional Techniques (Part 6)

Paint a Scene

Often it is important to paint a scene when writing a story within your nonfiction piece. Where are you? Can we picture the location? Do the readers feel that they are actually there? Use all of your senses so the readers can live the experience with you. If you are painting a beach scene, hear the thunder of the waves crashing on the shore. Taste the salt from the spray. Smell the clean, crisp air. Feel the soft breeze brushing across your face.

This excerpt is from a story in my book, Rest Stops for Single Moms.

A Beacon of Light

Shivering, I zipped my blue windbreaker tightly around my neck. The damp air chilled me as I stood watching the fog roll in. I walked faster along the shore, hoping an increased heart rate would mean greater warmth to my body. Darkness was quickly settling in, but I felt determined to take my nightly walk. This was my quiet time.

The clouds overhead blocked the moon, so I carefully picked my way across the rocky portion of the beach to the sandy stretch. In the distance, I saw the beacon from the lighthouse on the point. I used its flashing light to guide me.

Writing Nonfiction with Fictional Techniques (Part 5)

Creating Three-Dimensional Characters (Con’t)

Here’s an example of how I used my character sketch  of a pastor in Sri Lanka in my book, You Start with One, published by Thomas Nelson.

Colton greeted me, this morning wearing only a sarong.  He clapped his hands. Immediately a servant girl appeared and was given instructions.

Colton looked much more relaxed than yesterday when he had met us at the airport outside the capital city, Colombo. Standing only five feet tall, Colton had worn a white suit with a mandarin collar, the custom for Sri Lankan pastors. His stark white suit made his cocoa skin glow. His beaming smile and twinkling, almond eyes radiated friendship.

Graying at the temples, his thinning hair was combed straight back. A neatly trimmed mustache added an air of distinction to the minister.

I thought back to my first meeting with Colton, when he spoke at our church in California eight years before. On that occasion, he gripped the pulpit with his small, bony hands and waited for silence.

“My country is the second poorest in the world,” he had said.

Can you picture this Sri Lankan pastor?

Writing Nonfiction with Fictional Techniques (Part 4)

Creating Three-Dimensional Characters

When writing nonfiction, your characters need to appear real whether they are real people or not. Your characters must seem real to you, or they will never seem real to your readers. First develop your characters in your mind, which may take a long time to do. Then develop character sketches.

For your own files, draw detailed character sketches of your characters. What do they look like? What are their likes and dislikes? What are their strengths and weaknesses? Help the readers to identify with the problems of your characters. Help them to see their own problems in this non-threatening way.

Here are some questions to ask yourself:

Is your main character male or female?  Why?

How old is your character?  Why not younger?  Why not older?

Give a physical description of your character.  What does his (or her) physical description tell you about the personality, theme, or conflict?

Describe your character’s emotions and personality.

What does your character believe about himself (or herself), the world, God, and life?

What problem(s) faces your character?  How did this problem arise?

How does your character think this problem can be solved?  Why won’t this proposed solution work?

What does your character need to learn, experience, or believe before the problem can be resolved?

What experiences (conflicts) could bring your character to this insight or change?

Will your readers grow or change?  Why or why not?


Writing Nonfiction with Fictional Techniques (Part 3)

I use fictional techniques when I write true personal experience stories. All my stories seem to be about my oldest son, Richard. To have a story, you need conflict. My youngest son, Mike, is so easy going, there isn’t much to write about. Let’s see if you identify with the following story written over 30 years ago.

A Gentle Attitude

The front door was slammed angrily with a thud. My son stomped down the stairs and out of earshot. Only silence remained.

Why do I fight with my son? My stomach churned as I pondered this question. I had planned what to say to him, but when he stood there, hands on his hips, looking so defiant…

I stared out the window, watching his tall, lanky form disappear down the street. When he was young, he usually obeyed me. I could answer his questions. We agreed on most issues.

Now that he’d become a teenager, I didn’t have pat answers. Plus, I no longer had a spouse to confer with or to discuss the problems that seemed to arise daily as my son struggled to find his own identity.

Overwhelmed with emotion, I sank onto the couch and buried my face in my hands. The responsibility of raising a son alone was almost more than I could handle. Even when I carefully planned my words in advance, my emotions took over as soon as I opened my mouth. I’d read books by noted Christian psychologists on how to deal with teens, but the words seemed useless when I tried them out in real life. Why couldn’t I find a rule book with all the answers?

My eyes strayed to my closed Bible, lying on the coffee table. I couldn’t remember the last time I had opened it. In years past, I had faithfully spent time with God in His Word. Since my world had been turned upside down, I’d neglected God as well as myself and my son.

Hesitantly, I opened my Bible to the Psalms and began to read. The invisible weight on my shoulders gradually evaporated. I prayed, not for material things or a change in circumstances, but for wisdom in dealing with my firstborn.

The realization came to me that my child was growing up and that my role in his life was changing. My answers weren’t enough anymore. He needed to explore his own way, to find his own explanations to life’s questions.

My job was to love and support him. We might not always agree, but we could try to understand each other. This would require work on my part. When I disagreed with him, I needed to listen to his point of view. Talking openly with him, but not pushing my own ideas, was vital. Also, I needed to admit that I don’t have all the answers.

The door opened and slammed shut again. I looked up into the eyes of a tall, young man who expectantly waited for my response.

“I’ve been thinking while you were gone, and I’m beginning to see your point of view,” I said. “I don’t necessarily agree with you, but I think I understand how you feel, and I respect your opinion.”

I stood up and hugged my son.

He returned my embrace and softly said, “Thanks, Mom.”


See how I used action and dialogue to move the story along?

Writing Nonfiction with Fictional Techniques (Part 2)

Devotionals may be introspective or they may involve a personal experience anecdote. Stories may be true personal experiences, totally made up, or a combination of the two. Articles and nonfiction books should always include examples of the points being made. These are all done in a story format.

Stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Write the beginning and the end before you go back and fill in the middle. You may change some things as you go along, but you must have a game plan.

In the first paragraph of your story, you must hook the reader. Open with an exciting beginning that makes the reader want to read on. Open with the viewpoint character. Write your story as seen from one person’s viewpoint. Paint a brief picture of your main character. Show their personality. You want your readers to see the characters and identify with them.

Writing Nonfiction with Fictional Techniques (Part 1)

Good writing techniques are the same whether you are writing fiction or nonfiction—whether you are writing something as short as a devotional or a long as a novel or a nonfiction book.  And no matter what you are writing, you can incorporate fictional techniques.

Chuck Colson once said that his nonfiction books were story-driven, and that was the up-and-coming trend. People love to read about other people, and everyone loves a good story. How did Jesus make his points? He told stories; He used parables.

When using fictional techniques, since you are normally telling a story, it’s best to create a running synopsis instead of just an outline. After you’ve formulated your focus sentence, write your synopsis. Eventually this will form the basis for your personal experience story, devotional, or short anecdote in an article. This also works for stories in nonfiction books, which is what I write.

Interviewing (Part 11)

Another nice thing about writing from interviews is it eliminates writer’s block. It’s not just you and a blank piece of paper or a blank computer screen when you sit down to write. It’s you, a mound of notes, and a recorder.

The realm of manuscripts that can be written from interviews is unlimited. In 1990 I went to Hong Kong, Sri Lanka, India, and the Philippines to obtain information for my books written from interviews. But don’t forget that your best story may be in your own backyard, in your church, in your local newspaper, or in your head.

Many people have fascinating stories to tell, but they are unable to write their own stories. You can come beside them and write their stories to encourage others and bring the readers closer to the Lord.

This concludes the series on interviewing.





Interviewing (Part 10)

Some publications will want a query letter before you send your article. Here is a sample query letter:



Dear Mr. Jones:

In April, I attended the Orange County Christian Writers Conference where I met your assistant editor, Bill E. Buyer. He suggested that I query you with my idea for a 1500-word article that I feel will fit your guidelines.

For the past five years, I have volunteered in a home for unwed mothers. One sixteen year old named Sara has given me permission to write her story under a pseudonym. I feel the choices she made will help other young girls to make the right decisions regarding sex and marriage.

Sara became pregnant and considered abortion. Since she is only sixteen and a junior in high school, she did not feel she could adequately care for herself and a baby. A strange turn of events led to a harrowing experience that resulted in a decision for Sara to have her baby and to give him up for adoption.

The primary audience would be young teenage girls—particularly those considering sex outside of marriage. The secondary audience would be pregnant teens. Also, mothers and friends of girls going through the trauma of an unwanted pregnancy would benefit from this article.

This article is timely because today eight out of ten teenage girls are sexually active, and three out of ten will eventually become pregnant out of wedlock. Let me know if you would be willing to see my article, “Sara’s Song,” on speculation. I look forward to your response.

Yours in Him,

Susie Writer

Interviewing (Part 9)

When you have finished writing an article, I recommend allowing the person interviewed to see the final draft you plan to send to a magazine editor. But don’t let the person make unnecessary changes! Some publications will want a signed release from the person interviewed before the article is published, but I think it is good to have your own release if the magazine doesn’t require it. Now, books are different. That becomes co-authoring, and a contract is involved. However, if you have other people’s stories in your book, you will want to get signed releases from each of them.

In articles, the name of the person interviewed is placed first, then “as told to” and the writer’s name. For example: “The Providential Escape” by Henry Fahman as told to Susan Titus Osborn. On leader’s guides and other pay-for-hire work, the words “prepared by” often precede the author’s name. On these kinds of projects, the author’s name usually goes inside the book or booklet, rather than on the cover. For example, Leader’s Guide for You Gotta Keep Dancin’ by Tim Hansel prepared by Susan Titus Osborn. On books, the actual author’s name is placed second after the person whose story is being told. The names are separated by “with.” For example, You Start with One, by Deo Miller with Susan Titus Osborn. If you have other people’s stories in your book, you can put their name below the title of the story they have written.