Writing Nonfiction with Fictional Techniques (Part 8)

Whether you are writing fiction or a true story, without conflict there is no story.

There are three types of conflict:

  1.  Person vs. Person
  2.  Person vs. Self
  3.  Person vs. Environment or God

A short personal experience story will only have one conflict, whereas a book will build conflict upon conflict. However, one conflict may have more than one of the three components. When you are writing a short story, limit your characters to two to four. In a devotional or short anecdote, I’d limit them to one or two. Also, only have one conflict in all short pieces. In a book, you can keep introducing complication upon complication, solving some as you go along. But remember if you solve everything before the book is finished, your readers will put it down. Why should they continue reading? Build suspense; don’t tell it all. Surprise the readers. Don’t allow them to figure out the ending before they get there. Provide an interesting twist.

Writing Nonfiction with Fictional Techniques (Part 7)

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.


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 front 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.

Writing Nonfiction Books (Part 22)

Publishing Process at B & H Publishing Group (Con’t)

Len Goss, who was Senior Acquisitions Editor at Broadman & Holman Publishers, now B & H Publishing Group, gives us his four basic steps that he used in reaching the publishing decision. Here are steps 3 and 4:

  1. Decision: If things look positive from the editor’s perspective, the project then goes to the publications board. This committee usually includes all the editors, the people from marketing, the sales team, various business managers, the publisher, and so on. The editor presents a summary of the manuscript to this group, and also present things like the author’s credentials, a summary of the critical reviews, his own evaluation, and a summary of the financial projections. Financial projections are done on all books. They include projected sales figures, an estimated cost for producing the book, and an analysis of projected cost versus projected sales.
  1. Contract: If most of the members of the publications board see the project in a positive light, then the standard “rich and famous” contract is offered to the author.

All editors have this in common according to Len: They are paid to process words into communication packages. They achieve this by getting the right idea together with the right author. It may be the author’s idea or the editor’s. But ultimately the rubber meets the road when the right idea gets into the hands of the right author. When this mix is achieved, the publishing house has a winning book.

There are thousands of book proposals received annually by each publishing house. To give yourself an edge, attend a writers’ conference and meet personally with book editors and agents to establish a working relationship with them. Then, when your manuscript crosses an editor’s desk, he can say, “I met her at CLASS and discovered her exciting idea for a potential book.”

This ends the series on “Writing Nonfiction Books.”

Writing Nonfiction Books (Part 21)

Publishing Process at B & H Publishing Group

Various publishing houses approach the editorial function differently. Yet, the main job of all editors is to find good manuscripts, develop them, and then sell these manuscripts to the in-house departments. Thanks go to Len Goss, who was Senior Acquisitions Editor at Broadman & Holman Publishers, now B & H Publishing Group, for his four basic steps that he used in reaching the publishing decision. Here are his first two:

Evaluation: The editor who receives the proposal is going to ask some hard questions about it. Does it fit squarely within the general publishing parameters of the publishing house? Does it fall within the mission statement? Is the topic timely? Is the topic significant? Is the manuscript’s readability level about right? Is it well written? Is the structure of the project coherent? Does the manuscript or the book idea stimulate thought and inquiry? Is it generally usable for courses in the typical curriculum? If so, which courses and at what level? Is this an economically viable book? Will it attract a reading audience?

Review: What usually happens when an editor’s initial response is favorable is that he or she will ask for the opinions of colleagues in the publishing house. In many cases, the material is sent to outside reviewers who are asked to read and evaluate the manuscript. The outside reviewers are chosen for their expertise in the subject matter of the manuscript. Sometimes manuscripts are sent to several reviewers, all in the attempt to determine the strength and weaknesses of the author’s position or presentation. When the editor receives all the reviews, he or she must then weigh them and decide whether to reject the project or move it to the next stage, which in most cases means taking it to the publications board at the publishing house.