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.

Writing Nonfiction with Fictional Techniques (Part 13)

Whether real or fictional, our characters must solve their own problems. They should get a just reward whether good or bad, but if you are writing for children, you must have a happy ending. Don’t leave the ending up to the readers. The readers should have a sense of completion and feel comfortable after finishing your article or book. Don’t leave any loose ends. A “problem solution story” is much more powerful than a “come to realize” ending.

Let’s help our readers to identify with our characters to solve their problems. We can’t tell them though, we must show them. Then they will read and see for themselves. Please keep this in mind. It is so easy to preach at them, and then you’ve lost them. Include lots of dialogue, using words that are simple and relevant today. And action helps to move the story along.

People live in the anecdotal. You can meet their real needs by meeting their felt needs. They want escape and adventure, but they need help with their problems. You can achieve both with the vehicle of fiction techniques.

This concludes the 13-part series on Writing Nonfiction with Fiction Techniques.



Writing Nonfiction with Fictional Techniques (Part 12)

When you write true stories or vignettes within nonfiction articles and books, write what you know. That means writing from your own experiences. Who are you writing about? Yourself? If you are writing your own experiences, whether as an adult or from your childhood, make sure that others will benefit from your experiences. Your story has to answer the question, “So what?” It needs to have a point that will have take-away value for the reader. Nonfiction allows you to use your own experiences, but you can couch them in fiction and change the details. We don’t have to undergo exactly what was experienced in what we want to write about, but it is vital that we feel passionately about our subject.  Often you can use other people’s true stories in your nonfiction articles and books. Having several people experience similar circumstances adds depth to your writing.

Don’t let your characters take over—real or fictional. You must know what they are going to do. That is why you write the ending right after the beginning, or at least a brief summary of what will happen. Don’t manipulate the characters either. They must be believable, even if the unbelievable is true, or you will lose your credibility with your reader.

Next week we will finish this series.

Writing Nonfiction with Fictional Techniques (Part 11)

Here is an example of a devotional that is almost entirely dialogue, taken from my book, Rest Stops for Single Moms.

The Fire

“Mom, I had to abandon my car!” My son’s voice sounded breathless on the other end of the telephone line. “Flames were jumping across the highway. Burning branches fell into the back of my convertible.”

“Are you OK?” I asked.

“Oh, Mom, I’m fine, but I’m worried about my car.”

“Tell me what happened. Maybe I can help,” I offered.

“I was on my way home from class, and I could see the fire burning out of control in the Santa Barbara hills, but it seemed far away. The freeway was blocked, so I took the old highway towards town. About halfway there, people on either side of the road had been told to evacuate their homes. Everyone was trying to leave. There was a huge traffic jam. Suddenly, flames jumped across the highway, and that’s when it happened.

Richard was talking so fast that I didn’t understand everything. “That’s when what happened?” I asked.

“My clutch cable snapped, and I couldn’t shift gears. I pulled over to the side as far as I could and had to abandon my car.”

“What did you do then?”

“I called my girlfriend to come and get me. Mom, I can’t afford to lose my car. I don’t have comprehensive insurance on it, and I’ll have to drop out for a semester if I can’t get to school.”

I knew Richard was right. Richard’s finances for his college education were extremely tight. Without his car, he’d have to leave school and obtain a full time job to earn money for a new one. I saw no alternative.

“Let’s pray about it, Richard. God knows the situation.”

I rarely pray for material possessions, and I’ve never prayed for a car before, but this time I did. “Lord, You know Richard needs that beat-up Volvo convertible to get to his college classes. Please spare it in this fire. We pray that the fire will soon be contained.”

Three days later, I received another call from Richard. “Mom, they finally let me check on my car. I caught a ride back to where I left it. The fire burned to within a hundred feet, and it’s full of ashes, but it runs. It’s in the shop now getting a new clutch cable.”

God has taught us to pray specifically. In this case, He knew how important that car was to Richard’s education. He spared the car, and I learned an important lesson. When things look bleak, when money is tight, God is there, showing His presence in the smallest details of our lives.

Writing Nonfiction with Fictional Techniques (Part 10)

We will continue discussing dialogue:

Once you have a detailed character sketch of your main character, you will know how he will react in certain instances. You will be aware of his feelings, ideas, and beliefs. His personality will come out in his speech. He will help you write the dialogue, because if you know him, you will know what he will say. As your readers gets to know your main character, they will know what the character will say, too. If your main person acts out of character, your readers will know and will feel something is wrong. Also, be careful not to contrive your character’s speech or have him preach. The readers don’t want to be talked down to—either by you or the main character. We teach our readers lessons by what the main character learns, not by lecturing them.

These suggestions also apply to the minor characters to a lesser degree. When you write a novel, the minor characters are more developed, and these points become more relevant to them. In a short story, whether true or fictional, you don’t have much room to develop more than one or two characters with any depth. Usually the readers will identify with the main character, so he becomes your vehicle for getting your message across. The most powerful way to accomplish this is through his actual spoken words.

Writing Nonfiction with Fictional Techniques (Part 9)


Good dialogue is essential to your story. Dialogue moves the action along better than any other medium. When possible have two people in your story, so they can talk to each other. If this is not possible and only one person is involved in a happening, perhaps you could relay that incident after it occurred through a telephone conversation or a chat over coffee. Staying in someone’s mind and listening to their thoughts is a boring place for the readers to be.

Be careful of the tags you use for dialogue. “He said” is better than “he articulated” or “he uttered.” After all, what is important is the information between the quotation marks, not the word used for “said.” An exception would be if you needed to show strong emotion or a certain voice tone that the words by themselves didn’t express. Examples: He shouted, he whispered.

The dialogue should be kept simple, natural, and conversational. However, don’t use the exact words a person would actually speak because in normal conversation, a person uses far more words than are needed. Actual speech needs to be whittled down so it is crisp and clear. Never let your characters ramble. It helps to read the dialogue out loud.

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.