What Nonfiction Writers Can Learn From Fiction

01 Jul 2019


Have you ever read a fiction book that you just couldn’t put down? The author probably used some techniques to make it a page-turner. The thing is, while fiction books are known for keeping people up all night because they have to get to the end, nothing says that a nonfiction book can’t be just as engrossing.

But if you’re going to write a nonfiction book that people can’t put down, you’ll have to use some of the fiction techniques in your book.

Is it possible to write a nonfiction page-turner? You bet.

10 Fiction Techniques You Should Use in Your Nonfiction Book

Fiction writers are experts at keeping the reader interested and turning the page. Here are 10 tips, borrowed from them, that you can use to add some life and excitement to your nonfiction book.

1. Get Their Attention Immediately

If you’re like me, you like to read the first sentence or paragraph of a fiction book before you decide whether or not to read it. If it catches your attention, there’s a good chance that you’ll like the book. But if it doesn’t, it may end up back on the shelf.

So, why do so many nonfiction books start out flatlined? It’s likely because the author hasn’t yet figured out that grabbing the attention of the reader is just as important in nonfiction as it is in fiction.

Let’s use some fiction opening line examples to learn how to surprise and delight our readers with this technique in nonfiction.

Fiction Example #1

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

This line is from “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” written by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. When you read it, you’re instantly intrigued because:

  • You know the character will face a firing squad and you want to know why. Is he a bad guy, or a good guy caught up in an unjust situation?
  • The idea of someone discovering ice is intriguing. Why didn’t the character know about it before? Does he live someplace where ice doesn’t exist?

Fiction Example #2

“Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.”

This opening line is from Anne Tyler’s book, “Back When We Were Grownups.” It works because:

  • The term, “Once upon a time is how fairytales typically begin, so it’s unusual for a modern novel
  • How did a woman suddenly discover she wasn’t who she wanted to be? What happened? Tell me more!

As you can see, the authors who wrote these novels captured the reader’s attention from the first sentence. Chances are, that’s why the books have taken their places as great novels.

Now, let’s look at an example of a great opening line from a nonfiction book:

Nonfiction Example #1

“Tuesday, September 16, 2008, was the day after Lehman.”

That line is from “Crashed,” by Adam Tooze. Why is it so powerful?

  • The book details the account of the financial crash, and as soon as you read the opening line, you understand that it’s not going to be a boring book that you have to plow through.
  • It starts the same way successful novels do: in the middle of a story.

Nonfiction Example #2

“As the lights went out in Western Ukraine on Christmas Eve 2015, Andy Ozment had a queasy feeling.”

This opening line is from a book called “The Perfect Weapon,” by David E. Sanger. Although you wouldn’t know it from the opening line, the book has the potential to be a little dull. It’s about cyber weapons and geopolitics.  In fact, in the hands of another author, it could have been another dry read.

But it became a bestseller. Here’s why this opening line works:

  • It starts with a mystery. Why did the lights go out on Christmas Eve in Ukraine? And why would that make Ozment queasy?
  • It makes you want to keep reading to find out what’s happening.

As you can see, opening lines are just as important for nonfiction books as they are for fiction books. Does your book catch the reader’s attention right away? If not, you should probably rewrite it so it does.

2. Make Sure Your Table of Contents (TOC) Sells Your Book

Have you ever scanned the TOC in a nonfiction book before you decide to read it? If you’re like most people, you have. And when we do that, we expect two things: for the contents of the book to flow in a logical order, and to find out what information the book holds.

Your TOC should be arranged in an order that makes sense to your reader. If you’ve never created a TOC before, you can choose from the following prompts and write down at least ten ideas from the one you choose. Then decide how to arrange them to create your TOC in a way that makes sense to readers.

  • Questions that readers may have about the topic
  • Problems your readers have and how you will solve them
  • General topics you want to cover in the book
  • Benefits readers will realize from the book

3. Include Stories — Lots of Them

Stories aren’t just for the opening line a nonfiction book. Take a cue from fiction writers and tell stories throughout your book to keep the reader engaged. This is appropriate for any topic. For instance, if you are writing a book about how to sew slipcovers for furniture, tell the stories of people who have done it successfully — and of those who failed at it. Use the stories to teach the reader and keep them turning those pages.

If you can start each chapter with a big story and then include smaller stories in the subchapters, you’ll keep the reader engaged and moving along.

4. Write Tight so the Book Moves

When an author is unsure of the direction of his book, he often adds fluff. Fluff is nonessential words that only serve to fill space. The use of fluff is death to a successful book — fiction or nonfiction.

Instead, every word that you include in your book should matter. When you write tight sentences without a lot of unnecessary words, the reader will stay engaged and keep turning the pages. On the other hand, when you fill the pages with a lot of fluff, it weighs down the book and leads to reader dissatisfaction.

Here’s an example:

  • Tight writing: I poured dog food into Lucy’s bowl and watched her inhale it.
  • Writing with fluff: I walked across the room and pulled out the bag of dog food from the cabinet. Then, I walked back across the room and poured some into Lucy’s bowl. She ate it really fast, and I stepped back in surprise.

5. Show Don’t Tell

If you know anything about fiction writing, you know that you should never tell the reader what’s going on. Instead, you should always show them through the character’s actions. If you use the same technique in your nonfiction book, readers will enjoy it more.

Here’s how it works:

  • Telling: In 2010, my company had a horrible day because we suffered a loss in the tens of millions of dollars. I quickly called over my employees and told them that they needed to start looking for other jobs.
  • Showing: It was 2010, and the day continued to spiral downward. After learning about the magnitude of the losses we’d incurred, I gathered my employees around me and broke the news that they should start looking elsewhere for employment.

While it’s true that you have to “tell” sometimes in a nonfiction book, it will make your book stand out from the crowd if you also “show” the reader along the way. It breaks up the monotony and keeps them interested in what you have to say.

6. Give Them an Experience

Have you ever read a book and as you got closer to the end, you dreaded the moment you read the last page? It happens a lot with fiction books, but some non-fiction books leave you with the same feeling. For instance, in Tim Feriss’ 4-Hour Workweek, the reader is transported to a life with little work and a whole lot of play. By the time you finish the book, you feel as if you’ve been on vacation somewhere in the tropics.

And the book’s topic? Outsourcing.

7. Introduce Some Characters

People relate to people, and if you’re going to write a successful nonfiction book, you will have to introduce some characters to your readers. They will want to spend some time with people who have experienced their problems and solved them.

For instance, if you’re writing a book about dealing with the turbulent teenage years, introduce some parents and tell their stories. And if you tell more than one story about someone, they become a character in your book. The mom you introduce at the beginning of the book, who is having a difficult time dealing with her teenager can show up throughout the book as she progresses toward finding a solution.

Your readers will get to know her as she travels the same path and reaches the solution they long for, and that will help them relate to her — and your book.

8.  Don’t Forget the Questions

Almost everyone who buys a nonfiction book has a question. And we can learn from our fiction friends how to go about answering them.

Fiction writers use cliffhangers to keep an audience engaged. They talk about something but then leave the conclusion unanswered so readers will continue reading to find out how it ended.

Nonfiction writers can ask questions of the reader — and then make them wait for the answer. It works just like a cliffhanger. For example, you can start your chapter with a story, and at the end of the story, ask a question. But instead of answering it right away, wait until the end of the chapter.

People are hardwired to want answers to questions, and this method will keep them reading as one questions after another is asked — and later answered.

9. Go Deep

If you go to Amazon and read the reviews for nonfiction books, one of the biggest complaints you’ll find (especially for indie-published books) is that the book only touches on the topic. Some nonfiction authors have a bad habit of only giving readers a portion of the answer they’re looking for. This is not the way to a successful book.

Can you imagine a fiction writer telling only part of the story?

Instead, you should dive deep into your subject matter and decide to write the most comprehensive book on the subject. When you’re creating your TOC, think of every question a reader may have and then set out to answer it.

Take a look at all the bestselling nonfiction books and try to find one that only touches on the topic.

Here’s a hint: you won’t find one.

10.  You Need a Plot

Finally, if you want to steal fiction writer’s best-kept secrets, here’s one you shouldn’t miss. Fiction books have a beginning, middle, and an end, and your book should, too.  How you set this up is up to you, but once a reader reaches the end of the book, they should feel like the time they spent reading was well worth it.

A nonfiction plot could look like this:

  • Beginning: Set up the problem and explain why it’s so difficult to overcome
  • Middle: Explain the various solutions to the problem
  • End: Help the reader make the transition from problem to solution

Let’s Start Writing

Fiction writers shouldn’t have all the fun. Just because you’re writing a nonfiction book, that doesn’t mean you can’t use the time-proven techniques that fiction writers have perfected over the years. So, instead of writing a book that only relays the facts, why not write one that takes your readers on a journey?

Here’s the truth: You’ll have more fun writing it, and your readers will have the pleasure of reading a nonfiction book that feels effortless and enjoyable.

What’s not to love about that?

Suzanne Kearns 
Suzanne knew she wanted to be a writer at the age of ten when she wrote her first story, and has spent the past 2 decades writing blog posts, magazine articles, nonfiction and fiction books, sales letters, white papers, press releases, website copy, and anything else that can be put in written form. She has written for Intuit, Avalara, NerdWallet, GoPayment, and as a ghostwriter for a few well-known CEO’s. Her work has appeared all around the internet, including on sites like World News and Reports, Entrepreneur.com, and Forbes. She loves nothing more than being presented with a bunch of data and asked to break it down into digestible content for readers. Most days you’ll find her sitting on her porch with her laptop, writing to the sound of the ocean, and marveling that life can be this stinking good.

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