More Ways to Use Fiction Techniques in Nonfiction

by Dorothy Wall
from The Writer

Scene, description and dialogue are already well-known tools in writing creative nonfiction and memoir, but here are 4 additional techniques to consider

Creative-nonfiction writers and memoirists often take advantage of fiction-writing techniques to enhance their prose. They create scenes and characters, use dialogue and description. As much as possible, they try to show rather than tell.

These are all excellent ways to bring a story to life, but in fact, there is more to glean from fiction than scene, description and dialogue. The strategies behind good storytelling are numerous, and there are many additional techniques that nonfiction writers and memoirists can borrow. Here are four novelistic strategies that are often overlooked, yet can strengthen your storytelling.

1. Create anticipation: Set up the action to come. To create the momentum that will keep readers turning the page, setting up future action is vital. This means letting us know in Chapter 3 that in Chapter 4 an important dinner will take place. Tell us not only that this dinner will occur, but why it matters, what’s at stake.

I often read manuscripts in which the writer leaps into a high-intensity moment—such as a dinner where she tells her husband she wants a divorce—then inserts a paragraph in the scene to say she’s been thinking of taking this step for months. That paragraph is a tipoff. Instead of interrupting a dramatic encounter with explanation, set up the potent conversation in a previous scene, so that the reader feels the tension and wonders what will happen.

Filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock famously described how to create suspense. In a scene where a bomb explodes in a football stadium, he said, movie viewers will be frightened for a few moments when the bomb goes off. But if we know that the bomb is under a stadium seat and will go off in 10 minutes, we’ll be frightened for 10 minutes. When you let the reader know what’s coming and why it matters, you increase tension and momentum.

Just as important as creating anticipation for a particular scene is to set up the whole plot trajectory. Elizabeth Gilbert begins Eat, Pray, Love, her popular memoir, with the sentence: “I wish Giovanni would kiss me.” We know immediately what she wants (love), we know what’s at stake (will she find it, can she be happy without it), and we’re eager to follow her quest. The book, of course, teases us until close to the end.

2. Create propulsion: Make your scenes have consequences. In real life, after that difficult dinner with your husband, you may have watched the evening news. But if you were writing fiction, there would be a plot consequence to that dinner. The woman initiates divorce. When she does, she flirts with her divorce lawyer, a friend of her husband’s. Complications ensue. In creative nonfiction or memoir, as in fiction, you want to develop the result or consequence of the events you portray. What further action did that dinner propel? How did it complicate or feed the larger story?

I like to suggest that writers think of the difference between a row of pearls on a string and a row of dominos that can be pushed with the touch of a finger. The pearls simply sit next to each other, exerting no pressure. The domino when tipped will knock over the next, which will knock over the next. Don’t let your scenes rest serenely like a string of pearls. Make sure they ripple with the energy and impact of falling dominos, one scene launching another.

Even mundane action can have major consequences. In his poignant memoir This Boy’s Life, Tobias Wolff describes himself at age 11 performing a mocking imitation of his mother’s new boyfriend. The insecure boyfriend finds out he’s been the object of ridicule, and the consequences for the child are painful.

Tip: Where you place the plot consequences matters. Sometimes you want to hold off the repercussions for a short time to add tension and keep the reader hanging. But if you drop a particular plot line for too long, tension dissipates.


WRITE A PASSAGE for your memoir or creative nonfiction, or select one already written, in which you track an event (a business meeting, funeral, demonstration, family gathering) from start to finish. Rewrite the passage to dramatize no more than 15 minutes of real time. Make sure all the essential conflicts and revelations of that event happen in those 15 minutes.
— D.W.

3. Compress time: Limit the amount of time you cover. This is one of the most central elements of effective storytelling. “Real” time progresses in a linear fashion, one day to the next. But dramatic time, or fictional time, leaps over inessential events. A skilled storyteller dramatizes only those minutes that have an emotional punch and advance the plot.

In Scott Turow’s novel Presumed Innocent, the first chapter seems to cover several hours of real time. Rusty, the protagonist, drives with chief prosecutor Raymond Horgan to the funeral of a young colleague who has been murdered. When they arrive, they greet people and chat, and the service takes place. But Turow knows that a lot of that time is immaterial to the drama. In fact, he dramatizes only about 15 minutes: five minutes in the car, one conversation before the service and one speaker at the funeral, Horgan. Dramatic time gives the illusion of real time, but it is carefully selected and compressed.

Likewise, in her memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi tells the story of a secret reading group of university students who meet weekly at her apartment. She could have easily described the first meeting from beginning to end, then the second and so on. But she knows that would be dramatically weak. Instead, she presents only brief slices of the meetings. One day we see the women arriving. In another scene we see them arguing over a passage in a novel.

These moments reveal crucial conflicts and emotions, and are so vivid that the reader easily imagines the whole two years of meetings. Yet we witness only a scattering of hours. The seasoned creative-nonfiction writer or memoirist knows the difference between what the reader needs to witness (what has to be dramatized), and what can be left offstage. Rather than giving a dutiful account of the literary meetings, Nafisi uses the group as an opening to a passionate exploration of oppression, defiance and identity.

Tip: You may think that because you have limited a chapter to two scenes—a party one night, a difficult encounter the next morning—that you’re choosing scenes carefully and compressing time. But are you covering the party from start to finish, describing yourself as you dress, drive over, greet friends? Do you need to account for the whole evening? Can you capture the significant developments by dramatizing only 10 minutes?


HERE ARE A FEW good titles that illustrate some main points in the article:

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami. Novelist Murakami's memoir covers 14 months of training and competing, with loops back in time, but dramatizes only brief slices from a life of running and writing.

The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr. Karr distills her family drama into two years in her childhood and one year as an adult, with a few flashbacks, yet the family is luminously created.

The Shadow Man by Mary Gordon. In this memoir of recovery (recovering the past, recovering her dead father, recovering from her own loss), Gordon skillfully weaves between past and present, limiting scenes to the crucial emotional moments.

Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin. A vivid account of Mortenson’s adventures mountaineering and building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan, this creative nonfiction builds suspense and anticipation every step of the way.

4. Let emotion and event, not the passage of time, prompt your story: Don’t be bound by the calendar. This is another key element of strong dramatic writing. When you use fictional time (selected, compressed) as a structuring device, you free yourself from the compulsion to follow linear time: June, July, fall, winter. Instead, you let the significant events, and the deep emotions they unleash, animate your story.

Joan Didion’s memoir The Year of Magical Thinking ostensibly covers one year, from the evening that her husband, John Gregory Dunne, collapsed and died of a heart attack at the dinner table, to the anniversary of his death a year later. Yet her emotionally driven book is only loosely structured around the calendar year. Mostly it surges and swells with memory, association and persistent anguish over resonant details from her life with her husband. Didion surfaces from grief (water is a repeated image, and its fluidity is fitting to the movement of grief) from time to time to let us know that it’s July or August, but the story immediately veers into another fit of remembered events that rise, like waves, over and over.

Loosening your story from chronological time allows you to follow an emotional logic, a pattern of association and recurring image that goes to the heart of what is significant. In the course of three pages, Didion swerves from a present moment at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, to a trip to Paris she and John took a month before he died, to his last cardiac procedure eight months before he died, to a taxi ride the night before his death in which he expressed despair. “Real” time is discarded in favor of the inner life of emotion, and the story is driven by memory and pain.



Originally published in The Writer, January, 2010
Copyright © 2010, Dorothy Wall. All rights reserved.


You may also be interested in Dorothy Wall's coauthored book Finding Your Writer's Voice: A Guide to Creative Fiction »

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