Articles on Writing

Understand the Differences Between Fiction and Nonfiction

You are currently reading non-fiction. Does that mean this article will tell you the truth? Not necessarily. And yet, that doesn’t change the nature of the piece. It’s not fiction. It’s either good non-fiction, or it’s cruddy non-fiction.

Why is that?

If you pick up a novel, you’re reading the truth in an imaginary package. When certain truth conditions aren’t met, we say the story isn’t “realistic.” It could be a story about killer aliens in the Delta Quadrant, but we have a sense of truthiness that we apply to it.

What does that sense of truthiness entail?

Is there a point where fiction and non-fiction blend?

It has been said that fiction exists to entertain, nonfiction to inform. I would suggest that both forms fulfill both purposes in unique ways. The purpose of all writing is to enrich. 

The Truth Factor

Both fiction and non-fiction deal in different forms of truth. Non-fiction examines observable facts and how to interpret and apply those observations. Fiction examines unobservable but widely-held truth claims, and how people interpret and apply those perspectives.

Non-fiction is analytical; fiction is propositional.

To analyze something is to break down a whole into its constituent parts; to identify its ingredients. That’s exactly what you don’t want to do in fiction. It ruins the story when it digresses into analysis. We call that editorializing, authorial intrusion, telling rather than showing, and also less technical and complimentary names like: “agenda-driven,” “wooden,” “preachy.”

Propositional writing puts forward a point to be maintained or discussed in argument (will Our Hero have the chutzpah to succeed?); a problem to be demonstrated or performed (can Our Hero triumph against overwhelming odds?); an expression signifying something that can be believed or doubted (what is the morality of sacrificing one’s friends/principles/life for the greater good?).

Non-fiction can be propositional as well as analytical. But fiction is intensely propositional while avoiding direct analysis. Non-fiction talks about life and how to build its machinery. Fiction replicates life to see what falls out of the machinery we build.

You Can’t Analyze What Doesn’t Exist 

Because non-fiction cannot visit the planet Snotglob to determine whether its Slime Lord is green or purple, certain boundaries apply to its content. We have expectations that non-fiction will analyze what is genuinely available to be analyzed. That it will be somewhat empirical. When those expectations are violated, we tend to say the piece is not truthful. You could say that non-fiction proceeds generally like this:

Proposition (thesis) – Exposition (analysis/persuasion) – Conclusion.

Analysis requires information and context. In non-fiction, the writer mediates between the proving ground and the reader.

Fiction can make that journey to planet Snotglob (though why it would want to is open for debate). Fiction deals in a different set of truths, and specializes in reinventing contexts in order to test those truths.

Moral ground is the ground of fiction, and that quickly spills over into the real life moral ground of its readership. You can say the sun rises in the west, and it will be accepted by fiction readers if it fits the story. But you cannot say that the hero (or villain) deserves to win unless you demonstrate the moral weight of such a claim.

A moral proving ground requires character. And that’s why character is the mediator between the proving ground and the reader in fiction.

Interesting, isn’t it? Dr. Stanley Williams analyzes this phenomenon in The Moral Premise. He proposes that the moral argument is where the core of any story resides. And to the extent that we find the moral dilemma believable, we will find the story compelling and truthful.

In fact, that’s the complaint against “slanted” journalism: that it applies a moral to the story, instead of allowing the reader to arrive mentally unmolested at one on his* own. “Slant” reinvents context.

Context is a tool we use to interpret life and truth, so this is very important.

The Contextual Factor

Non-fiction is devoted to our world. To the reader’s real and everyday life. Non-fiction, I would argue, is more about self than otherness. How to be sexier at fifty; how to protect your retirement savings. How you can be a good person by rejecting the myths of racial prejudice, or religious bias, or whatever the social issue of an era may be. The facts that you need; the news story that matters to you.

Fiction exists to take us outside our everyday context. It asks the question: Do our accepted propositional truths about life hold up in wildly different circumstances? When the context changes, what truths remain? In essence, what is good, and how do we recognize it? Even contemporary fiction takes us out of our messy reality, sometimes into a messier one, sometimes into a tidier one. The main thing is, it’s not our context. It is about otherness.

Non-fiction can cross the boundary of factual and imagined. When it addresses things outside the immediate, non-fiction may be about how we envision our world to be (“aliens really do exist in secret,” “the Holocaust was a lie,” “fighting climate change will succeed in saving the world”) rather than what can be shown to be true through repeatable observation. It may be about a goal or a place in life that we can’t realistically make for ourselves (“you too can look like this runway model”), but we sometimes want that lie about self to persist. The mysteries have answers, our prejudices and hatreds are justified, we can save the world, and we are all beautiful.

Is non-fiction truthful? Not necessarily. We don’t call non-fiction bad when it tells a lie; we call it bad when it fails to lie convincingly.

Fiction can cross that boundary too. Fiction can move between the imagined and the known, and derives a great deal of power from doing so. When it connects with our reality and brings home a recognizable truth across the barrier of reinvented context, it transcends.

Is fiction a lie? Not exactly. We don’t call fiction bad when it tells the truth; we call it bad when it fails to tell the truth convincingly.

When the Two Don’t Mix

Just because a book about Holocaust denial is not based in reality, do we then class it with fiction? No, we class it with the pretenders. Somehow, we understand that fiction is better than that.

And this is something to watch for, because some writers will try to avoid that “pretender” classification by hiding within story. I’ve seen a few too many would-be fiction writers who’ve decided that the pains taken to research their topic properly and get their facts in order are just too much. Aha! Therefore, they’ll just make up a story that proves their point without reference to pesky facts.

I hate to disappoint, but that’s just not how it works. Writing fiction that duplicates and argues from real-life context also requires that the research be in order. We cannot violate the propositions of our time and culture, let alone those things within the realm of observed fact, without first proving the validity of the violation.

If a non-fiction book that has its facts in order also takes flights of imagination, intelligent readers can accept that. That’s extrapolation. But if a fiction book attempts to call itself reality, readers must decide whether to make a game of it or rebel against it. We all “know” that fiction isn’t reality. It’s reinvention.

Embrace the Differences Between Fiction and Non-Fiction

With all this in mind, you can choose a burning question to examine, and how to examine it in a way that will connect with others rather than pontificate at them. Which fits your idea better–fiction or non-fiction?

Are you interested in exploring a propositional truth, or in analyzing and persuading?

Does the thing which fascinates you involve providing an experience of otherness, or is it about enhancing the experience of self?

Does the thing which fascinates you involve the interpretation and application of observable external facts, or the testing of moral ground?

Know what you really want to write. Measure yourself accurately. Stay true to yourself.

Image Credit: SEPB/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

*We have ubiquitously trained the male writers of today’s world to use the pronoun “she” at least as often as “he,” and often much more frequently. Since I’m a female writer, you’ll see the reverse in my writing out of respect for the opposite gender. That was the whole point of linguistic lobbying, wasn’t it?

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Categories: Articles on Writing

2 replies »

    • Thanks for stopping by, Jan!

      I think it very much depends on the purpose of the scene. Malcolm Gladwell’s a great example of this. “Outliers” uses storytelling to set up the scenarios it examines. But it’s doing so in order to examine specific elements of case studies in a way that’s entertaining and engaging to average readers.

      His choice of detail is very carefully made, because he’s pointing out key traits and circumstances that influenced the lives of people with unique skills or success stories. He’s also pointing out how the lack of certain key factors–some of which involve setting and chronology–has caused skillful people to miss out on success. His choices are designed to aid analysis and persuasion, even though he borrows from the fiction cupboard somewhat in terms of writing technique.

      Memoir would be different, and creative nonfiction would have a different set of goals again, etc.

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