Smoothing the Transition to Fiction

By Doug Wagner

If you’re trying to make the leap from prescriptive nonfiction to fiction, the biggest change may be the need to write, you know, a story. A story with scenes and characters and dialogue and a plot.

If your story’s a good one, the plot may be no sweat and the characters may well take care of themselves—the key is letting them evolve. But you need to sew it all together scene by scene, and that’s not always a natural adjustment for the nonfiction writer.

If you’ve written books about, say, health, you’re probably used to taking scientific information and translating and summarizing it for a mass audience. When you cross over into the fictional dimension, though, summary needs to be the exception rather than the rule. It’s the show-vs.-tell rule. You want to show readers another world, not just tell them about it. You want them to feel as if they’re there, and the only way to do that is to cast a spell of immediacy.

Maybe the most important scene-writing skill to master is framing: Where should a scene start and where should it end? A scene is a story in miniature—something happens and things are somehow different when it’s over. And to determine where that miniature story starts, ask yourself this: What’s the first action or thought or word of dialogue that has some bearing on the scene’s resolution? What’s the germ of the scene? That’s your starting point. All those jokes that begin, “A guy goes into a bar,” begin that way because if he hadn’t walked into the bar, there’d be no story.

Actually, though, there’s probably more to that story. Why does he go into the bar? How did he end up there? “Suddenly out of a job, Charlie had realized there was nowhere he’d rather be than Dino’s Place.” If that’s the case, that’s the genesis of the scene. Oh, and there’s no need to announce that he “goes into” the place. Certain things are understood.

OK, now how do you drag him out of the bar so you can move on to the next scene? Chances are, he’s spent a few hours pouring his heart out to Dino, and by the wee hours, maybe he’s resolved to conquer the world just as soon as he can get himself out of bed the next afternoon. Or maybe, like a good bartender, Dino has given him some valuable advice about getting on with his life. Or maybe Charlie comes to the realization that his situation is just plain hopeless. Whichever the case, some kind of temporary resolution has been reached—a logical end to this series of actions—and Dino’s free to end the scene by locking up and helping Charlie into a cab.

And all the while, you’ve never had to fall back on summary. We were right there on that bar stool with Charlie every minute. Sure, sometimes his mind wandered as he tried to figure out how he got himself into this situation, but those thoughts were happening in real time, too. You never had to step away from Charlie’s point of view on things.

That’s the novel cycle in a nutshell: problem, resolution, problem, resolution until the final obstacle has been stared down. There’s room for summary in there, to be sure, but when a character hits bottom and you really want to spread the misery, put it in scene form.             

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