Sunday, February 25, 2024

Use Fiction Techniques to Make Your Nonfiction Great

by Edie Melson @EdieMelson

Whatever we’re writing, story is the trump card we must always know how to play. Using storytelling in nonfiction is the single biggest thing that will take your writing from adequate to sellable. In this workshop Edie shares how to format dialogue, when to show and when to tell, and other fiction writing tips that make nonfiction sing. 

Many nonfiction writers avoid learning anything about fiction. However, story trumps everything—whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction. 

Great, compelling nonfiction includes well-crafted stories. These may be vignettes used to illustrate a point, but the point made will stay with the reader when it’s delivered as a story. 

Look at the example of Jesus. He used parables—stories—to illustrate the truths He was sharing with His audience. 

Learn to Write Good Stories, Illustrations and dramatizations
  • A good story can be a personal anecdote from your experience or another story you know. 
  • An illustration is told in story form and can be true or made up. 
  • Dramatization is an invented story. 
When appropriate, make sure your reader knows whether the story you’re telling is true or not. This is especially true when we’re telling stories about biblical characters. If it’s not in the Bible, don’t lead others to believe it is, even accidently. For invented illustrations you can use terms like, Imagine with me, I’ve often wondered if, etc. You don’t have to say, I made this up to prove a point.

A great nonfiction writer weaves stories into narrative seamlessly. 

A good rule of thumb is at least one story/illustration for every major point.

Use dialogue in the stories you share. And learn the correct method of formatting dialogue

Correct Dialogue Techniques
  • In general, every person who speaks in a section of dialogue gets their own paragraph. Don’t write two people speaking in the same paragraph.
  • A dialog TAG is the technique used to show who is speaking
    • “Don’t make me laugh,” Susan said
    • The correct way to punctuate a tag is with a comma at the end of the spoken dialog, inside the quotation mark. This is followed by the tag (see example above).
    • Use the word said in almost 100-percent of your dialogue tags. Don’t pull out your thesaurus to find synonyms for said. Said is invisible to the reader and doesn’t distract from the story/illustration you’re sharing. 
    • Don’t substitute words for said that aren’t accurate:
    • “Don’t make me laugh,” Susan giggled. It’s not possible to giggle words. You also can’t whine words, growl words, hiss words, etc.
  • A dialog BEAT is the technique used to show who is speaking through action:
    • “Don’t make me laugh.” Susan put her hand over her mouth.
    • The correct way to punctuate a beat is with a period (or ending punctuation) at the end of the spoken dialogue, inside the quotation mark. This is followed by the beat (see example above).
  • When you use a beat, make sure the action is in the same paragraph as the dialogue. Here is how NOT to do it:
    • “Don’t make me laugh.” 
    • Susan put her hand over her mouth.
  • Do not begin dialogue with an attribution. We rarely use one another’s names when we talk, especially if it’s just a conversation between two people. Don’t say:
    • “Jonathan, don’t make me laugh.” Susan put her hand over her mouth.
  • Don’t use an adverb to describe how something is said:
    • “Don’t make me laugh,” Susan said happily.
  • Instead use a speaker beat to show us how something is said:
    • “Don’t make me laugh.” Susan put a hand over her mouth, and her eyes crinkled with mirth.
  • Exclamation marks are forbidden—in dialogue and everywhere else in your nonfiction book. There are a few tiny exceptions, but they very rarely apply (that’s why they’re called exceptions).
  • Don’t head hop when telling a story. 
  • A story is told from the perspective of one person. That is the POV character. That POV character can’t read the other person’s mind or know what’s going on outside of where they are. Here’s an example of POV done INCORRECTLY:

John and Mary followed the hostess to the table. John’s hands were sweating. Would Mary say yes or would she turn him down?

Mary sat across from John and studied him. Why was he so nervous? Was he going to break up with her?

The waiter studied the couple at the table. He knew the drill and could read the signs. The man was going to propose. He turned back to the kitchen and ordered a bottle of champagne be put on ice.

In the story above, we are hopping from the head of each character. The story becomes more powerful when we stick with just one. Here’s the same scene rewritten:

John kept his hand on the small of Mary’s back as they followed the hostess to the table he’d reserved. He wanted to wipe his hand, afraid his sweaty palm would leave a mark on the red silk dress, but he didn’t want to give away his nervousness. 

Mary glanced at him, her head tilted up and her lips unsmiling. “Is everything all right?” 

John forced himself to smile like nothing was out of the ordinary. “Order anything you like. I want tonight to be special.” He glanced toward the waiter who had turned back to the kitchen. What was that server doing? 
  • Make sure your dialogue isn’t just talking heads. People move when they speak.
  • Avoid long monologues. Break up long sections of one person speaking with reactions from the other person. 
  • Don’t be afraid to shorten your stories: Example in Unruffled

Learn to write with active verbs to make your narrative come alive.

Not: Track lighting has improved and no longer looks dated. It’s smaller and uses updated technology.
Instead: Today’s track lighting has come a long way from the clunky black and chrome options of the seventies. Track lighting is sleek and graceful, often utilizing halogen bulbs for intense bursts of light.

Not: Some provide a small amount of accent light.
Instead: Some of them emitting only a drop of light, highlighting an accent wall with brilliance.

Not: They’re no longer large, dim lights for bathrooms.
Instead: They’re no longer boring, utilitarian monstrosities shedding poor light on a dingy bathroom.

Not: It looks good in any room.
Instead: It looks equally well in a metal loft or a room with exposed wooden beams.

Learning to incorporate good fiction techniques into your nonfiction writing will take everything you compose to the next level! 

Now it's your turn, what questions and tips do you have about fiction techniques for nonfiction writing? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below. 

Don't forget to join the conversation!


Edie Melson is a woman of faith with ink-stained fingers observing life through the lens of her camera. She’s learned to embrace the ultimate contradiction of being an organized creative. As an author, blogger, and speaker she’s encouraged and challenged audiences across the country and around the world. Her numerous books reflect her passion to help others develop the strength of their God-given gifts and apply them to their lives, often using creativity to empower this connection. The Write Conversation, the blog she developed and manages, reaches thousands and has been on the Writer’s Digest Top 101 Sites for Writers since 2017. As a social media and blogging expert she’s worked with clients that range from authors and speakers to business and ministry leaders. She also knows the necessity of Soul Care and leads retreats, conferences & workshops around the world on staying connected to God. Her numerous books, including the award-winning Soul Care series reflect her passion to help others develop the strength of their God-given gifts. She’s the director of the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference and board member of the Advanced Writers and Speakers Association.

She and husband Kirk have been married 42+ years, and live near their three sons and three grandchildren in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Edie and Kirk can often be found with their big black dog hiking—Edie hanging off ledges for the best camera angle and Kirk patiently carrying her tripod. Connect with her on her website, and through social media.


  1. This is so helpful as I recalled some of these same instructions from our coaching sessions. I will print and keep this for reminders. Thanks, Edie!

  2. Such a big help! I learned much from these tips. Thank you!