A Northwest Based Literary Journal

When to Turn Nonfiction into Fiction

There is a fine line between fiction and nonfiction. In fact, some of us, yours truly included, believe that all fiction is rooted in some nonfiction, whether that truth be a certain emotion that triggers a storyline, or real-life events that the writer wants to spin into a fictional work.

It can be tempting to turn nonfiction into fiction, so we thought it’d be good to address some circumstances you might find yourselves in as writers, and some steps you might take to make your nonfiction really stick as fiction.

So here we go: You should make nonfiction into a fiction work…

  1. When you’re recounting a story that’s potentially hurtful to someone

No, really. We’re writers, sure, but we don’t live on islands by ourselves: We have friends and family, and they’ll be around for longer than that first blush of joy at getting an essay published will be, so consider your ecosystem. Will someone be hurt by what you’ve written? Will you be violating someone’s privacy? If so—make it fiction.

Making It Stick: Change more than people’s names and the location, though. Make it truly fiction. Build in new characters, give the original situation a twist; but make sure that the new characters and situation “match.” That is, don’t try to shoehorn a fresh character into a situation that s/he wouldn’t ever find themselves in, for instance.

  1. If you are too close to the subject

Sometimes we write as therapy. And sometimes, that therapy can try to present itself too early in the process. That is, you might not be as ready to commit the event to paper—and share it with other people!—as you might believe, which can result in rocky, uneven narrative. So if you’re too close to the event or situation or person who’s the main character in your “fiction,” your capability to process what’s happened might be helped by giving the thing you’ve experienced a fictional face.

Making It Stick: If you are determined to make the nonfiction a fiction, then you must be sure that you have enough distance from the true event as possible. Here, again, fresh characters or a new setting might help you to acquire that distance. Or a new viewpoint. If the nonfiction is something that has happened to you, imagine it happening to someone else. Or imagine it from another character’s perspective.


  1. When what has happened is SO WEIRD that it would only happen in fiction

These are my favorites. Sometimes the things that happen to us are so strange that we say to ourselves, “No one is ever going to believe this happened to me.” That’s cool, and fiction can withstand a lot of weirdness.

Making It Stick: Verisimilitude is a very strange thing. Sometimes, the weirder the event, the more likely we are to believe it. But we believe the strange thing the writer is telling us because of touches of reality in the retelling—in Netflix’s hit “Stranger Things,” for instance, we believe El’s telekinetic capabilities more because her character is believable in other ways—so make sure there’s something we can all hang our hats on in your recounting of the story.

We’re a small staff here at TLR, so we’re more than happy to pass on to each other stories we believe fit into one category rather than the one it’s submitted in (and of course we’ll notify you), but trying the techniques I’ve listed above can also deepen your understanding of what makes fiction and nonfiction tick.

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Categorised in: Craft of Writing, Nonfiction

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