The Idea of Fiction vs Non-Fiction Is An Illusion - Dundurn
May 20, 2021

The Idea of Fiction vs Non-Fiction Is An Illusion

It’s thought to be a little unusual for a writer to work in both fiction and non-fiction. Agents argue against it, as it makes ones work harder to pitch. Bookstores fill the aisle between the two sections with housewares and gifts, so that readers don’t accidently stray from one to the other, as if to warn them that something different lies ahead.

Academics teaching writing tend to do one or the other, and I can only imagine that the fiction and non-fiction faculty have separate break rooms or even buildings. Despite all of this, a number of my favourite writers are comfortable working across the broad divide between fiction and non-fiction — including people such as Steven Pressfield, Norman Mailer, George Orwell and Ernest Hemingway, to name a few. 

Although it would seem there is a deep divide between fiction and non-fiction, whether that is in the classroom, the bookstore, or in the minds of readers, in many ways it is a false distinction.

In many languages, there are no equivalent words for the two concepts, which I think leaves us English speakers all the poorer. Good writing requires two things above all else — a connection to truth, and a compelling story. It’s a mistake to think that only fiction needs to have a compelling story, or that only non-fiction deals with the truth. These two elements are just as necessary in what we call fiction as they are in non-fiction, and in equal measure. The only difference, really, is in how the writer approaches their work.

When I write fiction, before I can even begin to think of what the story will be, I first have a sense of the truth that I want to tell. This might be an aspect of human nature that I want to show, or an element of how relationships work, or something similar that cuts to the heart of the human experience. Once I know what this will be, the story grows around that, oftentimes taking on a life of its own, powered by the engine of my truth.

When I write non-fiction, I also begin by reducing my research to the basic elements that help me to understand it as a whole. These are the trends and themes that run through history, for example, the cohesive threads that link people and events through time. Once I can see these elements, I get a sense of both the underlying truth that I am trying to convey, but also the narrative lines that I can use to make it compelling. 

With fiction, I can create events to produce a narrative, whereas with non-fiction, I need to find them. But in both cases, the story is in service to truth. Once a writer sees this as their calling, the distinction between fiction and non-fiction quickly falls away. 

Phil Halton has worked around the globe as a soldier and security consultant, including in Afghanistan. He is the author of This Shall Be a House of Peace and Blood Washing Blood. He lives in Toronto. Read more here.