Plotting Nonfiction vs. Plotting Fiction

Writing fiction is clear. One needs character, plot, action, an inciting incident, a protagonist, an antagonist, and a conflict.  But what about nonfiction? What about environmental writing? Sure, you can make yourself the character, and your tale of discovery the plot line, and your conflict with, say, other human interests in the land into the story, but is that really the story? More about people, when the land needs our attention? It’s a big topic, but here’s one small tip that might be of some help. To illustrate it, here’s an image of a choke cherry tree late in the season. We could write about the seasons, the cycle of birth and death, from flowering to rot and germination, or we could throw aside that story of documented human knowledge, stop trying to fit into it, and just look at the tree. It’s not talking about any of that.


It’s talking about gravity, or more specifically a story of gravity and light. The leaves reach up, the fruit reach shown. The leaves are bright. The fruit is dark. Sure, this seems like a medieval form of knowledge, but why shouldn’t it be? It was pushed aside for the great explosion of the scientific revolution, which means few have developed it since. That’s the story, though. And if you want a human angle, well, there’s lots of material in medieval documents, lots more in alternate spirituality documents, and a lot to be said about photography and the contemporary imagination. The actual documented science is just a tiny slice of what is available to you as a writer. It’s the easiest path, because it is so well-organized and documented, but it is also the one that will lead you most directly away from the earth, when the earth was your goal in the first place.  Or maybe it was the sky?


You might want to talk about rain then, or maybe that cluster caught on the twig on the upper right, in between worlds.

5 thoughts on “Plotting Nonfiction vs. Plotting Fiction

  1. I believe non-fiction is easier if you allow chronological time to dictate the tale. Environmental writing is something different. I believe it is more descriptive and more prone to literary devices, simple things like metaphors and similes. Consider a simile of George Orwell: “I don’t mind development so long as it doesn’t look like gravy on a table cloth.”

    • It depends on the tale, I think. Some tales respond well to a non-temporal approach. Anything with its legs in the Russian Orthodox tradition (and the post 1917 Russian diaspora), for instance. The temporal approach is best for material within the temporal scientific world view. At least, that’s my experience.

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