What Is Narrative Nonfiction?
Narrative nonfiction is a fairly new term being introduced as a genre of writing, but its individual elements are not new at all. It blends factual events with entertainment, setting it apart from academic nonfiction and journalism, which are factual but not generally entertaining, and straight fiction, which is not based on any real event and is meant to be entertaining.
The staff at MasterClass.com defines narrative nonfiction this way: “There are many ways to tell a story—some writers prefer to stick to the truth, some prefer to make up truths of their own, and some will settle somewhere in the middle. The genre of narrative nonfiction requires heavy research, thorough exploration, and an aim to entertain while also sharing a true, compelling story.”
Difference Between Narrative Nonfiction and Memoir
The difference between a narrative nonfiction and a memoir is subtle. According to MasterClass.com, “Narrative nonfiction and memoir are both forms of text that are similar in their expression of truth. Nonfiction narrative gives a styled account of another person’s life while a memoir is strictly about your own.”
As far as the structure of a narrative nonfiction story, the editors at FirstEditing.com point out,
“There is no one single structure or style to writing creative non-fiction. However, here are a few to consider.”
Popular narrative structures used in creative non-fiction writing can include telling a story chronologically, thematically, by use of a collage, a frame, or even a flashback.
Detail and description
Vivid descriptions and colorful details including sensory imagery and language outlining smell, taste, touch, sounds, and sights are all important in creative non-fiction writing.
Intimate and specific detail
As a follow-on from the detail and description above, intimate detail takes this process a step further by providing access to what people are hearing, seeing, or saying is particularly effective. The more specific the better as it will become unforgettable to the reader.
Voice and style
Most writers develop their own voice and style, which includes word choice, sentence structure, metaphor use, and other elements. A good writer develops these traits to create their own unique style. The tone of the writing should be friendly and conversational.
Point of view
Stories are often told in the first-person in the creative non-fiction style, but a third-person perspective can be considered.
The setting, character development, and the story arc are all important elements of good creative non-fiction writing.
A narrative nonfiction arc should look similar to a fiction story arc, with inciting incident, plot point one, plot point two, climax, and conclusion. This is often missing from straight nonfiction writing. Paul Zak, of History News Network, notes,
“[E]ven the simplest narrative, if it is highly engaging and follows the classic dramatic arc…, can evoke powerful empathic responses associated with” the neurochemicals cortisol and oxytocin, responses that “in turn, can translate readily into concrete action,” such as “generous donations to charity.” Stories that “fail to follow the dramatic arc of rising action/climax/denouement—no matter how outwardly happy or pleasant those stories may be—elicit little if any emotional or chemical response” and no action.
For literary writers, building a character list and creating the story arc might be a piece of cake while researching the factual event may be more time-consuming. But for straight nonfiction writers like journalists, the opposite may be true. Fact-finding and research is, after all, what they do. But adding the narrative in the form of characters for reader entertainment may be completely foreign.
Jack Hart, author, journalistic editor, and writing coach at the Oregonian, brilliantly notes, “Characterization, unfortunately, isn’t often taught in journalism school. Nor is it a staple of the writing culture in most newsrooms. Which is why the people in our stories are often talking heads, our version of what accomplished fiction writers dismiss as ‘cardboard characters.’”
So for journalists and news writers, he lays out some questions to ask to help guide you to writing more entertaining narrative nonfiction by bringing your characters to life for the reader.
- What trait will make this character come alive, and why?
- Why is this character different from other similar characters?
- Do I like/dislike this character, and why?
- Will readers like/dislike this character for the same reasons?
- Characters who are remembered are those who are strong in some way—saints, sinners, or a combination. For what will this character be remembered?
Examples of well-known narrative fiction writing include the following:
- In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (1965) blended the account of a real murder in American history with well-written style techniques that implemented dramatic use of literary devices and changed the face of literary journalism.
- Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt (1994) details the author’s experience along with the eccentric characters he encounters while living in the deep south during the headlining murder trial of a young male escort.
- Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion (1968) is a collection of personal essays that chronicles the author’s life experiences and points of view while living in California during the 1960s.
- Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand (1999) told the exhilarating biographical story of famed racehorse Seabiscuit and his unlikely rise to meteoric success.
- Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer (1997) told the harrowing story of survival during the 1996 Mount Everest climbing disaster.
Something for narrative nonfiction writers to watch out for is adding too much embellishment to the nonfiction side of the story. Joshua Wimmer has taught a variety of Classical literature courses. He notes, “Although creative nonfiction authors craft their stories artfully, they are still obligated to ensure that what they say is true. Otherwise, it couldn’t be classified as ‘nonfiction.’ For instance, James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces, passed his work off as narrative nonfiction, but was heavily criticized for all of the fictitious elements he included.”
The future looks bright for writers wanting to expand into the narrative nonfiction genre. A blog post by SpreadTheWord.org.uk notes, “As a genre, narrative non-fiction is becoming increasingly popular, with a broader readership. There are many theories as to why this may be: perhaps it is viewed as a novel approach to writing non-fiction stories, perhaps social media platforms have enabled writers to create new readerships and interest in their stories, or maybe the gatekeepers themselves have embraced this new form of writing. Regardless of this, the ability of a skilled narrative nonfiction writer to represent true stories in new ways that educates and simultaneously, entertains.”
“From keynote speeches to telling stories on stage, or on podcasts, this style of personal storytelling wraps real-life experiences within literary techniques, and has the power to expand perspectives on important topics.”
A final word of advice from StoryTellingWithImpact.com: “Truth matters – don’t embellish the facts or create scenes that didn’t happen.”
Get a free professional critique and editing sample of your nonfiction writing today. Find out what level of editing you need based upon your writing style, editing needs, and desired results for your manuscript.