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What Is Literary Nonfiction?

Stacks of literary nonfiction books.
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  • Written By: Elizabeth West
  • Edited By: Allegra J. Lingo
  • Last Modified Date: 21 November 2014
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Literary nonfiction is a type of writing that tells the story of a true occurrence using creative language without embellishment of the facts. Documented facts, familiarity with the topic, a well-crafted sense of place, and literary prose must be present to constitute the form. The genre includes such varied subjects as travel writing, memoir, some true crime, essays, and nature writing.

Subject matter for literary fiction can be anything as long as it is factual. Memoirs are narratives of a significant time in a person’s life and are the best known of this kind of writing. As in journalism, the ethics of factual reporting are the same. Several memoir writers in the mid-2000s were vilified for fabricating their works.

Travel is a topic that lends itself well to the genre of literary nonfiction, with rich subjects like geographic wonders and adventures. A great deal of factual information can be conveyed in a fictional style about a particular destination. If the journey has unusual elements, these can be dramatically portrayed using fiction techniques. The story of a trip has a built-in narrative arc the writer can easily follow.

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Four essential elements of literary nonfiction should be present in the finished piece. First, the writer must begin with documented facts, which can be verified by independent sources. Second, the writer must know the subject intimately in order to illuminate the reader, so a great deal of research is necessary. The intent is to inform the readers on a subject they may wish to know about. Deeper research enriches the narrative by bringing little-known elements to the forefront.

Third, scenes should be well-crafted and establish a sense of place to bring the reader into the story. Fourth, the piece should employ a literary prose style using figurative language and fiction techniques, such as dialogue and character development. Exploring the themes of human experience brings a universal subject to life far better than straight reporting can.

Writers who produce literary nonfiction may spend hours interviewing and getting to know their subjects or traveling to places they are writing about. Crime writers, for instance, may attend trials and hearings, do jailhouse interviews, and talk to victims. Americans Ann Rule and Joseph Wambaugh in particular have set the standard for literary nonfiction in the crime genre. They use vivid language and complete characterizations, along with extensive research, to bring the stories of both killers and victims to life.

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