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What Is Narrative Nonfiction?

A stack of narrative nonfiction books.
A microfiche of a memoir, a type of narrative nonfiction.
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  • Written By: Dan Cavallari
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
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  • Last Modified Date: 09 February 2015
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Narrative nonfiction is a genre of writing sometimes known as creative nonfiction because it combines elements of creative writing with the relation of facts necessary to create a work of nonfiction. This genre consists of writing based in fact, but written with a creative element that lends itself to enhancing the flow and appeal of the writing itself. Narrative nonfiction can take the form of biography, essay, memoir, personal essay, or certain types of journalism. This genre is fairly new when compared to straight nonfiction, and the scrutiny with which this type of writing is analyzed has become stronger as the genre has grown.

Many writers of narrative nonfiction aim to combine a factual telling of events or analysis combined with writing that is more akin to creative fiction. The narrative may include figurative language that is often avoided in other types of nonfiction; metaphors and similes may be used, and the writer will pay more attention to writing in such a way that is entertaining and well-constructed to achieve a factual telling of events as well as a creative presentation. A person writing a memoir, for example, will essentially tell events as they happened, but they may use a more narrative style, including the use of dialogue, analysis of events, telling the story from a certain point of view to create a hybrid story that falls into the category of narrative nonfiction.

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A travel writer may tell the story of his or her travels through a certain part of the world, relating the events as they happened, but the way in which the writer presents these events will determine whether it will be considered nonfiction or narrative nonfiction. If the writer chooses to relate the facts in a story-like fashion, writing themselves as though they are characters in their own narrative, the writing is most likely to fall under the category of narrative nonfiction. If, conversely, that writer chooses to write the piece in such a way that only facts are presented in more of a documentary style, the writing is more likely to be categorized simply as nonfiction.

Biographies and memoirs may present factual accounts of events, but in some cases the names, locations, and other details of the story may be altered for a variety of reasons. This alone does not qualify the writing as narrative nonfiction, though if other elements of story are combined with this, the writing may end up falling into this category. If the sequence of events are truncated or otherwise changed slightly to accommodate the overall narrative, the writing may be labeled a creative work of nonfiction, or even fiction.

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irontoenail
Post 3

@Ana1234 - Honestly, sometimes I think the real adventure is the way that the facts are uncovered and that story should absolutely be told as well. It's not just a matter of trying to coax out a story from dry facts.

One of the best articles I read in the last couple of years was one that traced back the craze for artisan toast back to a single restaurant and ultimately a single person and then examined how her life had been spent and how her unique relationships with others had led to this boom.

If the article had simply been a biography of the woman it might have been interesting, but the addition of the journalist's search to find her made it extraordinary and very compelling reading.

Sometimes adding extra facts to a nonfiction narrative isn't just to make it more exciting, it's to actually bring out the real purpose of the work.

Ana1234
Post 2

@croydon - I never really thought of that before. I always assumed that it was just a stylistic choice that leads some authors to link in what seems like an entirely unrelated story into their otherwise literary nonfiction. But I guess in a lot of cases there isn't really enough personal detail known about a historical figure, or the facts are too dry to really make into a compelling story.

croydon
Post 1

The tricky part of writing creative narrative nonfiction is that you still have to follow the basic rules of story-telling and it's not always true that a real story will match those rules. For example, you will want your story to have a satisfying conclusion, which might be very difficult to achieve if you are writing about an unsolved murder.

What I find usually happens is that nonfiction writers faced with this problem with come up with a secondary story thread that can be ended satisfactorily. Often if there isn't an one available in the history, they will include their own story of how they investigated the facts and somehow help the audience to find satisfaction in the end to that story.

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