Narrative Nonfiction

Narrative nonfiction is a category of writing that goes by many names, including creative nonfiction, literary nonfiction, literary journalism, new journalism, and fact-based journalism. In short, it is nonfiction that tells a story. In her article “Incorporating Nonfiction into Readers’ Advisory Services”, Abby Alpert defines narrative nonfiction as

a style of nonfiction writing that adheres to the facts, but employs the literary techniques of fiction to tell a vibrant story about real events, phenomenon, people, and places.

Note that narrative nonfiction is not a genre, but a category of writing that encompasses a number of genres.
Genres that fall under the narrative nonfiction umbrella include personal essays/nonfiction shorts, biography, autobiography, memoir, travel writing and food writing.

There are two distinct elements to narrative nonfiction. First is the narrative element, which requires the author to employ strategies of fiction writing, including scene and character development, employing a voice to tell the story, and drawing readers in using plot, language, and imagery. Second is the nonfiction element, which is essential to narrative nonfiction. The story must be based on facts, on actual events, objects, people, political developments, phenomenon, etc.

Literary critic Barbara Lounsberry in her book The Art of Fact suggests four constitutive characteristics that encapsulate both the narrative (3. and 4.) and nonfiction (1. and 2.) elements of the style:

  1. “Documentable subject matter chosen from the real world as opposed to ‘invented’ from the writer’s mind” The emphasis on fact is what separates narrative nonfiction from fiction.
  2. “Exhaustive research” Again the emphasis on fact-based storytelling defines the style.  A thorough knowledge of the facts allows the writer to have an intimate perspective on their subjects and establishes credibility in their writing.
  3. “The scene” Bringing life to the setting and the context of events is key to distinguishing narrative nonfiction from the traditional journalistic style of objective reportage.
  4. “Fine writing: a literary prose style” The writing employs narrative form and structure and polished language.

Narrative nonfiction has its roots in traditional journalism but is distinguished by the literary techniques it uses to tell the story:

“Every single sentence, every single word must be true, just like it should be in ordinary, traditional journalism.  No scene can be made up, no dialogue invented.  The literariness comes from the techniques not from fictionalized events.” (Finding Your Voice – What is Literary Journalism)

See the History page for the full story on narrative nonfiction.

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