What is Narrative Nonfiction?
A work of narrative nonfiction is a true story that is factually written— but reads like a novel. Rather than giving a journalistic, straightforward news report, narrative nonfiction offers a more creative and entertaining account of real events. In this genre, true crime stories read like thrillers, and important historical moments feel like they’re happening right in front of you.
Although narrative nonfiction is often written in the style of a fictional novel, it is not in the same category as historical fiction. The latter tends to be inspired by true events and is allowed to take great creative liberties, whereas the former sticks to the facts.
How is narrative nonfiction different from a memoir?
Memoirs are exclusively written as first-person accounts of someone’s life. The author, who is also the subject of the book, explores the events and experiences—the good and the bad—that made them who they are. It goes without saying that memoirs must be written by the person in question. On the other hand, narrative nonfiction can explore more than just one individual’s accounting of their own life, and can be written about anything or anyone. Memoirs, then, are a subcategory of narrative nonfiction.
For example, the book I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban, written by Malala herself (with Christina Lamb) about her childhood and her fight against oppression, is a memoir. On the other hand, the book For the Right to Learn: Malala Yousafzai’s Story, by Rebecca Ann Langston-George, is a work of narrative nonfiction. Both tell the story of a brave young girl in Pakistan who changed the world, but one is told in first-person POV from Malala's own perspective, while the other is told in third-person POV.
Characteristics of a narrative nonfiction book
Books that fall under the category of narrative nonfiction typically have the following things in common:
They are well-researched. As an example, let’s look at The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, an award-winning, bestselling work of nonfiction about a Black woman whose cells, which revolutionized medicine, were taken without her permission. In order to write this book, the author, Rebecca Skloot, dove deeply into medical research, ethical issues of race in science, and Henrietta Lacks’ family, with whom she worked on this project. Writers of narrative nonfiction must be able to back up their work with documentation and be committed to exploring every aspect of the true events they’re portraying with due diligence.
Works of narrative nonfiction also typically include common fiction elements like worldbuilding, character development, and tension. Did you watch and enjoy the ups and downs experienced by the Permian High School Panthers football team in Friday Night Lights? Well, both the show and the movie were based on a nonfiction book by H. G. Bissinger. If you were enthralled by the high-stakes twists and turns in the movie Hidden Figures, you should know that it, too, was based on a work of narrative nonfiction with the same title, written by Margot Lee Shetterly. There are many examples of narrative nonfiction books being adapted for the big screen, and this is largely in part because they are written with compelling story elements, characters, and conflict that work well in other media.
In that same vein, authors of narrative nonfiction are not afraid to use a distinct style and voice, aiming to be engaging and accessible rather than reporting stoically on real-world events. They take care to include artistry and detail in prose that brings people, places, and history to life. Take this passage from the true crime story In Cold Blood by Truman Capote as an example:
The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call “out there.” Some seventy miles east of the Colorado border, the countryside, with its hard blue skies and desert-clear air, has an atmosphere that is rather more Far West than Middle West. The local accent is barbed with a prairie twang, a ranch-hand nasalness, and the men, many of them, wear narrow frontier trousers, Stetsons, and high-heeled boots with pointed toes.
Doesn’t it feel as if you’re reading a masterfully written literary novel, rather than a dry list of facts? That’s the magic of this genre, where well-researched, real-life subjects are depicted with all the artfulness and nuance of fiction. When writing narrative nonfiction, you should carefully select subjects that make a great story—with twists, a climax, and a powerful ending.
How do you write narrative nonfiction well?
Writing narrative nonfiction requires finding a balance between telling a story accurately and engagingly. Here are some tips on how to do that!
First, find a real-life event or story full of drama, the kind of arc you’d have to painstakingly construct if you were writing an outline for a work of fiction. Make sure this subject matter is also something you’d be happy to spend hours upon hours researching. It’s also a good idea to make sure you understand why this story appeals to you, why you want to write about it, and who your audience is. This will help you write real-world events in a way that will thrill your readers, use an appropriate stylistic approach, and develop a satisfying message to drive your book forward—much like when you’re writing a work of fiction.
Next, make sure you do your research. Do a deep dive into everything you can find about your subject matter, documenting your sources as you go. While the internet is a great resource for research, don’t neglect going to libraries, asking experts for help, and interviewing people who have connections to whatever you’re writing about. For tips on researching a book, check out Writing Mastery’s blog post: 5 Strategies for Researching Your Novel.
You’re free to use the same storytelling elements in your narrative nonfiction that you might use in fiction novels, but beware of inaccurate embellishments and taking creative liberties. Remember that a work of nonfiction must maintain a level of integrity when it comes to accuracy. Be careful not to wander into the territory of historical fiction, which are books inspired by true events. Narrative nonfiction is supposed to portray things factually. Everything you write must be true.
Along those same lines, when you’re writing about historical figures and trying to bring them to life as believably as possible, do whatever research you can into their lives, and into the opinions of the people who knew them. Look into what these historical figures were known for, what their well-known traits were, who cared about or disliked them, and why.
Take this passage from Jon Krakauer's bestselling investigative work, Into the Wild:
Instead of feeling distraught over this turn of events, moreover, McCandless was exhilarated: He saw the flash flood as an opportunity to shed unnecessary baggage [...] Then, in a gesture that would have done both Thoreau and Tolstoy proud, he arranged all his paper currency in a pile on the sand—a pathetic little stack of ones and fives and twenties— and put a match to it. One hundred twenty-three dollars in legal tender was promptly reduced to ash and smoke.
Krakauer is not someone who knew Chris McCandless personally, and he obviously was not present for McCandless' solo trek through the wilderness. However, through his research into what McCandless valued, who he idolized, and how he viewed the world, Krakauer is able to easily characterize how the story's protagonist would react to an event that would be upsetting to most people— losing his car in a flood.
With this information at your fingertips, you’ll be able to portray real people with compelling, lifelike details.
Narrative nonfiction, like documentaries, is a creative, fast-growing genre that is thrilling audiences around the world. True stories told with effective fiction techniques offer fascinating, unique opportunities to engage with history and empathize with important figures who changed the world. If this is something you feel drawn to writing, just remember to do your research and have fun bringing history to life!