Creative nonfiction is a genre of writing that combines the formality and factual basis of traditional journalism with the more subjective creativity of storytelling. This blog post will discuss what it means to write in this genre, why it matters and how you should approach it.
What is creative nonfiction?
The genre of creative nonfiction is one of the most interesting kinds of nonfiction, and a popular way to present fact-based literature. Particularly effective in historical writing, biographies and world affairs, it can often read like a novel despite being based firmly in real-world truths. It blends the factual reporting typical of journalism with more creative approaches to connect ideas, develop themes and weave a broad tapestry of narrative. Creative nonfiction can make connections between isolated facts that are real, but difficult to see when each element is viewed independently.
Creative nonfiction is often written without a strict chronological order, which allows it to be flexible and free-flowing while still grounded in truthful events. It may contain subjective commentary that can color those events, often by pulling in archival reporting or dialogue from the time, as well as first person narratives by witnesses as they recount past events. Using these sources naturally lends itself to interpretation and sometimes bias, but a good creative nonfiction will balance personal accounts to provide a full picture of events.
Why is creative nonfiction important?
Creative nonfiction is a valuable tool to educate and build new understanding. Unlike old-fashioned history books that provided dry, date-filled accounts of events from a high level point of view, creative nonfiction works to bring the reader into the events, giving glimpses of what really happened from very personal perspectives. Whereas old-fashioned history books set out merely to inform, creative nonfiction wants to enlighten.
As a nonfiction writer, it’s important to be able to employ an array of tools and techniques in order to create a compelling piece. Facts are essential, as is the proper presentation of interviews (no mis-quoting!). But from this framework of truth certain ideas will emerge, and the writer can choose what to highlight in order to bring those ideas to life. Creative nonfiction allows the writer more freedom to emphasize certain themes or viewpoints within their work while still being grounded in reality.
What are the 6 characteristics of creative nonfiction?
Creative nonfiction tends to focus on real-life events and people. Sometimes it can be categorized as journalistic because it contains well-cited research from primary sources or interviews with witnesses. But whereas traditional journalism usually steers clear from offering personal opinion within a piece, creative nonfiction gives the author freedom to provide commentary and insights about the facts.
Another characteristic of creative nonfiction is its use of dialog passages or first person narratives recounting events – this could be anything from public speeches, private conversations, journal entries, letters, old interviews and so on.
What are the key elements of creative nonfiction?
There are 6 elements to creative nonfiction:
- Everything is based on facts
- Direct use of primary references and witness accounts
- Many scenes are told in a fiction-style narrative
- A sense of progression, even of story, in the narrative
- A commonality of theme that is introduced early, built upon and brought to conclusion
- Thoughtful commentary from the author to tie everything together
Dialog in creative nonfiction
Scenes in creative nonfiction often include dialog. Many times these are direct transcripts from official or public records, and even though they may be edited for style (the removal of words like “umm,” etc.) and sometimes edited for content (to remove side topics that were discussed at the time but that are irrelevant to the theme of the book) they will be true to the meaning of the original.
When no such transcripts exist, dialogs can sometimes be re-imagined based on reliable witness accounts. In this case the exact wording of the dialog will be the invention of the author, but the meaning behind it will be true to the facts. In cases like this, it’s best, as the author, to make it clear to your reader which dialogs are direct transcripts and which are recreations.
What is an example of creative nonfiction?
There are many great examples of creative nonfiction. Here is one of my personal favorites:
War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning by Chris Hedges, © 2002, Anchor Books
What makes good creative nonfiction?
Good creative nonfiction should have a unique voice and theme. It has to have a purpose – a point it wants to make. Creative nonfiction may be based in facts, but it is never a dry recitation of those facts. The author’s task is to find meaning within those facts and bring the people and events to life within that meaning.
If a work is exploring a famous historical event it certainly won’t be the only book on that subject, so the author will need to imbue the work with a new perspective. There may possibly be new information that’s come to light, or a new eye-witness has agreed to share their thoughts. It needs to be grounded in reality, but the author can choose what parts of reality to emphasize or focus on to tell the story. This can create vastly different books talking about the same person or event – and both of them, if written well, will be true and accurate.
For example, two authors set out to discuss the Battle of Britain from the perspective of a single Royal Air Force squadron. But one author focuses on the mechanics desperately trying to keep the Spitfires ready to fly, while the other author follows the pilots as they endure the exhaustion and stress of near-constant battle. These two books are covering the same historical event, will mention the same battles, will describe in detail the same buildings and aircraft, and may even share characters. But they will be very different from each other.
How do you write creative nonfiction?
The best approach to writing creative nonfiction is to write from personal experience and set your own narrative. If you can report on real events as a witness you’ll bring your own unique perspective to the historical facts. But even if you’re separated in time and space from the events, you can still bring your own personal experience into the narrative.
For example, you might want to write a creative nonfiction book about ancient Rome. If you’re a civil engineer, your own training and experience can bring to light many fascinating details of how the Romans built their cities. If you’re a teacher, you can offer intriguing insights into the emphases Romans put into their education system and how that shaped their society.
Ultimately, creative nonfiction is intended to enlighten, and your personal perspective as an author will help you do that.
How do you analyze creative nonfiction?
Reading creative nonfiction is the best way to understand it. There are many great examples out there and the more you read the better prepared you’ll be to embark on your own project. But how do you analyze creative nonfiction? How do you “get behind the curtain” and learn how your favorite authors do what they do?
The first thing to do when analyzing creative nonfiction is to figure out what type of voice the author is using. Is it personal and intimate? Or objective and detached? Or cynical and funny? The tone of the writing gives the first clue to what sort of theme the author is exploring, and what kind of thoughts and feelings they wish to evoke in their reader.
The second thing to do is look at how the story unfolds. Does it follow a purely chronological path, or do the chapters jump back and forth in time? Does one thing seem to lead naturally into another, or does the narrative seem to be broken into separate paths (with them hopefully all coming together at the end)? Leaving the reader puzzled (for a short while) can even be a technique in creative nonfiction, if the author wants to force the readers to think for themselves.
As with anything, the more you study and practice, the better you’ll be at it. Good luck!
If you enjoyed this article and are in the process of writing a nonfiction book, be sure to check out my free nonfiction success guide, drawn from years of experience editing books for bestselling authors (including a New York Times bestseller) and ghostwriting for CEOs and politicians. Simply click here to get instant access.
Leave me a comment below if you have any questions or a specific need that I can help you address – I operate an author services firm that specializes in helping entrepreneurs, professionals and business owners who want to publish books as a calling card for prospects, to establish their status as an expert or to generate additional leads for their businesses.
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Bennett R. Coles is an award-winning author of six books published through Harper Collins (New York) and Titan Publishing Group (London). He is also the publisher at Promontory Press, editor for multiple bestselling authors (including a NY Times bestseller), ghostwriter for CEOs and politicians and the founder of Cascadia Author Services, a boutique full-service firm that specializes in premium author services specifically designed for busy professionals. Our end-to-end services include writer coaching, ghostwriting, editing, proofing, cover design, book layout, eBook production, marketing, printing and distribution.