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Characteristics of Narrative Nonfiction


Dialogue, characterization and description might be important tools of fiction writing, but that doesn't mean they also can't be used to create dynamic true stories. Narrative nonfiction brings real-life stories, such as personal experiences and historic events, to life using the techniques of fiction writing. This genre lets readers learn about true occurrences through engaging writing that incorporates drama and depth of detail.

Telling True Stories

Above all other things, a narrative nonfiction piece tells a true story. Creative nonfiction writers don't have license to invent circumstances or stray from reality. Therefore, research is the cornerstone of the writing process, and authors often conduct interviews and peruse diaries, historical records and newspaper articles to get the most accurate information. Erik Larson, author of the best-sellers "The Devil in the White City" and "In the Garden of Beasts," not only devotes himself to research, but is also careful to limit himself only to these sources as he determines the conflict and characters in a true story.

Stories With Drama

Narrative nonfiction uses scenes, the basic unit of stories, to dramatize its events. Just like in fiction, writers use dialogue and characterization to reveal character relationships and move the story forward. This principle of using scenes instead of merely summarizing is what separates narrative nonfiction from straight nonfiction works like biographies, reports or news stories. In "In Cold Blood," Truman Capote alternates scenes of the Clutter family's last day alive with scenes of their killers traveling to Kansas to rob their house. This structure creates drama and suspense for readers as the killers progress toward their destination.

Documenting Details

Authors of narrative nonfiction use clear, specific descriptions to re-create the sensory experiences of the story for readers. Personal essays use meticulous detail, metaphors and imagery to bring the people and places of the story to life. For example, Jeanette Walls' memoir "The Glass Castle" uses tactile imagery, details related to touch, to contrast the different places her family lives as they move across the country, such as the scorching Arizona desert and the freezing winters of West Virginia. In her "Dead Grandmother Essay," Sarah Beth Childers describes the stench of cigarette smoke that perpetually filled the rooms of her grandmother's house.

Engaging Voices

Narrative nonfiction pieces are also characterized by unique, memorable voices. Unlike fiction, the author often has a presence in the writing, especially in the subgenres of memoir and the personal essay, where the author tells a story about an actual life experience. In JoAnn Beard's essay "Bulldozing the Baby," Beard uses humor to tell the story of her relationship with a favorite childhood doll, while John Edgar Wideman's "Looking for Emmett Till" takes on a much darker voice as he reflects on how the murder of a black teenager in Mississippi changed his views of racism.

About the Author

Kori Morgan holds a Bachelor of Arts in professional writing and a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing and has been crafting online and print educational materials since 2006. She taught creative writing and composition at West Virginia University and the University of Akron and her fiction, poetry and essays have appeared in numerous literary journals.

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