Literary Elements of a Non-Fiction Story
Non-fiction includes many genres, from memoirs to research journalism, but even the most straightforward of these has more in common with literary fiction than you may realize. Writing for an audience, especially when telling a story, requires certain techniques and strategies whether the story is fact or fiction. Authors across both forms employ the same fundamental principles to create literary works of art that move their readers emotionally and intellectually.
Point of View
A non-fiction story can be told from many of the points of view present in literary fiction. A memoir or autobiography, for example, is a first-person account of personal events, while a standard biography is written by a third-person narrator who has investigated or interviewed subjects before writing from a more distanced perspective. Non-fiction may be written in second-person, using “you” as the subject, if it is in the form of a how-to guide or instructional manual.
Like literary fiction, non-fiction contains characters who act within the story. Though these characters are real people in non-fiction, they still are represented in writing with the same tools and techniques as fictional characters. Non-fiction stories rely on the same reader empathy as fiction stories, so they must also contain sympathetic or interesting characters for the reader to follow. Because a reader may not know the real-life person in the story, an author must introduce and characterize the person just as a fiction writer would, including physical details and descriptions of their behavior.
A non-fiction story follows a sequence of events in the same way a fictional story might, creating a narrative through which the story is told. Narratives in non-fiction may be linear or nonlinear, based on chronology or some other organizing factor. An author writing about the death of her father, for example, may move around from chapter to chapter capturing different scenes from her childhood and adulthood as they feel relevant to different aspects of her father’s life. As with literary fiction, a non-fiction writer can use different narratives to tell the same story in very different ways.
For a non-fiction story to be compelling, it must not only be true but also interesting enough to be worth the read. Non-fiction stories can center around conflicts and dramatic moments to create literary works with the same emotional beats of fiction. Even journalistic non-fiction focused solely on reporting works most effectively with a conflict or dramatic center established in the article’s lead paragraphs.
Chuck Lander holds a Masters of Fine Arts in creative writing from American University. In addition to working at university writing centers and teaching writing skills in high school classrooms, he has written for blogs and publications such as the American University Writing Center and "Practicing Planner" since 2008.