The literary genre of narrative nonfiction fuses the elements of dynamic storytelling with true life events. According to Lee Gutkind, editor of "Creative Nonfiction," the genre's purpose is "to make nonﬁction stories read like ﬁction so that your readers are as enthralled by fact as they are by fantasy." Knowing the techniques of narrative nonfiction writing will help you mold true-life experiences into essays that will capture readers' imagination while aiming to also teach them valuable truths and messages.
In narrative nonfiction, characterization means turning people who figured in the events you are writing about into characters in your essay. While fiction writers generate characters that may only be inspired by real people, nonfiction narrative writers must carefully select the most important players in the events and use description, dialogue and action to bring them to life for readers. For example, Jo Ann Beard's essay "Bulldozing the Baby" is about her unique relationship with a childhood doll. She creates the doll as a major character in the essay through descriptions of how its cloth body responds to activities like being thrown in water or mud and how the doll's expressions seem to change.
A sense of place is often key to effective narrative nonfiction. Creating a clear setting can establish mood in a piece, reveal something about the people involved and plant the seeds of meaning. Truman Capote's nonfiction book "In Cold Blood" begins with a description of the haunting, desolate prairie surrounding Holcomb, Kansas, the book's primary setting. The isolated, simplistic nature of the town simultaneously foreshadows the brutal murder of one of its prominent families and illustrates the community as an unexpected location for such a crime.
In fiction, stories typically follow a conventional plot structure of rising action, a climax and falling action. Narrative nonfiction does not always contain all of these elements. The genre's structure tends to be a hybrid of poetic and narrative techniques, often weaving different stories together in alternating sections. An essay's structure must not only unify the work as a whole, but speak to the meaning it creates. For example, Brenda Miller's essay "Blessing of the Animals" alternates between stories of her past pets and a present day account of attending an animal blessing ceremony at her church, showing different angles on the life-changing impact of animals.
Voice technique involves both the author's tone, or attitude and point of view, his distance from the subject. The voices authors use depend on the genres they are working with. In a personal essay, the author is very close to the events, requiring the use of first person, or the pronoun "I". In literary journalism, which profiles specific events and people, the author is outside the story, requiring third person, the use of "he" or "she." For example, Mark Bowden's essay "Finders Keepers," the story of a man who found $1 million stolen from an armored car, is told in a detached, third-person voice that puts the focus on the action-driven plot.
Blurring Fact and Fiction
Writing about actual experiences and events doesn't mean that you are required to portray everything exactly as it actually happened. There is a difference between making up a story and calling it nonfiction and molding certain aspects to enhance the narrative while retaining the event's core truth. For example, some authors combine similar people into one composite character to avoid having too many underdeveloped figures, or compress the time frame of the events to make the piece move more fluently. Writers should sculpt their experience around the framework they create by blurring reality to fit their structure, while simultaneously maintaining the true story's integrity.