As a writer, you’ve probably come across the terms “fiction” and “nonfiction” before—but each one can be deceptively complicated. You may think that nonfiction writing is noting but dull facts, when in fact it can be a great way to get creative!
While literary fiction tells a made-up story, nonfiction is rooted entirely in the truth. However, there are tons of different types of nonfiction literature, starting with traditional nonfiction vs. literary nonfiction.
If you’re interested in writing nonfiction, one of the first places to start is with understanding these broader, overarching literary styles of nonfiction and traditional nonfiction. We’ve got all the answers about the differences between these two nonfiction categories, so you can decide where your preferred writing style fits in.
What is traditional nonfiction?
Traditional nonfiction is as straightforward as it gets. Unlike in novels, there’s no embellishment from the writer. There are no opinions or anecdotes. Instead, it fully focuses on true facts.
You can find a lot of these books in the education section. If you know a child who loves science books about trains or dinosaurs, chances are those books are traditional nonfiction as well. These types of books aren’t as popular with readers as literary nonfiction or even fiction, as most adult readers do want to sit down and enjoy a story—whether factual or not—rather than read a series of dry facts. That’s why the best traditional nonfiction writing incorporates creative aspects, too!
Journalism, travel guides, cookbooks, and self-help books would also be considered traditional-style nonfiction, though this can vary depending on the journalist’s individual writing style. These days, many of these books have creative aspects of history and memoir too.
What is narrative nonfiction and creative nonfiction?
Literary nonfiction is a bit more prominent and there’s a lot more wiggle room in terms of what can or cannot be considered literary and creative nonfiction. The important part is that literary nonfiction uses literary devices that you might commonly find in fiction, to tell a story or relay information. Sometimes, literary nonfiction goes by other names, such as creative nonfiction, narrative nonfiction, or personal narrative nonfiction.
Just like with traditional nonfiction, literary nonfiction is entirely based on facts and the truth—but literary nonfiction often incorporates stories, opinions, personal observations, and other elements to weave a narrative.
You might find that a literary nonfiction book contains more atmospheric descriptions. The author might choose not reveal key details until later in the text, in order to build suspense and keep you reading. They might follow more of a novel-esque format in terms of pacing and plotting, with an inciting incident (or an event that spurs those involved to action, kicking off the subsequent main events of the book), journey for the characters, and satisfying conclusion.
In short, literary nonfiction blends elements of great fiction writing with the truth to create an enjoyable reading experience.
Different types of creative nonfiction
As mentioned, there are many forms of literary or creative nonfiction. Here are just a few that nonfiction writers might employ.
While traditional nonfiction books might feel more like a textbook, literary nonfiction history narratives relay a historical account based on the author’s research. History is popular in both fiction and nonfiction, so you can see a spectrum of work that ranges in how much is true and how much is fiction.
Rather than just presenting you with the facts, a history narrative might introduce you to a range of real individuals, along with their thoughts, feelings, and motivations, much like a novelist might paint a picture of their characters in their novels. A history narrative might follow a famous event, but through a creative lens that allows you to feel as if you were really there in the moment. In some cases, the author might interject their own opinions into the history narrative, but, otherwise, all the content is presented as they perceive it to be true, based on their in-depth research and interviews—unlike historical fiction.
Biographies will sometimes fall into this history narrative category, as can some true crime books.
Memoirs and autobiographies
Memoirs are a popular personal narrative nonfiction genre for many new writers. After all, it requires no extra research, because you already know everything you need to write! It’s all about your life story. You simply need to present your personal narratives in an engaging way and you have a well-written memoir.
Of course, creating that engaging memoir is easier said than done, and that’s where your literary devices come into play.
Just like you would set a scene, create drama, and show a character’s internal growth in a novel, to write a memoir you would similarly want to present your life in such a way that allows the reader to feel as if they’re truly in your shoes. Sometimes a memoir will be written as one long book, or sometimes they’ll be broken into smaller essays.
With memoirs, though, it’s very important not to embellish, as much as you might be tempted to throw in a few fake stories to make your life seem more exciting than it actually is. When readers read narrative nonfiction, they expect the book to be totally based on real events or a personal experience.
Personal essays are like the short stories of the literary nonfiction world. These essays can be written on a range of topics, exposing the reader to an issue that’s important to the writer, incorporating interviews and observations, or simply relating actual events or personal experiences from a person’s life. Essays are a great way to introduce audiences to your life in tiny snapshots.
These three examples just scratch the surface of all that narrative nonfiction writing can be and cover. Other types of work that can fall into this category range from travelogues to diaries, epistolary works (aka works made up of letters) to even some science writing (like expository literature).
The main point? If it’s nonfiction—meaning all the truth and nothing but the truth—and it’s presented in a literary way, using literary styles and plot elements, then it’s very likely literary nonfiction.
Literary nonfiction books
If you’d like to get a further handle on the elements of literary nonfiction, why not start by reading a few literary nonfiction books? Based on real events and personal experiences, these are all riveting reads.
Famous literary nonfiction works you gift explore include…
The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
This autobiography written by Anne Frank detailing her own life’s events is likely one of the world’s most famous examples of narrative nonfiction. The short diary follows Anne Frank’s life in hiding during World War II. It features Anne as the protagonist, along with a full cast of characters, such as her family members. Just like in a work of fiction, there’s a plot and conflict (her family going into hiding and needing to remain thus) and an antagonist (the Nazis), but the story is entirely true.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
This great example by Maya Angelou is likewise drawn from the author’s life (or a part of their life), but it takes quite a different form. Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a memoir, so it follows more of a traditional narrative structure than The Diary of a Young Girl.
Where as Anne Frank’s diary is just that—a diary and written in daily installments, much like any journal—I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is more of a literary narrative with lots of vivid imagery, characters, and scenes. This is to be expected, given that Angelou is a famous author, while Frank never wrote her diary in anticipation of being published, but both are still great examples of literary nonfiction.
Do note that while I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a memoir, it still has a certain poetic and lyrical narrative element thanks to Angelou’s carefully crafted writing style. This helps set the memoir apart from an autobiography or biography, which is a little more factual in style, with less emphasis on the author’s voice.
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood is far different from either of the two books above, as it’s consider a “nonfiction novel.”
But this seems a bit odd, right? How can you have a book that’s both nonfiction and a novel?
Well, a nonfiction novel is a form of literary nonfiction that blends fictional details with real historical events and people. In Cold Blood is an example of a true crime novel which follows a very real case, but Capote has added in fictional elements like conversations that no one could really know about unless they were there.
This genre isn’t terribly popular, even if In Cold Blood is, and it’s one that should be used with great care. As always with nonfiction, it’s important to not accidentally present a fictional element to your reader as true. If you’re going to take liberties, you should be up front about it and label your writing accordingly.
Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed
A more recent example, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed is a memoir that follows a woman’s trip hiking the Pacific Crest Trail and her self-discovery during that trip. The book was wildly popular when first published and, even if you didn’t read it, you may have seen the movie starring Reese Witherspoon.
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
But while Wild is a memoir that focuses on a singular event that occurred within the writer’s life, Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking is likewise a memoir, but it, instead, focuses on a singular period of time. In this case, it focuses on the year following the passing of her husband. The award-winning book isn’t just a recounting of Didion’s day-to-day life; instead, she takes a more journalistic approach to her life’s events, incorporating research in an essay-like manner.
The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
Erik Larson is easily one of the most well known historical writers published today. One of his earlier written works, The Devil in the White City, is an example of a historical nonfiction and uses a novelistic writing style to tell the story of a serial killer at the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Unlike Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, The Devil in the White City relies nearly solely on facts and research to recount the events.
Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
Another popular memoir that’s been adapted for the big screen, Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert is often compared to Wild. The two definitely fit into similar categories. Both are about women experiencing self-discovery through travel, albeit through two very different experiences.
What makes good literary nonfiction writing?
Just like there are a few necessary story elements in all good novels, there are very similar elements that make for good, readable literary nonfiction writing.
Even though you’re not making up the plot from scratch like you would when writing fiction, you still need a plot for your nonfiction writing. While this can seem a little difficult at first, it’s truly not. Every event has a plot.
In the literary nonfiction novel and memoir Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, Gilbert’s book starts at home when her adventures are kicked off by an inciting incident that she can’t ignore: She gets divorced. This spurs her on to her next action, which is jetting off to Italy.
A series of events follow, all of which lead to a satisfying ending of the book in which Gilbert is happier and more in tune with herself than she was at the start. This wraps up her character arc, or character development, nicely.
See? Even though it’s a true story, there’s still an engaging plot.
Characters—both real and fictional—are important in any narrative. Just like you would in a piece of fiction, for narrative or creative nonfiction you’ll need to make those characters seem as real to the reader as they are to you.
Don’t just write about that time your mom burnt the holiday ham and tell us she has brown hair and red lipstick. Tell us about the way your mom laughs or how she makes you feel when she walks into the room (good or bad!). Tell us that she has a stain on her apron from five years ago that she hates, or that she always whistles when she’s stressed.
Show us who your characters are using rich language. Convince your reader that each person is real.
And, of course, just like you need to make those characters real for your readers, you need to make the setting real enough for your readers to explore, too. Back to the previous example of Mom with her holiday ham, make the kitchen vivid. Is it cramped or spacious? Dirty or clean? What does it smell like? What’s on the fridge? Use some figurative language!
All of the above can go a long way to making your creative nonfiction just as magical and engaging as any fictional story.
Getting started writing your own literary nonfiction
Ready to start writing your own literary nonfiction? Here are a few tips to help you get off on the right foot.
To write literary nonfiction, read literary nonfiction.
As all nonfiction writers will tell you, if you want to write a certain genre or style of book, you need to avidly read that genre or style of book. If you want to write short stories, you need to read short stories. If you want to write poetry, you need to read poetry. The same is true for literary nonfiction.
Luckily, there are so many different types of creative nonfiction out there, and so many different topics on which literary nonfiction has been written, that you’re sure to find something you love. Try one of our above suggestions to start or head to your local library or bookstore and browse the stacks. Whether you want to read about travel experiences, famous historical events or people, or a chilling true crime biography, you can find it.
Find your story.
Just like the heart of any fiction work is a truly good story, so is the heart of any creative nonfiction. You may already have a subject in mind that you want to write about—maybe an event from your life or a favorite time or event from history—but do you have a story?
Who is your main character and what is their main goal? What’s the challenge getting in the way of them achieving that goal? What do they need to learn about themselves and how do they need to grow in order to overcome those challenges? Or, do you have a main character who tries and tires to overcome those challenges, and then fails gloriously?
When you’ve pinpointed the above, you’ve found your story.
Determine what you need to know and then do your research.
If you’re writing anything other than your own life story, you’ll likely need to gather outside intel. What do you need to know, in order to tell your story effectively?
If you’re writing about a major historical event, for example, and you want to tell the story of a minority community whose impact was overlooked by the history books, you might need to learn a bit more about the group of people you want to present, their culture, their unique histories, and the broader world events that were occurring around the event you want to mainly focus on.
You can often do this research by reading (and reading some more), but consider also going to museums and historical sites, interviewing experts, and interviewing those who were either directly impacted by the event you’re covering, or whose relatives were directly impacted.
Of course, any time you get into interviewing, journalistic standards and ethics apply. Interviewing must be done with sensitivity and, while you want to get personal with your sources, you also want to respect others’ viewpoints and remain sensitive to their potential traumas.
Just like writing a fiction novel can be a months-long or years-long process, so is writing a piece of narrative nonfiction. Be prepared to research even more as you go along, but also to revise, revise, and revise again. Enlist your trusted beta readers, fellow narrative nonfiction writers, and critique partners to help you identify where your story can grow with each version. If you can, find a reader who already knows about the topic you’re writing on, whether that be an expert in a time period, industry, or place.
Not interested in writing a full creative nonfiction manuscript? No worries. Many other formats work well for creative nonfiction. Try a short essay, article, or some epistolary writing (aka, a piece of writing conveyed only through letters). Don’t be afraid to play around with style.
Remember: Creative nonfiction can be interpreted a range of different ways, and a true story can be told using countless story-telling methods. So long as you’re sticking to the truth, you’ll be on the right path.
When you finally have a completed manuscript, story, essay, it’s time to share it—and the true story that deserves to be heard—with the world.
Know the differences and make your literary nonfiction stand apart from traditional nonfiction
Literary nonfiction and traditional nonfiction may both be all about the facts, but there are stark differences. If you want to write literary nonfiction, explore the elements that make literary nonfiction stand out as more readable and, often, more interesting than traditional nonfiction. Combining literary elements from fiction with the real world can result in some amazing stories that leave your readers clamoring for more.