A Short Guide to Nonfiction

Understanding the Nonfiction  – Definition

Creative nonfiction forms part of writing as it incorporates all the literary techniques usually used in poetry and fiction. Creative nonfiction is another genre of the literary works and it is quite elusive. Nonfiction usually focuses on real stories as it gives accounts of events, places or actual persons.

Being a story, it therefore, has a narrative plot that is made up of the following elements, the moment of crisis, followed by rising action, then the climax, the falling action also known as denouement and conflict resolution. The pattern is the same as that of fiction. The difference between the two is that nonfiction is based on a real event, or a retell of the actual experiences of the author. Nonfiction pieces come in different lengths depending on the experiences the author wants to put in writing, but it usually has a minimum length of 500 words.

Creative nonfiction which is sometimes referred to as literary nonfiction cover a wide variety of writing such as nature writing, travel writing, sports writing, science writing, things like biographies, memoir, autobiographies, and interviews. This can also extend to personal essays.

Nonfiction can be categorized into two major classes:

  • Informative nonfiction
  • Literary nonfiction

Informative Nonfiction

These are all the writing written with the aim of providing factual information. The main purpose of this form of nonfiction is to inform the audience. The following are examples of informative nonfiction: encyclopedias, brochures, maps, telephone books, atlases, history and science texts, pamphlets, a majority of the articles in newspapers and magazines.

Literary Nonfiction

This form of nonfiction is the one intended to be read and felt, in the same manner, a fiction story is felt. This is quite different from fiction because it entails having actual people taking the place of imaginary characters and the plots and settings are true and are in exactly the places they are mentioned to be in.

Let’s briefly look at some of the major forms of literary nonfiction:

  • Autobiography

This is a true account of an individual’s personal life and is usually told by the same person.

  1. Employs the use of first-person point of view
  2. Covers a long period of the person’s life, therefore, can go to book long
  3. Some of the short autobiographical writings are diaries, memoirs, and journals.
  • Biographies

Almost similar to autobiographies only that in this case, the person telling the story is different from the one being mentioned.

  1. In this case, the writer interviews the subject in order to get insights on the life and sometimes go deeper to research on the subject’s life
  2. Usually made up of many fiction elements such as characters, plot, setting and conflict.
  • Essays

These are short pieces of nonfiction usually made up of only a single subject.

  • Most found in magazines and newspapers
  • Involves the writer’s opinion on an issue, a form or entertainment, trying to persuade the readers to take a certain cause of action, or just highlighting a significant event that took place.
  • Personal or informal essays usually talk about the author’s feelings towards a certain subject
  • Formal essays are usually scholarly and take on a serious tone. These can be hardly found in most of the literature textbooks.

Narrative Nonfiction

Narrative nonfiction is just another term for creative nonfiction. This can also be referred to as fact-based storytelling or literary journalism. To understand the aspect of narrative nonfiction best, we can say that is the substitute of the traditional newspapers we have. This is to say that, even if you get some parts of the story off, one will still be able to get the most important (key) information that you are trying to put across.

Narrative nonfiction is unique because as a writer, you are not tied to putting the main points at the beginning of the story; rather your narration should be compelling enough to make the reader follow in order to find out by him/herself what happens next.

Narrative nonfiction also involves the combination of well-done research with a perfectly laid down storytelling structure that is driven by characters to come up with something like a novel.

The narrative nonfiction is a little bit different from creative nonfiction because, creative nonfiction implies that the story or the facts in the story can be cooked. For narrative nonfiction, the story should be based on facts only that you need to bring in some aspects of fiction such as the setting of scenes, creating the persona, having some good characters that will keep the readers engaged, developing a good feel for the story and the aspect of storytelling. All these are geared towards supporting the journalism involved in narrative nonfiction.

To sum up, narrative nonfiction is a form of storytelling that involves stating facts in a compelling manner that will keep the readers reading to unfold the happenings. The most common forms of narrative nonfiction include memoirs, literary journalism, lyric essay, nonfiction short and prose poem.

Elements of Nonfiction

From what we have mentioned so far, we can confidently state that indeed creative nonfiction is a unique form of literature. Moving forward, let’s get to know the elements that make this form of literature unique.

The first most important element of nonfiction is the ability of the writer to retell actual events in a compelling manner that will leave the readers yearning for more. A good creative nonfiction writer should be able to incorporate the aspect of imagination and craft in order to give the accounts of the event in the form of the story. However, having all these in mind, the writer should still focus to ensure that the story remains true. One thing that makes nonfiction stand out is its ability to capture the themes that have been widely covered in fiction stories such as love, coincidences, and loss based on real-life accounts.

What this means, therefore, is that a creative nonfiction writer should always be current in order to get the information needed to write an essay. Apart from that, because nonfiction is based on reality, a writer should also be able to conduct a good research in order to retell the happenings of an event with the highest accuracy. However, the research should focus more on the key information. Ideally, nonfiction writers ideally perform the work of journalists, even in some cases; journalists are the writers of nonfiction. Basically, the research should be in a position to provide facts and also give how the writer views the world.

Another important element of nonfiction is the ability to reflect. For example, when doing an autobiography or a biography, it is worth noting that the individual might have the most successful life full of interesting experiences that are unique only to them. But then if the writer is not able to bring out reflection on how those experiences have changed him/her as a person, then the message is not driven home.

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A good nonfiction writer should be able to bring out the lessons learned from the events and experiences that he/she is putting across and how it affects the readers. The readers need to see that it is possible to go through difficult situations and come out even stronger not mentioning deriving a lot of lessons from the same.

Basically, the moment of reflection involves the author briefly getting out of the story in order to bring in a completely different scene showing the current state of the writer compared to where they have come from while critically thinking about the lessons learned in that journey. A good moment of reflection should appear briefly in form of single sentences and should happen throughout the piece or writing.

A nonfiction without reflection yields to a story full of scene open for the reader to interpret in whatever manner they deem fit, and they can sometimes end up without making up a meaningful interpretation.

To add on these, a good nonfiction story should have the following:

  • Layout
  • Information
  • Characterization
  • Style and Tone

Let’s get deeper to understand them

Layout

Good nonfiction should be presented in an attractive manner so that the reader is able to develop interest and even be encouraged to continue reading the story to the end.

The following are what makes up a good layout:

  • Interesting formatting that is not only attractive but also magnetic
  • Proper index
  • Has a pronunciation key and a glossary
  • Has a table of contents.
  • The size of the book should be reasonable based on the story told
  • Include photographs to complement the text. Should be relevant and well captioned.

Information

This is what exactly the writer wants to pass across to the audience. It includes: facts, information that is not known and ideas that tend to invoke curiosity, develop a form of mystery and keep the reader reading to unfold more and more so to learn

Information that makes up good nonfiction has the following characteristics:

  • Accurate, that is information that can be verified
  • Should include the source of information
  • The real-life accounts should be relevant or exceptional
  • Based on current events
  • Relevant to the story
  • Highlights the topics significantly
  • Moves swiftly from the known to unknown and from simple to complex
  • Compliments the setting of the story
  • The information is presented in an organized manner that tends to give weight to the topic
  • Takes a neutral position
  • Should not be over didactic
  • In case of sensitivity, it should have a caution.

Characterization

A story is only complete when there are characters involved.

Good nonfiction is characterized in the following manner:

  • Well-developed characters
  • Characterization is not biased or based on stereotypes
  • Characters should be given empathy
  • Make use of anecdotes and quotations. This is mostly applicable in biographies. It very important to ensure that the real words of the person involved are captured in form of quotations and those from a person with first-hand information on the incidents are captured in form of anecdotes.

Style and Tone

The choice of style for nonfiction should be one that is able to main the reader’s interest throughout the book/text.

The aim of nonfiction is to give information; this should be done in a manner that the reader is not bored while unfolding the unknown because a collection of information is not well-organized.

The following characteristics make up a nonfiction story that has a good style and tone:

  • The narration develops interest and created understanding
  • The narration is clear, vivid and precise
  • Facts, theories, and opinions are well distinguished
  • Well personalized style to suit the purpose of the story
  • Should be objective, must do away with sarcasm, condescending and bias.
  • Should not be didactic
  • Should not involve any propaganda techniques
  • Develops suspense or manage to keep the readers’ interest and encourage them to continue unfolding the unknown
  • Swiftly changes gear from simple to complex and from known to unknown
  • Information is well-organized in a sequential manner that compliments the topic
  • Cover the relevant information based on the target audience
  • Use relative vocabulary
  • Themes presented are relevant and helpful
  • Topics or ideas are presented in a unique way or offer a new perspective
  • The message is stronger than the illustrations
  • Has a good layout
  • Has a theme or themes
  • Has a good conclusion

Examples of Nonfiction

The following are some example of creative nonfiction that you should look up for:

  •    “The Watercress Girl,” by Henry Mayhew
  •    “In Mammoth Cave,” by John Burroughs
  •    “Coney Island at Night,” by James Huneker
  •    “The San Francisco Earthquake,” by Jack London
  •    “Outcasts in Salt Lake City,” by James Weldon Johnson
  •    “An Experiment in Misery,” by Stephen Crane
  •    “Rural Hours,” by Susan Fenimore Cooper

You are now good to go as far as nonfiction is concerned from insights given in this guide.