Narrative nonfiction is a type of righting that uses creative styling and techniques in order to create a narrative that is factually correct. Sometimes called “literary nonfiction” or “creative nonfiction,” the goal is to communicate information in such a way that it feels like a fictional story.
There are several common forms of narrative nonfiction that are commonly read today.
- Travel Writing.
Even personal essays can often qualify as narrative nonfiction. This is because these genres are based on personal experiences from actual events, not imagined events, and are offered to the reader in what is usually a first-person narration.
What Is the Responsibility of Narrative Nonfiction?
Narrative nonfiction has the same responsibilities as fictional stories do when it comes to providing an experience to the reader. It must be able to shape the experience in such a way that it becomes interesting to even the most disinterested of readers.
This has led to many forms of writing experimentation within narrative nonfiction, so specific categories are difficult to define. There may be traditionally structured stories, narratives that offer a complete story-arc throughout the entire book, or just a simple tale of a memory that an author wishes to share.
Some narrative nonfiction can be several volumes in length. Others may be less than 1,000 words in length. It’s all up to the writer. There is just one basic requirement: to be completely factual in every sentence.
The Accuracy and Ethics of Narrative Nonfiction
There are certain types of narrative nonfiction that some believe allow for certain “creative opportunities” within a factual account. This is most often seen within memoirs. The idea is this: as long as the outcome achieved for the reader is factual, the actual facts within the story are at the discretion of the writer.
The ethics of offering a nonfiction work with fictional elements is up for great debate. Sometimes fictional elements are used to “fill-in the gaps” of a story when the actual facts are unknown. At other times, narrative nonfiction may be factual from the perspective of the writer, but the real-life events which occurred might be very different.
In general terms, the accuracy and ethics of narrative nonfiction follow the same standards that are applied to journalism and other nonfiction works. This means the truth being offered must be upheld in some way. It cannot just be an entertaining story.
This means there is a difference between “truth” and “accuracy” in this drama. Is it appropriate for a writer to substitute one for the other?
That’s a question that each writer must answer on their own. If their ethics differ from the ethics of the publisher, however, that may mean a narrative nonfiction book might not be published.
Why Following Memories Isn’t Always the Best Option
It’s been said that memory is the “ultimate mythmaker.” Two people can remember events in two very different ways. Each unique perspective, to that individual, is considered to be a factual retelling of the events.
In reality, the actual truth is probably somewhere in the middle of those two unique perspectives. This is why following memories under the scope of narrative nonfiction is not always the best of ideas.
The human mind has the habit of changing memories over time. We naturally long to remember the “good times,” so memories are shaped on a subconscious level in order to limit the damage of a painful memory. We also recognize how memories can shape a personality, influence decisions, or even create a base of followers, so we “change” the perspective of a memory to suit whatever specific need happens to be present at the time.
Memories also tend to fade with age. Unless there is a diary or journal which specifically recounts the events of a day, time causes memories to become incomplete. Without documentation, it becomes impossible to research the actual events which occurred. This limits the factual scope that can be offered to readers through narrative nonfiction, even though the actual tale being told by the writer feels 100% factual.
Even the simple exaggeration of a fact is enough to discredit the other facts that are offered in narrative nonfiction. Some may say that narrative nonfiction offers a flexible medium to recount an important story or lesson that has been learned. Others may say that without accuracy in even the smallest details of the story, this type of genre really isn’t nonfiction even though the story-arc premise may be factual.
What is narrative nonfiction? The answer to that question will likely continue to be debated as long as this genre continues to be published.