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How to Write Narrative Nonfiction

5steps-1John Smith sits at his computer, wondering what people think of his book. It had been published for 3 days, but not a single review had come in. Each night had been sleepless. Worry filled his heart. Was he going to be another writer-turned-author… turned failure?

Then John couldn’t take it anymore. He decided that it was time to contact one of the newspapers who had been given his book to review. John dials the number and gets connected to the appropriate department.

“Hi there. My name is John Smith. I was wondering if you got a copy of my book to review?”

“We did.” The voice on the other end of the line seems busy. Distracted.

“I was just wondering if you were going to print a review about it now that it is out?”

“Maybe.” Is that typing that can be heard in the background?

“Can I get a more definitive answer?” John demanded.


Just because a book is nonfiction doesn’t mean that it can ignore the rules of dialogue. A reader demands diligence when it comes to dialogue from a nonfiction point of view in three key areas.

  • The dialogue must be interesting enough to capture their attention.
  • It must be as realistic and factual as possible.
  • There must be a forward drive to the dialogue so the overall story continues on.

In the world of nonfiction, a writer must do more than show what they think and feel. They must also be able to show what they’ve learned and what they know. That means knowing how to write narrative fiction has three primary rules to follow.

Rule #1: Research.

Research generally happens in two phases: first comes the archived information, then comes the real-world research. In the past, you’d find nonfiction writers scouring library resources, microfiche, old newspapers, and even boxes of letters in order to find the information they needed for a solid narrative.

Today you can get a lot of this information from the internet, though how factual that data happens to be can be questionable.

Real-world research involves interviewing the people who are involved in the story. It means visiting the places where events take place. That way the narrative can be accurate in its representation of what is going on.

Rule #2: Exploration.

Exploration is often limited to the locations that are in the book and the feelings of the people who are involved in the nonfiction story. A responsible writer will take this idea a step further. They will explore the thoughts and emotions of the people involved instead of offering a factual recount of what happened.

When people are in love, this needs to be reflected in the dialogue. Just saying, “I love you,” isn’t good enough. Ever had someone say those three words and they clearly didn’t mean it? That needs to be communicated accurately in narrative nonfiction.

Exploring thoughts and emotions also means including mannerisms, habits, and other personal details that apply to each person. Some people talk loudly when they’re nervous. Others laugh when they’re afraid. Sometimes people cry, but they’re actually furious. Put in these details and you’ll have a realistic narrative.

Rule #3: Review.

Memoirs may be inaccurate in some ways because they are a personal recollection of an event that occurred. From a narrative nonfiction perspective, this is unacceptable. It isn’t a memoir. It is a retelling of an actual event from an outside perspective. This means reviewing the facts before having them included in the narrative must always happen.

Review work is easy when all that is used is archival data. In the real-world, some interviews might offer conflicting information. One key figure remembers things one way, while the other remembers it differently. It is up to the writer to piece the puzzle together to determine what actually happened.

Sometimes you may even find that all perspectives are somewhat true in their own way. By merging the archival information into the real-world data that is collected, you’ll create an engaging and entertaining dialogue that meets the expectations of the reader.

In knowing how to write narrative nonfiction, you must be able to answer one basic question from every reader: how do you know this is fact?

When you can answer that question by following these three rules, you’ll set forth a narrative that is sharp, shaped in an entertaining way, and treats each character equally. In doing so, the reader will then be able to take the lessons offered in the narrative and be able to apply it to their own lives.

Melissa G Wilson

Melissa has been a leader in the book writing, publishing and marketing arena for the past two decades. To date, she has helped more than 100 thought leaders write, publish and market their books. Her clients include executives such as Dan Weinfurter a seven-time Inc 500 winner and Orlando Ashford, President of Holland Cruise Lines.

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