The Appeal of Narrative Nonfiction
“Just the facts, ma’am.” These oft-repeated words are associated with Sergeant Joe Friday, a character in the 1950s TV police drama “Dragnet.” Friday’s actual words were “All we want are the facts,” but the point remains: Investigators need facts.
Facts are also the essence of nonfiction writing, including biography, history, science, sports, memoir, inspirational, autobiography, travel, culture, and essays. But along with facts, today’s readers expect more. They want interesting nonfiction that keeps them turning the pages as they would with a good novel, and nonfiction authors find ways to provide it.
The Rise of Popular Nonfiction
Factual writing has been part of American life for centuries, but nonfiction attracted wider audiences after World War II ended in 1945. In his book On Writing Well, author William Zinsser explains that Americans became more aware of “new places, issues, and events” [and] “with the advent of television [they] saw reality every evening in their living room …”
In response, publishers sought nonfiction that was both informative and entertaining. The Book-of-the-Month Club featured more nonfiction selections, and magazine articles presented facts in ways that were designed to engage readers. During the 1960s, The New Yorker magazine published serialized versions of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) and Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1965). Both later became best-selling books. By the late 1970s, about 80 percent of all book sales were nonfiction. This balance has shifted through the years, but according to the Association of American Publishers, nonfiction book sales surpassed fiction sales between 2013 and 2018.
Silent Spring and In Cold Blood were cited as early examples of narrative nonfiction, also called creative nonfiction, or literary nonfiction. Narrative nonfiction remains factual but uses writing techniques and styles associated with fiction. By presenting facts in a “story-like” way, nonfiction authors aim to make their material more dramatic and meaningful so that readers connect emotionally with the people and events. This approach differs from just presenting facts in a straight informational manner. Author Lee Gutkind says that narrative nonfiction allows a writer to “employ the diligence of the reporter, the shifting voices and viewpoints of a novelist, the refined wordplay of the poet, and the analytical modes of the essayist.”
What fictional elements do writers use in narrative (creative) nonfiction?
Characters, so central to fiction, can also enrich nonfiction as writers help readers identify with, and care about, real people. Nonfiction writers aim to show realistic, multidimensional people in situations that make the reader think, “That could be me.”
As for dialogue, narrative nonfiction can contain speech in the form of verified quotations, conversations, and interviews using a Q & A format. This allows writers to add the life and variety of spoken words. Quoted passages also vary the visual patterns on the page, which can appeal to readers and catch their attention.
Sensory details, another key element in fiction, enhance nonfiction as well. They add “show; don’t tell” and intensify the reader’s experience. Author Leonard Felder notes, “Most people read not only with their minds but with their senses and emotions. If you write nonfiction that makes readers see, hear, taste, touch, and smell, they’ll never be bored.”
Sensory details help to create a sense of place. As with fictional settings, the places that appear in nonfiction come to life through skillful writing. Settings matter even more in certain types of writing, such as travel, but they play key roles in many nonfiction narratives.
Uncovering intriguing facts, quotations, and other details that bring nonfiction to life may require extensive research. In an article for The Writer called “Preparing to Write: Research and the Art of Narrative Nonfiction,” Todd James Pierce stresses the need for “rich details to create robust scenes.” These can come from newspapers, letters, diaries, memos, meeting notes, scrapbooks, photos, film, video, site visits, and personal interviews. For example, while writing about Lucille Ball’s famous dyed red hair, I discovered a videotaped interview with the hairdresser who worked with Ball on four television series. The video, available on the Television Academy Foundation website, offered anecdotes and details that enlivened my article.
Setting Creative Limits
How far can nonfiction writers go to dramatize their material? Can they invent anecdotes or dialogue? Exaggerate or embellish the facts? Experts stress the need for careful research and accuracy in all nonfiction. Some agree that authors can change names and certain other facts to protect people’s privacy as long as they inform the reader. Author Don Ranly advises, “You must not make up scenes, or telescope events, or create corporate personalities, or make up direct quotations, or tell us what people are thinking. But this does not mean that you must avoid all literary devices.” Ranly says that nonfiction writers can be creative by using language that is “concrete, specific, graphic.”
Narrative Nonfiction in Action
Consider these excerpts of narrative nonfiction. In the opening paragraphs of Silent Spring, Rachel Carson uses colorful language to create moods and present contrasting views of the same place:
There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to be in harmony with its surroundings. The town lay in the midst of a checkerboard of prosperous farms, with fields of grain and hillsides of orchards, where white clouds of bloom drifted above the green land. In autumn, oak and maple and birch set up a blaze of color that flamed and flickered across a backdrop of pines. Then foxes barked in the hills and deer crossed the fields, half hidden in the mists of the mornings.… So it had been from the days, many years ago, when the first settlers raised their houses, sank their wells, and built their barns.
Then, one spring, a strange blight crept over the area, and everything began to change. Some evil spell had settled on the community; mysterious maladies swept the flocks of chickens, and the cattle and sheep sickened and died. Everywhere was the shadow of death. The farmers told of much illness among their families. In the town, the doctors were becoming more and more puzzled by new kinds of sickness that had appeared among their patients.…
Jack London used sensory details and “character” to help readers comprehend the 1906 San Francisco earthquake:
Within an hour after the earthquake shock the smoke of San Francisco’s burning was a lurid tower visible a hundred miles away. And for three days and nights this lurid tower swayed in the sky, reddening the sun, darkening the day, and filling the land with smoke.
There was no opposing the flames. There was no organization, no communication. All the cunning adjustments of a twentieth century city had been smashed by the earthquake. The streets were humped into ridges and depressions, and piled with the debris of fallen walls.
On Thursday morning, at a quarter past five, just twenty-four hours after the earthquake, I sat on the steps of a small residence on Nob Hill. I went inside with the owner of the house … He was cool and cheerful and hospitable. “Yesterday morning,” he said, “I was worth six hundred thousand dollars. This morning this house is all I have left. It will go in fifteen minutes.…The flames will be here in fifteen minutes.”
Authors who are known for their narrative nonfiction include Joan Didion, Augusten Burroughs, Dave Eggars, and David Sedaris. A few recent examples of popular narrative nonfiction books are: Annals of the Former World (John McPhee), Hidden Figures (Margot Lee Shetterly), Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (John Berendt), Into Thin Air (Jon Krakauer), Seabiscuit: An American Legend (Laura Hillenbrand), The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Rebecca Skloot), and Wild Horses of the Summer Sun: A Memoir of Iceland (Tory Bilski).
Upcoming blogs for March will further explore narrative nonfiction. In the meantime, you can learn more by visiting these websites:
Victoria Sherrow has published short stories, articles and books (fiction and nonfiction) for readers aged preschool through adult. Her books have received starred reviews and been honored by the American Library Association, Parents Choice Gold Award, National Association for the Advancement of Science, and NYPL Best Books for the Teenage, among others. Victoria has taught at The Institute of Children’s Literature for more than 25 years and has also been an assistant editor and writing contest judge. Recently, she revised and polished a 230,000-word book for adults.