Not entirely nonfiction or fiction, nonfiction narratives combine the elements of nonfiction – facts – with elements of fiction – storytelling – to create a work that captures the reader’s attention from beginning to end. The suspense of learning “what happens next” and the appeal of interesting life-like characters only add to the reader’s amazement upon realizing that the “novel” is a true story. Because nonfiction narratives are in the middle of the fact/fiction spectrum, nonfiction narrative writing comes with flexibility and openness uncharacteristic of either genre. A story can be told from multiple perspectives, countless literary styles could be appropriate, etc.

All of these options How many facts are necessary to create the story? How much literary devices are acceptable until the story deviates from its purpose? Here are three elements a writer needs to write a nonfiction narrative successfully.

Knowledge

Before writing, be sure to have extensive knowledge about the event. It is not uncommon for writers to spend years planning their best-selling investigation novel, searching for interview manuscripts and court transcripts and witness testimonies and other documents. To present the story with a few plot holes and information leaks as possible, a writer should have all the facts close at hand.

For nonfiction narratives, the reader should not be fed all of the information from the very beginning. Some successful nonfiction narratives follow a specific plot structure: first, they present the inciting incident, next they present the investigation and the acquisition of information, and lastly the conclusion. A clear example of this structure is A Good Man is Hard to Find summary written by Flannery O’Connor.

Describing details such as a character’s personality, family/social relationships, state of mind, etc. creates an environment that absorbs readers into the story. Similarly to fiction, nonfiction narratives are character-driven works, where the emphasis on people moves the story.

Purpose

An experienced writer will often ask himself/herself, “How is this story meaningful?” and “What aspects of humanity does it highlight?” to prevent himself/herself from getting sidetracked. With this in mind, every sentence or phrase should be written with that purpose in mind.

As an example, In Cold Blood reveals the inhumanity and absurdness of murder and the death penalty by describing the circumstances leading up to the murder, the state of the town after, and the sentiments held by both sides as the execution date drew closer.

Purpose and knowledge are interlinked and crucial to writing a successful nonfiction narrative. At the beginning of his investigation, Capote sought information about the murder case because he was interested – it stood out to him as a case of unnecessary death. Only after carefully reviewing the evidence did Capote find the underlying meaning: the American justice system was flawed.

Devices, syntax, rhetorical strategies

Directly related to purpose and knowledge, these devices – sentence variation, imagery – are what distinguishes a good nonfiction narrative from a great one. These elements can add new layers of meaning to a passage if used effectively, but writers must not be redundant in using these devices.

For example, consider this sentence from Capote’s In Cold Blood, “The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call ‘out there.’” Not only does this complex sentence describes Holcomb’s location, but it also characterizes the town’s relationship with other Kansans and its feeling of wide-openness in the vast high wheat plains. Reviewing a rough draft for a nonfiction narrative is often good practice for writing more powerful pieces of literature.