The term “creative nonfiction” tends to puzzle many writers and readers. If nonfiction is supposed to be about the facts, how is there room to get “creative” with it?
It turns out, there are many ways to present real facts and events besides boring reports and charts. In fact, the best journalists and writers are often the ones who can present accurate information while also telling a riveting story.
Creative nonfiction combines 100% factual information with literary elements to tell real stories that resonate with readers and provide insight to actual events.
This is what your favorite memoirists, travel writers, and journalists do every day, and you can, too. Even if you don’t intend on publishing your work, learning to be an effective storyteller can enrich both your writing and communication skills.
What Is Creative Nonfiction?
Creative nonfiction is a genre of writing that uses elements of creative writing to present a factual, true story. Literary techniques that are usually reserved for writing fiction can be used in creative nonfiction, such as dialogue, scene-setting, and narrative arcs.
However, a work can only be considered creative nonfiction if the author can attest that 100% of the content is true and factual. (In other words, even if just a few details from one scene are imagined, the story could not be considered creative nonfiction.)
The label “creative nonfiction” can be applied to a number of nonfiction genres, including:
- Literary journalism
- Nature writing
- Sports writing
- Personal essay
What Is the Difference Between Nonfiction and Creative Nonfiction?
The primary difference between nonfiction and creative nonfiction is that regular nonfiction informs or instructs by sticking to the facts.
Creative nonfiction also informs readers, but it does so by building a narrative around the facts by introducing the scene and building the characters of real people so readers can better relate to them.
What Are the Elements of Creative Nonfiction?
Because creative nonfiction is still nonfiction, there are important criteria that a piece of writing must meet in order to be considered part of this genre.
The writing must include:
- Facts: Creative nonfiction must be rooted in facts. No part of the story can be made up or fabricated.
- Extensive research: Both primary and secondary sources should be used throughout the research process. It is the writer’s responsibility to conduct extensive research for the most accurate narrative possible.
- Reporting: The writer should use said research to accurately document events or personal experiences.
- Personal experiences or opinions: Though this is not a requirement, personal experiences or the opinions of others can help create a more complete picture.
- Exposition or explanations: The topic or experience(s) presented should be explained to the reader.
In order to build a narrative around a set of facts, creative nonfiction uses a set of elements that we usually associate with fiction.
These can include, but are not limited to:
- Storytelling/narration: Unlike a straightforward historical report, creative nonfiction should be told like a story, meaning that inciting incidents, goals, challenges, turning points, and resolutions are present.
- Characters: Every creative nonfiction piece should have a main “character,” even though they must be real and accurately presented. In a memoir, for example, the narrator is typically the protagonist.
- Setting/Scene development: The setting should be brought to life with vivid descriptions and scenes filled with action and dialogue.
- Plot structure: The story should have a plot, with key events that make up the story. There might be one event in a personal essay, or several significant events and turning points, as is common in memoirs.
- Figurative language: Figures of speech, such as similes or metaphors, can be used to create an interesting work of creative nonfiction.
- Imagery: A skillful use of imagery is essential in creative nonfiction in order to bring important scenes alive for the readers.
- Point of view: Point of view is important in this genre, as it affects the entire storytelling process. Most often, these stories are told in the first person (using “I” to narrate firsthand experiences and events).
- Dialogue: Dialogue can really help build the narrative and develop scenes. Rather than reporting with “he said/she said”, including scenes with dialogue helps to place the reader directly in the scene.
- Theme: Every essay and story should have a theme, or central idea that ties the whole work together. This can also be considered the main “message” of your work.
When Did Creative Nonfiction Start?
According to a Poets & Writers article published in 2009, Lee Gutkind is often credited with coining the term “creative nonfiction” as early as 1973, when he also taught a course at the University of Pittsburgh with those same words in its title.
However, Gutkind himself has admitted that this wasn’t really the case, and that he had heard the term before, but couldn’t remember where or from who.
Indeed, there is earlier written evidence of the term, as it appeared in a 1969 review by David Madden of Frank Conroy’s Stop-Time.
Madden mentioned in the review, “In Making It, Norman Podhoretz, youthful editor of Commentary, who declares that creative nonfiction is pre-empting the functions of fiction, offers his own life as evidence.”
In that same review, Madden called for a “redefinition” of nonfiction writing in the wake of Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, and Jean Stafford, all writers whose style reflects the characteristics of what we defined earlier as “creative nonfiction.”
Examples of Creative Nonfiction
To gain a better understanding of this genre, let’s take a look at several examples of real books that can be considered creative nonfiction.
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
Paul Kalanithi died in March 2015, while he was still working on this book. At just 36 years old and about to finish a decade of training as a neurosurgeon, Paul was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer.
With a wife and a young child, Kalanithi became “possessed…by the question of what, given that all organisms die, makes a virtuous and meaningful life.”
What does one do when their future, once a ladder toward their goals in life, suddenly becomes flattened out into a perpetual present?
Through his narrative, Kalanithi documents the struggles, both internal and external, that he and his young family endured, but also offers inspiration to all of us for how life should be lived.
Cork Dork by Bianca Bosker
On a lighter note, journalist Bianca Bosker brings us Cork Dork, her firsthand account of the fascinating world of wine, sommeliers, scientists, and producers.
Follow her dive into underground tastings, exclusive restaurants, and mass-market factories as Bosker seeks an answer to the question many of us wonder about: What’s the big deal about wine?
With her insightful reporting and delightful storytelling, you may just find yourself becoming a “cork dork,” too.
Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer
Jon Krakauer unfolds the story of Christopher Johnson McCandless, a young man who gave $25,000 in savings to charity and abandoned most of his possessions before walking alone into the wilderness north of Mt. McKinley.
McCandless’s decomposing body was found 4 months later by a moose hunter. In this book, which also became a feature film, Krakauer explores how this young man came to die, and what led him on such a journey in the first place.
Through remarkable storytelling, Krakauer brings this pilgrimage out of the shadows and shines a light on McCandless’s motives with a rare understanding.
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara
Michelle McNamara, true crime journalist and creator of the site TrueCrimeDiary.com, became obsessed with finding the violent psychopath known as the “Golden State Killer,” a serial rapist and murderer.
McNamara pored over police records, interviewed victims, and penetrated the online communities of people who were as obsessed as she was with this case.
This book offers a chilling account of a criminal mastermind, while also providing a portrait of Michelle’s obsession and pursuit of the truth.
Tips for Writing Creative Nonfiction
If you want to try your hand at writing creative nonfiction, it’s important that you know how to take great notes and practice your observation skills.
After all, your first responsibility is to present people and events accurately, so keeping a notebook or journal handy is important for scribbling down all those important details that you won’t want to forget.
You can also try out some of our creative writing prompts, which includes a section for writing memoirs and nonfiction to inspire you.
Do you have any favorite examples of creative nonfiction? Share them with us in the comments below!