QUESTION: Is it wise to use some tools from writing fiction while writing non-fiction?



There is a definitely a place for fiction writing elements and techniques in certain types of nonfiction. Creative nonfiction (CNF), also called narrative or literary nonfiction, is a genre that encompasses true stories that often read like fiction. This category of writing includes memoirs, biographies, literary journalism, travel writing, personal essays, and more.


Popular types of creative nonfiction:

In creative nonfiction, writers use literary craft to tell stories of real people and events. The goal is to communicate these stories in an interesting and compelling way. The work can vary greatly in length from a 50,000 word memoir to a 500 word blog post. Here are some of the more popular sub-genres in the CNF world:

Memoir: a first-person narrative about a true, personal experience or event, with universal themes. Memoir reads like fiction more than any other CNF sub-genre.
Examples: Educated by Tara Westover, When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot, Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt

Biography: a person’s life story, written in third-person by someone else.
Examples: Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo by Hayden Herrera, Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow, Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer

Literary Journalism: combines factual reporting with stylistic storytelling.
Examples: the writings of John McPhee, Jane Kramer, Mark Singer, Richard Rhodes, Stephen Crane, Henry Mayhew, George Orwell. See more examples here.

Travel Writing: an article or story about a place or journey.
Examples: Wild by Cheryl Strayed, The Way of Wanderlust by Don George, Ten Years a Nomad by Matthew Kepnes (Nomadic Matt), Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes, Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

Personal Essay: a condensed version of memoir often featured in literary magazines or journals.
Examples: find 50 examples here from famous writers.

The creative nonfiction genre includes memoir, biography, travel writing, personal essays, and more.

Which fiction elements make sense for nonfiction?

How do writers make stories of real people and events compelling? By using elements and techniques that are common in fiction writing. Rather than just stating the facts, which would be boring, CNF writers often integrate the following:

Inciting incident: the event that kicks off your story and "hooks" the reader. Whether big or small, by choice or by circumstance, the inciting incident is the action or event at the beginning of the story that turns the main character's world upside-down, and sets the stage for the rest of the story to unfold.

Plot: along with an exciting beginning, a well-structured story also contains a middle and an end. Freytag’s Pyramid — exposition, inciting incident, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution, and denouement — is a popular plot structure for effective storytelling.

Setting: where and when the story takes place. Used to immerse the reader in the story.

Characters: a well-developed protagonist or central character that carries your story and an antagonist that causes conflict. Without conflict, your story will fall flat.

Scenes: the building blocks that provide structure for your story and advance the plot.

Dialogue: conversations between characters that demonstrate their traits and relationships.

Imagery: highly descriptive language, created by utilizing all five senses. This type of writing can “show” the story versus just “telling”, which is much more engaging.

Figurative language: phrasing that goes beyond the literal meaning of words to get a message or point across, such as simile, metaphor, and personification.


As a nonfiction author, you have the distinct responsibility of telling a true story and sharing the facts as accurately as you can, while also making the experience enjoyable for the reader. Reviewing the examples mentioned above and experimenting with some of the elements and techniques can help take your true story to the next level.