Writing Creative Nonfiction: Definition, Subgenres, and Key Elements

Creative nonfiction is a popular genre that encompasses many kinds of books, including bestsellers such as Wild by Cheryl Strayed, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, and The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. To get started writing creative nonfiction, first examine the definition, subgenres, and key elements of creative nonfiction.

Creative nonfiction definition

Creative nonfiction is a genre known by many other names, including literary nonfiction, narrative nonfiction, nonfiction novel, documentary novel, and new journalism. So what exactly is the definition of creative nonfiction (or whatever you'd like to call it)?

Encyclopedia Britannica defines a nonfiction novel as a "story of actual people and actual events told with the dramatic techniques of a novel." And new journalism combines "journalistic research with the techniques of fiction writing in the reporting of stories about real-life events."

Author and founder of Creative Nonfiction magazine, Lee Gutkind, defines the genre simply as "true stories, well told." He says, "The goal is to make non´Čüction stories read like fiction so that your readers are as enthralled by fact as they are by fantasy."

Chip Scanlan, award-winning journalist and affiliate of The Poynter Institute, describes creative nonfiction as "the union of storytelling and journalism."

The creative nonfiction definition is described in different ways, but there are two things about the genre that identifies it: it's true (it's nonfiction), and it is written like a work of fiction using literary techniques.

Creative nonfiction subgenres

Creative nonfiction spans many diverse subgenres. Here are some of the creative nonfiction subgenres:

Memoir

Biography/autobiography

Narrative or literary journalism

Travel writing

Personal essay

Inspirational/motivational

Poetry

Elements of creative nonfiction

Creative nonfiction is a diverse genre, but the successful works in this genre share some common elements. Here are the key elements of creative nonfiction:

Scenes: Use scenes to build your story. Scenes allow you to show your readers the story, instead of just telling them what happened.

Dialogue: Strong dialogue is key to any work of creative nonfiction. It's okay to use quotes, even though you may not know what was really said.

Character development: Just like in fiction, you need a well-developed central character to carry your story.

Story arc: A good story has a calculated beginning, middle, and end. Even though it's nonfiction, think about where the story should start, and where to stop for a satisfying ending.

Point of view: Often in creative nonfiction, the author's presence is felt in the story. While you may not actually be in the narrative, you can be part of the story through your unique writing voice or notes to the reader.

Authenticity: Although you employ literary devices used in fiction to craft a great piece of creative nonfiction, remember that it's nonfiction—you must tell the truth. Check your facts and never exaggerate to improve the story.

Writing creative nonfiction

Now that you understand the definition of creative nonfiction, its subgenres, and key elements, you may want to start a piece of your own. One of the fun things about the genre is that it exists in so many different forms, from a book to a poem to an essay. So go ahead—get started writing creative nonfiction and you'll have readers turning page after page of your riveting, true story.

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