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Writing

Understanding Narrative Nonfiction: Definition and Examples

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Feb 13, 2020 • 3 min read

There are many ways to tell a story—some writers prefer to stick to the truth, some prefer to make up truths of their own, and some will settle somewhere in the middle. The genre of narrative nonfiction requires heavy research, thorough exploration, and an aim to entertain while also sharing a true, compelling story.

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What Is Narrative Nonfiction?

Narrative nonfiction, also known as creative nonfiction or literary nonfiction, is a true story written in the style of a fiction novel. The narrative nonfiction genre contains factual prose that is written in a compelling way—facts told as a story. While the emphasis is on the storytelling itself, narrative nonfiction must remain as accurate to the truth as possible.

What Is the Difference Between Narrative Nonfiction and Memoir?

Narrative nonfiction and memoir are both forms of text that are similar in their expression of truth. Nonfiction narrative gives a styled account of another person’s life while a memoir is strictly about your own.

  • Narrative nonfiction tells a real-life story about real people and events with stylistic elements akin to that seen more in fiction. It often requires more research than traditional news reportage due to its creative flexibility, as narrative nonfiction writers must go to greater lengths to accurately express the facts and details of another person’s life in a literary way.
  • A memoir is a first-person account of your life story, focusing on elements like personal experience, intimacy, and emotional truth. Memoir writers must reexamine their own experiences, not just retell personal stories. Writing a memoir requires a narrative thread that ties your personal experiences together, allowing you to view your personal story through a critical lens, and objectively identify moments of growth or trauma that contributed to who you are as a person.
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10 Examples of Narrative Nonfiction

There are many examples of narrative nonfiction books that tell exciting, true stories about their main characters’ experiences:

  1. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (2010) adhered to such accurate detail because of the author’s due diligence—she spent over 10 years obtaining information. Skloot used real meetings transcripts, notes written by those involved, and photos to nail down key dramatic details that turned a real-world event into a thrilling must-read work of prose.
  2. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (1965) blended the account of a real murder in American history with well-written style techniques that implemented dramatic use of literary devices and changed the face of literary journalism.
  3. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt (1994) details the author’s experience along with the eccentric characters he encounters while living in the deep south during the headlining murder trial of a young male escort.
  4. Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion (1968) is a collection of personal essays that chronicles the author’s life experiences and points of view while living in California during the 1960s.
  5. Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand (1999) told the exhilarating biographical story of famed racehorse Seabiscuit and his unlikely rise to meteoric success.
  6. Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer (1997) told the harrowing story of survival during the 1996 Mount Everest climbing disaster.
  7. Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann (2017) goes into the murders of the wealthy Native people in Osage County, Oklahoma after a plot is hatched to steal oil sale profits from their legally owned land.
  8. In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson (2011) is a true account of the career of United States ambassador to Germany, William Dodd, under the reign of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party during World War II.
  9. Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach (2003) shares actual scientific knowledge written in a narrative and compelling way.
  10. The Armies of the Night by Norman Mailer (1968) recounted the 1967 March on the Pentagon to protest the war in Vietnam and won a Pulitzer Prize, the first of two for Mailer.

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