The London Writers Awards focuses on four genres of prose writing: literary fiction, commercial fiction, YA/children’s fiction and narrative non-fiction. In this blog post, we explore narrative non-fiction – what it is, who it is for and the key features of this genre…
Let’s begin by breaking down the term ‘narrative non-fiction’: the first part, ‘narrative’, essentially means ‘a story’. The second: ‘non-fiction’ is widely understood as prose writing that is informative or factual, rather than fictional. Put together, ‘narrative non-fiction’ is a true story written in the style of a fiction novel.
Literary nonfiction and creative nonfiction are also terms used instead of or in association with narrative nonfiction. They all refer to the same thing – using literary techniques and styles to tell a true story. Sometimes a writer will invert the description, Janet Galloway calls her two volumes about her childhood and young adulthood ‘true novels’. Then there is ‘life writing’ that pertains to this territory and more – an inclusive term for writing that has sprung from living the life – memoir, blogs, diary, oral testimony, letters, emails autobiography; both the raw material and the shaped work. Journalism and biography on the other hand, are not included here as this generally relies on reportage… but there will always be exceptions to the rule.
There are some key challenges in writing narrative non-fiction which we’ll explore in more detail below.
As narrative non-fiction uses literary styles and techniques, writers sometimes employ creative license to drive the story forward. This raises a lot of interesting questions about ethics but unless you have recorded every conversation and miniscule detail, it is very difficult to recreate a completely accurate representation of what actually happened. Maintaining the balance between imagination and retelling a story is personal to each writer, but every narrative nonfiction writer has a responsibility to stick to ethical behaviour throughout and to ensure the content is truthful.
Another way of looking at this approach is to think about the reader. The reader’s expectations are to be both informed and entertained. Therefore, the writer has a responsibility to accurately research the facts and details in the story so that they are presented as happened, as far as they can. For the details that they cannot remember or do not have access to, then they can inform the reader of this or drop heavy hints within the text – often stylistically – that the details here are vague or write them as close to what had actually happened. This will enable the reader to trust in the writer, and the story that they are sharing.
Another aspect of narrative nonfiction is its focus on play. This is where the distinction between this style of literature and other types of nonfiction writing – particularly memoirs, biographies and autobiographies come in. Often the latter are written from one perspective – the writer’s. Narrative nonfiction, on the other hand can switch perspectives, tenses and timelines. As a result of this, boundaries are reinvented with chronological order being discarded in favour of telling the story in a more intriguing way.
More recently, this emphasis on play has enabled narrative nonfiction writers to cross-over into other genres – for example infusing poetry, experimental writing and elements from stage / screen writing within the text. There are no rules as to how the story can be presented, that you may expect from more traditional forms of nonfiction, such as literary journalism and diary entries. Further, books that are normally ‘one-genre’ are being infused into narrative nonfiction narratives to give them more scope and a wider readership, particularly travel writing, food writing and true crime.
As a genre, narrative non-fiction is becoming increasingly popular, with a broader readership. There are many theories as to why this may be: perhaps it is viewed as a novel approach to writing non-fiction stories, perhaps social media platforms have enabled writers to create new readerships and interest in their stories, or maybe the gatekeepers themselves have embraced this new form of writing. Regardless of this, the ability of a skilled narrative non-fiction writer to represent true stories in new ways that educates and simultaneously, entertains.
Examples of books that fit into this genre are: Colin Grant’s ‘Bageye at the Wheel’, which is a delightful account of a feckless father told through his son’s childhood experience of him. Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts is a deeply personal account of her voyage into motherhood, queer family making and identity, where she parses the contemporary iconography of motherhood, the act of writing and the limits language. Other reads that fall into this category include Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, Sara Baume’s handiwork, Roxane Gay’s Hunger, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran and Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air. You can check out extensive reading lists and further discussion on this topic here:
Published 20 August 2020