How to Write Creative Nonfiction

Writing creative nonfiction is where the fun begins, because you get to apply the techniques of fiction writing to your narrative. Keep in mind that while your “story” is true, you're still writing a story and you'll want to draw in the readers and keep them turning the pages by dramatizing the subject. You'll be writing like any other novelist except you won't be mining your imagination for material — instead, you'll be relying on facts and memory for content. While your subject matter is factual, you will have a plot running through your work and though your characters are real, you need to present them in a way that will make the readers care about them.

Feel free to make ample use of dialogue and description when writing creative nonfiction. Like fiction writers who employ these devices to portray their imagined characters and their invented world, you can utilize these techniques to enliven your factual account by presenting stimulating conversations and vivid settings.

Plot and Characters

Like fiction, most works of creative nonfiction contain a plot but with an important difference; in creative nonfiction, the account must be true. In order for a plot to exist in your narrative, you need to make certain that something happens and tension is created. During the course of your story, you must also ensure there exists a recognizable beginning, middle, and end accompanied by a resolution. Your narrative also must contain rising action, a climax, and falling action.

Since the people populating your pages are real, it is easier to avoid writing one-dimensional characters. However, because they are real, you may find yourself wanting to disguise them for purposes of privacy or other considerations. Nonetheless, you still need to be certain that your characters are fleshed out, three-dimensional, and complex — in other words, that they are human. To help you accomplish this, you can describe their physical attributes, mannerisms, behavior, personality, and employ dialogue manifesting how they speak. Like all characters, it's not necessary for the reader to like them but the reader must care about them.

Literary Techniques

There are many devices used in writing fiction that you can consider:

  • Personify: Treat inanimate objects as though they were alive.

  • Dramatize: Surround your subject with action, and create tension.

  • Literary devices: Make use of foreshadowing, symbolism, similes, and metaphors.

  • Senses: Involve all the senses — sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch.

  • Dialogue: Place the reader in the scene by allowing the characters to speak.

  • Pacing: Use short, punchy sentences and paragraphs when you want the action to be fast-paced; use longer sentences and paragraphs for exposition.

  • Almost all of the techniques relied upon by writers of fiction that you might employ will further the goal of showing and not telling. Because this is the mantra for writing fiction, you need to know how to accomplish this objective in writing creative nonfiction.

    Do not provide too much information at one time or you risk boring the reader. While this is true of fiction, it is equally important for writing creative nonfiction. Follow the dictum to “spoon-feed” the information and spread it over the pages. This applies to describing both characters and settings.

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