5 Tips for Writing Narrative Nonfiction

1280px-Stipula_fountain_penMost of my advice on this blog is dedicated to fiction, and while much of it can be applied to nonfiction, I’d also like to take a moment to discuss nonfiction specifically. (Note that I’m speaking only about narrative nonfiction, as that’s what I have experience with.) Here are my tips for writing compelling narrative nonfiction:

  1. Create a clear sense of place

A clear sense of place is often incredibly important in nonfiction (as it is in fiction). A distinctive and compelling setting can establish mood and tone, ground the reader in the narrative, and reveal key details. This is especially important when writing about historical events; evoking a sense of the time period is crucial. But it’s also important even if you’re writing about something that happened last year. Try to evoke a sense of place in your work so that readers feel more connected to the setting—and, by extension, the narrative.

  1. Think about story

Even though you’re writing nonfiction, it’s still important to look beyond the facts and think about the story you’re telling. That doesn’t mean you should disregard the facts, of course. What I mean is that you should think about how to convey those facts in a meaningful way. Readers remember stories much better than abstracts, and your audience will likely connect to your material more if you evoke a sense of story.

This advice works on a broad level—thinking about your narrative as a whole in terms of the story you’re telling—but also on a smaller level too. For example, say the person you’re writing about really loved dogs and owned many of them. Just stating the facts might feel dry: “She frequently volunteered at her local animal shelter and owned four dogs…” That may be true, but it’s not particularly interesting. Instead, think about this in terms of story. How did she come to own these dogs, for instance? What was her volunteer work like? Are there any interesting tales here that are also relevant to your book? Tell your audience about it. A detailed story about rescuing a dog from a shelter will be inherently more interesting to your audience, and it might reveal additional characterization about your subject that a list of facts simply doesn’t convey. That’s not to say you should make up stories, of course, but look for and explore the narratives that already exist.

  1. Hook your audience

With fiction, I often emphasize the need to hook the reader from the very first sentence and keep them hooked. The same applies to nonfiction. Craft a strong, engaging opening line that pulls the reader into the narrative. Then follow it up with a  second engaging line, and a third, and so on… Good narrative nonfiction will make the reader feel unable to put the book down, just like good fiction.

  1. Invoke emotion

Your nonfiction book doesn’t have to read like an academic paper. You’re more likely to hook your audience with emotional and interesting language, as opposed to a dry recitation of facts.  The best nonfiction can be just as engaging as fiction, because it uses many of the same techniques. Think about imagery and metaphor. Inject emotional language into your prose. Look for new, exciting ways to tell the truth of your narrative.

  1. Be detailed

It’s much harder to provide detail in nonfiction, since everything has to be accurate. But avoiding the small details will often leave your work feeling dry and lifeless. Doing your research and ensuring the accuracy of the tiniest details is well worth it, for the inclusion of details will bring your story to life. Look for ways to enhance your narrative with specifics.

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Have you written nonfiction? Do you have any tips to share? Is there anything you struggle with? Let me know in the comments!

Interested in professional editorial services for your manuscript? Check out my Services page for more information about what I offer.

This post is part of my Writing Craft series. For more info about planning, writing, and revising your work, check out the other posts in the series here, and follow the blog to see future posts!

Related Links:

6 Tips for Writing a Memoir

4 Tips for Adjusting Your Pacing

Identifying Inciting Incidents (And Why Your Plot Needs One)

5 Tips for Drafting Faster

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6 thoughts on “5 Tips for Writing Narrative Nonfiction

  1. Ellie P. says:

    Excellent post as usual, Cecilia. In my book, now in its final revision stage, I felt I simply *had* to convey some bits of rather dry information, so I simply placed it all in an appendix (along with photos and a few other things). That way, even though I thought it important, people adamant about not reading such expository stuff can easily opt out of reading it altogether. (In the text, where I alluded to it, I inserted a footnote pointing them to the Appendix so at least they’d know it was available there.)

    Liked by 1 person

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