Writing True Stories: Understanding Your Narrative Niche (6 Nonfiction Genres Defined)

Narrative nonfiction (also referred to as "creative nonfiction" or "narrative writing") is truthful writing that reads like a novel. It incorporates storytelling techniques such as plot, conflict, and dialogue, and requires:

  1. Factual subject matter
  2. Exhaustive research
  3. Compelling narrative (literary prose style)

History

History books usually have a scholarly tone and are often written by experts (not necessarily a professional historian, but at least someone who has studied the subject extensively). Historical stories are compelling to readers when they evoke a sense of place – maintaining the customs, culture and knowledge of the period – provide relevance to our lives today or reveal something new about a well-known (or little-known) event. Military books are considered a sub-genre of history.

Examples: Killing Pablo, Black Hawk Down, Band of Brothers, 1776, How the Irish Saved Civilization, Seabiscuit

Adventure

Adventure books usually consist of a man-against-nature story. They often have an extreme and dramatic quality and an exotic location. 

Examples: Into the Wild, Into Thin Air, The Perfect Storm  

Travel / Travelogues

Travelogues incorporate the author’s travel experience and may include travel guide details about the destination. 

Examples: A Walk in the Woods, In a Sunburned Country, Under The Tuscan Sun

Biography

Biographies come with their own set of challenges. Will the subject (if alive) or family cooperate with the telling of his or her story? How will ‘fans’ of the subject respond to negative revelations? Has the subject been covered thoroughly, or do you have a new perspective or theory to present to readers? Does the subject warrant cradle-to-grave coverage or is there one inspirational event or portion of your subject’s life worthy of exploration? Along with extensive research and minute fact verification, biographies require the author to be devoted to the subject matter but objective enough to go wherever the truth may lead in order to create an accurate portrayal. 

Examples: John Adams, JFK, The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life

Memoir

The challenge of memoir is to write a personal account (whether tragic or inspiring) that has a universal connection. Memoir must transcend the personal and become a shared experience for readers. 

Examples: Angela’s Ashes, Running with Scissors, Dreams of My Father

True Crime

True Crime accounts incorporate the art of the newspaper reporter. It requires investigative, analytical attention to detail and some understanding of police and forensic procedures. You will need to feel comfortable interviewing the cast of characters - the victim’s family, the detectives, the lawyers, and the perpetrator – and have the ability to capture and convey what is identifiable and intriguing.

Examples: In Cold Blood, And the Sea Will Tell, The Stranger Beside Me, The Devil In The White City, Echoes in the Darkness, The Executioner’s Song