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Narrative nonfiction merges the factual reporting style of journalism with the literary techniques that make an engaging story. Think of it as a cross between a news article and a novel but possibly published as a podcast or a series.
There are several terms currently used to describe what is essentially narrative nonfiction, from creative nonfiction to literary journalism and even narrative documentaries. Semantics aside, narrative nonfiction combines factual reporting and literary storytelling. It is a hybrid. A journalistic novel where facts meet fictional techniques. This genre relies on narratives, well-rounded characters, and a compelling story similar to literary fiction. The differences within the subgenres tend to depend on the inclusion of objective reporting and different points of view to a greater or lesser degree.
It has recently been defined quite clearly as:
True stories, well told.'1
While this looks like a simplistic blurb, it summarises the goals of the genre pretty well. Novels tend to be fictional, and news reports tend to be factual, but these combine in narrative nonfiction to create a third genre with more interesting facts. Often seen on bestseller lists and in certain types of media publications, narrative nonfiction is considered to have formally begun with the New Journalism movement but has antecedents going back to the Renaissance.
The history of narrative nonfiction is almost as blurred and up for discussion as what is or is not narrative nonfiction. Some critics view the genre as formally starting with New Journalism, while others see examples stretching back to the Renaissance or even earlier. It is useful to look at a few historical examples to give context to the more modern examples.
The Renaissance started in Italy in the 14th century. The word means 'rebirth' in French, and the era saw the revival of general interest in the arts. The focus was on using modern techniques with references to Antiquity.
Before any formal categorisation of narrative nonfiction, works like Xenophon's Anabasis (370 BC) were stories about actual events, written as seven books. It tells the adventurous story of a mercenary army hired by Cyrus The Younger to take Persia. This narrative style has been seen to have progressed into what was later termed New Journalism or even Narrative Documentary.
A mercenary is a soldier who fights for money, sometimes called a 'Soldier of Fortune'. Usually, soldiers fight for their country, but mercenaries will go to war for anyone who pays them. The army of mercenaries in Anabasis was called 'The Mighty 10,000'.
Back in the Renaissance, books like the slightly sensationalist The Triumph of God’s Revenge Against the Crying and Execrable Sin of Murther (1635) by John Reynolds were being published and achieving bestseller status. These were not journalistic but rather novels based quite closely on true stories. Some critics believe these works to be the origins of the true-crime genre, which is similar in approach and subject matter. True crime is also closely linked to the movement of New Journalism, which has a much broader subject matter approach.
True crime is a type of nonfiction storytelling that focuses on crime, usually murders and serial killers. Aligned to New Journalism as a subgenre, it was more formally defined after the 1966 publication of In Cold Blood by Truman Capote.
As you can see from this quick overview, the concept of true events narrated as stories is not new but has been refined by more modern authors and become a little more structured since its origins. Many books came between these early novels and the works of New Journalism. It is a worthwhile rabbit hole if the subject interests you.
As a movement, the start of New Journalism has been linked to Tom Wolfe’s article 'The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby' (1963), Gay Talese’s 'Frank Sinatra Has A Cold' (1966), and also the publication of Truman Capote’s novel In Cold Blood (1966). Wolfe and Talese were both journalists who wrote more engaging narrative style pieces, while Capote was a novelist who uniquely approached journalism.
Can you see how the merging of the two styles came about?
Wolfe officially defined New Journalism as a genre in his 1973 essay and anthology The New Journalism. The anthology is a manifesto that featured novels by authors and journalists from Truman Capote to Joan Didion, Hunter S Thompson, and Norman Mailer. It defined the tenets of the genre's approach with its four characteristics:
Instead of factually listing the details of events, the writers develop the characters by giving them motivations and backgrounds and making them multi-dimensional. In some cases, various points of view are used in one narrative.
Their environments are as relevant as the characters. Wolfe believed environments were necessary to depict as part of the ‘social autopsy’. A bit of a bleak way to describe a character's situational context.
Similar to a novel, New Journalism used scenes to create an atmosphere rather than just a strictly chronological chain of factual events.
The accurately represented dialogue was crucial to depict a character and events and engage the reader. The genre used dialogue that was often based on extensive interviews and recordings.
New Journalism is regarded as having become what is now generally referred to as narrative nonfiction or creative nonfiction. These terms are largely interchangeable.
Fig. 1 - Narrative nonfiction pioneer, Hunter S Thompson.
Literary genres tend not to be very clearly defined, which is true for narrative nonfiction. As there are different subgenres within narrative nonfiction, the precise details of the characteristics can change. Luckily, some overarching ones exist and are mostly agreed upon.
Narrative nonfiction is based on fact. Additionally, to depict a story engagingly, sometimes an author will need to do more in-depth research than for a purely factual piece. This research makes sense if you consider that the facts and the narrative need to be developed rather than just chronologically relayed, like the details of a news feature.
Unlike regular reporting, a narrative nonfiction piece contains multiple literary devices and techniques to make it more engaging and relatable. Narratives, plots and scenes are used. Characters are well developed, and literary devices assist in making the story both interesting and informative. Natural dialogue makes the story more engaging while incorporating a point of view puts the work in the realm of literature.
Generally, autobiographies, biographies, and memoirs are not considered narrative nonfiction or are considered a related subgenre. Usually, these works are focused on other people and events, not on the author's own life. Although some personal stories may have similar characteristics, they tend not to be grouped with works that deal with another person, many people and external events.
Typically, narrative nonfiction writers or literary journalists immerse themselves in the lives and environments of the protagonists of their true stories. This is a method to represent facts that allow for literary aspects like complex characters and scene development combined with extensive research. Usually, this approach adds subjectivity to the reporting not seen in traditional journalism.
The two main types of nonfiction narratives today can be categorised into media or novels. Media is a really broad term because it can cover works from magazine and newspaper articles to online essays, Medium posts, travel writing and even podcasts. Novels tend to be published both offline and online these days but are not generally considered to be media. Due to its nature and origins, narrative nonfiction spans both of these worlds.
Many magazines like Esquire or The New Yorker have been involved in New Journalism from the start and continue to publish narrative nonfiction today. These are media publications that traditionally tended to employ journalists, not novelists. As typified by novelists like Joan Didion and Hunter S. Thompson, who were originally journalists, that distinction is now more blurred than before.
Examples of narrative nonfiction in media include The New Yorker's articles by journalist and novelist Joan Didion on Martha Stewart’s insider trading charge (2000) and the 'Spur Posse Scandal'(1993).
True crime is closely linked to New Journalism; therefore, it is part of the narrative nonfiction genre. The modern publishing trend with this particular variety leans towards podcasts and series. The genre has come under scrutiny for being insensitive to victims and a little sensationalist in tone.
True crime podcast examples include the Peabody award-winning 'Serial' (2014-) and the popular 'Criminal' (2014-). Well-known series include recent mass meme maker, 'Tiger King' (2020).
You might not think that these are texts, but all series have a script written by a scriptwriter. All podcasts are published as text and audio, largely to cater to as many people as possible, including those with disabilities.
Many authors in this genre write novels and articles, which used to be something that novelists did not do. Since the days of New Journalism, narrative nonfiction books like Norman Mailer’s The Armies of the Night (1968) have become bestsellers and even won Pulitzer prizes. Today, the trend continues with books that combine true stories and literary devices becoming increasingly popular. The genre is much broader in theme than true crime, with subjects as diverse as science, space travel and hikes up Mount Everest.
Examples of narrative nonfiction novels range from the 1966 classic In Cold Blood by Truman Capote to more recent novels like Rachel DeLoache William's My Friend Anna (2019), and Michael Pollan’s This Is Your Mind On Plants (2021). These works cover themes from murder to con artists and an interesting take on caffeine.
1 Lee Gutkind, Hattie Fletcher, True Stories, Well Told, Creative Nonfiction Association, (2014).
Examples include the classic, In Cold Blood by Truman Capote up to more recent novels like Rachel DeLoache William's My Friend Anna (2019) and Michael Pollan’s This Is Your Mind On Plants (2021).
Media examples include Joan Didion's The New Yorker piece on Martha Stewart (2000).
Narrative nonfiction combines factual journalistic style writing with the literary elements such as narrative and a point of view.
Imagine it as a hybrid between a news article and a novel.
Narrative nonfiction using elements usually seen in fiction, such as narrative, scenes and well rounded characters.
Nonfiction tends to be chronological and plot driven rather than scene or narrative based.
Narrative non fiction has a point of view narrative, uses scenes, natural dialogue and well rounded characters.
Narrative non fiction can have many different points of view, even in one text but first person narrator and third person are often used.
What makes narrative nonfiction different to nonfiction?
The use of a point of view and scenes are key differences.
Who are famous narrative nonfiction writers?
Truman Capote, Joan Didion, Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe are classic narrative nonfiction writers.
What well known novel is linked to the start of New Journalism?
Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. (1966)
What well known journalist is credited with writing the New Journalism manifesto?
Which publications have been involved with narrative non fiction from the start of New Journalism?
The New Yorker and Esquire.
Which famous works of journalism are credited with helping to start New Journalism?
'The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby' (1963) by Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese’s 'Frank Sinatra Has A Cold' (1966).
Are True Crime, New Journalism and narrative nonfiction all connected?
What was Tom Wolfe's New Journalism manifesto called?
His 1973 essay and anthology was called The New Journalism.
What is the difference between True Crime and New Journalism?
True Crime focuses on crime only, usually murder. New Journalism focusses on anything of relevance and interest.
What are the similarities between New Journalism and narrative nonfiction that set them apart from nonfiction?
The use of a point of view, scenes and well rounded characters.
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