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The Difference Between Fiction and Non-fiction Writing
- Fiction Writing
- Nonfiction Writing
Fiction and non-fiction are the two most bandied words used to describe literature. If you’ve ever struggled to get your head around what the F words mean, don’t beat yourself up. You’re probably not alone.
In a nutshell, fiction refers to a created plot, settings and characters as told from the writer’s imagination, while non-fiction relates to factual stories based on real-life events and people. Like anything, there are some in-betweens or blurred lines, but here are some definitions and examples to help settle the score.
Fictional literature is imagined. It may be based on actual events and have factual elements, but the telling of the story is usually subjective and may contain bias, different points of view or be completely made up and part of the author’s imagination.
Short stories, novels, myths, legends, and fairy tales are all considered fiction. For example, the Harry Potter series and Twilight are pure fiction. We all know wizard schools, Quidditch, and remarkable beasts just don’t exist, as much as some of us might love them to. We can thank author J. K. Rowling though, for how she has devised and described them on the page. Similarly, while fans consider Bella and Edward’s love story remarkable and their world of vampires and covens, it exists only thanks to author Stephenie Meyer’s imagination.
However, there are also real-life events that can serve as a jumping off point for fictional stories. Literature giant Lee Harper’s classic 1960 masterpiece To Kill a Mockingbird is one such example. Harper’s story won critical acclaim, and the Pulitzer Prize, but is only loosely based on her observations of her family, her neighbours and a local event. Because of this, it is classified as fiction. While Lee Harper’s world, some of these events, and the key theme of racial inequality existed and are not fictional, the drama and characterisation of her story are not all true and therefore it’s described as fiction.
Authors that write fiction stories may use real places, geography, scientific fact, and real events in their stories. For example, Stephen King often uses his hometown of Bangor as the basis for Derry, Maine, in many of his stories. This town is mentioned in a lot of his stories such as Misery and Pet Sematary . And while famed American lawyer and novelist John Grisham famously told the New York Times he does as little research as possible, he did practice as a lawyer for years, and has a regular diet of courtroom dramas and watching other lawyers at work. He also meticulously plans and orders his work before he gets going.
However, the key element for all these writers is that they are able to use factual detail and extend it as far as possible to lend their work a certain authority that makes the world they create believable. It can also improve a story no end if there is some resemblance to reality.
Writing fiction is sometimes best described as a tapestry. It can weave in multiple ideas, threads, characters, and design that can be fantastic and extraordinary, but it still must have a structure, coherence and organization to it, just like non-fiction writing. Both are art forms and neither is superior to the other.
Non-fiction writing reports on real events and is factual. It includes histories, biographies, journalism and essays. The stories contained in non-fiction writing must have happened and everything included in the literature must be accurate. Because of this, it must uphold a higher standard than fiction because just as some fact in fiction does not make it true, any level of fabrication in non-fiction work makes it lose credibility. In other words, if there is fiction in the non-fiction, it just makes it fiction. That’s quite a tongue twister, but the take home is to keep it real.
There have been cases of stories that have been presented as based on actual events that have not stacked up on closer investigation. Some have even won literary acclaim. In Australia, writer Helen Demidenko won the coveted 1995 Miles Franklin prize for her novel, The Hand That Signed The Paper that was reportedly about her family history. As daring and well written as it was, it turned out she was not the daughter of an illiterate Ukrainian taxi driver, but Helen Darville, the daughter of English immigrants. Although Darville submitted the work as fiction, she claimed the story was based on interviews with her relatives.
In America, one of the greatest literature frauds of the 20th century was Clifford Irving’s Autobiography of Howard Hughes . Irving fabricated an autobiography of the reclusive billionaire, including letters, meetings, and interviews, until Howard Hughes himself came forward to say he had no idea who Irving was. Irving, an author of twenty other novels, finally admitted to the hoax and served time in prison. The autobiography was never printed, but Irving received substantial advances for it that he voluntarily returned to his publishers. The story became a film called The Hoax starring Richard Gere in 2005.
The techniques of “new journalists” that blur the line between fact and fiction, mostly through the use of eloquent and evocative detail, have led to the creation of another genre known as creative non-fiction . In this way non-fiction can seem like fantasy, and capture its readers as a result, when it’s actually good old-fashioned non-fiction that is told in a compelling way.
If you have a penchant for writing non-fiction , be it the creative style or the objective traditional style, clarity, facts and subject are key. Source material, original interviews, historic documents, topographic maps, geographical surveys, crime reports and lots of research are usually important elements in the preparation for writing. And they must stand up to fact checking.
If you find this description has only made you more confused, just keep it simple. If it contains or reports truth, it is non-fiction. If it stretches or fabricates, it is fiction.
The Difference Between Fiction and Nonfiction
Matt Grant is a Brooklyn-based writer, reader, and pop culture enthusiast. In addition to BookRiot, he is a staff writer at LitHub, where he writes about book news. Matt's work has appeared in Longreads, The Brooklyn Rail, Tor.com, Huffpost, and more. You can follow him online at www.mattgrantwriter.com or on Twitter: @mattgrantwriter
View All posts by Matt Grant
For writers and readers alike, it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference between fiction and nonfiction. In general, fiction refers to plot, settings, and characters created from the imagination, while nonfiction refers to factual stories focused on actual events and people. However, the difference between these two genres is sometimes blurred, as the two often intersect.
Before we go any further, it’s important to note that both fiction and nonfiction can be utilized in any medium (film, television, plays, etc.). Here, we’re focusing on the difference between fiction and nonfiction in literature in particular. Let’s look closer at each of these two categories and examine what sets them apart.
What Is Fiction?
When it comes to the differences between fiction and nonfiction, Joseph Salvatore, Associate Professor of Writing & Literature at The New School in New York City, says,
“I teach a course on the craft, theory, and practice of fiction writing, and in it, we discuss this topic all the time. Although all of the ideas and theories…are disputed and challenged by writers and critics alike (not only as to what fiction is but as to what it is in relation to other genres, e.g., creative nonfiction), I’d say there are some basic components of fiction.”
Fiction is fabricated and based on the author’s imagination. Short stories, novels, myths, legends, and fairy tales are all considered fiction. While settings, plot points, and characters in fiction are sometimes based on real-life events or people, writers use such things as jumping off points for their stories.
For instance, Stephen King sets many of his stories and novels in the fictional town of Derry, Maine. While Derry is not a real place, it is based on King’s actual hometown of Bangor . King has even created an entire topography for Derry that resembles the actual topography of Bangor.
Additionally, science fiction and fantasy books placed in imaginary worlds often take inspiration from the real world. A example of this is N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth trilogy, in which she uses actual science and geological research to make her world believable.
Fiction often uses specific narrative techniques to heighten its impact. Salvatore says that some examples of these components are:
“The use of rich, evocative sensory detail; the different pacing tempos of dramatic and non-dramatic events; the juxtaposition of summarized narrative and dramatized scenes; the temporary delay and withholding of story information, to heighten suspense and complicate plot; the use of different points of view to narrate, including stark objective effacement and deep subjective interiority; and the stylized use of language to narrate events and render human consciousness.”
What Is Nonfiction?
Nonfiction, by contrast, is factual and reports on true events. Histories, biographies, journalism, and essays are all considered nonfiction. Usually, nonfiction has a higher standard to uphold than fiction. A few smatterings of fact in a work of fiction does not make it true, while a few fabrications in a nonfiction work can force that story to lose all credibility.
An example is when James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces , was kicked out of Oprah’s Book Club in 2006 when it came to light that he had fabricated most of his memoir.
However, nonfiction often uses many of the techniques of fiction to make it more appealing. In Cold Blood is widely regarded as one of the best works of nonfiction to significantly blur the line between fiction and nonfiction, since Capote’s descriptions and detailing of events are so rich and evocative. However, this has led to questions about the veracity of his account.
“The so-called New Journalists, of Thompson’s and Wolfe’s and Didion’s day, used the same techniques [as fiction writers],” Salvatore says. “And certainly the resurgence of the so-called true-crime documentaries, both on TV and radio, use similar techniques.”
This has given rise to a new trend called creative nonfiction, which uses the techniques of fiction to report on true events. In his article “ What Is Creative Nonfiction? ” Lee Gutkind, the creator of Creative Nonfiction magazine, says the term:
“Refers to the use of literary craft, the techniques ﬁction writers, playwrights, and poets employ to present nonﬁction—factually accurate prose about real people and events—in a compelling, vivid, dramatic manner. The goal is to make nonﬁction stories read like ﬁction so that your readers are as enthralled by fact as they are by fantasy.”
Although it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference between fiction and nonfiction, especially in the hands of a skilled author, just remember this: If it reports the truth, it’s nonfiction. If it stretches the truth, it’s fiction.
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Fiction vs. Nonfiction: Definitions and Examples
Imagine, for a moment, that you’re standing in a library searching for a book by your favorite author, Truman Capote. As you prepare to scour the stacks, you figure it shouldn’t be too hard to locate Capote’s best-selling In Cold Blood.
But with one sign pointing toward the fiction titles and another indicating that nonfiction is on a different floor, you realize you’re not sure what genre the book, based on a true story, belongs to.
This example illustrates the problem of distinguishing between fiction and nonfiction. For writers and readers alike, it can be difficult to tell the difference—especially when the two genres often intersect. To save you from confusion, we’re here to clarify what sets fiction and nonfiction apart with helpful definitions, examples, and more. Let’s dive in!
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Fiction vs. nonfiction
Fiction and nonfiction are two distinct categories of prose that serve different purposes and employ different narrative techniques. Fiction refers to literature that is not grounded in real-life events but is made up or created from a writer’s imagination. Nonfiction refers to factual stories based on real people, information, or events.
What is fiction?
Fiction is a literary genre that encompasses imaginative storytelling. It involves the creation of characters, settings, events, and narratives that do not exist in the real world. In fiction, authors use their creativity to write stories that are often for the purpose of entertainment, exploring themes, or artistic expression.
Beneath the umbrella of fiction are many subgenres, including mystery, romance, fantasy, magical realism, thriller, science fiction, crime, and horror. Some fictional works combine multiple subgenres, fusing elements of various categories to create a hybrid story, such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (science fiction and horror) or Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series (paranormal romance).
What is nonfiction?
Nonfiction, by contrast, refers to factual stories about real people, places, and events. In works of nonfiction, authors relay accurate, verifiable information. These insights, experiences, or explanations are grounded in reality and are used to educate, persuade, or document true events and occurrences.
The word nonfiction essentially means “not fiction” or “not false.” By definition, then, nonfiction implies a certain level of truth or authenticity. This typically generally results in people holding nonfiction to a higher standard than fiction. A few facts thrown into a work of fiction do not make it true, whereas a few fabrications in a work of nonfiction will completely obliterate its credibility.
As the broadest category of writing , nonfiction can encompass works in many different categories, such as business, cooking, travel, biography, religion, art, music, languages, pets, crafts, and health and fitness. Nonfiction can take on various forms, including essays, articles, memoirs , scientific papers, textbooks, travelogues, and more.
Nonfiction vs. creative nonfiction
To further complicate matters, writers also categorize some nonfiction writing as creative nonfiction . Creative nonfiction can also be called literary nonfiction or narrative nonfiction .
The classic book In Cold Blood is an example of creative nonfiction. While much of the book is rooted in fact, Capote employs literary devices such as voice, rising action, denouement, and imagery to evoke empathy in the reader.
In essence, the primary distinction between nonfiction and creative nonfiction is the way they present information. Nonfiction aims to inform and educate in an objective manner, while creative nonfiction combines the factual with the creative, using literary devices to engage readers on an emotional and narrative level just like a novel .
Examples of fiction and nonfiction
The following examples illustrate the diversity of both fiction and nonfiction, showcasing the wide range of topics, formats, and themes that each genre can explore.
Examples of fiction
- Short story: A Perfect Day for Bananafish by J.D. Salinger
- Novel: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
- Play: Hamlet by William Shakespeare
- Literary fiction: Ulysses by James Joyce
- Fable, fairy tale, and folklore: Snow White and the Seven Dwarves
- Genre fiction: The Gift by Danielle Steel
Examples of nonfiction
- Memoir: Hunger by Roxane Gay
- Essay: Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion
- Biography: Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
- Autobiography: The Diary of Anne Frank by Anne Frank
- History: Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari
- Feature writing: Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain
Fiction vs. nonfiction FAQs
What’s the difference between fiction and nonfiction.
Fiction involves storytelling and imagination, featuring invented worlds and characters. By contrast, nonfiction is focused on presenting factual information and real-world knowledge.
What are different kinds of fiction?
Beneath the umbrella of fiction are many subgenres, including:
- Magical realism
- Science fiction
What are different kinds of nonfiction?
Nonfiction is a broad genre that encompasses a wide range of subjects and styles. Nonfiction works can take the form of the following:
- Feature writing
- Academic texts
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Fiction vs Nonfiction – How to Know Which is Right for You
POSTED ON Aug 16, 2023
Written by Gloria Russell
If you’re brand new to writing, you may feel like you’re at a bit of a loss. Where do you even get started? And should you write fiction vs nonfiction? What is fiction and nonfiction anyway?
Maybe you took a creative writing class and just enjoyed writing poems, or maybe you’ve always had learning how to write a book on your bucket list. You may even be a seasoned writer looking for a different writing path.
One of the most fundamental decisions writers have to make is this: in the vast list of book genres , what genre will I write in? And it’s not as simple a question as you might think.
If you already know that you want to write a memoir or autobiography , this is a little easier. If you have a story and you’re not sure how to tell it, you may wonder whether you ought to give the nonfiction account, or a fictionalized version of it. What’s the difference between writing fiction vs nonfiction, anyway?
In this article, we’ll talk all about fiction vs nonfiction: the difference between fiction and nonfiction, what sorts of people prefer each, how to choose between the two genres, and which one is a better path for you.
This blog on fiction vs nonfiction will cover:
What is fiction and nonfiction?
What is fiction and nonfiction? They are both huge umbrella genres, each containing a wide array of subgenres. To avoid getting confused while sorting through subgenres, let’s talk about how to tell fiction and nonfiction apart.
Fiction is, plainly put, a made-up story. The places and people in the story might be based on real people and places—it’s common for fiction to be set in real-world cities, states, and countries—but the characters and interactions between them are not meant to be an actual, real-world account of something that happened.
Fiction occasionally uses allegory, where readers can draw comparisons between the book to real-world events. But again, these comparisons are only comparisons. Animal Farm by George Orwell, for example, is not a factual account of something that literally happened on someone’s farm (although that would be incredible).
Another way to help distinguish fiction vs nonfiction is the use of prose. Prose is written language which is meant to be something of an art form. Fiction writers often use prose to put artistic meaning into their word choice, tone, and flow.
Nonfiction authors also use prose (since prose is literally, by definition, just written word), but fiction authors tend to put more of an artistic spin on it. Fiction will have more imagery, for example, and more use of metaphor and descriptive language.
What is nonfiction? Nonfiction is literature focused on factual retellings of things that actually happened. Where fiction is meant to tell a completely made-up story that doesn’t correspond to real characters, nonfiction does the opposite.
Nonfiction is generally focused on informing the reader about something as opposed to telling them a story. This genre includes information books on things like history, science, or art, and it also includes biographies and memoirs.
Creative nonfiction and memoirs
People tend to get confused about creative nonfiction and memoirs. Why? Well, creative nonfiction blurs the line between fiction and nonfiction. It’s usually going to read more like a novel than like an informational text—the prose might be artistic, there might be scenes with dialogue and characters, and there might even be a plot like you’d find in a fiction novel.
But in a work of creative nonfiction, the focus is still to convey factual events which really happened. It might be dressed up like fiction, but it’s still nonfiction.
It’s a similar story with memoirs. Memoirs tend to be a more artistic rendering of a specific aspect of someone’s life, like their pregnancy, their climb to CEO, and so on. Memoirs might fuzz some details and skip over some sections, but they are predominantly factual.
So now that you have some idea of the difference between fiction and nonfiction, let's discuss which people are drawn to fiction vs nonfiction (and vice versa).
What type of people prefer fiction vs nonfiction?
There aren't a ton of studies that track trends in reader habits, so it’s hard to say for absolute certainty, but we know that women and children tend to read more fiction than men. The specifics on this vary widely from state to state and county to county, but this is the overall trend.
It’s also worth mentioning that this margin is pretty slim—adults on the whole still tend to favor nonfiction over fiction.
Nonfiction is usually preferred by adults, and slightly more men than women tend to read it.
But nonfiction is an enormous genre, and it’s helpful to know the specifics. Memoirs and autobiographies absolutely dominate nonfiction sales, with memoirs especially having an edge.
Self-help books are also extremely popular. These books can vary widely and appeal to hugely different demographics—books on how to succeed as a woman in business, for example, are probably going to attract more women than men.
How to choose whether to write fiction vs nonfiction
Now that we know the difference between fiction and nonfiction, let’s decide: between fiction vs nonfiction, which genre is best for you?
Read widely across both genres
Your first assignment when choosing between fiction vs nonfiction is just to read.
If you don’t know what nonfiction looks like, how can you say it’s not for you? If you haven’t read fiction since high school, you might not know that you actually still love it.
Read lots of contemporary nonfiction and fiction. Find subgenres you love—maybe fantasy doesn’t do it for you, but you love crime and mystery novels. You might not care for history books, but you might enjoy a deeply moving memoir.
Having a good sense of what these genres look like will help you figure out which you’d like to work with. You don't want to spend time hemming and hawing over high fantasy vs low fantasy if you don't actually like fantasy novels!
Consider your target audience and goal
The next thing you want to consider when choosing between fiction vs nonfiction is your target audience. If you’re building an author platform from scratch, you need to keep your business model in mind.
Who are you writing for, and what are those people reading?
If you want to write for children, for example, you may prefer to write fiction. Turning your information into stories might yield better results than making a straightforward nonfiction book . If you want to write for adults, maybe a self-help book would be a great way to communicate your ideas!
Tell the story that you want to tell
If you have no idea where to start, it definitely helps to consider your target audience, look at trending categories, and read a little bit of everything.
But the bottom line is, you need to pick the genre that best tells your story.
Think of it like this. You’ve got something that you want to share with the world. Maybe it’s a really cool fantasy world and a quest that happens within it, or maybe it’s your own personal struggles. Maybe it’s your personal twist on a classic crime novel trope.
Genre is the vessel with which you tell that story. You want to pick one that helps you tell your story clearly and easily—it shouldn’t make it harder to get your point across.
Maybe you want to fictionalize your experiences, but when you try to do so, things get muddy and murky. It might be the case that writing a nonfiction memoir will come naturally to you.
Similarly, you may think you want to write fiction vs nonfiction only to find out you're more interested in the topic or setting than the actual characters.
For example, if you want to write a fantasy story based on Norwegian folklore, but discover you are really just enamored with Norwegian folklore, itself, then you can write a nonfiction book about it!
Decide what kind of story you want to tell, and let the genre be the vessel through which you tell it.
Fiction vs nonfiction – which is better?
As you may have guessed by the previous section, it’s impossible to say whether fiction vs nonfiction is objectively better.
Fiction has its role in literature, and so does nonfiction. We need both, and authors can use both to tell impactful, engaging stories. You may prefer fiction vs nonfiction, and someone else might disagree with you, and that’s totally fine!
Even when it comes to sales, it’s difficult to assert which is more profitable. Fiction sales lag just a tad behind nonfiction sales, but not enough to say that one is inherently a better money-making endeavor than the other. It depends on the subgenre, and it depends on the book.
Forcing yourself to write a book you’re not interested in just to make a quick buck probably isn’t going to lead to a prosperous career. This puts you at a higher risk for burnout, and it dramatically increases the likelihood of your book not being very good.
By contrast, writers who are passionate about their stories, even if those stories aren’t what’s “hot” right now, can find huge success and even break open new trends. Twilight, for example, came out of seemingly nowhere, and practically invented the young adult fiction genre as we know it overnight.
Choosing fiction vs nonfiction is an entirely personal choice. Consider your story, your audience, and your passions, and write what feels right to you.
What’s your favorite genre between fiction vs nonfiction? If you’re already writing in one genre, have you considered trying another? Let us know!
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Home / Book Writing / Fiction vs Nonfiction: Definitions, Examples, and Ideas
Fiction vs Nonfiction: Definitions, Examples, and Ideas
There are a lot of terms to remember in the world of book publishing. But two of the most important ones are fiction and nonfiction. These two writing terms are similar to a 10,000-foot view. They split all books into two categories, which each have many of their own genres and subgenres .
However, things aren't as straightforward as they seem. To complicate things, there can be some overlap between the two categories, so it's important to familiarize yourself with them. And that's just what we'll do in this fiction vs nonfiction article.
- The definition of fiction.
- The definition of nonfiction.
- Examples of each.
- How creative nonfiction blurs the line between the two.
Table of contents
- What's the Difference Between Fiction and Nonfiction?
- Fiction Book Examples
- Nonfiction Book Examples
- What is Creative Nonfiction?
- Why Do People Read Fiction and Nonfiction?
- Finding Ideas for Fiction and Nonfiction Books
The difference between works of fiction and nonfiction is simple: fiction is not true while nonfiction is true.
In other words, fiction books may be inspired by true events and/or people, but the narrative or significant portions of the story have been made up by the author. Nonfiction books, on the other hand, are entirely based in reality and backed up with facts or objective truths.
These terms aren't just used in writing, though. Movies are considered works of fiction, whereas documentaries are works of nonfiction.
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You've probably also heard these two terms used to refer to other things, too. For instance, many politicians have been accused at one time or another of presenting fiction as fact. In other words, lying.
Likewise, the news is supposed to be nonfiction, but the lines have been increasingly blurred in recent years. And on the internet, it can be very difficult to tell what's fiction and what's nonfiction these days.
Thankfully, we don't need to dive into politics for our discussion. We'll stick to books. Let's take a closer look at each category.
What is Fiction? (With Examples)
Sometimes it can be easy to tell if what you're reading is fictional writing. If there are people flying around in tights fighting each other to the structural detriment of the city, you can bet it's a fictional story.
Other times, it's not so easy. There are plenty of realistic fiction stories that seem like they could happen in real life. The fictional characters are three-dimensional , the setting is a real city, and the storyline doesn't stretch the limits of your belief. But they're all a product of the author's imagination, which is what separates fiction from nonfiction.
Police procedurals, romances, geopolitical thrillers, and historical fiction novels are often like this. Of course, there are exceptions in every genre.
If a book says it's a novel , there's a good bet it's a work of fiction. However, there is such a thing as a nonfiction novel, which makes things a little more complicated. More on that later. For now, let's take a look at some famous examples of fiction books.
- To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
- The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
- The Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling
- It by Stephen King
- Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
- Hello Beautiful by Ann Napolitano
Almost all fiction authors bring their own experiences into their stories in one way or another. But the distinction is that the storyline is something that never actually happened. The characters may be inspired by real people, but any similarities are unintentional.
A thriller author who reads about a bank robbery in the news may use certain aspects of that real-life event in his new fiction book. But this is very different from a nonfiction author detailing the lives of the real person who robbed the bank and the real events that followed. The nonfiction author would have to do extensive research, interview people, and back everything up with multiple sources.
What is Nonfiction? (With Examples)
Largely, nonfiction texts can be considered informational, but this doesn't mean they're dry or uninteresting. It really depends on the author, the type of book, and the subject matter.
An informational text on computer coding will be very different from a celebrity's memoir. Likewise, a history book about the American Civil War will be very different from a self-help book detailing proven ways to build confidence.
But all these books have one thing in common: They are based in reality. The nonfiction writer can't just make up random instructions for learning to code. There are certain protocols to follow.
Similarly, if a celebrity publishes a memoir that turns out to be partially (or fully) fabricated, they will have some very angry readers on their hands. Then again, if the celebrity published the book as a novel, readers would go in knowing that what they were about to read wasn't wholly true.
- The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
- Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell
- The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E. B. White
- Walden by Henry David Thoreau
- The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin
- The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
While fiction writing and nonfiction writing require many of the same skills, they are also different in many ways. Obviously, fiction writers need not worry about whether their story is true. They can add a character or take ten away. They can twist the imaginary events to fit their needs.
On the other hand, nonfiction writing means significant research into often complex topics. Getting things right is of the utmost importance for the nonfiction writer .
Ever since Truman Capote published In Cold Blood in 1966, the line between fiction and nonfiction has blurred. Considered one of the most impactful pieces of literature of the last century, this true crime book is often called a nonfiction novel —something unheard of until that time. This is because of the way Capote wrote the book.
Although detailing an atrocious crime that took place in 1959, the book reads like a novel. Capote adds enough detail and presents the story in such a manner that critics say there was no way he could've found out many of these things after the fact. He was accused of fabricating scenes to fit the story, as well as making up dialogue. Capote did extensive research while writing the book and insisted that everything he wrote was true.
Although certainly not the first piece of creative nonfiction writing, In Cold Blood is perhaps the best known. It kicked off what is called “New Journalism” and helped popularize narrative nonfiction, which is exemplified today in many memoirs and true crime books.
In general terms, people read fiction for pleasure . That is, they hope to be entertained when they pick up a fictional book. The form that entertainment comes in differs from person to person and book to book.
A reader of space opera science fiction likely wants a sprawling, epic story of interplanetary politics and interstellar conflict. A reader of romance likely wants to feel the excitement of a budding relationship and rejoice in a happily-ever-after ending.
A reader of nonfiction usually wants to learn something, solve a problem, or become better informed . A reader may pick up a nonfiction book to learn a new skill, better their life in some way, or even read about human history. Some of the most ubiquitous nonfiction books are cookbooks, although the advent of the internet is changing this dynamic as we speak.
Deciding what you want to write is not always as easy as choosing between fiction and nonfiction. Many writers do both. But finding an idea with a market you can break into can be even harder. If you want to become a full-time writer, or just write a book that improves your bank account, then it's a good idea to do a little research first.
For this, we recommend using the Publisher Rocket tool. Even with the thousands of books uploaded onto Amazon every day, there are certain markets that are still underserved and hungry for new content. So whether you're a nonfiction or fiction writer, you can use Publisher Rocket to get a behind-the-scenes look at the categories, keywords, and competition on Amazon.
Writing to market is the best way to succeed in self-publishing . And with Publisher Rocket , you can get insights directly from Amazon on:
- Which categories have low competition but high monthly searches.
- What subgenres you can target when you publish your book.
- Whether you should “go wide” and publish on many platforms or try your hand with exclusivity through Amazon's KDP Select program, also known as Kindle Unlimited .
- What keywords and phrases you can use in your Amazon ad campaigns after publishing.
Learn more about Publisher Rocket here .
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Difference Between Fiction and Nonfiction
Last updated on December 25, 2019 by Surbhi S
Fiction can be understood as the literary work created as per one’s imagination, i.e. the author’s creative thought or made-up stories and characters. On the other hand, reading a nonfictional work means you are reading something that actually happened or someone that actually exist, i.e. it is not a cooked up story, rather it is fact and evidence-based account.
Now, in this article, we are going to look at the differences between fiction and nonfiction
Content: Fiction Vs Nonfiction
Comparison chart, definition of fiction.
Fiction can be understood as an imaginative creation, which does not exist in reality, rather it is produced by the author’s creative thought. It is a type of imaginative prose literature, which can be both spoken or written account containing imaginary characters, events and descriptions.
Writing fiction means that the writer creates their own fantasy world, in their minds and introduce it to the rest of the world through the book. As the story is not real and factual, they cook it up in a way that makes it very interesting and engaging.
From the reader’s point of view, fictional work refers to the creative fabrication of a fantasy world, by the author, i.e. the author imagines the entire story and its characters, the overall plot, dialogues and setting.
The work of fictions is never based on a true story, and so when we go through such works, it visualizes such situation which we may never face in reality or we will come across those characters who we may never get a chance to meet in our real life and also take us to a world where we may never go otherwise.
It is that form of entertainment or art which contains hypothetical plot and characteristics in any format, such as comics, television programs, audio recordings, drama, novel, novella, short story, fairy tales, films, fables, etc. It includes writing related to mystery, suspense, crime thrillers, fantasies, science fiction, romance, etc.
So, fictional writings have the ability to inspire, or change the perspectives towards life, engage in the story, surprise with the twist and turn and also scare or amaze with the ending.
Definition of Nonfiction
Nonfiction is the widest form of literature which contains informative, educational and factual writings. It is a true account or representation of a particular subject. It claims to portray authentic and truthful information, description, events, places, characters or existed things.
Although, the statements and explanation provided may or may not be exact and so it is possible that it provides a true or false narrative of the subject which is talked about. Nevertheless, the author who created the account often believes or claim it to be true, when it is being created.
When a nonfictional work is created, the emphasis is given to the simplicity, clarity, and straightforwardness. It encompasses essays, expository, memoirs, self-help, documentaries, textbooks, biographies and autobiographies, newspaper report and books on history, politics, science, technology, business and economics.
The main purpose of reading nonfictional books is to learn more about a subject and increase the knowledge base.
Key Differences Between Fiction and Nonfiction
Upcoming points will explain the difference between fiction and nonfiction
- Fiction is a literary work which contains the imaginary world, i.e. characters, situation, setting and dialogue. On the flip side, nonfiction implies that type of writing which provides true information or contains such facts or events which are real.
- Fiction is subjective in nature, as the author has the freedom to add his opinion or perspective to the writeup. As well as the writer can elaborate any character, plot or setting as per his imagination. However, nonfiction is objective because the writer cannot add his/her opinion, as it is purely fact-based and authentic and because there is no scope for imagination, the writer needs to be straightforward.
- When writing fiction, the author has the flexibility, to move the story in the direction which make it more exciting and interesting. Conversely, nonfictional writers do not have such flexibility because they have to provide information which is true and real.
- In a fictional work, the writer is of the opinion that the audience will follow and understand the theme which is hidden in the content. In fact, the story can be interpreted by the readers in different ways depending on their level of understanding. As against, in a nonfictional work, there is a simple and direct presentation of the information and facts. So, there is only one interpretation.
- The main purpose of writing fiction is to entertain the readers, whereas nonfiction writing educates the reader about a subject or to further their knowledge about something.
- In fictional writing, references may or may not be provided by the author. On the other hand, in nonfictional writing references are provided compulsorily by the writer wherever required, so as to make the writing more credible.
- Fiction is always from the perspective of the narrator, i.e. the writer, or the character, i.e. the main or supporting character of the story. In contrast, non-fiction is always from the perspective of the author.
By and large, fiction and nonfiction are diametrically opposite to one another. In a fictional work, most of the part is imaginary i.e. scripted by the author. Fictional stories help the readers to take a break from their everyday boring life, and lost in the dreamy world of excitement, for quite some time.
On the contrary, nonfiction is all about factual stories, that emphasize on actual events, characters and places. It tends to teach and explain things to the readers.
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Separating Fiction and Non-Fiction
In this exclusive extract from Advanced Creative Nonfiction: A Writer's Guide and Anthology, authors Sean Prentiss and Jessica Hendry Nelson explain their concept around genre and veracity, and encourage you to assess your own writing in these terms by carrying out their writing prompts.
According to most people, there are four genres in creative writing: poetry, drama, fiction, and creative nonfiction. The oldest genre is poetry. The term poetry originates from the Latin word for “poet,” which means “maker” or “author.” The original term poiḗtria refers to all creative writing. So, in the beginning, all creative writing was poetry. Why? Because poetry was born from our need to remember oral narratives. Poetic techniques—including rhythm, rhyming, and meter—helped poets commit poems to memory. The key that makes poetry unique from its sibling genres is the use of the line break. The shape of the poem is one that employs line breaks.
Next-oldest is drama. Drama uses stage directions and dialogue to tell a narrative. The term drama originates from the Greek word for “to take action” and means either a “theatrical act” or a “play.” The shape of a drama on the page is a script.
Most people consider the next genre to be fiction. Fiction includes all invented narratives. The key here is that these narratives are invented by the writer. And then the newest genre would be creative nonfiction. But, as we saw in “History of Creative Nonfiction,” creative nonfiction (and fiction) has been around since, at least, dramas.
Along with the issue of the age of each genre, we have a larger issue, and that is that two of the genres—poetry and drama—are categorized one way (by focusing on shape) and two others—fiction and creative nonfiction—are categorized in another way (by focusing mostly on their reliance/lack of reliance on truth).
To explore this further, we might look to the definition of genre, but most definitions of genre are not terribly useful because they assert that genres can be defined by style, form, or content. For example, music genres include rock (style) and ballads (form) and love songs (content). All of these terms are related to music, but these “genres” aren’t related to each other. The other way genre is defined is as “a kind,” which is so vague as to make it not useful at all. Genre traces itself back to the word for “gender,” which almost offers a bit more clarity until you trace “gender” back to its archaic roots and see that it means “a kind, sort, or class.”
For the purposes of this book, we propose a clearer and simpler definition for genre. In creative writing, we argue, the shape of a work determines its genre. Or, genres are differentiated by shape. Why did we choose this definition? Because the two oldest genres, poetry and drama, are defined by their shape. Poetry uses the line break. Drama uses the script. Truth is left out of the equation. So we look to history to help us unravel the best way to understand a single, clear definition for genre.
But this definition of genre does not work for fiction and creative nonfiction. These two are defined by their relationship to truth. Fiction and creative nonfiction don’t follow the same rules concerning genre that poetry and drama do. Instead, fiction and creative nonfiction are something separate from poetry and drama, defined by a different measuring stick. Most people define creative nonfiction by this simple formula: Truth + Prose = Creative Nonfiction. For fiction, we could merely replace “Truth” with “Invention.” But if fiction and creative nonfiction have a different definition for genre (one based on truth or invention), how can we clarify this confusion?
We propose that there are only three genres. We have poetry, drama, and prose —writing shaped by paragraphs. The term prose is birthed from the Latin word for “straightforward,” since most prose is more linear than poetry. Prose uses paragraphs, sentences, and (usually) traditional uses of punctuation. Prose doesn’t care if things are invented or true. That is outside the domain of prose (and genre). Prose only cares if the writer uses paragraphs.
There are just three genres: poetry, drama, and prose, and each one of these is clearly defined by its shape.
A: But What Is Creative Nonfiction If It Is Not a Genre?
If we agree that creative nonfiction is not a genre—since it is not defined by its shape—then what is it? To help us figure this out, we can contrast it with fiction. If fiction uses invented characters, settings, dialogue, and/or action to tell a narrative, then creative nonfiction is the opposite: telling true narratives about real characters in a real place who say real things and perform real actions. The difference is simply invention versus truth. Or, to return to our formula above, Truth + Prose = Creative Nonfiction. In other words, creative nonfiction is a true narrative told in any genre (poetry, drama, and/or prose) that uses creative or literary elements. Rather than concerning itself with shape (genre), creative nonfiction engages veracity. Veracity comes from the Latin word vērāx , which means “to speak truthfully.” Creative nonfiction is also, therefore, writing that lives on the “truth” side of the veracity scale while fiction lives on the “invention” side. And yet, as we’ll discuss at length later on, veracity is not black or white, but a spectrum with plenty of gray.
While we acknowledge the problematic definitions of “truth” and the ways in which memory and experience fail to live up to the verifiability of facts, we fundamentally believe that truth in creative nonfiction relies on the writer’s instincts to be as honest as possible. We will address this further in “Phenomenal Truths”. Creative nonfiction is also, therefore, writing that lives on the “truth” side of the veracity scale, while fiction lives on the “invention” side. By nature, many creative nonfiction pieces straddle the line between truth and invention and live the in the gray area.
B: But Why Go to All This Work?
Rather than labeling their work as either poetry, drama, fiction, or creative nonfiction, writers would instead make two labels, one for the work’s veracity [true/invented/hybrid] and one for the genre [poetry/drama/prose/hybrid].
The most important reason for this change is that it gives writers permission to play with form and opens them up to a broader range of craft strategies without their work being deemed “experimental” or “subversive.” All writing is intrinsically experimental, and experimentation should not marginalize or exclude work from the realm of creative nonfiction. Historically, creative nonfiction that plays with genre or veracity is automatically deemed ‘poetry’ or ‘fiction,’ which alters the way the work is experienced by the reader. It commonly constrains creative nonfiction to prose, and mistakenly insists that the work stick wholly to facts, rather than emotional truths.
As a result, poetry and drama classes often ignore veracity. Veracity, the current system insists, is only the purview of prose. That’s confusing for the writer and the reader.
This new system argues that shape (genre: poetry, drama, and prose) is less defining than veracity, and that shape is more useful as a meaning-making tool within a range of veracities. This system gives creative nonfiction writers permission to write in other genres than just prose because we’ve separated veracity from genre. Now a writer need only choose a genre, a veracity, and then create art.
Finally, this new system clearly instructs the reader as to the nature of the work. In “Phenomenal Truths,” we look at the contract between the creative nonfiction writer and reader in more detail. But this view of creative nonfiction as writing from true, lived experience—the writer’s and/or their subjects’—makes the contract between writer and reader clearer. When we label our narratives as creative nonfiction, rather than fiction or hybrid, we signal to our reader our intentions. Regardless of the shape of the narrative, the writer is striving to tell the truth.
READING AS A WRITER
A: Veracity in Poetry In poetry, the writer doesn’t often tell the reader if a collection of poems or an individual poem is true or invented. Look at some of your favorite collections of poems. Can you tell what veracity they are? Do some poems in the collection “feel” as if they are true? If so, why? Do you want to know if the poem or collection of poems is true? Why or why not?
B: Veracity in Drama Often in drama, just like in poetry, the screenwriter or playwright doesn’t tell the reader if a screenplay or play is true or invented. Watch or read a few of your favorite pieces of drama. Can you tell what veracity they are? Do some plays, television shows, and movies feel more true, while others feel more invented? If so, why? Do you want to know if a play, television show, or a movie is true? Why or why not?
A: Playing with Genre Write a piece of flash creative nonfiction heavy in dialogue. Now, re-write this piece as a poem. Next, re-write this piece as a drama. Then re-write the piece using two or more genres at the same time. Explore how this one piece of writing transforms merely by re-conceiving its genre.
B: Playing with Veracity Take the same piece of flash creative nonfiction that you wrote for Exercise A. Now play with veracity. Add some elements of invention. What happens as we create a hybrid veracity? Then add another element of invention. And another. How does the piece change as it moves from creative nonfiction to hybrid to fiction? And when do you feel that the piece has left the realm of creative nonfiction for hybrid veracity, and when has it left hybrid veracity for fiction?
C: Playing with Unfamiliar Genres Rank the three genres in terms of how comfortable you are with them. Once you’ve determined the genre with which you feel least comfortable, write a flash piece in that genre. Make sure you are focusing on truth. Have fun with this new (to you) genre.
Advanced Creative Nonfiction: A Writers' Guide and Anthology offers expert instruction on writing creative nonfiction in any form-including memoir, lyric essay, travel writing, and more-while taking an expansive approach to fit a rapidly evolving literary art form. From a history of creative nonfiction, related ethical concerns, and new approaches to revision and publishing, it offers innovative strategies and ideas beyond what's traditionally covered and is available now from Bloomsbury.com
Sean Prentiss is Associate Professor of English at Norwich University, USA. He is author of Finding Abbey: The Search for Edward Abbey and His Hidden Desert Grave (2015), which won the National Outdoor Book Award for Biography/History. He is also co-editor of The Far Edges of the Fourth Genre (2014).
Jessica Hendry Nelson is the author of the memoir If Only You People Could Follow Directions (2014) which was selected as a best debut book by the Indies Introduce New Voices program, the Indies Next List by the American Booksellers’ Association, and named a Best Book of the Year by Kirkus Review. She is an Assistant Professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University, USA and teaches in the MFA Program at the University of Nebraska, USA in Omaha.
This looks like a very interesting read. I have ordered it! I'm a writer of creative non-fiction and published my first book, Travel Mementos, this year. It looks very useful food for thought as I write my next book.
Excellent! I hope it proves useful - do let us know how you find it :)
In reply to This looks like a very… by Julie Watson
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Core Difference Between Fiction and Nonfiction Writing
- DESCRIPTION difference between fiction and non-fiction
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Fiction and nonfiction sound similar, but they mean very different things in writing. Most people have heard that fiction is fake and nonfiction is true. Explore each type of writing to discover all the ways you can tell them apart.
What Is Fiction?
Fiction in writing and literature is defined as “something that is not true.” Most of the information presented in fiction stories and books is made up in the author’s imagination.
An easy way to remember this is with alliteration in the phrase “fiction is fabricated.” While fiction can contain elements that are true or real, like a real town, the majority of the work needs to be made up.
Examples of Fiction Writing
Fiction genres include myths , crime thrillers, fairy tales , science fiction, dystopia, and romance novels. Famous examples of fiction books include:
- Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: Mr. Wonka’s factory isn’t real, even though there are some cool candy factories around the world.
- Frankenstein: Real scientists do create some weird things, but a monster like Frankenstein isn’t one of them.
- Harry Potter series: There is no verifiable wizard community hiding behind magical walls.
- Moby Dick : The book was inspired by a true event, but the story and characters are totally made up.
- Where the Wild Things Are : Max and his mom could be real people, but Max’s trip is not factual.
What Is Nonfiction?
Nonfiction in writing and literature is defined as “a story that is based on true events and information.” All of the information in a work of nonfiction should be verifiable if possible.
An easy way to remember this is with alliteration in the phrase “nonfiction is newsworthy.” Anything presented in the news is supposed to be as factual as possible.
Examples of Nonfiction Writing
Nonfiction genres include biographies, cookbooks, travel guides, history books, and self-help books.
- Dr. Seuss’s ABC : Although the book includes wacky words, it presents the actual English alphabet and words that truly start with each letter.
- I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings : This is an autobiography written by author Maya Angelou about her actual life.
- Mastering the Art of French Cooking : This cookbook presents real French cooking techniques and recipes.
- Miriam Webster Children’s Dictionary : An educational dictionary presents real words and their accepted definitions.
- What Color is Your Parachute? : This self-help book and job-hunting guide is updated every year to share real job market information and job search tips.
What Is Creative Nonfiction?
When a nonfiction book uses a lot of imagination to present the facts, it’s called creative nonfiction . Events are shared as they actually happened, but creative elements are used in the way the story is told.
Examples of Creative Nonfiction Writing
Examples of creative nonfiction genres include memoir and narrative journalism.
- Dandelion Wine : Ray Bradbury’s semi-autobiographical novel takes real childhood memories and turns them into an imaginative story steeped in truth.
- Into the Wild : Author John Krakauer wrote the book based on a few years in the life of a man who abandoned the world to live off the grid using creative license to share the story.
- Hidden Figures (picture book): The true story of how a few Black women impacted the space program is shared in a kid-friendly way that reads more like a story than a biography.
Main Differences Between Fiction and Nonfiction
Aside from fiction being fabricated and nonfiction being factual, these two types of writing have a few other differences.
- The number of facts presented in a work of nonfiction directly impacts its credibility, but facts in a work of fiction don’t change the genre.
- Fiction is usually more elaborate than nonfiction.
- Nonfiction writing needs references, even just a sworn firsthand account.
- Fiction is meant to tell a story mostly for entertainment while nonfiction is meant to share something believed to be true.
Similarities Between Fiction and Nonfiction
Nonfiction and fiction writing have many similarities in their structures and elements . They can both contain characters, a setting, and a plot. Both types of writing can contain elements of truth or real people, places, and events.
Fact or Fiction?
Today, the line between fiction and nonfiction is much thinner than it was historically. Nonfiction writers try to make their information more interesting by using creativity in how they write the truth. Discover all the book genres available by reading some nonfiction books for kids and some classic fiction books .
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How to Write a Nonfiction Book: A Step-by-Step Guide for Authors
by Boni Wagner-Stafford ( @bclearwriting )
Most writers will tell you that writing nonfiction is easier than writing fiction. This is the good news. The less good news: that doesn’t mean it’s less work to write a nonfiction book. While fiction writers often use a basic outline and then go wherever the story and characters take them, nonfiction takes careful planning before you even start writing. To get you started, these steps explain the basic process of how to write a nonfiction book.
Planning Your Nonfiction Book
6 steps to plan your nonfiction book.
- Get clear on what you want to achieve with your nonfiction book
- Understand the subgenre of nonfiction you’re going to write
- Choose the structure for your book
- Draft an outline
- Choose your style guide
- Write, write, write
1. Get clear on what you want to achieve with your nonfiction book
Before you embark on your writing journey, you need to know why you’re going on this journey in the first place. What is it you want your reader to know? What do you hope to make them think or feel or do once they’ve read your book? Do you want to explain a topic that you’re passionate about? Or do you want to share a story that will inspire or guide your reader?
When you know what you want to achieve with your nonfiction book, you’ll be amazed at how many other pieces of the puzzle fall into place.
2. Understand the subgenre of nonfiction you’re going to write
Once you know what you want to achieve with your book, you need to figure out what kind of nonfiction book you’re going to write. There are different subgenres of nonfiction. The one you choose will determine not only what you’re going to say but also the way you will say it.
Narrative nonfiction is nonfiction that tells a story. Unlike fiction, however, the story you’re telling is true. Some other subgenres of nonfiction are narrative too: memoir , autobiography, and biography, for instance, also tell a story. With this kind of writing, it’s all about telling.
Expository nonfiction is not so much about telling as it is about showing. Here you focus less on the narrative and more on explaining a topic. Textbooks, self-help books, and how-to books are all expository.
3. Choose the structure for your book
If your main aim is to tell a story, you need to decide how you want to tell that story. So, you need to create a plot structure. Examples of plot structures are:
The Traditional Three-Act Structure
Here you tell the story in chronological order. You start with the beginning, or the set-up act. You’re essentially setting the scene: introducing the protagonist and describing the event that sets the protagonist’s story in motion. The middle part, or the confrontation act, describes the protagonist’s journey and the obstacles and characters they encounter along the way. In this part, you may also introduce an antagonist.
The antagonist doesn’t have to be an actual person but can be a major challenge instead: something like societal beliefs, for instance, or a process/thing that needs figuring out. Throughout the confrontation act, you’re building up the suspense. Then, finally, you come to the end part, or the resolution act. This is where the protagonist and antagonist face off: the climax that you’ve been building towards. After the climax, you tie up the loose ends and emphasize what you want your reader to take away from it all.
With this structure, you start your story somewhere in the middle and then use flashbacks to tell your reader how it all began. You can also jump forward to future events and then go back to an earlier point in time. This structure is especially effective when there’s a risk that your reader may lose interest in the set-up and just wants to know what will happen next.
The Circular Structure
Here you start your story with the climactic event that would normally come at the end. You then go back to the beginning and the middle, describing what led to this climactic event. At the end of the book, you reiterate the climactic event and tie up the loose ends.
The Parallel Structure
With this structure, you’re telling two or more stories at the same time. Each separate story has its own beginning, middle, and end. You can weave the stories together or tell them separately but at the end, you need to tie them together.
For expository nonfiction, you may find it makes more sense to divide your book into sections or chapters according to topic. Say, for instance, that you’re writing a how-to business book describing seven steps or principles. The best way to do this is to tackle each step or principle separately. However, you can still build in an overarching narrative by letting one step or principle lead on to the next.
4. Draft an outline
Now it’s time to draft your outline . This is important since it will help you ensure that you cover everything you want to say. An easy way to draft an outline is to follow these steps:
- Write down the main parts of your book’s structure. If you’re going with a narrative style, these will be the beginning, middle, and end parts, in whichever order you decide to tell them. For expository nonfiction, you’ll write down the different main topics you’re going to cover.
- Now consider each part separately. Write down all the points you want to cover in that part.
- Look at all these sub-points and see what you can combine, what you need to separate into different points, which points can be sub-points of others, and so on.
- Decide in which order you want to discuss each sub-point. There may be overlap, so you’ll have to decide where you want to discuss the sub-point in more depth and where you just want to touch on it.
- Decide how much space you want to give each sub-point. This will help keep you from rambling on and on about something that’s not that important in the bigger scheme of things.
Remember that your outline is not set in stone. During your research you may, for example, come across something that you haven’t thought of before and that you’d like to cover as well. Throughout the writing process, you can still chop and change things as you need to.
5. Choose your style guide
A style guide is a set of guidelines that will help you be consistent in your writing. It can cover anything from whether you’ll be using the first person or the second person to little details like whether or not to write out numbers. It’s not strictly necessary to choose a style guide before you start writing, but it will make the process much easier. Writing in a consistent style right from the start will save you time later on.
6. Write, write, write
Once you have an outline, you’ve actually done most of the difficult work. With a style guide to help you take care of the little details, it’s now only a matter of getting your ideas on paper—or on your computer. So, pour yourself something to drink, get rid of distractions, sit down, and get writing .
Nonfiction Writing Techniques: How to Write Informative (and Exciting!) Nonfiction
Some readers steer clear of nonfiction because they think it’s just a collection of boring old facts, with nothing exciting happening. This is really just because they haven’t read a good nonfiction book yet. Nonfiction can be just as much of a thrill to read as fiction: maybe even more so, because you know that what you’re reading about has really happened.
So, as a nonfiction writer, how do you get your ideas across in a way that will earn your book a place on everyone’s list of favourite books?
Nonfiction Writing Techniques
- Remember the story
- Set the scene
- Bring your characters to life
- Beware of TMI
- Remember dialogue
- Use plain language
- Remember your research
- Dig for deeper truths
- Add the final touches
1. Remember the story
Many of the most popular Hollywood blockbusters were actually based on nonfiction books. Even the teen movie Mean Girls was based on a self-help book, Rosalind Wiseman’s Queen Bees and Wannabes. Just because it’s not a figment of your imagination doesn’t mean it has to be dry. Good nonfiction still tells a story, even if it’s about a topic like business or science.
For you as a nonfiction author, the challenge is not just to choose a story to tell but also to choose a story that your readers will find compelling. What you may find interesting may not necessarily be something that will appeal to readers. So, you need to think objectively about the story. Is it interesting to you because of who you are, or is it interesting because of the story?
2. Set the scene
Any story—even if it’s true and even if it’s not really that compelling in itself—becomes instantly more compelling if you set the scene. You want to draw your readers in and make them feel like they’re right there with you. They’re not going to feel much when you simply say that you went to see the bank manager. They are, however, going to feel like they’re part of the action when you describe the bank manager’s office: the bland colours of the walls and furniture, the glare of the computer, the smoothness of the mahogany desk, the smell of the products the cleaners used, the sounds of traffic outside, the dry taste in your mouth. When you describe the scene, remember not to focus only on what things look like. Tap into all five senses.
3. Bring your characters to life
One of the elements that every good story has in common is the lifelike characters that populate it. Everyone you’re talking about in your book is a character. Your readers want to know about each of these characters. What do they look like? What are they wearing? What do they sound like? What are their quirks? That bank manager you’re talking about in your book will sound more like a real person if you describe his sensible haircut, his starched white shirt and sober tie, his formal way of speaking, the way he keeps using his middle finger to push his glasses back in place.
4. Beware of TMI
TMI: too much information. When Tolstoy rambles on and on about the dog running through the meadow, you feel relieved when Anna Karenina finally throws herself into the path of that oncoming train. While it’s important to set the scene and describe your characters, it can also detract from the story if you give too much irrelevant information. It’s one of the quickest ways to lose your readers. So, think critically about what you include in your description. It has to add to the atmosphere but if you need more than a paragraph or two for it, it’s overkill.
5. Remember dialogue
Think about the person you know who tells the best anecdotes. Do they tell the entire story in indirect speech or do they use direct quotes, complete with the voices? Dialogue is a great way of making a scene come alive.
In writing nonfiction, you may be reluctant to use dialogue. You need to stick to the truth, after all. However, there are ways to incorporate dialogue without losing credibility . You may find quotes from interviews, transcripts, court documents and the like. Otherwise, you can use representative dialogue, where you don’t quote what the person actually said but create dialogue from what they may have said. When you go with representative dialogue, however, you need to make it sound authentic. Consider the person’s speech patterns, accent, phrases they’re known to use and the context in which they’re speaking. That bank manager is probably not going to call his clients “dude”. When he’s talking to his surfer buddies though, he will use a very different kind of language.
6. Use plain language
While you may be tempted to show off your great vocabulary, you need to remember that first and foremost, you’re trying to communicate effectively. If nobody understands the words you use, how will they understand your message? Simplifying your language will get the message across more effectively. It will also make the text more conversational, as if you’re talking directly to your reader—and it will keep your book from becoming dull.
Using plain language doesn’t mean you’re dumbing down your message. You can still explain complicated concepts. Now, however, you’re doing it in a way that your readers are more likely to understand. Some of the basics of using plain language in your writing are:
Use the active voice.
It’s more conversational than the passive voice and it’s easier to understand. The passive voice, in contrast, can make your book sound like it was written by a little grey man, in a grey suit, in a grey government office. Of course there are times when the passive voice makes more sense . However, if you use it too often, you’ll definitely lull your readers to sleep.
Use simpler words.
Remember how your English teacher told you to write the way you speak? Well, how often do you use words and phrases like “consequently” instead of “so”, “such as” instead of “like”, or “discombobulate” instead of “baffle” in everyday conversation? (Full disclosure: I love to use the word ‘discombobulate’ 😄)
Just because you understand the meaning of a term doesn’t mean that your readers will. If there is a simpler or more common synonym for the term, use it. If you can’t avoid jargon, explain what the term means. Remember too that slang is a form of jargon. For instance, when you say something is “sick,” your readers may interpret it as a negative rather than the “amazing” you intended.
Use shorter sentences.
Stick to the main idea in each sentence. To avoid monotony, you can vary the length of your sentences. However, try to keep them to no longer than twenty words.
Nominalizations are those nouns we form from a verb: “usage” from “use”, “formation” from “form”, and the like. Nominalizations make your writing sound overly formal. They can also be difficult to understand.
7. Remember your research
While nonfiction tells a story, it’s ultimately about facts . To have any credibility as a nonfiction writer, you need to be able to back up those facts. Even if you’re writing a memoir, you need to get the facts right. Do you have the dates right? Are you sure about the timeline of events? Was that building there, in that street, at the time you’re writing about? In the age of Google, there’s no excuse for not doing your research.
8. Dig for deeper truths
Nothing in this world just is. There’s always a reason why things are the way they are. When you dig for the story behind the story, it can give you more insight into your message. And when you understand the message more clearly, you’ll be better able to explain it to your readers.
9. Add the final touches
Once you’ve written your first draft, it’s time to add the final touches to your book. You need to get it edited , source your illustrations , have the layout and cover design done and have a proofreader give it the final once-over. These are all aspects that you can outsource to professionals with the technical know-how.
Boni Wagner-Stafford is author of One Million Readers: The Definitive Guide to a Nonfiction Book Marketing Strategy that Saves Time, Money, and Sells More Books . She’s a writer, ghostwriter, and editor specializing in nonfiction. She is also co-founder of Ingenium Books , where she coaches nonfiction authors writing in the genres of business, self-help, personal development, memoir, and journalistic nonfiction. As an award-winning former Canadian journalist (under the names Boni Fox and Boni Fox Gray), Boni covered politics, government, social and economic policy, health care, and organized crime. She also held senior management roles in government where she led teams responsible for media relations, issues management, and strategic communications planning. As an entrepreneur, Boni has muddied her hands with one-page strategic plans, cash flow forecasts, development of purpose and core values, franchise structures, sales targets, and marketing strategy. She has lived in more than fifty towns and cities in Canada, Mexico, and France, currently residing in La Paz, Mexico.
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