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Narrative Nonfiction Books: Definition and Examples

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Hannah Yang

narrative nonfiction

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What is narrative nonfiction, narrative nonfiction examples, how prowritingaid can help you write narrative nonfiction.

There are countless types of nonfiction books that you can consider writing. One popular genre you might have heard of is narrative nonfiction.

So, what exactly is narrative nonfiction?

The short answer is that narrative nonfiction is any true story written in the style of a fiction novel.

Read on to learn more about what narrative nonfiction looks like as well as some examples of bestselling narrative nonfiction books.

Let’s start with a quick overview of what narrative nonfiction means.

Narrative Nonfiction Definition

Narrative nonfiction, which is also sometimes called literary nonfiction or creative nonfiction, is a subgenre of nonfiction . This subgenre includes any true story that’s written in the style of a novel.

narrative nonfiction definition

It’s easy to understand this term if you break it down into its component parts. The first word, narrative, means story. The second word, nonfiction , means writing that’s based on fact rather than imagination.

So, if you put those two words together, it’s clear that narrative nonfiction refers to true events that are written in the style of a story.

Narrative Nonfiction Meaning

You can think of narrative nonfiction as a genre that focuses both on conveying the truth and on telling a good story.

Everything in a narrative nonfiction book should be an accurate portrayal of true events. However, those events are told using techniques that are often used in fiction.

For example, narrative nonfiction writers might consider writing craft elements such as plot structure, character development, and effective world-building to craft a compelling story.

Most narrative nonfiction books include the following elements:

A protagonist (either the author themselves or the core subject of the story)

A cast of characters (who are real people)  

Immersive, fleshed-out scenes

A plot arc similar to the plot arcs found in fiction novels

Use of literary devices such as metaphors, symbols, and flashbacks

Some narrative nonfiction writers also play with more creative elements to make the story more intriguing, such as multiple POVs, alternating timelines, and even the inclusion of emails, diary entries, and text messages.

nonfiction narrative writing examples

Be confident about grammar

Check every email, essay, or story for grammar mistakes. Fix them before you press send.

At the end of the day, though, narrative nonfiction is still a form of nonfiction. That means it’s important to try to be as accurate as possible.

Authors writing in this genre need extensive research skills, whether that means combing through historical records or interviewing experts. It’s impossible to create a completely accurate representation of any true story, so it’s fine to take some creative license when writing narrative nonfiction, but most authors still do as much research as they can to make sure they’re correctly depicting what happened.

Which Genres Count as Narrative Nonfiction?

It’s hard to draw a clear line around what counts as narrative nonfiction since many works of writing blur the lines between subgenres.

Two genres that commonly intersect with narrative nonfiction are memoir and autobiography, which are terms that apply when an author tells the story of their own life. When these stories are told in a narrative style, some people consider that to be narrative nonfiction or literary nonfiction, while others believe memoir and autobiography should be a separate category.

Most journalism and biographies aren’t included under the narrative nonfiction umbrella, since they usually focus more on reporting than on telling a story. Still, a form of journalism called literary journalism deliberately aims to tell personal stories in a more creative way, and there are also biographies that do the same.

Some books in other nonfiction subgenres, such as travel writing, true crime, and even food writing, can also be told in a way that resembles narrative nonfiction. In fact, more and more nonfiction books these days are using literary techniques to hook readers in.

Narrative nonfiction books can focus on just about any topic as long as they use literary styles to tell true stories. If you’re writing nonfiction, you can definitely consider incorporating literary elements to craft a compelling narrative around your topic.

The best way to understand a genre of writing is by reading examples within that genre. Here are ten of the best narrative nonfiction books to add to your reading list.

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (1965)

Truman Capote, best known for his novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s, started out as a fiction writer. When he wrote In Cold Blood , he famously called it a “nonfiction novel,” which introduced that term into the popular consciousness for the first time.   

In Cold Blood tells the story of a brutal quadruple murder that took place in 1959 in Holcomb, Kansas. The book describes the details of the murder, the ensuing investigation, and the eventual arrest of the murderers.  

In many ways, In Cold Blood defined the narrative nonfiction genre. It was one of the first times an author had written journalism in the structure of a novel, and it inspired many future writers to try creative nonfiction too.

Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer (1997)

Jon Krakauer is a journalist and a mountaineer who summited Mt. Everest on the day a terrible storm hit the mountain. That storm ended up claiming five lives and leaving Krakauer himself ridden with guilt.

Into Thin Air is Krakauer’s account of his adventure and its deadly aftermath. It portrays the entire cast of characters that accompanied him up the mountain and also shows the character growth Krakauer experienced as a result.

This book is a famous example of a memoir that reads like an adventure novel. The American Academy of Arts and Letters gave this book an Academy Award in Literature in 1999 and described it as combining “the finest tradition of investigative journalism with the stylish subtlety and profound insight of the born writer.”

Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand (1999)

Seabiscuit was a California racehorse in the 1930s. Because of his crooked leg, he was never expected to win.

However, when Seabiscuit was bought by Charles Howard and ridden by a jockey named Red Pollard, he rose to unexpected success. Now, Seabiscuit is remembered as one of the most iconic racehorses of all time.

Laura Hillenbrand, an equestrian writer, tells Seabiscuit’s story in this classic work of narrative nonfiction. Charles Howard, Red Pollard, and all the other characters involved in Seabiscuit’s life are researched and portrayed in a masterful way.   

narrative nonfiction books

Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books by Azar Nafisi (2003)

From 1995 to 1997, Nafisi led a secret book club at her house in Tehran. Every Thursday, she met with her most dedicated female student to read banned Western classics together, from Pride and Prejudice to Lolita.

In Reading Lolita in Tehran , Nafisi describes her experiences throughout the Iranian revolution. It’s a gripping book that provides rare and extraordinary insight into what it was like to be a woman in Tehran in the late 1990s.

Like all great narrative nonfiction, this book would be a compelling novel even if you didn’t know it was a true story, but the fact that it’s all true makes it even more powerful.  

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (2010)

Henrietta Lacks was a Black woman whose cells were taken by medical researchers in 1951 without her knowledge or consent. Ever since then, her cells, now known as HeLa cells, have been kept alive for medical uses.

HeLa cells have been essential for researching diseases, creating the polio vaccination, and making other medical breakthroughs. And yet, her family never benefited from or consented to their use.

Rebecca Skloot’s bestselling book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks tells Lacks’ story in a thoughtful and illuminating way, weaving in research on the unjust intersection of medicine and race. The book won many awards and was later made into an HBO movie.

Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly (2016)

America’s achievements in space could never have happened without the contributions of Black female mathematicians at NASA, known as “human computers.” Before modern computers existed, these women used pen and paper to perform the calculations that launched rockets into space.

Shetterly’s book tells the stories of four of these brilliant women: Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden. The story follows them for over three decades as they overcame racial and gender prejudices to help shape American history.  

This work of literary nonfiction is well-researched, informative, and powerful. It was also made into a major motion picture by Twentieth Century Fox.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi (2016)

Paul Kalanithi, a Stanford neurosurgeon, was only 36 years old when he received his Stage IV lung cancer diagnosis. He went from treating patients to becoming the patient in such a short span of time that he had to quickly learn how to accept his own mortality.

Kalanithi wrote this medical memoir during the last years of his life, describing how he came to terms with his diagnosis. When Breath Becomes Air tells Kalanithi’s story in a poignant and unforgettable way.   

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann (2017)

Killers of the Flower Moon is a true crime murder mystery about a terrible crime in the 1920s, when members of the Osage Indian nation in Oklahoma started getting killed one by one. Anyone who tried to investigate was in danger of getting murdered too until the death toll rose to over two dozen.

When the truth was finally uncovered, it turned out to be a chilling conspiracy bolstered by prejudice against Indigenous people.

Journalist David Grann tells the story of this shocking crime in this narrative nonfiction book, which is soon to be made into a major motion picture.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara (2018)

The Golden State Killer was a serial killer who raped and murdered dozens of people in the 1970s and 1980s. Michelle McNamara was a true crime journalist who coined the name “Golden State Killer” in 2013 when she was poring over police records, determined to figure out the killer’s identity.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, which was still in the process of being written when McNamara died, blurs the genres between nonfiction, memoir, and crime fiction. The book eventually helped lead to the killer’s capture.

Facing the Mountain: A True Story of Japanese American Heroes in WWII by Daniel James Brown (2021)

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Japanese Americans faced suspicion and systemic prejudice from their own country. In spite of the injustices they faced over the next several years, many Japanese Americans still signed up to fight for the US in World War II.

In Facing the Mountain , Daniel James Brown tells the stories of four Japanese American heroes: Rudy Tokiwa, Kats Miho, Gordon Hirabayashi, and Fred Shiosaki. The book follows these four men and their families and communities, who were irreversibly impacted by the events of the war.

narrative nonfiction books list

Writing narrative nonfiction can be incredibly rewarding, but it can also be unusually tricky because you have to accomplish two goals at once. Unlike other nonfiction, which aims to inform, or most fiction, which aims to entertain, narrative nonfiction seeks to inform and entertain at the same time.

To inform, you’ll need your writing to be clear and easily readable. To entertain, you’ll need it to be gripping and active.

ProWritingAid can help with both of those goals. At the most basic level, the AI-powered grammar checker will make sure your writing is free of grammar, spelling, and punctuation mistakes. At a more sophisticated level, it will also make sure you’re hooking your reader in by using the active voice, precise word choices, and varied sentence lengths.

In addition, you can also use ProWritingAid to make sure you’re writing in the right tone and for the right reading level. Running your narrative nonfiction manuscript through ProWritingAid will ensure your writing truly shines.

There you have it—our complete guide to narrative nonfiction.

Good luck, and happy writing!

Hannah is a speculative fiction writer who loves all things strange and surreal. She holds a BA from Yale University and lives in Colorado. When she’s not busy writing, you can find her painting watercolors, playing her ukulele, or hiking in the Rockies. Follow her work on hannahyang.com or on Twitter at @hannahxyang.

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50 Great Narrative Nonfiction Books

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Kim Ukura is a book lover, recovering journalist, library advocate, cat mom, and lover of a good gin cocktail. In addition to co-hosting Book Riot’s nonfiction podcast, For Real, and co-editing Book Riot’s nonfiction newsletter, True Story, Kim spends her days working in communications at a county library system in the Twin Cities area. Kim has a BA in English and journalism from a small liberal arts college in Minnesota, and a master’s in journalism from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. When not getting to bed before 10 p.m., Kim loves to read nonfiction, do needlework projects, drink tea, and watch the Great British Baking Show. Instagram: @kimthedork Twitter: @kimthedork

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This list is a collection of 50 great narrative nonfiction books, although it easily could have been much longer. A few caveats: I tried not to include straight autobiographies or memoirs because I wanted to keep this list focused on books that highlight strong research/reporting along with narrative voice. I also included just one book from any given author. If you’ve already read the book I’ve listed, most of these writers have an extensive backlist to explore. And, of course, this list of narrative nonfiction isn’t nearly comprehensive—that’d be basically impossible.

Book cover of The Emperor of All Maladies

The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee—An in-depth biography of cancer.

Being Mortal by Atul Gawande—Medicine, life, and choices about how we die.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot—History of the most prolific cells in science.

Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly—African American female mathematicians and the race to space.

Packing for Mars by Mary Roach—The strange science used to get astronauts ready for space.

Leaving Orbit by Margaret Lazarus Dean—“Notes from the last days of American spaceflight”

Annals of the Former World by John McPhee—Four books collected into one giant work on the geological history of North America.

The Secret Life of Lobsters by Trevor Corson—“How fishermen and scientists are unraveling the mysteries of our favorite crustacean.”

Global Issues

Book cover of Night Draws Near

Night Draws Near by Anthony Shadid—A portrait of Iraqi citizens “weathering the unexpected impact of America’s invasion and occupation.”

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo—Life in a Mumbai slum.

Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder—One doctor’s work bringing medical care to those most in need.

Without You, There Is No Us by Suki Kim—A reporter goes inside a school for the sons of North Korea’s elite.

Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick—North Korean defectors tell what it’s like inside the country.

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi—Reading American classics in revolutionary Iran.

The Secretary by Kim Ghattas—An inside account of Hillary Clinton’s term as Secretary of State by a traveling journalist.

The Lonely War by Nazila Fathi—An Iranian journalist’s account of the struggle for reform in modern Iran.

Book cover of The Warmth of Other Suns

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson—The great migration of African Americans to northern cities and the impact it has today.

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand—World War II tale of survival after being shot down over the Pacific Ocean.

The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown—Olympic rowing at the 1936 Berlin Olympics (this book is amazing!).

Sin in the Second City by Karen Abbott—Stories from America’s favorite Victorian-era brothel and the culture war it inspired.

Eighty Days by Matthew Goodman—Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland race around the world in 1889.

In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson—America’s ambassador to Germany, and his headstrong daughter, in the lead-up to World War II.

Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann—A conspiracy against the Osage tribe and the birth of the FBI.

The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell—The Puritans and their strange journey to found America

Galileo’s Daughter by Dava Sobel—A look at the relationship between Galileo and his oldest daughter, a nun named Maria Celeste.

The Romanov Sisters by Helen Rappaport—A look at the fall of the Romanov family, focusing specifically on the lives of Nicholas and Alexandra’s four daughters, Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia.

City of Light, City of Poison by Holly Tucker—An account of Paris’s first police chief and a poisonous murder epidemic in the late 1600s.

Narrative Nonfiction Classics

Book cover of In Cold Blood

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote—The original true crime nonfiction novel.

The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean—Obsession and rare flowers in the Florida Everglades.

Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer—The story of a harrowing, deadly climb on Mount Everest.

Random Family by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc—“Love, drugs, trouble, and coming of age in the Bronx.”

Friday Night Lights by Buzz Bissinger—The big business of high school football in Texas.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion—Essays on a feminist journalist’s experiences in California in the 1960s.

Newjack by Ted Conover—A journalist goes undercover as a prison officer in Sing Sing to better understand the penal system.

The Monster of Florence by Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi—Historical true crime on Italy’s Jack the Ripper, who killed between 1968 and 1985.

The Blind Side by Michael Lewis—A sports biography on one man’s journey to the NFL and the evolution of the game.

Social Issues

Book cover of Does Jesus Really Love Me?

Does Jesus Really Love Me?  by Jeffrey Chu—A gay Christian looks for God in America.

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman—Cultural barriers in life and medicine (so good!).

Evicted by Matthew Desmond—Poverty, profits, and the eviction crisis in America.

Gang Leader for a Day by Sudhir Venkatesh—A sociologist spends a decade in Chicago’s Robert Taylor Homes to better understand the lives of the urban poor.

Homicide by David Simon—A look at one year spent with homicide detectives in Baltimore.

Another Day in the Death of America by Gary Younge—A journalist puts a human face on gun violence by writing about the 10 teenagers killed by guns on a single day in America.

Methland by Nick Reding—A look at the impact of meth on small towns, based on four years of reporting in an agricultural town in Iowa.

And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts—The first and perhaps most comprehensive look at the AIDS crisis.

Contemporary Reporting

Book cover of The Man Who Loved Books Too Much

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much by Allison Hoover Bartlett—“The true story of a thief, a detective, and a world of literary obsession.”

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu by Joshua Hammer—A group of librarians banded together to pull of a literary heist to save precious Arabic texts from Al Qaeda.

Moby Duck by Donovan Hohn—“The true story of 28,800 bath toys lost at sea and of the beachcombers, oceanographers, environmentalists and fools, including the author, who went in search of them.”

Columbine by Dave Cullen—The definitive account of the Columbine shooting.

Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink—Life and death and medical malpractice at a hospital ravaged by Hurricane Katrina.

Tribe by Sebastian Junger—Learning about loyalty and belonging from tribal societies.

If you enjoyed this list and want more narrative nonfiction content, check out our True Story newsletter. Sign up here!

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Non-Fiction Narrative Techniques: Crafting Compelling True Stories

By: Author Paul Jenkins

Posted on April 6, 2024

Categories Business , Journaling , Narrative , Writing

Narrative non-fiction is an engaging genre that blends factual reporting with compelling storytelling. It employs various literary devices and techniques to craft true stories with the vividness and emotional depth often found in fiction. Authors of narrative non-fiction bring to life real characters, settings, and events, creating a vivid tapestry that captivates readers, while maintaining the accuracy and relevance of the information being presented.

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This genre encompasses a diverse range of subjects and approaches, from in-depth explorations of socio-political issues to intimate biographies and memoirs. Writers utilize extensive research and interviews to construct an authentic narrative foundation.

Creative elements, including character development and a strong narrative arc , are then interwoven to enhance readability and appeal. By understanding their audience, non-fiction narrators tailor the delivery of their stories to inform, persuade, or entertain, often leaving a lasting impact on their readers.

Key Takeaways

  • Narrative non-fiction combines real-world facts with storytelling techniques .
  • Thorough research and real narratives are foundational to the genre’s credibility.
  • The genre adapts creative devices to engage and communicate effectively with readers.

Defining Non-Fiction Narrative

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Narrative non-fiction , also known as literary nonfiction or literary journalism , is a genre that encompasses true stories presented in a compelling, narrative style . Unlike standard non-fiction, which is structured around presenting facts, figures, and information, narrative non-fiction weaves these elements into a story-like format, often adorned with the elements of fiction such as character development, setting descriptions, and a structured plot.

Here are some key characteristics:

  • True Stories : The foundation of narrative non-fiction is factual accuracy . Every event, character, and dialogue must be grounded in verifiable facts.
  • Engaging Storytelling : Authors employ narrative techniques common to fiction, like scene setting, pacing, and climax, to captivate readers.
  • Literary Devices : The use of literary devices such as metaphor, foreshadowing, and vivid descriptions enhances the narrative while remaining true to the facts.

Narrative non-fiction differs from other non-fiction in its emphasis on narrative and aesthetic structure, intending to engage as well as inform. It is seen in a variety of forms, including personal essays, memoirs, biographies, and historical accounts. Authors of this genre aim to convey complex truths through a well-crafted narrative, often with the depth and research characteristic of rigorous journalism .

For those interested in exploring this genre, understanding and Teaching the Five Kinds of Nonfiction provides insight into how narrative non-fiction can be a bridge for fiction lovers to engage with factual content through the lens of storytelling.

Elements of Narrative Non-Fiction

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Narrative non-fiction crafts real-world stories with the same literary devices found in fiction, focusing on elements like a compelling structure and truthful, yet engaging content.

Structure and Plot

In narrative non-fiction, structure and plot are the backbones of the story, guiding readers through a logical sequence or arranged in a way that makes thematic sense. Chronological order is the most straightforward approach, but authors may also employ techniques like flashbacks to enhance the narrative.

Setting and Scene

The setting provides context, grounding the narrative in a particular time and place. The scene creates an immersive experience for readers, often through rich descriptions and sensory details, enabling a vivid exploration of real-world events.


Characterization in narrative non-fiction involves the in-depth portrayal of real people. Through actions, thoughts, and interviews, characters come to life, and their authentic experiences drive the narrative.

Dialogue and Quotes

Dialogue and quotes add authenticity, allowing readers to hear the subjects’ voices firsthand. This technique can reveal personality and is often extracted from interviews or historical records.

Theme and Message

The theme and message reflect the central ideas and takeaways that the author wishes to convey. Whether it’s a moral lesson, a prominent issue, or a personal story, these elements resonate with the reader and give the narrative a purpose.

Perspective and Reflection

A narrative non-fiction often includes the author’s perspective and reflection , allowing for personal insights that connect with the audience on an emotional level. This introspection transforms mere events into a story with depth.

Truth and Accuracy

Truth and accuracy are paramount, distinguishing narrative non-fiction from fiction. Ethical writing practices demand a commitment to the truth, avoiding fabrication , while still crafting a compelling narrative.

Pacing and Timing

Effective pacing and timing control the rhythm of the story, building tension or providing relief as needed. Skillful pacing ensures that readers stay engaged from beginning to end, navigating through the narrative at a tempo that suits the unfolding events.

Research and Interviews

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When constructing a non-fiction narrative, thorough research underpins the credibility of the work. Authors often begin by identifying their research objectives to clarify what they need to learn and why it is significant. They may peruse historical records, analyze reports, or examine existing literature to lay a strong foundation for their narratives. Accessible and reliable information is the backbone of non-fiction, and authors must exercise due diligence to fact-check and validate their findings.

Interviews play a crucial role, especially for an investigative journalist . Engaging with individuals who have direct experience or expert knowledge on the topic can offer depth and perspective that is not available through other sources. Here are some steps authors may take during this process:

  • Prepare : Develop insightful questions; research the interviewee’s background.
  • Engage : Conduct the interview in a respectful, professional manner.
  • Record : With permission, record responses to ensure accuracy.
  • Verify : Check the factual accuracy of statements made during interviews.

In the realm of investigative journalism , interviews are often key to uncovering truths that are not evident through data alone. An experienced journalist knows the value of primary sources and firsthand accounts, and acknowledges that what interviewees share can transform an examination from informative to engrossing. They follow a systematic approach:

  • Define the Scope : Every interview should have a clear purpose that aligns with the researcher’s goals.
  • Source Selection : Identifying authoritative and diverse sources to provide balanced perspectives.
  • Ethical Considerations : They approach interviews with confidentiality and sensitivity where required.

Whether the writer is a seasoned journalist or a first-time author, meticulous research paired with strategic interviews can elevate a non-fiction narrative from merely factual to profoundly compelling.

Creative Elements in Narrative Non-Fiction

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Narrative non-fiction blends factual content with creative storytelling techniques to engage and inform the reader. This section outlines how authors use creative license while adhering to ethical standards, and incorporate fiction techniques, literary devices , and sensory details to enhance the narrative.

Creative License and Ethics

Authors of narrative non-fiction take certain liberties to craft a compelling story—often referred to as creative license . However, they must balance this creativity with ethics to ensure that the truth of their narrative is not compromised. This includes maintaining accuracy while possibly altering minor details to protect identities or when exact details are inaccessible.

Incorporating Fiction Techniques

Narrative non-fiction writers often employ techniques traditionally found in fiction writing such as building suspense , using flashbacks , and developing a backstory . A chronological account might be rearranged to create a more engaging narrative, similar to how a novelist structures a plot to build toward a climax or to incorporate a surprise element.

Literary Devices and Storytelling

Literary non-fiction uses a variety of literary devices to enrich the prose. For example, an epiphany experienced by the protagonist can serve as a pivotal moment in the narrative, just as it would in a novel. Storytelling in creative nonfiction is not only about the sequence of events but also about how those events are conveyed to evoke emotion and deeper understanding.

Sensory Details and Imagery

To immerse readers in the experience, writers often appeal to the five senses . Descriptive imagery and sensory details allow the audience to visualize scenes and feel connected to the events or characters. This technique helps to paint a vivid picture and can make even the most mundane details come to life.

Reflection and Personal Essays

In personal essays and memoirs , the writer’s reflection is a key element. These forms of creative nonfiction explore the author’s insights and emotions about their experiences. A chronicle of events accompanied by the writer’s introspection offers a deeper level of engagement and often communicates universal truths.

Writing for Your Audience

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Understanding your audience is crucial when writing non-fiction. A writer should anticipate the readers’ needs, interests, and knowledge level to maintain their attention and deliver relevant content. To tailor non-fiction writing to a specific audience , one must consider several factors.

  • Demographics : Age, profession, education level, and cultural background.
  • Purpose : Why is the audience reading the piece? Are they looking for information, entertainment, or skill enhancement?
  • Genre familiarity : Is the audience versed in the genre , or is this their first encounter?

A well-crafted non-fiction piece should resonate with its intended audience . For example, technical jargon may be appropriate for professional or academic readers, while a narrative approach suits a broader audience . A writer may employ anecdotes to relate to the audience on a personal level, thus fostering a connection.

Writers must also vary their sentence structure and choose accessible vocabulary to encourage continued reading. Alli ance with the reader is formed when content is presented in a logical and pleasing manner. Moreover, directly addressing the reader can enhance engagement.

By prioritizing the audience and their expectations, the non-fiction writer establishes a bond of trust. This relationship is the bedrock on which the success of the piece rests.

Case Studies and Examples

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This section delves into the use of non-fiction narrative techniques through an examination of influential authors, award-winning publications, and the spectrum of non-fiction forms . It provides context through specific historical examples and the perspectives of notable practitioners in the field.

Influential Non-Fiction Authors

Joan Didion and Tom Wolfe stand out for their distinctive styles that blend journalistic rigor with literary flair. Didion’s incisive explorations of American culture and personal narratives set her apart, while Wolfe’s New Journalism ushered in an era of immersive reporting, as seen in works like “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.”

Norman Mailer and Hunter S. Thompson also revolutionized non-fiction with their bold approaches. Mailer’s “The Armies of the Night” and Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” exhibit a deep interplay between the author’s persona and the narrative, pushing the boundaries of traditional journalism.

Award-Winning Works

Non-fiction narrative techniques have been acknowledged in the literary world with numerous Pulitzer Prizes for works that offer in-depth reporting and storytelling excellence . For example, biographies have frequently been recognized by the Pulitzer committee, with meticulously researched life stories offering compelling narratives about historical figures.

In literary criticism, essays and books that dissect written works through nuanced argumentation have been celebrated for their contribution to understanding literature and society. These pieces often reveal as much about the critic as about the subject, reflecting the personal tone that characterizes much non-fiction narrative.

Controversial and Notable Works

Controversy in non-fiction can arise from blurred lines between fact and fiction. James Frey’s “A Million Little Pieces,” initially published as a memoir, later faced scrutiny over fabricated elements, sparking a debate over truth in literary non-fiction.

Additionally, Hunter S. Thompson’s gonzo journalism, where reporters involve themselves in the action to such a degree that they become central figures of their stories, has also been a subject of controversy, raising questions about objectivity and the true essence of non-fiction.

Varied Forms of Non-Fiction

The scope of non-fiction narrative is vast, ranging from food writing , which provides culinary history and personal anecdote , to the diary format, offering intimate insights into the author’s thoughts over time. “Frankenstein,” often categorized as fiction, has been revisited by literary critics for its deeply autobiographical elements.

In journalism , articles published in magazines often adopt narrative techniques to engage with the reader on issues of current events and culture. Meanwhile, the MasterClass platform has hosted numerous biographers and non-fiction authors sharing their experience in crafting compelling true stories, providing insight into the process and history of non-fiction narrative creation.

Publication and the Industry

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The publication industry for non-fiction narrative spans various mediums, each with their unique set of techniques and audience engagement tools. In magazines , the use of serial storytelling is often employed to retain readers over multiple issues. This approach capitalizes on the continuity of narrative to build a loyal readership eager for the next installment.

Moving to journalism , non-fiction narratives are frequently amplified through multi-platform publishing. Here, stories may start in print or digital articles and extend into deeper dives via podcasts . These audio formats offer an intimate experience, wherein voices and sounds bring stories to life. They are particularly effective for immersive storytelling , which is a critical aspect in non-fiction narratives.

Within the industry, serial publications have gained prominence across both physical and digital spaces. The episodic release of content keeps audiences consistently engaged and allows for more complex, layered storytelling . Publishers utilizing serial formats often explore a wider range of topics, going in-depth with each episode or issue, advancing the public’s understanding of a subject over time.

It is the blend of factual reporting with compelling storytelling that distinguishes non-fiction narrative in today’s publication landscape. Whether through a podcast series, a feature in a literary journal, or a sequence of magazine articles, publishers are crafting stories that hold both truth and narrative appeal . Such content not only informs but entertains, ensuring that the readers or listeners stay tuned for the next chapter in an ongoing saga of real-life stories.

Genre Exploration

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In exploring the genre of narrative non-fiction, one discovers a rich landscape where factual narratives are presented with the storytelling techniques of fiction. This genre encompasses various forms, such as memoirs, literary journalism, and historical narratives, each with its own conventions and storytelling methods.

Memoirs and Personal Stories

Memoirs and personal stories chronicle an individual’s life experiences , often illuminating broader themes and truths. They hinge on authentic, reflective insights into the human condition , crafted through a combination of narrative arc , character development , and emotional resonance . For example, the structure of a memoir might be nonlinear, emphasizing thematic connections over chronological events.

  • Authentic experiences
  • Reflective insights

Literary and Journalistic Non-Fiction

Literary journalism and literary non-fiction blur the line between reportage and story, utilizing descriptive language and narrative structure to convey complex truths. Literary journalists often immerse themselves in the subject matter, offering an in-depth and nuanced perspective. The aim is to inform and captivate, bringing readers closer to the heart of the discourse.

  • Descriptive language
  • Narrative structure
  • In-depth exploration

Historical and Biographical Works

Biography and history focus on chronicling the lives of individuals or significant events from the past. Biographers strive to provide a meticulous account , backed by extensive research, while still engaging readers through the power of storytelling. Historical works aim to contextualize the past, offering a window into the lives, cultures, and events that have shaped the world narrative.

  • Extensive research
  • Storytelling techniques

In each of these sub-genres, the commitment to factual accuracy is paramount, yet the storyteller’s voice is clear, transforming dry accounts into gripping narratives. The goal is always to illuminate truth through the artful arrangement of real-life events.

Evolution of Non-Fiction Narrative

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The foundations of narrative non-fiction are deeply rooted in history, emerging prominently in the literary landscape with early 20th-century classics. Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” and Norman Mailer’s “The Executioner’s Song” stand as pivotal works, utilizing rich descriptive language and thorough character development, typically associated with fiction, to relay factual stories. This blending of storytelling techniques marked a substantial step in the genre’s growth .

Throughout the 1960s , a transformation unfolded as journalists began pushing the boundaries of conventional reporting, integrating creative elements into their factual writing. This period saw an exploration of the genre, which is often considered the inception of modern creative non-fiction.

  • Early 19th Century : Elements of narrative non-fiction appear in works such as “A Walk to Wachusett” by Henry David Thoreau.
  • Early 20th Century : Books like “In Cold Blood” employ fictional storytelling methods to narrate real events.
  • 1960s and Beyond : Journalists test the limits of narrative freedom, leading to the emergence of creative non-fiction.

Narrative non-fiction has evolved to include not only literary works but also other forms such as longform journalism , memoirs , and biographies . The shift towards a more narrative-driven approach in non-fiction reflects an ongoing change in how readers engage with the genre .

Narrative non-fiction’s growth is a testament to its versatility and the public’s appetite for stories that combine the factual reliability of journalism with the emotional resonance of literature. It continues to be an influential force in literature and journalism, adapting to the challenges and demands of each new generation.

Developing a Unique Writing Style

A unique writing style allows an author to distinguish their work from others, offering readers a distinct voice and perspective. In non-fiction, developing such a style can add depth and personal touch to factual content, making it engrossing and memorable.

Firstly , an author should become intimately aware of their voice . This is a combination of their personal style and the choices they make in diction, syntax, and tonality. For example, authors may choose to incorporate short, punchy sentences to convey urgency or long, flowing syntax for a more narrative feel. Reflecting on one’s own preferences, experiences, and the intended audience will shape this voice.

Next, consider the narrative techniques : using vivid descriptions , weaving in anecdotes and adopting a conversational tone can help to humanize the text. On the other hand, employing technical language and complex sentences can establish authority in a subject area. An author’s choices in these areas should align with their goals and the expectations of their readers.

Writing with clarity and confidence is crucial; it ensures that the message is not lost in the style. The balance between creative flourishes and straightforward reporting of facts is a fine line that defines a writer’s unique non-fiction narrative style.

Finally, authors can fine-tune their writing style through revision and by seeking feedback from peers. These practices help to refine voice and style, ensuring that they align with the author’s objectives and resonate with their audience.

By exploring and employing a variety of narrative techniques, detailed in resources such as the guides on improving nonfiction writing and writing creative nonfiction , one can craft a vibrant style that brings non-fiction stories to life.

Final Words

In the realm of non-fiction narrative, the conclusion holds substantial weight; it not only seals the argument but also leaves a lasting impression. A robust conclusion can often employ a mix of methods tailored to the narrative’s needs. For example, combining a reflective summary with projections for the future can provide closure while encouraging ongoing contemplation.

Writers may juxtapose a combo method to ensure a multi-faceted conclusion that resonates with varied audiences. It is through the conclusion that authors bring together the book’s themes, reminding the reader of the journey and solidifying the narrative’s purpose.

The conclusion must echo the book’s core message , whether it serves to motivate, inform, or call to action. It is here that writers crystallize their message, leaving readers with clarity and a sense of completion. Choosing the appropriate concluding technique is a strategic decision — a testament to the author’s skill in crafting compelling non-fiction .

Frequently Asked Questions

Narrative nonfiction merges factual storytelling with literary techniques to craft engaging and informative narratives. This section addresses common inquiries about its structure, techniques, and examples.

What are the core characteristics of narrative nonfiction?

Narrative nonfiction is characterized by its adherence to factual accuracy while employing elements such as character development, setting detail, and a structured plot . It often reads like a novel, but the stories it tells are true and well-researched.

Which narrative techniques are most commonly employed in nonfiction writing?

Nonfiction writers utilize a range of techniques such as dialogue , pacing, point of view, and thematic development to enrich the narrative. They rely on vivid descriptions and scene-setting to evoke real places and events.

How does the structure of a non-fiction narrative differ from that of fiction?

The structure of non-fiction narrative may not always follow a linear path as fiction does. It often incorporates flashbacks or thematic organization rather than chronological order, guided by the material’s real-world implications rather than plot devices.

Can you provide examples of narrative nonfiction suitable for middle school students?

Suitable narrative nonfiction for middle schoolers includes titles that are engaging and age-appropriate, such as “The Boys Who Challenged Hitler” by Phillip Hoose, which blends historical information with a compelling narrative.

What distinguishes a narrative nonfiction piece from a memoir?

A memoir is a subset of narrative nonfiction that specifically focuses on the author’s personal experiences. Meanwhile, narrative nonfiction spans a broader range of subjects and often involves various real-life characters and events beyond the author’s life.

What are some notable narrative nonfiction titles for younger readers, such as those in 2nd and 5th grades?

Notable titles for younger readers include books like “Balto and the Great Race” by Elizabeth Cody Kimmel, which delivers an adventurous true story in an accessible format for children.

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How to Master Narrative Nonfiction – A Guide to Telling Great True Stories

by Harry Wallett

Do you have an incredible true story but are unsure how to tell it? Indeed, personal accounts can be difficult to write if they’re too personal. So, consider the approach of narrative nonfiction writers who reveal their true stories through the devices relied on by fiction writers. 

There are undoubtedly many ways to tell personal stories – you might choose to stick directly to the facts and give a straightforward account of the real-life events leading to the story’s climax. Or you might consider a more creative approach to bringing your story to life. 

This article is about narrative nonfiction and literary techniques you might consider borrowing from fiction storytelling. We’ll share some great examples of narrative nonfiction encompassing true crime, travel writing, and serial killer tales that have contributed to this increasingly popular genre.

What is the definition of narrative nonfiction?

nonfiction narrative writing examples

Narrative nonfiction is often referred to as literary nonfiction or creative nonfiction, and these terms are used to describe true stories written in the typical style of a fiction novel. 

Some narrative nonfiction examples:

  • Seabiscuit: An American Legend  by Laura Hillenbrand – the story of a real-life racehorse and its rise to success during World War II. 
  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks  by Rebecca Skloot – written through intense research of interview and meeting transcripts, photos, and notes from a real-world event.
  • In Cold Blood  by Truman Capote – attributed as the piece that changed literary journalism, using true crime events with fiction storytelling techniques. One man’s journey into the depths of crime and its consequences.

Narrative nonfiction writers aim to take the facts of true events and compellingly tell them – in the way that fiction writers make creative choices about how they reveal revelations and plot points. 

And while there’s an emphasis on storytelling, the best narrative nonfiction books rely on the truth as much as possible. 

What Is the Difference Between Nonfiction Narratives and Memoir?

Good question! 

While memoir and narrative nonfiction aim for factually accurate storytelling, there are some significant differences in the mediums. 

What is a memoir?

A memoir uses a first-person narrator regaling personal stories, seeking the emotional truth. Memoir writers examine and re-evaluate the events of their lives rather than simply retell the story parrot-fashion. 

And while memoir usually tells a story with a linear narrative (in order of the events as they happened), the medium is most interesting when the writer views their own experiences through a critical lens. 

This provides the reader with a deeper understanding of the writer’s motivations, driving the success or failure that drives the narrative. The writer might identify significant moments in the story, reflecting on how things  could  have been if they hadn’t made a particular decision. 

What is narrative nonfiction? 

Narrative nonfiction is similar to memoir in that it’s a true story written to convey real events, but it uses significant creative license in the telling. Stylistically, narrative nonfiction is closer to a fictional novel. 

Narrative nonfiction requires a lot of research as the writer needs to understand every angle of the characters’ motivations and objectives within the prism of the specific world of the story. 

Factual and well researched

A narrative nonfiction writer will use extensive research techniques, such as:

  • Extensive interviews  – exploring the story from every possible angle through the people who were there
  • Newspaper articles and news reports  – helping the writer understand the popular interpretation or events
  • Geological history  – recognizing the significance of location in a historical context 
  • Personal essays or journals  – analyzing first-person accounts from the protagonists and central characters of the action 

Which techniques do narrative nonfiction books borrow from literary fiction?

nonfiction narrative writing examples

A remarkable fictional novel has great characters with clear objectives, a problem that leads to a crisis, and a confrontation that leads to a resolution. And narrative nonfiction books rely heavily on these tropes to regale a true story in an exciting way. 

Let’s look at those in a little more detail:

Narrative nonfiction needs fascinating characters

The narrative nonfiction writer gathers personal experience from the principal “characters” in the story. They seek out the truth and make creative decisions regarding the details of the characters’ pasts that may have contributed to their significant actions in the true story. 

A compelling character has:

  • An objective  – something they want that they believe will help solve the problem of the world
  • A redemption arc  – something in the past that haunts them and drives them to redeem themselves
  • A fatal flaw  – something that threatens their ultimate success (some kind of self-destructive behavior, such as addiction or poor life choices)

Narrative nonfiction needs a problem, a crisis, and a confrontation

In creative fiction, a character is nothing without a problem to overcome. In great novels, the problem of the world is almost insurmountable – it requires the protagonist to go on a journey of self-discovery to overcome the obstacles holding them back from self-actualization. 

What is the structure of narrative nonfiction books?

In a literary fiction novel, the problem of the world drives the character’s objective, and this kickstarts our storyline structure. 

The second part of the story is where the protagonist pursues their objective and achieves it, but this turns the problem into a crisis because the pursuit didn’t solve it. 

So, the story’s third section forces the protagonist to confront the problem head-on. But they often fail, or the problem becomes too complicated to overcome. Typically, they hit  the reverse climax  (or their low point) at this stage. 

And that low point drives the protagonist to make the final confrontation in the fourth section of the story, truly addressing the problem holding them back at the novel’s beginning.

Of course, in real life, stories don’t always have a happy ending, so the fourth section – the confrontation – can equally result in failure as success. 

And the narrative nonfiction genre is most successful when the writer considers these storytelling elements. 

Some great narrative nonfiction books for you to read

Some of your best learning as a writer comes from your dedication to reading. So, it’s always helpful to be well-read in the creative genre you seek to pursue. I think these books find the right balance between fact and fiction.

The right balance between fact and fiction

nonfiction narrative writing examples

If you’re new to the narrative nonfiction genre, check out our top recommendations:

Best-selling books to read

Hidden figures  by margot lee shetterly .

You might have seen the 2016 movie starring Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, and Kevin Costner, about the team of brilliant black women who significantly contributed to launching the first rockets into space. 

This story has it all:

  • An insurmountable world problem.
  • Clear-cut objectives of the principal characters.
  • Intense obstacles to overcome.
  • A compelling story that drives you all the way through to the end. 

A brilliant read. 

My Friend Anna  by Rachel DeLoache Williams

A narrative nonfiction book that has inspired a compelling podcast and a Netflix series about Anna Delvey, who swindled her way into the New York art scene, leaving a string of huge debts in her wake. 

This story is driven by a compelling narrative that effectively shines a light on the capitalistic greed that has shaped American history.

Travelling to Infinity  by Jane Hawking 

This is the nonfiction narrative that inspired the 2014 movie,  The Theory of Everything . We follow fascinating and somewhat eccentric characters as we explore the devastating personal life of world-famous British scientist Stephen Hawking, told from the perspective of his wife, Jane Hawking. 

An emotional journey that keeps you hooked to the end.

True stories to engage and educate middle-grade readers

You’re never too young to adopt the narrative nonfiction writing style. Check out some of our recommendations for literary works that rely on stories that explore personal experiences, high-school football, the plight of African Americans, and the American dream. 

Check out these collections of short stories and full-length narrative nonfiction books:

  • Mud, Sweat and Tears by Bear Grylls
  • The Elephant Whisperer by Lawrence Anthony
  • The Acclaimed Biography of Sean Smith by JK Rowling
  • Children of the Blitz by Robert Westall
  • Alma’s Suitcase by Karen Levine
  • Nothing is Impossible by Christopher Reeve
  • If Only They Could Talk by James Herriot
  • The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
  • The Last Rhinos by Rose Humphreys

Want to Learn More About Writing Narrative nonfiction?

Check out  Cascadia’s blog  for tons of helpful articles that help develop your skills in writing narrative nonfiction books with high-quality narratives. 

We help ambitious people who want to kickstart their book careers, helping time-pressed people connect with reputable publishing professionals. 

Find out more about Cascadia  here . 

nonfiction narrative writing examples

Harry Wallett is the Managing Director of Cascadia Author Services. He has a decade of experience as the Founder and Managing Director of Relay Publishing, which has sold over 3 million copies of books in all genres for its authors, and looks after a team of 50+ industry professionals working across the world.

Harry is inspired by the process of book creation and is passionate about the stories and characters behind the prose. He loves working with the writers and has shepherded 1000s of titles to publication over the years. He knows first-hand what it takes to not only create an unputdownable book, but also how to get it into the hands of the right readers for success.

Books are still one of the most powerful mediums to communicate ideas and establish indisputable authority in a field, boosting your reach and stature. But publishing isn’t a quick and easy process—nor should it be, or everyone would do it!

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Nonfiction Books » Narrative Nonfiction

The best narrative nonfiction, recommended by catherine manegold.

The author and former New York Times reporter says that some of the very best writing today is nonfiction — and that seductive narratives can yank readers into the most diverse range of subjects

The Best Narrative Nonfiction - Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea by Gary Kinder

Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea by Gary Kinder

The Best Narrative Nonfiction - A Chorus of Stones by Susan Griffin

A Chorus of Stones by Susan Griffin

The Best Narrative Nonfiction - The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean

The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean

The Best Narrative Nonfiction - Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick

Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick

The Best Narrative Nonfiction - A Civil Action by Jonathan Harr

A Civil Action by Jonathan Harr

The Best Narrative Nonfiction - Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea by Gary Kinder

1 Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea by Gary Kinder

2 a chorus of stones by susan griffin, 3 the orchid thief by susan orlean, 4 mayflower by nathaniel philbrick, 5 a civil action by jonathan harr.

B efore we start with your five books I want to know why you are so interested in narrative non-fiction as a genre?

Tell me about your first book, Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea by Gary Kinder. 

This is an incredible saga about the sinking – in deep water – of a ship filled with gold at the end of the California gold rush, a sea tale that is then twined with the contemporary story of a young engineer’s efforts to recover the sunken treasure by developing the world’s first robotic submersible, capable of working with precision at great ocean depths – obviously a technical achievement we are all thinking about now with the oil spill on America’s gulf coast. The book opens in 1857 with a nail-biting reconstruction of the ship’s last days and the hurricane that took the ship down. Here, Kinder traces the fates of several families on board the SS Central America. The opening establishes a wrenching human tragedy. From there Kinder jumps to the 1960s and a land-locked farming community in Ohio where the engineer, Tommy Thompson, grew up. Thompson would spend decades obsessed with the ship as he sought to locate its wreck and recover her lost cargo. The Central America was carrying almost 600 people when she went down and a staggering amount of gold. It foundered near North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Kinder does a remarkable job here of translating really arcane engineering, scientific, nautical, financial and other material into crisp and arresting prose. He educates and entertains – two keys that are essential to this sort of work. He’s so good at it that he can write everything from a heart-stopping three-word sentence to a 200-word monster that, incredibly, still works. The book’s longest sentence describes the ship’s final moments. It is so loud and twisting and wild that it grabs the reader and takes her down with the ship – gasping for breath.

When I teach this book I always make my students stop there, and read the passage aloud in its entirety. Then I point out that the ship’s final plunge happens in this single, extraordinary 202-word sentence. It drives them crazy! And they immediately see how the language mirrors the dizzying, suffocating, final trip to the bottom.

Let’s move on to your next book, A Chorus of Stones: The Private Life of War by Susan Griffin. 

This book is much more philosophical, meditative, personal. Gary Kinder never really injects himself into the narrative in Ship of Gold and, frankly, I appreciate that. For too many authors it is just the easy way out. But Susan Griffin succeeds here and writes with purpose, humility and conviction, making exceptionally sophisticated links between subjects as diverse as the psychology of war , legacies of abuse, the history of a German education, the development of the atom bomb, the Gulf War, and the rise of military cultures. It makes war intimate. In some ways, it makes war understandable on an almost cellular level. Having covered various wars and spent much time considering the legacies of abuse and abusive structures, I found it absolutely revelatory. To my mind, it is one of the best books I have read in terms of moving between disparate subjects, times and places. In addition, her prose in this work is seamless, and often deeply poetic.

I love the look of your next book which is all about various people through the ages and their obsessions with orchids. This is The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean.

Yes, this is such a fun book, all about obsession, history and botany. To a limited extent it also engages with the author’s internal experience as she acknowledges the envy she feels for people graced with this level of attachment to the world. To do this, she looks back in history – tracing the earliest orchid hunters to their roots, if you will – and then drifts among contemporary collectors who are certainly an odd and often fanatical bunch. In terms of content, this book falls almost perfectly between the first and second. It has a ton of factual material and is hugely instructive, like Ship of Gold, but also manages to focus deeply on less tangible aspects of human experience, as Griffin does.

Orlean’s writing is fresh and very lively. Interestingly, the book became a superb movie too, Adaptation. These are fun to teach together and anyone who enjoys the book will probably love how the film plays with what is on the page and takes up how hard it is to translate this kind of material from one genre to another that plays by different rules. It is rare that you have a great book that also ends up as a terrific film.

Your next choice is Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick.

This is a straight history but – and this is key – the emphasis is on the story. In this book Nathaniel Philbrick takes an event every American schoolchild knows about – the sailing of the Mayflower to North America in 1620 – and turns the comfortable mythology about that moment on its head. Mayflower completely disrupts the story of happy Indians meeting pacifist settlers to tell a very different and essentially tragic tale of politics, power dynamics, generosity, betrayal and war. Like my own book, Ten Hills Farm: The Forgotten History of Slavery in the North, Philbrick here is dismantling soppy, misty-eyed notions about North America’s founding as simply a test of endurance and religious purity to look instead at a set of dynamics that were harder, more complicated and more real. Much of this book involves King Philip’s War, a brutal conflict that in 1676 sped up and down the Eastern seaboard claiming thousands of lives on both sides. Though historians have long known about the events that Philbrick describes, he tells the story in arresting prose that dispenses with the notion of grateful Indians and brave Pilgrims, to provide a rather grittier and more realistic look backward at those earliest days.

What kind of reaction did it get? 

We are a young country and we tend to hold tight to some fairly simplistic and naïve readings of our history. Scholars know better. But they don’t always get the word out past those ivy walls. To me it seems critical to have this material penetrate the public consciousness. Books in this vein are valuable because they reach past the classroom, past the doctoral students, and past the library walls to touch the general public. I’m sure there are those who were scandalised by each of these works. But, in my experience, readers hunger for truth and a great story. Combine the two and… there you go. Mayflower and Ten Hills Farm both aim to seduce readers into basically rethinking what they think they already know. That’s tricky. But Mayflower was a bestseller and it still keeps jumping off the shelves, and I have had really fantastic reactions to Ten Hills Farm from all kinds of people. The reason is that these books carry a kind of wonderful Ah Ha! energy. And that’s fun. The whole point is to excite and inform people about the world they inhabit. I think books that explode standing myths like these have a potentially huge audience. I’m biased, of course, but I never will understand why historians don’t write more accessibly – all the time. Which gets me back to the fact that the word ‘story’ is embedded there – and should be. Until that happens the historians are just leaving the field open for the rest of us.

What myths were exploded in your book?

Tell me about your last book, A Civil Action by Jonathan Harr. 

This book incorporates less history. Instead, it is just a whiz-bang narrative about a lawyer who takes up the cause of a small New England town that is host to a mysterious rash of cancer deaths. The narrative revolves around Jan Schlichtmann, a Boston lawyer who uncovers an environmental crisis and traces culpability up the chain to several multinational corporations responsible for the mess. As the reader follows Schlichtmann in his crusade, Harr uses the case and Schlichtmann’s obsession with it, to educate us about chemistry, cancer clusters, illegal dumping, environmental degradation and the law. Here again, a seductive narrative yanks the reader in, then great research and reporting leave the reader wholly changed. No one reading this book could ever think about ground pollutants and illegal dumping the same way again. That’s the beauty of it: Who would ever go to a bookstore and say to the clerk: ‘Gee, today I’d really like to sink into a 500-page book on cancer clusters, dead children and irresponsible industry executives.’ In the hands of a writer like Jonathan Harr, however, the education is a treat.

December 26, 2012

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Catherine Manegold

C S Manegold was a reporter for The New York Times , Newsweek and the Philadelphia Inquirer before turning her attention to longer works. Winner of numerous national awards, Manegold was part of The New York Times staff recognised with a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the first World Trade Center attack, an event which, shocking as it was, would pale in comparison with the tragedy that followed on September 11. Upon resigning from the Times in 1999, Manegold committed herself to longer-form non-fiction and historical research, work she has successfully combined with teaching positions at Emory University and Mount Holyoke College.

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40 Narrative Nonfiction Books That Read Like Novels

Skip the dry textbooks and read some nonfiction books that read like novels instead with these top narrative nonfiction books.

The older I get, the more nonfiction books I tend to read, and I have to admit that narrative nonfiction books are my absolute favorite.

There’s something so compelling about approaching the dividing line of fiction vs nonfiction – using fiction techniques to enhance a nonfiction story.

Not sure what narrative nonfiction means? Don’t worry, I’ll start with the narrative nonfiction definition before diving into the best examples of narrative nonfiction that you’ll want to add to your reading list.

Don’t Miss a Thing

What is Narrative Nonfiction?

Sometimes called creative nonfiction or literary nonfiction, narrative nonfiction is a type of nonfiction that reads like a novel.

Narrative nonfiction is still nonfiction. These books are well-researched and factually accurate. The difference is in the literary techniques used in narrative nonfiction books. For narrative nonfiction is all about the story – telling a compelling narrative that is as informational as it is entertaining.

Imagine the difference between nonfiction and fiction as a spectrum, where on one side is the completely imaginary fiction and on the other dry factual nonfiction.

Narrative nonfiction would fall as close to the fiction side as you can while still being nonfiction. On the other hand, historical novels are as close to nonfiction as you can while still being fiction – factually correct in almost everything but with artistic license in some regards.

Bestselling NOnfiction Memoirs

book cover The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

The Glass Castle

Jeannette walls.

One of the most powerful memoirs of recent years, Jeannette Walls recounts the story of her tumultuous childhood. She opens the book with the account of how at 3 years old, she ends up hospitalized with severe burns after pouring scalding water on herself when cooking hot dogs for lunch. You meet her charming father Rex, equal measures brilliant and paranoid; her mother Rose, selfish and depressed; and her three siblings, trying their best just to survive. To quote my husband, “Sometimes someone’s train wreck of a life is fascinating.”

Publication Date: March 2005 Amazon | Goodreads | More Info

book cover Educated by Tara Westover

Tara Westover

There is no excuse to not read Tara Westover’s spectacular memoir. In my opinion, Educated was one of the best books of the last decade . Westover grew up in the rural mountains of Idaho with no formal education. Despite her extremist survivalist parents and violent older brother, Westover managed to make her way into college, eventually earning a Ph.D. Her amazing determination is inspiring while the circumstances of her childhood are incredibly sad. Definitely one of those books that will stay with you for a long time.

Publication Date: 20 February 2018 Amazon | Goodreads | More Info

Hillbilly Elegy

J. d. vance.

First off, you need to understand that J. D. Vance’s memoir is not about life in rural Kentucky as I often see erroneously stated. Instead, it’s about his family life in Southwestern Ohio and how the Hillbilly culture and ethics his grandparents brought from rural Kentucky affected the lives and choices of his grandparents, parents and even himself. Having grown up in that same region of Ohio, I can say that many of his observations ring true. While you might not agree with all of Vance’s conclusions, he has certainly started a conversation, forcing readers to ponder how culture affects us and what heritage you will pass down to your children.

Publication Date: 28 June 2016 Amazon | Goodreads | More Info

book cover Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb

Maybe You Should Talk to Someone

Lori gottlieb.

As a therapist, Lori Gottlieb spent all day helping others with their problems. Yet, when her longtime boyfriend unexpectedly broke up with her, she found herself on the receiving end of therapy. Gottlieb’s memoir is top-notch with exceptional pacing, slyly weaving in explanations of therapy within the fascinating story of Gottlieb’s therapy sessions. You’ll quickly become attached to finding out what happens to her patients – a narcissistic tv producer, a dying newlywed, and a depressed senior citizen. A great book club book that highlights the importance of discussing mental health.

Publication Date: 2 April 2019 Amazon | Goodreads | More Info

book cover Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Cheryl Strayed

Sometimes it takes doing something crazy, like hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, for you to truly put your life in order. By 22, Cheryl Strayed’s life felt out of control, so she decided to make a life-changing decision to hike the PCT. Her story (and the subsequent movie) have inspired many women to search to find themselves in a similar fashion, making it one of the top books of the decade. While I don’t think everyone needs to go on a crazy hike as she did, all of us could sometimes use a reset on our lives. You’ll laugh at Strayed’s mishaps, be in awe had her stupidity and bravery, and, if you are like me, really want to go for a hike.

Publication Date: 20 March 2012 Amazon | Goodreads | More Info

book cover Hunger by Roxane Gay

Roxane Gay has made a name for herself among contemporary Black female authors with her bestselling collection of essays, Bad Feminist . In her poignant memoir, Gay focuses on her weight and self-image. After being raped as a child, Gay used food and an overweight body as a shield. Speaking with candor on the realities of being obese in America and the conflict between self-love and self-care, Gay’s opinions are raw and honest and complicated.

Publication Date: 13 June 2017 Amazon | Goodreads | More Info

book cover Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala

Sonali Deraniyagala

On a December morning in 2004, a tsunami struck Sri Lanka, killing Sonali Deraniyagala’s parents, husband, and children. Wave loads page upon page of tragedy. Deraniyagala describes the loss of her family and the difficult journey she had to create a new life for herself. Many readers have called this the saddest book ever, so be prepared for a deep look at how one woman has learned to process her almost unbearable pain.

Publication Date: 2013 Amazon | Goodreads | More Info

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The Best Narrative Nonfiction Books That Read Like Novels

True Crime Nonfiction Stories

book cover In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

In Cold Blood

Truman capote.

Truman Capote was the founder of narrative nonfiction with his thrilling look at an unspeakable crime. On November 15, 1959, in the small farming town of Holcomb, Kansas, two men brutally murder the Clutter family in their home for no apparent reason. Through extensive interviews from the first days on the scene and following the events all the way to the execution of the murderers, Capote suspensefully unfolds the whole story of exactly what happened and more intriguing of all, why it happened. Make sure you set aside a chunk of time to read this modern classic because, I promise, once you start you’ll realize this is a book you can’t put down .

Publication Date: 1965 Amazon | Goodreads | More Info

book cover Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

John berendt.

In 1981, a death at the grandest mansion in Savannah provokes the question: Was it murder or self-defense. The shooting sends a tidal wave through the town whose effects are still visible a decade later. With a colorful cast of characters, you’ll hardly believe this narrative nonfiction story isn’t a novel.

Publication Date: 13 January 1994 Amazon | Goodreads | More Info

book cover Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

Killers of the Flower Moon

David grann.

David Grann investigates the fascinating case of the Osage murders in the 1920s. After discovering oil on their land, the Osage Indian Nation in Oklahoma are among the richest people in the world at the time. Once the death toll surpasses 24 Osage, the newly created FBI takes up the investigation to expose an alarming conspiracy behind these notorious crimes.

Publication Date: 18 April 2017 Amazon | Goodreads | More Info

book cover I'll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark

Michelle mcnamara.

Michelle McNamara’s hunt for a serial killer epitomized the fascination with true crime narrative nonfiction. For over a decade, a violent serial rapist plagued Northern California and then went on to commit 10 sadistic murders, never to be caught. Thirty years later, journalist Michelle McNamara took on the cold case, obsessively determined to find the Golden State Killer. Posthumously published two years after her death, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is McNamara’s masterpiece of her search for the truth. Even more fascinating, only two months after this book was published, a suspect was formally charged in the murders.

Publication Date: 27 February 2018 Amazon | Goodreads | More Info

book cover The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean

The Orchid Thief

Susan orlean.

The rare endangered ghost orchid Polyrrhiza lindenii only grows in a few places, one of which is the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve in Florida. Obsessed with obtaining ghost orchids to sell for profit, horticulturist John Laroche hatched a scheme to use a loophole in the law that allows Seminole natives to pick the flowers in the wild. Susan Orlean dives into the world of flower-selling to learn all about Laroche’s obsession and his subsequent arrest.

Publication Date: 1998 Amazon | Goodreads | More Info

book cover The Man Who Loved Books Too Much by Allison Hoover Bartlett

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much

Allison hoover bartlett.

Step into the world of rare book collecting with a cat-and-mouse game between an amateur detective and a book thief. While most rare book thieves are in it for the cash, John Charles Gilkey just desperately wanted to own the books he loved so much. As Gilkey’s escapades continue, book dealer Ken Sanders finds himself driven to catch the thief. Exploring the common love of books, Bartlett befriended both Gilkey and Sanders to learn all about Gilkey’s exploits and how Sanders was finally able to catch him.

Publication Date: 2009 Amazon | Goodreads | More Info

book cover A Taste for Poison by Neil Bradbury

A Taste for Poison

Neil bradbury.

Poison is one of the most popular methods chosen in murder mysteries, but how do they work? Bradbury blends science, history, and true crime with an exploration of eleven deadly poisons, how they affect the body and which infamous killers have used them.

Publication Date: 1 February 2022 Amazon | Goodreads | More Info

Narrative Nonfiction about War

book cover Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

Laura Hillenbrand

Laura Hillenbrand’s bestselling book details the life of Louis Zamperini, a former Olympic runner who even shook hands with Hitler at the Berlin Olympics. Shot down in the Pacific Ocean in 1943, Lt. Zamperini managed to survive on a life raft for 47 days only to be found by the Japanese. Lt. Zamperini’s resilience will amaze you as he struggles to survive life as a Japanese prisoner for almost three years.

Publication Date: 16 November 2010 Amazon | Goodreads | More Info

book cover Hiroshima by John Hershey

John Hershey

On August 6, 1945, for the first time, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on a city, completely destroying Hiroshima, Japan. War correspondent John Hershey was one of the first Western journalists to witness the ruins of Hiroshima. Commissioned by the New Yorker , Hershey wrote about the events of the day and the memories of the survivors in an article that was reprinted as a Pulitzer Prize-winning book.

Publication Date: 1946 Amazon | Goodreads | More Info

book cover Black Hawk Down by Mark Bowden

Black Hawk Down

Mark bowden.

In 1993, a hundred US soldiers were dropped by helicopters into a crowded Mogadishu market in the middle of the day to capture two Somali warlords. The quick in-and-out operation went to pieces when two Black Hawk helicopters were shot down, trapping dozens of soldiers in place overnight in a hellish fight against thousands of Somalians.

Publication Date: 10 February 1999 Amazon | Goodreads | More Info

book cover Band of Brothers by Stephen Ambrose

Band of Brothers

Stephen e. ambrose.

The thrilling account of Easy Company, a unit of the 506th Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division of the US Army is one of my favorite World War 2 books . The book gets its title from the Shakespeare quote, “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers. For he today who sheds his blood with me shall be my brother.” Instead of following one man’s journey, the cast of characters winds in and out as men come and go from the company due to reassignment, injury, and death. Stephen Ambrose’s powerful book is a remarkable look at the everyday men who became legends.

Publication Date: 6 June 1992 Amazon | Goodreads | More Info

Science & Technology Nonfiction Narratives

book cover The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Rebecca skloot.

Raising questions about privacy, medical research, and ethics, Rebecca Skloot spent more than a decade researching the history of Henrietta Lacks and her immortal cells. Just before her death of cervical cancer, Henrietta Lack’s cells were taken without her permission and scientists figured out how to keep them alive indefinitely. The created cell line was then used for countless medical research. Interspersing the history of Henrietta’s family with the medical use of her cells, Skloot has penned a memorable work.

Publication Date: 2 February 2010 Amazon | Goodreads | More Info

book cover Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

Hidden Figures

Margot lee shetterly.

Telling of the true story of NASA’s African-American female mathematicians, this book became a hit movie in 2016. Segregated from their white colleagues, these fierce women used pencil and paper to calculate the physics needed to launch men to the moon. Be warned that the writing is a bit dry but the characters are fascinating.

Publication Date: 6 September 2016 Amazon | Goodreads | More Info

book cover When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

When Breath Becomes Air

Paul kalanithi.

At only 36 years old, Dr. Kalanithi was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Suddenly, he found himself thrust from the role of a neurosurgeon to that of a dying patient. Coming face-to-face with his mortality, Kalanithi decided to write his memoir and wrestle with the question: “What makes life worth living in the face of dying?” Easily one of the best memoirs of the decade, When Breath Becomes Air will likely make you sob uncontrollably.

Publication Date: 19 January 2016 Amazon | Goodreads | More Info

book cover Being Mortal by Atul Gawande

Being Mortal

Atul gawande.

The triumph of modern medicine has created cures for endless diseases and extended life, but at what cost. Surgeon Atul Gawande contemplates how the medical profession must remember that quality of life is more important than quantity of life. Opposing procedures that unnecessarily prolong suffering, Gawande discusses how to humanly reform hospice care and the care of the elderly to provide aid and dignity.

Publication Date: 7 October 2014 Amazon | Goodreads | More Info

book cover Hidden Valley Road by Robert Kolker

Hidden Valley Road

Robert kolker.

Shortly after World War II, Don and Mimi Galvin seemed to be living the American Dream, raising their twelve children in Colorado. Until one after another, six of their ten sons were diagnosed with schizophrenia. The tale of an American family who became the center of most of our current research on schizophrenia, Hidden Valley Road has become one of the top nonfiction books of 2020 .

Publication Date: 7 April 2020 Amazon | Goodreads | More Info

Best Narrative Nonfiction About Sports

book cover The Blind Side by Michael Lewis

The Blind Side

Michael lewis.

Michael Lewis is an expert at writing narrative nonfiction, and he takes his talents to cover football in The Blind Side . You probably know it’s the inspiring story of Michael Oher, who, after being taken in by the Tuohy family, rose to become one of the most sought after football players of his generation. However, what you probably don’t realize is that the book itself is also about the evolution of football. Lewis gives a fascinating look at how the game has changed over the decades and why that leads to the importance of Michael Oher’s position.

Publication Date: 17 September 2006 Amazon | Goodreads | More Info

nonfiction narrative writing examples

Into Thin Air

Jon krakauer.

While writing a story about the overcrowding on Mt. Everest, investigative journalist Jon Krakauer got much more than he expected. Climbing to the summit on May 10, 1996, Krakauer’s group was engulfed by a storm that ended up claiming five lives. With his firsthand account of the glories and dangers of climbing Mt. Everest, Krakauer will have you gripped to the page as you follow along with his expedition. This heartstopping modern classic that anyone with an outdoor mindset will love has certainly earned a place among the best narrative nonfiction books.

Publication Date: 2 April 2009 Amazon | Goodreads | More Info

book cover The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown

The Boys in the Boat

Daniel james brown.

In a sport dominated by elite East Coast schools, a group of young men, sons of dockworkers, loggers, and farmers, at the University of Washington rowed to the Olympic Gold Medal in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Led by an enigmatic coach and aided by a visionary boat builder, the nine working-class boys came together with determination and commitment to become world champions.

Publication Date: 4 June 2013 Amazon | Goodreads | More Info

book cover Friday Night Lights by H. G. Bissinger

Friday Night Lights

H. g. bissinger.

When you think of Texas, high school football probably comes to mind. Football is serious business in the Lone Star State, and nowhere more so than Odessa. Way out in the oilfields of West Texas, the lives of the people of Odessa seem to revolve around nothing but football, for which they have been rewarded with the winning-est football team in Texas History. Bissinger’s exposé on the subject shines a brilliant light on the town’s obsession – both the good of uniting its citizens and the bad of justifying anything that will help the team win on Friday night. Friday Night Lights inspired both a dramatic motion picture and a successful television series, but the book is completely true.

Publication Date: 1990 Amazon | Goodreads | More Info

book cover Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand

In 1938, the single biggest newsmaker was not Hitler or Mussolini, but the crooked-legged racehorse Seabiscuit. Laura Hillenbrand details how such an unlikely hero became an American icon. When Charles Howard wanted to own racehorses, he allied himself with Tom Smith, a mysterious mustang breaker from Colorado, and Red Pollard, a half-blind former boxer turned jockey, in a partnership that would transform bad luck and injury into an inspirational success story.

Publication Date: 30 June 1999 Amazon | Goodreads | More Info

Narrative Nonfiction

Narrative Nonfiction Business Books

book cover Shoe Dog by Phil Knight

Phil Knight

In grad school, Phil Knight had a crazy idea that Japanese running shoes could overtake the domination of German company Adidas. He partnered up with his former track coach to help design innovative shoes and traveled to Japan to bring this crazy idea to life. Following the ups and downs of the journey that built the billion-dollar company Nike is today, Knight’s memoir will hook you in with a band of eccentric characters and an underdog story with excellent narrative pacing.

Publication Date: 26 April 2016 Amazon | Goodreads | More Info

book cover Bad Blood by John Carreyrou

John Carreyrou

Imagine a Silicon Valley startup that raised insane amounts of money all based on a gigantic fraud. It sounds like a fictional thriller, but it is the actual true story of the company Theranos. Investigative journalist John Carreyrou’s expose of Elizabeth Holmes’s company is an eye-opening read and one of the best narrative nonfiction books of recent years.

Publication Date: 21 May 2018 Amazon | Goodreads | More Info

book cover Evicted by Matthew Desmond

Matthew Desmond

Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond tells the true stories of eight families from the poorest neighborhoods of Milwaukee. All of these families are barely scraping by, having had to spend almost all of their earnings on rent alone. Each is facing eviction and an unknown future. Based on years of fieldwork, Evicted takes an eye-opening look at extreme poverty and eviction in America today.

Publication Date: 1 March 2016 Amazon | Goodreads | More Info

book cover The Big Short by Michael Lewis

The Big Short

The U.S. stock market crash in 2008 sparked a great recession that affected a generation. Michael Lewis explains that the real crash came a year earlier in the bond and real estate derivatives markets. The Big Short follows four Wall Street outsiders who predicted the credit and housing bubble collapse and made loads of cash doing so. Michael Lewis does an excellent job taking dense material and turning it into an easily understood, compelling character-driven drama.

Publication Date: 15 March 2010 Amazon | Goodreads | More Info

Nonfiction to Explore the World

book cover Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick

Nothing to Envy

Barbara demick.

It’s hard to imagine a dictatorship right out of dystopian fiction could be alive and well right in our modern world. Yet, reading about North Korea, you’ll be astonished at our own modern-day totalitarian society. Through the stories of six North Koreans who eventually defected to South Korea, Barbara Demick tells the history of an Orwellian society that has had a major influence in the last decade.

Publication Date: 2010 Amazon | Goodreads | More Info

book cover Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

Behind the Beautiful Forevers

Katherine boo.

In the shadow of Mumbai’s luxury hotels lies the Annawadi slum where life is brutal. However, a wave of worldwide economic prosperity has even Annawadi’s residents hopeful that their life is improving. Boo introduces you to a colorful cast of characters including Abdul, a Muslim teenager making a profit in recycling garbage; Asha, a woman resolved to use political corruption in her favor to send her daughter to college; and Kalu, a teenage scrap metal thief. Boo follows the Annawadi residents as a global recession rocks the city and tensions caused by race, caste, and money affect each of them.

Publication Date: 7 February 2012 Amazon | Goodreads | More Info

book cover Reading in Lolita by Azar Nafisi

Reading Lolita in Tehran

Azar nafisi.

For two years, every Thursday morning Azar Nafisi would gather seven of her female students in her living room and read forbidden Western classics like Jane Austen and Vladimir Nabokov. With Islamic morality squads patrolling Tehran to censor and inhibit artistic expression that went against their fundamentalist beliefs, Nafisi and her students risked their lives to immerse themselves in exploring how the literature connected to their lives.

Publication Date: 2003 Amazon | Goodreads | More Info

Top Nonfiction Books About History

book cover The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson

The Warmth of Other Suns

Isabel wilkerson.

From the First World War to the 1970s, a mass exodus ensued of Blacks leaving the South and settling in northern and western cities. Wilkerson’s book highlights three stories from The Great Migration: Ida Mae Gladney who left sharecropping in 1937 for a blue-collar life in Chicago; George Starling, who left Florida in 1945 for Harlem where he fought for civil rights; and Robert Foster, who moved from Louisiana in 1953 to become a personal physician.

Publication Date: 7 September 2010 Amazon | Goodreads | More Info

book cover Slouching Toward Bethlehem by Joan Didion

Slouching Towards Bethlehem

Joan didion.

In a series of essays, Joan Didion conveys the essence of life in the 1960s, mostly focusing on California. Placing herself at the center of each piece, Didion’s reporting describes the grim realities behind San Francisco’s perceived utopian counterculture in blunt terms. With essays on John Wayne and Howard Hughes and growing up in California, Didion’s collection is renowned for its distinct styling.

Publication Date: 1968 Amazon | Goodreads | More Info

book cover The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

The Devil in the White City

Erik larson.

A master of narrative nonfiction, Erik Larson turns his attention to the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. Larson expertly interweaves two parallel storylines. The first is that of Daniel H. Burnham, the architect and mastermind of the fair. At the same time in Chicago, there lurked the serial killer Henry H. Holmes, a pharmacist intent on building his own type of fairgrounds – a torture chamber full of every imaginable horror. By contrasting the lives of these two figures, Larson presents a startling juxtaposition of American history.

book cover Columbine by Dave Cullen

Dave Cullen

With meticulous in-depth research, Dave Cullen examines the mass shooting that forever changed America. In a day and age where shootings are sadly becoming the norm instead of the exception, Cullen takes you back to that fateful day in 1999. On that tragic day, Cullen was one of the first reporters on the scene and has since spent years piecing together the full story of what happened at Columbine High School.

Publication Date: 6 April 2009 Amazon | Goodreads | More Info

book cover Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard

Destiny of the Republic

Candice millard.

A Civil War hero and reformist congressman, James A. Garfield was nominated for president against his will and went on to use his Presidency to fight against political corruption. Yet, just four months into his presidency, he was shot by a deranged assassin. Although he survived the initial shooting, the bullet in his spine left Garfield incapacitated, sparking a heated behind-the-scenes power struggle. Although every means was tried to help the ailing President, the incompetence of his doctors eventually led to his death two months after the shooting.

Publication Date: 20 September 2011 Amazon | Goodreads | More Info

What are Your Favorite Narrative Nonfiction Books?

What do you think? Do you like that narrative nonfiction books read like novels? Or do you prefer to read less literary history books? As always, let me know in the comments!

More Nonfiction Books to Read:

  • The Best Nonfiction Books of 2021
  • 53 Life Changing Books to Read This Year
  • 10 Memoirs That Will Make You Cry
  • 22 Books That Make You Think Differently
  • The New York Times Nonfiction Bestseller List


nonfiction narrative writing examples

Reader Interactions

Susan (Bloggin' 'bout Books) says

August 9, 2021 at 9:13 pm

Great list! You included several of my favorite examples of narrative non-fiction here. I’ve been enjoying narrative non-fiction on audio lately—right now I’m listening to DEAD WAKE by Erik Larson. It’s fascinating!

Michelle says

August 11, 2021 at 11:44 am

An excellent list as always! Thank you! Though I’m going to make a case for including A Higher Call by Adam Makos (or Devotion – I’m hard pressed to decide which is #1 and which is #2 of his) and A Perfect Horse by Elizabeth Letts.

Brenda Romanoff says

August 11, 2021 at 1:46 pm

I have read all the nonfiction narrative. I didn’t realize how much I loved those books. New to me. Thank you for all your hard work about books. Love it! Brenda

August 17, 2021 at 12:37 pm

The Amazon link to “Into Thin Air” is wrong. It takes you to “If I Stay”

Rachael says

August 23, 2021 at 11:18 am

Thanks for letting me know! I’ve fixed it now.

October 10, 2021 at 4:31 pm

In the description of The Henrietta Lacks book you accidentally referred to Lacks as the author.

October 16, 2021 at 11:30 pm

Thanks for the catch! I’ve fixed it now.

Table of Contents

What is narrative writing?

  • First-person versus third-person narrative
  • How to get out of your own way & write
  • Examples of great narrative writing

How to improve your narrative writing

What is narrative writing (& how to use it in a nonfiction book).

nonfiction narrative writing examples

Narrative writing isn’t just for fiction. Not by a long shot.

In fact, the art of storytelling in written form can make or break just about any book.

Why? Because books are long . They have to hold a reader’s attention over thousands of words, and nothing holds a reader’s attention like a good story.

Well-told stories can:

  • grab and hold the reader’s attention
  • illustrate new ideas in an entertaining way
  • help readers relate those ideas to their own lives

If you want readers to love your book, to see themselves in it, and to recommend it to other readers, chances are you’ll need to tell a few good stories.

Narrative writing is any writing that tells a story.

The story can be fiction or nonfiction. It can be a full-length memoir (or novel) that tells one long story from start to finish, or it can be a quick anecdote in the middle of a how-to book.

No matter how long or short it is, whether it’s true or made up, every story in written form is narrative writing.

But here’s the good news: you don’t have to be a professional writer to write a good story .

Whether or not you’ve ever written even one story in your life, I’d bet good money that you’ve told a few.

In fact, you probably have a whole collection of stories. About the best and worst and craziest things that ever happened to you. Stories you’ve told a hundred times or more.

Narrative writing is just storytelling that’s written down.

First-person versus third-person narrative in nonfiction

There are two basic forms of storytelling: first-person and third-person.

One isn’t any better than the other, but first-person stories are the kind most people think of when they think about storytelling.

What is first-person narrative writing?

The first-person point of view uses “I” or “we” to tell a story.

The narrator is the main character, so the story is being told by the person who lived it.

“I’m finally on the road, heading for the convention, and I’m feeling pretty good. Despite the morning from hell, I hadn’t broken my neck, I hadn’t destroyed my marriage, and by some miracle, I’d managed to leave the house just 15 minutes behind schedule.

If I skipped lunch, I could still make it in time to give the keynote address.

This is what I was thinking, mentally patting myself on the back, when I suddenly realized I’d left my lunch on the counter, back in the kitchen, dropping it there during my meltdown.

Along with my speech.”

What is third-person narrative writing?

Third-person narrative writing uses “he,” “she,” or “they” to tell a story.

In nonfiction, third-person narration is often used to illustrate a point through a short story or case study.

“It was the worst setback the company had ever faced. The market for their revolutionary plastics had dried up overnight. And, given their recent expansion, the cash in the bank could only meet their payroll for about six more weeks.

The CEO called an executive meeting. Everyone assumed she was going to lay out a plan for a global shutdown. But what she proposed instead proved to be one of the greatest operational pivots in the history of manufacturing.”

Which one is better?

Like most writing, what’s best depends on the situation.

When the main character or actor in your story is someone else, third-person narrative is the obvious choice.

This is common in business books that include case studies, or in books by investigative journalists who track down stories about other people to learn about a given topic or idea.

When you’re writing a memoir, or when you’re writing a knowledge-share book that includes stories from your own experience, first-person narrative is extremely powerful.

But you don’t need to get bogged down in this kind of literary analysis.

Whether you’re writing a personal narrative or presenting a case study, just write it.

How to get out of your own way and write

Here’s the thing: you already know how to tell a story.

Don’t make the process of writing more complicated than it has to be.

Your book might jump back and forth between different points of view depending on what story you’re telling, but that isn’t something you’ll have to think about.

If you’re writing about something that happened to you, you’ll write “I” or “we” without paying any attention to it. It’s as natural as breathing.

If you’re writing about someone else, you’ll refer to them in the third person without any conscious effort.

The advice I am about to give you goes against most conventional writing wisdom:

People are natural-born storytellers. Trust yourself to tell the stories you need to tell.

What’s far more important is to think about how to tell the story. What should you focus on? What should you leave out?

Those decisions need to happen on a case-by-case basis, and the best way to learn how to make them is to see the results of good writing and editing in action.

Examples of great narrative writing in nonfiction books

Instead of getting hung up on literary terms like first-person or third-person narrative, great Authors worry about entertaining the reader.

No matter what kind of nonfiction you’re writing, people respond to stories, especially stories that start out with a problem.

Like these first paragraphs of Tiffany Haddish’s The Last Black Unicorn.

Tiffany Haddish: The Last Black Unicorn

“School was hard for me, for lots of reasons. One was I couldn’t read until, like, ninth grade. Also I was a foster kid for most of high school, and when my mom went nuts, I had to live with my grandma. That all sucked.

I got popular in high school, but before that, I wasn’t so popular. Kids would tease me all the time in elementary and middle school. They’d say I got flies on me and I smell like onions.

The flies thing came from the moles on my face. I got one under my eye, I had one on my chin, and so on. That was kind of mean.

The onions thing was because my mom used to make eggs in the morning with onions in them. Every damn morning, I had to eat eggs and onions. That would just make you stink. The whole house would stink.

Yeah, it was mean to say I stunk like onions, but…I did stink like onions.”

Story structure: why this is great

These opening paragraphs of Tiffany Haddish’s memoir grab the reader’s attention. Understanding how and why is the first step to strong narrative writing.

1. The style is conversational

There’s nothing formal or stilted about the writing. In fact, it reads like the Author is talking directly to the reader.

That’s the first key to writing narratives: write like you’re talking to someone. In fact, don’t even think of it as writing. Think of it as storytelling.

2. It starts with a highly relatable problem

School might have been hard for different people in different ways, but we’ve all been kids. And most of us had some kind of trouble with school at some point or another.

Opening with a universal problem gives readers something to relate to personally.

3. It gets personal and vulnerable quickly

If the first line of the book presents a problem almost everyone can relate to, the second line moves like lightning into the Author’s specific experience: “I couldn’t read until, like, ninth grade.”

Sharing a vulnerable and personal experience makes the story come alive. It’s straightforward, open, and honest, and admits something that most people would be far too ashamed to admit.

A lot of great writing comes down to the simplest writing lesson of all: be brutally honest about the things that feel the most private or make you feel the most vulnerable.

That’s virtually guaranteed to grab the reader’s attention.

4. It doesn’t over-explain things

In the first few lines, the reader learns that the Author couldn’t read until the ninth grade, that she was a foster kid, and that her mother “went nuts.” But we don’t get any details about any of those things.

At least, not yet.

By not explaining them here, the Author uses those revealed facts to invite the reader deeper into the story. The explanation can come later.

5. It offers the right sensory details

At the same time, the Author does explain some things.

Specifically, she tells the reader where her tormentors’ taunts came from. Details like the stink of onions are vivid in the reader’s imagination.

But these details aren’t just sensory. They’re intensely personal, which is the toughest part of the writing process.

Even in this very short piece of writing, the Author was willing to cut deep.

6. The reader’s interest drives the organization

When they first sit down to write, a lot of Authors feel compelled to present their story in chronological order. But the actual timing of events isn’t what drives a good story.

Instead, narrative text should be driven by the reader’s interest.

In three short paragraphs, the Author jumps from high school to middle school to serve the reader. She uses these miniature flashbacks to set the scene for the whole book.

She isn’t trying to present an ordered storyline.

She’s presenting new information in the order that will best draw the reader into the story. And it works brilliantly.

David Goggins: Can’t Hurt Me

“We found hell in a beautiful neighborhood. In 1981, Williamsville offered the tastiest real estate in Buffalo, New York. Leafy and friendly, its safe streets were dotted with dainty homes filled with model citizens. Doctors, attorneys, steel plant executives, dentists, and professional football players lived there with their adoring wives and their 2.2 kids. Cars were new, roads swept, possibilities endless. We’re talking about a living, breathing American Dream. Hell was a corner on Paradise Road.

That’s where we lived in a two-story, four-bedroom, white wooden home with four square pillars framing a front porch that led to the widest, greenest lawn in Williamsville. We had a vegetable garden out back and a two-car garage stocked with a 1962 Rolls Royce Silver Cloud, a 1980 Mercedes 450 SLC, and, in the driveway, a sparkling new 1981 black Corvette. Everyone on Paradise Road lived near the top of the food chain, and based on appearances, most of our neighbors thought that we, the so-called happy, well-adjusted Goggins family, were the tip of that spear. But glossy surfaces reflect much more than they reveal.”

Although the paragraph structure here is more like a narrative essay than a casual conversation, the writing skills are just as obvious.

1. It starts with a personal problem

Here, again, the very first line presents a problem. By using the first-person “we,” the Author makes the problem personal.

But, in this case, what draws the reader in isn’t relatability but curiosity about the unexpected.

“We found hell in a beautiful neighborhood.”

The juxtaposition between hell and a beautiful, presumably peaceful neighborhood catches the reader’s attention and holds their interest, making them want to know more.

2. It presents a powerful conflict

The opening line mentions hell. Then several sentences describe a beautiful neighborhood, but the paragraph ends with hell again.

One of the most basic facts about stories is that readers need conflict to stay interested.

Paradise, in and of itself, is boring.

Why? Because the human brain was built to solve problems. When we find one, we latch onto it.

Here, the Author paints the picture of an affluent American neighborhood but continues to touch on the idea of finding hell there, creating tension through foreshadowing.

“But glossy surfaces reflect much more than they reveal.”

3. It paints a picture with details

The Author could have simply said it was a wealthy neighborhood, but the writing paints a more vivid image by using just the right level of detail.

“Doctors, attorneys, steel plant executives, dentists, and professional football players lived there with their adoring wives and their 2.2 kids.”

By listing specific professions, the Author brings the street alive. These are real people.

At the same time, he shows the reader the facade they’re all hiding behind by using the phrase “2.2 kids.” There’s no such thing as two-tenths of a kid. The street is both real and fake at the same time.

Which is exactly the Author’s point, without having to say it directly.

The art of good storytelling is important, but you can’t get hung up on it while you’re trying to write your first draft.

Just write your book. And be as honest as you can while you’re doing it.

I can’t stress that enough.

All great books move through several rounds of editing before they’re published . They don’t come out looking perfect in the first round.

But the core value of a good book comes from being true to yourself when you’re writing it.

So, don’t worry about your writing style or choosing the right sensory details or any of that when you’re writing your rough draft.

Just get your truth down on the page.

Once your draft is finished, the polish comes in the editing . Hire a great editor , and trust them.

They’ll help you hone that draft until it grabs the reader’s attention and holds it until the end.

The Scribe Crew

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Writing Beginner

30 Narrative Writing Examples to Elevate Your Writing

In this guide, I’ll share 30 examples that have not only influenced my work but have the power to elevate yours, too.

These are snippets of made-up stories, each demonstrating a key aspect of storytelling.

Read through these narrative writing examples to find the ones that speak to you.

Classic Literature

Colorful collage of symbols representing diverse narrative genres -- narrative writing examples

Table of Contents

As we explore classic literature, let’s consider how historical narrative writing examples have shaped our understanding of effective storytelling.

1. The Whispering Woods

“In the heart of the Whispering Woods, where the leaves spoke secrets to those who would listen, Elizabeth found her courage. It was in the gentle sway of the ancient trees, in the soft murmur of the wind, that her true purpose whispered back to her.”

Why it Works: This example draws on descriptive language and setting to immerse the reader in the story. Classic literature often relies on rich, evocative descriptions to create a vivid mental picture and evoke emotions.

2. The Last Candle

“Thomas stood before the last candle, its flame dancing like the hopes within him. Around him, darkness threatened to consume everything. With a steady hand, he lit the candle, a defiant beacon in the night.”

Why it Works: The symbolism of the candle’s light against darkness reflects the character’s internal struggle. Classic narratives frequently use such symbols to convey deeper meanings and themes.

3. A Duel of Wits

“Under the watchful eyes of the gathered crowd, Eleanor and her adversary circled each other. Words were their weapons, sharp and ready. ‘Your move,’ she taunted, her voice a melody of confidence.”

Why it Works: This example showcases dialogue as a narrative tool. In classic literature, dialogue often serves to reveal character, advance the plot, and create tension.

Contemporary Fiction

Moving into contemporary fiction, it’s fascinating to see how modern narrative writing examples push the boundaries of traditional storytelling.

4. The City that Never Sleeps

“Jamie navigated the neon-lit streets of the city, each step echoing the rhythm of a world that never paused. Here, in the heart of chaos, he found his peace, a paradox as complex as the city itself.”

Why it Works: Contemporary fiction thrives on the contrast and contradictions of modern life. This example uses the setting and the protagonist’s internal reflection to highlight the complexity of urban existence.

5. Echoes of the Past

“Sarah stood at the edge of the abandoned house, the past and present blurring into one. She could hear the echoes of laughter, the remnants of memories long faded but never forgotten.”

Why it Works: Contemporary narratives often explore themes of memory, identity, and the passage of time. This snippet uses sensory details and introspection to delve into these themes.

6. Crossroads

“Mark found himself at a crossroads, literal and metaphorical. To the left, the road to his past. To the right, an uncertain future. With a deep breath, he stepped forward, choosing the path less traveled.”

Why it Works: The use of a crossroads as a motif effectively illustrates the protagonist’s dilemma and moment of decision. Contemporary fiction frequently employs such motifs to represent pivotal moments in the characters’ lives.

Nonfiction Narratives

In this section on nonfiction narratives, we’ll look at how real-life narrative writing examples can be just as compelling as fiction.

7. The Unseen Journey

“Amidst the chaos of war, Dr. Ellis found solace in the small acts of kindness that went unnoticed by the many but meant the world to the few. Her journal entries, a testament to the human spirit, painted a vivid picture of resilience.”

Why it Works: Nonfiction narratives often rely on personal anecdotes to highlight broader themes. This example illustrates how individual stories can reflect universal truths about resilience and humanity.

8. Echoes from the Summit

“Reaching the summit after a grueling climb, Alex looked out over the world below, realizing the mountain was not just a physical challenge but a metaphor for his own personal struggles and triumphs.”

Why it Works: By weaving together personal achievement with introspection, this snippet showcases the reflective quality that makes nonfiction narratives compelling. It highlights the journey, both literal and metaphorical, as a source of insight.

9. The Heart of the City

“In the heart of the city, there was an old bookstore that had witnessed the ebb and flow of generations. Its owner, Mrs. Green, had stories that encapsulated the essence of the city’s soul, tales of love, loss, and rebirth.”

Why it Works: This narrative captures the essence of place and history through the eyes of an individual. Nonfiction narratives excel in bringing to life the stories of places and people, making them relatable and real.

Science Fiction & Fantasy

 futuristic sci-fi city

Our dive into science fiction and fantasy will highlight narrative writing examples that transport readers to entirely new worlds.

10. The Last Starship

“As the last starship prepared to leave Earth, Captain Vega reflected on the journey ahead. Humanity’s hope rested on their shoulders, a new beginning among the stars, where the rules of reality were yet to be written.”

Why it Works: Science fiction narratives like this one expand the imagination to explore what could be. They blend scientific principles with creative speculation, offering a vision of future possibilities and ethical dilemmas.

11. The Forest of Illusions

“In the Forest of Illusions, reality bent and twisted like the ancient trees. Aria, the realm’s guardian, navigated the ever-changing paths, her magic the only light in the darkness, guiding those lost back to truth.”

Why it Works: Fantasy narratives invite readers into worlds where magic is real and moral codes are tested. This example uses the setting and magical elements to create a sense of mystery and adventure.

12. Between Worlds

“Trapped between worlds, Leo discovered a realm where time flowed differently, and every moment was a lifetime. Here, he learned the true value of time, each second a precious gift not to be wasted.”

Why it Works: This snippet explores the theme of time, a common motif in science fiction and fantasy. It challenges readers to think about the nature of time and existence, showcasing the genre’s ability to question reality.

Mystery & Thriller

This mystery and thriller category (one of my personal favorites) will showcase narrative writing examples that masterfully build suspense and intrigue.

13. The Shadow on Elm Street

“As the fog settled on Elm Street, Detective Harper’s instincts told her the quiet was deceptive. The shadow lurking in the mist held secrets, secrets that could unravel the tranquility of this small town.”

Why it Works: Mystery narratives thrive on suspense and the gradual unveiling of secrets. This example sets up an atmosphere of tension and anticipation, essential elements for a gripping mystery.

14. The Forgotten Code

“Inside the dusty library, an ancient code hidden in a forgotten manuscript awaited discovery. Sam, a cryptologist with a penchant for puzzles, found himself entangled in a historical mystery that could change the world.”

Why it Works: The allure of uncovering hidden truths and solving puzzles is at the heart of thriller narratives. This snippet combines history, mystery, and technology, highlighting the genre’s ability to intertwine various elements to keep readers on the edge of their seats.

15. Echoes of Betrayal

“In a world where trust was currency, Lena found the cost of betrayal was higher than she could have imagined. The echoes of her choices reverberated, leading her down a path of suspense and revelation.”

Why it Works: This narrative example showcases the psychological depth and complexity of characters in mystery and thriller stories, emphasizing the consequences of actions and the intricate web of human relationships.

Children’s Stories

For children’s stories, examining narrative writing examples helps us understand how to craft tales that captivate young minds.

16. The Adventures of Wobbly Bob

“Wobbly Bob was a penguin with a sense of adventure larger than himself. Despite his wobbly stance, he dreamed of flying. With the help of his friends, Bob discovered that true courage meant trying, no matter the odds.”

Why it Works: Children’s stories often carry messages of resilience, friendship, and the importance of dreams. This example uses a relatable character and a simple plot to convey life lessons in an engaging and accessible way for young readers.

17. The Magic Paintbrush

“Lily’s paintbrush was no ordinary tool; it was a gateway to worlds born from her imagination. Each stroke was a leap into another adventure, teaching her that creativity was the most powerful magic of all.”

Why it Works: This example emphasizes the power of imagination and creativity, fundamental themes in children’s literature. It encourages young readers to explore their own creativity and the endless possibilities it brings.

18. The Tale of the Timid Turtle

“Timmy, the timid turtle, preferred the safety of his shell. But when his friends needed him, Timmy discovered bravery wasn’t about the absence of fear, but the will to overcome it.”

Why it Works: Through the journey of a relatable character, this story teaches children about bravery and self-confidence. Children’s narratives excel in delivering moral lessons through simple, compelling storytelling.

Young Adult (YA) Fiction

A group of young people in a colorful city

Narrative writing examples in this genre often tackle complex themes relatable to a younger audience.

19. Shadows of Tomorrow

“In a dystopian world, Zoe’s ability to see glimpses of the future branded her an outcast. Yet, this very gift could be the key to saving her people. Amidst chaos, she found her strength and destiny.”

Why it Works: YA fiction often explores themes of identity, belonging, and transformation. This example combines the struggles of growing up with fantastical elements, resonating with the genre’s target audience through an empowering narrative.

20. Echoes of the Heart

“Faced with the turmoil of first love, Alex navigated his feelings for Jamie through a series of letters never meant to be sent. Each word was a step towards understanding his heart’s true echo.”

Why it Works: This narrative captures the intensity and confusion of young love, a central theme in YA fiction. It highlights the genre’s ability to delve into the emotional and psychological development of its characters.

21. The Rebel of Riverdale

“Cassie wasn’t just any student at Riverdale High; she was a voice for the voiceless, a rebel with a cause. Her fight against injustice didn’t just change the school—it changed her.”

Why it Works: This example reflects YA fiction’s engagement with social issues and the journey towards self-discovery and advocacy. It demonstrates how personal growth and societal change can intertwine in compelling narratives.

Horror & Gothic Tales

Our exploration of horror and gothic tales includes narrative writing examples that excel in creating atmosphere and tension.

22. The Whispering Hallways

“In the depths of the night, the hallways of the old mansion whispered with voices of the past. Clara, drawn by curiosity, discovered that some doors, once opened, reveal truths better left hidden.”

Why it Works: Horror narratives excel in creating an atmosphere of suspense and fear, often through the supernatural or the unknown. This example uses setting and mood to build tension, playing on the reader’s fear of what lies beyond the known.

23. The Shadow Beneath the Moon

“Under the full moon’s eerie glow, the shadow moved against the laws of nature, a formless dread that stalked Ethan. The truth of its origin was as horrifying as its intent.”

Why it Works: Gothic tales often blend the horror of the supernatural with psychological depth. This snippet illustrates the genre’s power to evoke terror not just from external threats but from the internal struggle with the unknown.

24. The Curse of the Black Rose

“The Black Rose, once a symbol of unyielding love, became a curse for those who dared to love too deeply. Amelia’s discovery of its legend entwined her fate with a history of darkness and despair.”

Why it Works: Horror and gothic narratives frequently explore themes of curses and doomed love. This example uses a symbolic object to drive the narrative, intertwining the protagonist’s fate with the supernatural.

Romance Novels

Let’s explore narrative writing examples that make our hearts flutter and our minds race with the possibilities of love.

25. Echoes of Love

“In a small town where everyone knew your name, Julia and Michael’s love story unfolded, defying odds and expectations. Their love, echoing through the streets, proved that true connections could break barriers.”

Why it Works: Romance narratives focus on the development of relationships, often overcoming obstacles to love. This example highlights the genre’s emphasis on emotional depth and the power of love to transcend circumstances.

26. The Dance of Hearts

“At the annual masquerade ball, hidden behind masks of pretense, Elizabeth and Alexander’s paths crossed. The dance floor became their world, where unspoken desires and truths danced in the shadows.”

Why it Works: This snippet captures the romantic and mysterious allure of hidden identities and forbidden love, common themes in romance novels that heighten the tension and emotional engagement of the reader.

27. Letters to a Stranger

“Through a series of letters to a stranger, Emma found herself pouring out her heart, finding solace and understanding in an unexpected connection. What started as words on a page blossomed into an unbreakable bond.”

Why it Works: The slow build of a relationship through letters showcases the romance genre’s ability to explore the growth of love and intimacy over time, emphasizing emotional depth and the transformative power of love.

Historical Fiction

We’re about to uncover narrative writing examples that breathe life into the whispers of the past, making history dance vividly in our present imagination.

28. The Painter of the Revolution

“In the turmoil of the revolution, Jeanne’s art became a beacon of hope and defiance. Through her paintings, the story of a nation’s struggle for freedom was etched in colors and shadows, a testament to the indomitable human spirit.”

Why it Works: Historical fiction allows readers to explore past eras through the eyes of its characters. This example illustrates how personal stories can illuminate broader historical events, blending facts with the emotional truths of the human experience.

29. The Whispering Sands

“Amidst the shifting sands of time, Mariam found ancient secrets buried beneath the desert. Her journey into the past revealed the interconnectedness of history and destiny, where each grain of sand held stories of old.”

Why it Works: This narrative uses the setting as a character, exploring the mystery and allure of ancient civilizations. Historical fiction often delves into the discovery of the past and its impact on the present, offering a bridge between eras.

30. The Sea Captain’s Promise

“Bound by a promise made in the heat of battle, Captain Ellis sailed the seven seas, his heart tethered to a land he may never see again. His tale, woven through time, spoke of loyalty, love, and the sacrifices of the sea.”

Why it Works: By focusing on the personal dilemmas of historical figures or characters set in a historical context, this example shows how historical fiction can provide insight into the complexities of human nature and the timeless themes of honor, duty, and love.

This video goes over a few additional examples to really help you:

Tips for Narrative Writing

Here are my top tips, honed from 25 years of writing and storytelling, designed to elevate your narrative writing game.

Each tip is a doorway to a new way of thinking about storytelling.

  • The Emotional Compass: Always anchor your narrative in emotion. Whether it’s joy, fear, sadness, or excitement, the emotional journey of your characters is what truly resonates with readers. Make sure every scene, dialogue, and action adds a layer to this emotional landscape.
  • Dialogue Dynamics: Make your dialogue do double duty. Good dialogue reveals character, advances the plot, and adds to the tension or humor of the situation. Each line should feel essential and reflective of the character’s unique voice.
  • Sensory Immersion: Engage all five senses in your descriptions. The more you can immerse your reader in the world of your story through sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste, the more vivid and memorable your narrative will become.
  • The Conflict Crucible: Conflict is the heartbeat of narrative. It’s about more than pitting good versus evil. Rather, it’s about the internal and external struggles that drive your characters to grow and change. Every story needs a crucible—moments that test and refine your characters.
  • Memory Mining: Draw from your own experiences to add authenticity and depth to your narratives. Even if you’re writing fantasy or science fiction, the emotions and truths you’ve lived through can bring your story to life in unique ways.
  • The Plot Twist Plow: Don’t be afraid to surprise your readers. A well-timed plot twist can reinvigorate interest and keep the pages turning. However, ensure it’s earned and fits organically within the story’s framework.
  • Character Kaleidoscope: Create characters as diverse and complex as real people. Avoid stereotypes by giving your characters a mix of strengths, weaknesses, goals, and fears that reflect a wide range of human experiences.
  • Setting as a Character: Treat your setting with the same care as your characters. Whether it’s a bustling city or a quiet village, your setting can influence the mood of the story, reflect themes, and affect the plot and characters in meaningful ways.
  • The Revision Revelation: Embrace the revision process as an opportunity to refine and deepen your narrative. The first draft is just the beginning; it’s in revisiting and revising your work that true storytelling emerges.
  • Reader Resonance: Always keep your reader in mind. Craft your narrative to resonate with them, creating moments of connection that transcend the page. Whether through relatable characters, universal themes, or gripping plots, aim to leave a lasting impact.

Final Thoughts: Narrative Writing Examples

The true journey lies in the stories you have yet to write, the characters you have yet to create, and the worlds you have yet to imagine.

Let these examples be your guide, your inspiration, but always strive to find your own path in the vast universe of storytelling. For in the end, it is not just about the stories we tell but about the stories that tell us, shaping who we are and who we aspire to be.

To further help you with narrative writing, check out these AI tools:

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What is creative nonfiction? Despite its slightly enigmatic name, no literary genre has grown quite as quickly as creative nonfiction in recent decades. Literary nonfiction is now well-established as a powerful means of storytelling, and bookstores now reserve large amounts of space for nonfiction, when it often used to occupy a single bookshelf.

Like any literary genre, creative nonfiction has a long history; also like other genres, defining contemporary CNF for the modern writer can be nuanced. If you’re interested in writing true-to-life stories but you’re not sure where to begin, let’s start by dissecting the creative nonfiction genre and what it means to write a modern literary essay.

What Creative Nonfiction Is

Creative nonfiction employs the creative writing techniques of literature, such as poetry and fiction, to retell a true story.

How do we define creative nonfiction? What makes it “creative,” as opposed to just “factual writing”? These are great questions to ask when entering the genre, and they require answers which could become literary essays themselves.

In short, creative nonfiction (CNF) is a form of storytelling that employs the creative writing techniques of literature, such as poetry and fiction, to retell a true story. Creative nonfiction writers don’t just share pithy anecdotes, they use craft and technique to situate the reader into their own personal lives. Fictional elements, such as character development and narrative arcs, are employed to create a cohesive story, but so are poetic elements like conceit and juxtaposition.

The CNF genre is wildly experimental, and contemporary nonfiction writers are pushing the bounds of literature by finding new ways to tell their stories. While a CNF writer might retell a personal narrative, they might also focus their gaze on history, politics, or they might use creative writing elements to write an expository essay. There are very few limits to what creative nonfiction can be, which is what makes defining the genre so difficult—but writing it so exciting.

Different Forms of Creative Nonfiction

From the autobiographies of Mark Twain and Benvenuto Cellini, to the more experimental styles of modern writers like Karl Ove Knausgård, creative nonfiction has a long history and takes a wide variety of forms. Common iterations of the creative nonfiction genre include the following:

Also known as biography or autobiography, the memoir form is probably the most recognizable form of creative nonfiction. Memoirs are collections of memories, either surrounding a single narrative thread or multiple interrelated ideas. The memoir is usually published as a book or extended piece of fiction, and many memoirs take years to write and perfect. Memoirs often take on a similar writing style as the personal essay does, though it must be personable and interesting enough to encourage the reader through the entire book.

Personal Essay

Personal essays are stories about personal experiences told using literary techniques.

When someone hears the word “essay,” they instinctively think about those five paragraph book essays everyone wrote in high school. In creative nonfiction, the personal essay is much more vibrant and dynamic. Personal essays are stories about personal experiences, and while some personal essays can be standalone stories about a single event, many essays braid true stories with extended metaphors and other narratives.

Personal essays are often intimate, emotionally charged spaces. Consider the opening two paragraphs from Beth Ann Fennelly’s personal essay “ I Survived the Blizzard of ’79. ”

We didn’t question. Or complain. It wouldn’t have occurred to us, and it wouldn’t have helped. I was eight. Julie was ten.

We didn’t know yet that this blizzard would earn itself a moniker that would be silk-screened on T-shirts. We would own such a shirt, which extended its tenure in our house as a rag for polishing silver.

The word “essay” comes from the French “essayer,” which means “to try” or “attempt.” The personal essay is more than just an autobiographical narrative—it’s an attempt to tell your own history with literary techniques.

Lyric Essay

The lyric essay contains similar subject matter as the personal essay, but is much more experimental in form.

The lyric essay contains similar subject matter as the personal essay, with one key distinction: lyric essays are much more experimental in form. Poetry and creative nonfiction merge in the lyric essay, challenging the conventional prose format of paragraphs and linear sentences.

The lyric essay stands out for its unique writing style and sentence structure. Consider these lines from “ Life Code ” by J. A. Knight:

The dream goes like this: blue room of water. God light from above. Child’s fist, foot, curve, face, the arc of an eye, the symmetry of circles… and then an opening of this body—which surprised her—a movement so clean and assured and then the push towards the light like a frog or a fish.

What we get is language driven by emotion, choosing an internal logic rather than a universally accepted one.

Lyric essays are amazing spaces to break barriers in language. For example, the lyricist might write a few paragraphs about their story, then examine a key emotion in the form of a villanelle or a ghazal . They might decide to write their entire essay in a string of couplets or a series of sonnets, then interrupt those stanzas with moments of insight or analysis. In the lyric essay, language dictates form. The successful lyricist lets the words arrange themselves in whatever format best tells the story, allowing for experimental new forms of storytelling.

Literary Journalism

Much more ambiguously defined is the idea of literary journalism. The idea is simple: report on real life events using literary conventions and styles. But how do you do this effectively, in a way that the audience pays attention and takes the story seriously?

You can best find examples of literary journalism in more “prestigious” news journals, such as The New Yorker , The Atlantic , Salon , and occasionally The New York Times . Think pieces about real world events, as well as expository journalism, might use braiding and extended metaphors to make readers feel more connected to the story. Other forms of nonfiction, such as the academic essay or more technical writing, might also fall under literary journalism, provided those pieces still use the elements of creative nonfiction.

Consider this recently published article from The Atlantic : The Uncanny Tale of Shimmel Zohar by Lawrence Weschler. It employs a style that’s breezy yet personable—including its opening line.

So I first heard about Shimmel Zohar from Gravity Goldberg—yeah, I know, but she insists it’s her real name (explaining that her father was a physicist)—who is the director of public programs and visitor experience at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, in San Francisco.

How to Write Creative Nonfiction: Common Elements and Techniques

What separates a general news update from a well-written piece of literary journalism? What’s the difference between essay writing in high school and the personal essay? When nonfiction writers put out creative work, they are most successful when they utilize the following elements.

Just like fiction, nonfiction relies on effective narration. Telling the story with an effective plot, writing from a certain point of view, and using the narrative to flesh out the story’s big idea are all key craft elements. How you structure your story can have a huge impact on how the reader perceives the work, as well as the insights you draw from the story itself.

Consider the first lines of the story “ To the Miami University Payroll Lady ” by Frenci Nguyen:

You might not remember me, but I’m the dark-haired, Texas-born, Asian-American graduate student who visited the Payroll Office the other day to complete direct deposit and tax forms.

Because the story is written in second person, with the reader experiencing the story as the payroll lady, the story’s narration feels much more personal and important, forcing the reader to evaluate their own personal biases and beliefs.


Telling the story involves more than just simple plot elements, it also involves situating the reader in the key details. Setting the scene requires attention to all five senses, and interpersonal dialogue is much more effective when the narrator observes changes in vocal pitch, certain facial expressions, and movements in body language. Essentially, let the reader experience the tiny details – we access each other best through minutiae.

The story “ In Transit ” by Erica Plouffe Lazure is a perfect example of storytelling through observation. Every detail of this flash piece is carefully noted to tell a story without direct action, using observations about group behavior to find hope in a crisis. We get observation when the narrator notes the following:

Here at the St. Thomas airport in mid-March, we feel the urgency of the transition, the awareness of how we position our bodies, where we place our luggage, how we consider for the first time the numbers of people whose belongings are placed on the same steel table, the same conveyor belt, the same glowing radioactive scan, whose IDs are touched by the same gloved hand[.]

What’s especially powerful about this story is that it is written in a single sentence, allowing the reader to be just as overwhelmed by observation and context as the narrator is.

We’ve used this word a lot, but what is braiding? Braiding is a technique most often used in creative nonfiction where the writer intertwines multiple narratives, or “threads.” Not all essays use braiding, but the longer a story is, the more it benefits the writer to intertwine their story with an extended metaphor or another idea to draw insight from.

“ The Crush ” by Zsofia McMullin demonstrates braiding wonderfully. Some paragraphs are written in first person, while others are written in second person.

The following example from “The Crush” demonstrates braiding:

Your hair is still wet when you slip into the booth across from me and throw your wallet and glasses and phone on the table, and I marvel at how everything about you is streamlined, compact, organized. I am always overflowing — flesh and wants and a purse stuffed with snacks and toy soldiers and tissues.

The author threads these narratives together by having both people interact in a diner, yet the reader still perceives a distance between the two threads because of the separation of “I” and “you” pronouns. When these threads meet, briefly, we know they will never meet again.

Speaking of insight, creative nonfiction writers must draw novel conclusions from the stories they write. When the narrator pauses in the story to delve into their emotions, explain complex ideas, or draw strength and meaning from tough situations, they’re finding insight in the essay.

Often, creative writers experience insight as they write it, drawing conclusions they hadn’t yet considered as they tell their story, which makes creative nonfiction much more genuine and raw.

The story “ Me Llamo Theresa ” by Theresa Okokun does a fantastic job of finding insight. The story is about the history of our own names and the generations that stand before them, and as the writer explores her disconnect with her own name, she recognizes a similar disconnect in her mother, as well as the need to connect with her name because of her father.

The narrator offers insight when she remarks:

I began to experience a particular type of identity crisis that so many immigrants and children of immigrants go through — where we are called one name at school or at work, but another name at home, and in our hearts.

How to Write Creative Nonfiction: the 5 R’s

CNF pioneer Lee Gutkind developed a very system called the “5 R’s” of creative nonfiction writing. Together, the 5 R’s form a general framework for any creative writing project. They are:

  • Write about r eal life: Creative nonfiction tackles real people, events, and places—things that actually happened or are happening.
  • Conduct extensive r esearch: Learn as much as you can about your subject matter, to deepen and enrich your ability to relay the subject matter. (Are you writing about your tenth birthday? What were the newspaper headlines that day?)
  • (W) r ite a narrative: Use storytelling elements originally from fiction, such as Freytag’s Pyramid , to structure your CNF piece’s narrative as a story with literary impact rather than just a recounting.
  • Include personal r eflection: Share your unique voice and perspective on the narrative you are retelling.
  • Learn by r eading: The best way to learn to write creative nonfiction well is to read it being written well. Read as much CNF as you can, and observe closely how the author’s choices impact you as a reader.

You can read more about the 5 R’s in this helpful summary article .

How to Write Creative Nonfiction: Give it a Try!

Whatever form you choose, whatever story you tell, and whatever techniques you write with, the more important aspect of creative nonfiction is this: be honest. That may seem redundant, but often, writers mistakenly create narratives that aren’t true, or they use details and symbols that didn’t exist in the story. Trust us – real life is best read when it’s honest, and readers can tell when details in the story feel fabricated or inflated. Write with honesty, and the right words will follow!

Ready to start writing your creative nonfiction piece? If you need extra guidance or want to write alongside our community, take a look at the upcoming nonfiction classes at Writers.com. Now, go and write the next bestselling memoir!

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Sean Glatch

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Thank you so much for including these samples from Hippocampus Magazine essays/contributors; it was so wonderful to see these pieces reflected on from the craft perspective! – Donna from Hippocampus

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Absolutely, Donna! I’m a longtime fan of Hippocampus and am always astounded by the writing you publish. We’re always happy to showcase stunning work 🙂

[…] Source: https://www.masterclass.com/articles/a-complete-guide-to-writing-creative-nonfiction#5-creative-nonfiction-writing-promptshttps://writers.com/what-is-creative-nonfiction […]

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So impressive

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Thank you. I’ve been researching a number of figures from the 1800’s and have come across a large number of ‘biographies’ of figures. These include quoted conversations which I knew to be figments of the author and yet some works are lauded as ‘histories’.

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excellent guidelines inspiring me to write CNF thank you

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The best nonfiction writing prompts

Are you an author looking for nonfiction writing prompts to spark your creative muse? You're in the right place: we created this directory to house all the story ideas about life, people, and history you might need to succeed as a nonfiction writer. 

The great thing about nonfiction writing is that ideas can come from anywhere: in-house family drama with the parents, an argument over the Internet with a stranger about money, or a heart-to-heart talk with friends about your beliefs. So whether you're writing an essay or creative nonfiction, feel free to scour this page for inspiration. Who knows? Maybe one of the stories you write in response to a prompt will turn into your next book. 

If you're looking to cut to the chase, here’s a top ten list of our favorite nonfiction writing prompts:

  • Write a story about inaction.
  • Write a story about activism.
  • Write about a date that was so terrible you’ll never forget it.
  • Write about a secret you’ve never told the person you love.
  • Write about someone (or something) you loved that you shouldn’t have.
  • Pick one of the five senses. Write a descriptive piece about your surroundings based on that sense. 
  • Write about a time when you helped someone. 

If you’re interested in becoming a nonfiction author, check out our free resources on the topic:

  • The Non-Sexy Business of Writing Non-Fiction (free cours e)  — None of the sexy nonfiction books you see on the bestseller lists started that way. We can guarantee you that all those books were written the non-sexy way: through simple hard work that requires you to show up at the computer daily to get your words onto paper. This free ten-day course aims to help you through that process and emerge with a nonfiction book at the end of the tunnel. 
  • How to Write a Memoir (blog pos t)  — Memoirs are among the most popular types of nonfiction markets in the publishing industry today. Suppose you're also interested in turning your life and experiences into a story with a beginning, middle, and end. In that case, this guide will walk you through the entire process: from outlining your memoir to writing and marketing it. 

Ready to start writing? Check out  Reedsy’s weekly short story contest  for the chance of winning $250! You can also check out our list of  writing contests  or our directory of  literary magazines  for more opportunities to submit your story.


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Alyssa Teaches

Alyssa Teaches

an Upper Elementary Blog

Teaching Narrative Nonfiction

New to the narrative nonfiction unit? Grab some ideas to get started with your students and check out some awesome mentor texts!

I remember when I first saw the term “narrative nonfiction” in my state’s reading standards and honestly, I didn’t know what it meant! If you’re new to teaching literary nonfiction, I hope this post will give you a good overview to get you started!

What Is Narrative Nonfiction?

Narrative nonfiction, or literary nonfiction, is nonfiction text that uses a storytelling structure to present information about a topic, such as a real person or event. It’s different than expository text, which simply presents the facts.

Since the facts are written in a narrative format with characters, a setting, a plot, etc., it can be a more engaging and memorable way for students to learn about the world.

Literary nonfiction is a great reading unit to teach 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade students. Let's look at the narrative nonfiction definition, some activities to teach it, and some of my favorite literary nonfiction books!

It’s kind of tricky to differentiate between narrative nonfiction and historical fiction. To me, narrative nonfiction is more about presenting facts through a story, and historical fiction is more about telling a story that is based on some facts. Clear as mud, lol.

Biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs are definitely part of the narrative nonfiction genre, but it can also include texts based on historical events or other topics like animals. The good news is that there’s a huge variety of texts that will attract readers with different interests in your classroom.

Introducing Narrative Nonfiction

One way to kick off this unit is to put out a selection of nonfiction, fiction, and literary nonfiction books for students to explore. You can have them work in small groups to discuss what they notice about the formats of the books and maybe sort them into groups.

They’ll start to see that expository nonfiction books have text features and mostly stick to the facts, but narrative nonfiction books look a lot more like fiction and often contain dialogue. I like to create an anchor chart as groups share the characteristics they notice.

Another option to introduce literary nonfiction is to start with a mentor text read-aloud and ask students to identify the author’s purpose. This leads to great discussions and helps students see that it’s kind of the best of both worlds. Scroll down for some of my recommendations for books to use!

Book Pairings

Another way to teach students the difference between expository texts and narrative nonfiction texts is to pair literary nonfiction books with nonfiction books on the same topic. Students can compare and contrast the structures and details of the two books. I ask students to discuss which type is the most efficient to use if you need to find a fact quickly, and I also have them share which type they prefer. You can also try using shorter passages , which are great for reading groups.

Here are some examples of book pairings:

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind [picture book] by William Kamkwamba and Wind Power: Alternative Energy by Matthew Ziem

nonfiction narrative writing examples

I, Fly: The Buzz About Flies and How Awesome They Are by Bridget Heos and Flies by Larry Dane Brimner

nonfiction narrative writing examples

Similarly, you can compare narrative nonfiction books or passages with fiction by asking students to highlight the facts they find it in each. This is a great way to reinforce author’s purpose for this unit – while they’re being entertained, they are also being hit with lots of facts!

Literary Nonfiction Skills and Standards

There are tons of reading skills that you can weave into a literary nonfiction unit, including:

  • summarizing the events and supporting details (and sequencing, too)
  • drawing conclusions and making inferences
  • identifying the conflict and resolution
  • analyzing the author’s word choice (i.e., figurative language, descriptive words, vocabulary)
  • identifying cause and effect relationships
  • inferring character traits
  • identifying the narrator of the story
  • describing how the language, characters, and setting contribute to the plot
  • explaining the author’s purpose
  • synthesizing the main idea of the text (i.e., what are this person’s contributions/why is this event significant?)

My fourth graders were struggling one year with summarizing the events of a text. I read aloud Only Passing Through: The Story of Sojourner Truth by Anne Rockwell. We identified the major events in the story as a class and then I assigned partners one event to illustrate and write in their own words. We put them together to create our own timeline of the book and it made a really nice display.

This genre is a perfect one to dive deep into character analysis and have students infer character traits using evidence from the text. They can practice making conclusions about that person’s contributions or the event’s significance. I’ve also had some great conversations with my students about what might have happened to the character(s) if they’d lived in a different place or time.

My Favorite Narrative Nonfiction Books

Here are a few narrative nonfiction mentor texts that I recommend for 3rd-6th grades! Click on the titles for more info!

  • Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear by Lindsay Mattick
  • Pop!: The Invention of Bubble Gum by Meghan McCarthy
  • We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball by Kadir Nelson
  • The Boston Tea Party by Russell Freedman
  • One Plastic Bag: Isatou Ceesay and the Recycling Women of the Gambia by Miranda Paul
  • Owen & Mzee: The True Story of a Remarkable Friendship by Isabella Hatkoff
  • Mr. Ferris and His Wheel by Kathryn Gibbs Davis
  • Separate is Never Equal by Duncan Tonatiuh
  • The Marvelous Thing that Came From a Spring by Gilbert Ford
  • Mesmerized: How Ben Franklin Solved a Mystery That Baffled All of France by Mara Rockliff
  • Henry’s Freedom Box by Levine Ellen
  • Ivan: The Remarkable True Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla by Katherine Applegate
  • Nya’s Long Walk: A Step at a Time by Linda Sue Park
  • Balloons Over Broadway by Melissa Sweet
  • One Tiny Turtle by Nicola Davies

Scholastic News and Time for Kids are some other good places to look for short narrative nonfiction articles.

I think narrative nonfiction is a really engaging and fun genre to teach. It definitely makes informational text more accessible for reluctant readers! It’s also fun to have students write their own pieces after researching a person or topic of interest to them. What tips do you have for teaching a literary nonfiction unit?

This post contains affiliate links; I earn a small commission from products purchased through these links.

New to the narrative nonfiction unit? Grab some ideas to get started with your students and check out some awesome mentor texts!

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Hey there – I was wondering if you had a link to the anchor chart you used? So glad I found your site and TPT – need more VA TPT teachers 🙂

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Hi Rachel, I’m glad you’re finding the content helpful! Please email me through the Contact page and I can send it to you!

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I would love to have the anchor chart that you used! I’ll be using your guidance as I teach this for the first time! So great!

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I was searching for additional work on narrative nonfiction. I found this very attractive and informative for fourth graders in this virtual learning era. I will definitely use the image as my introduction.

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I was thinking of how to teach Nonfiction and came across your post. Thank you so much for posting it. I found it very useful.

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I subscribed but I was never sent these anchor charts.

Hi April, thanks for subscribing! You should receive an email asking you to confirm your subscription. Please check for that in your spam folder!

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I subscribed but was never sent the anchor chart.

Hi Erin, thanks for subscribing! You should receive a confirmation email asking you to confirm your subscription, and then you’ll get a second email with the download. Please reach out again if you don’t see it!

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Thank you for the post. I also subscribed with the hopes of receiving the anchor chart but it hasn’t come through yet.

Hi Leslie, thanks for subscribing! If you used your work email address, it may have been blocked or gone to your spam folder. Can you please try again with a personal email?

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Could you please share your anchor chart? Thanks!

Hi there! If you use the link at the bottom of the post to enter your email, it will automatically be sent to you!

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Thank you for sharing!

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Hello. I subscribed, but alas no anchor chart. I did check all mail including spam and did use a personal email address. Thanks for your help.

Sending you an email, Kimberly!

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Hi there, I did subscribe like the others but did not receive the anchor chart. I checked my spam folder as well.

I’ll send it your way, Lisa!

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Hello! I did subscribe to follow your work, though I did not a chart. How would I go about being able to get one? Thank you!

Hi Jill! Did you receive a confirmation email? Let me know if you haven’t gotten access to the PDF yet!

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Hello Alyssa. Great website and resources! I just wanted to let you know that I have subscribed and checked my spam folder, but I have received no confirmation email and anchor charts. I would love the PDF if possible. Thank you so much!

Hi Euan! Did the download go through for you?

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Hello! I subscribed and received the confirmation email, but did not receive the anchor chart. I would love to use the anchor chart with my students. Thannks!

Hi Sherri! Did the download go through for you?

' data-src=

Hi, I subscribed and did not receive the anchor chart. Are you able to email to me or send a pdf?

Hi, I’m not sure what’s going on with this download lately! Did you receive a confirmation email?

' data-src=

I subscribed and didn’t get the narrative nonfiction anchor chart.

Hi there! Did you confirm your subscription in the initial email? Let me know if you still don’t see it!

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Did you ever post the anchor chart? and yes, I would love to see the mini-lessons you taught with this unit. My 11th grade students are interviewing someone over Christmas break in anticipation of writing a 1000-word nonfiction narrative. The collection will be published by our local newspaper into a hard-bound book. I’m excited to get rolling after Christmas. We’ve been reading memoirs and collecting beautiful sentences.

What an amazing project! I did something similar in 8th grade and interviewed my grandmother! You can access the anchor chart by subscribing to my weekly newsletter at the end of the blog post!

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Examples of Creative Nonfiction: What It Is & How to Write It

POSTED ON Jul 21, 2023

P.J McNulty

Written by P.J McNulty

When most people think of creative writing, they picture fiction books – but there are plenty of examples of creative nonfiction. In fact, creative nonfiction is one of the most interesting genres to read and write. So what is creative nonfiction exactly? 

More and more people are discovering the joy of getting immersed in content based on true life that has all the quality and craft of a well-written novel. If you are interested in writing creative nonfiction, it’s important to understand different examples of creative nonfiction as a genre. 

If you’ve ever gotten lost in memoirs so descriptive that you felt you’d walked in the shoes of those people, those are perfect examples of creative nonfiction – and you understand exactly why this genre is so popular.

But is creative nonfiction a viable form of writing to pursue? What is creative nonfiction best used to convey? And what are some popular creative nonfiction examples?

Today we will discuss all about this genre, including plenty of examples of creative nonfiction books – so you’ll know exactly how to write it. 

This Guide to Creative Nonfiction Covers:

Need A Nonfiction Book Outline?

What is Creative Nonfiction?

Creative nonfiction is defined as true events written about with the techniques and style traditionally found in creative writing . We can understand what creative nonfiction is by contrasting it with plain-old nonfiction. 

Think about news or a history textbook, for example. These nonfiction pieces tend to be written in very matter-of-fact, declarative language. While informative, this type of nonfiction often lacks the flair and pleasure that keep people hooked on fictional novels.

Imagine there are two retellings of a true crime story – one in a newspaper and the other in the script for a podcast. Which is more likely to grip you? The dry, factual language, or the evocative, emotionally impactful creative writing?

Podcasts are often great examples of creative nonfiction – but of course, creative nonfiction can be used in books too. In fact, there are many types of creative nonfiction writing. Let's take a look!

Types of creative nonfiction

Creative nonfiction comes in many different forms and flavors. Just as there are myriad types of creative writing, there are almost as many types of creative nonfiction.

Some of the most popular types include:

Literary nonfiction

Literary nonfiction refers to any form of factual writing that employs the literary elements that are more commonly found in fiction. If you’re writing about a true event (but using elements such as metaphor and theme) you might well be writing literary nonfiction.

Writing a life story doesn’t have to be a dry, chronological depiction of your years on Earth. You can use memoirs to creatively tell about events or ongoing themes in your life.

If you’re unsure of what kind of creative nonfiction to write, why not consider a creative memoir? After all, no one else can tell your life story like you. 

Nature writing

The beauty of the natural world is an ongoing source of creative inspiration for many people, from photographers to documentary makers. But it’s also a great focus for a creative nonfiction writer. Evoking the majesty and wonder of our environment is an endless source of material for creative nonfiction. 

Travel writing

If you’ve ever read a great travel article or book, you’ll almost feel as if you've been on the journey yourself. There’s something special about travel writing that conveys not only the literal journey, but the personal journey that takes place.

Writers with a passion for exploring the world should consider travel writing as their form of creative nonfiction. 

For types of writing that leave a lasting impact on the world, look no further than speeches. From a preacher's sermon, to ‘I have a dream’, speeches move hearts and minds like almost nothing else. The difference between an effective speech and one that falls on deaf ears is little more than the creative skill with which it is written. 


Noteworthy figures from history and contemporary times alike are great sources for creative nonfiction. Think about the difference between reading about someone’s life on Wikipedia and reading about it in a critically-acclaimed biography.

Which is the better way of honoring that person’s legacy and achievements? Which is more fun to read? If there’s someone whose life story is one you’d love to tell, creative nonfiction might be the best way to do it. 

So now that you have an idea of what creative nonfiction is, and some different ways you can write it, let's take a look at some popular examples of creative nonfiction books and speeches.

Examples of Creative Nonfiction

Here are our favorite examples of creative nonfiction:

1. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

No list of examples of creative nonfiction would be complete without In Cold Blood . This landmark work of literary nonfiction by Truman Capote helped to establish the literary nonfiction genre in its modern form, and paved the way for the contemporary true crime boom.  

2. A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway's A Moveable Feast is undeniably one of the best creative memoirs ever written. It beautifully reflects on Hemingway’s time in Paris – and whisks you away into the cobblestone streets.  

3. World of Wonders by Aimee Nezhukumatathil

If you're looking for examples of creative nonfiction nature writing, no one does it quite like Aimee Nezhukumatathil. World of Wonders  is a beautiful series of essays that poetically depicts the varied natural landscapes she enjoyed over the years. 

4. A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson is one of the most beloved travel writers of our time. And A Walk in the Woods is perhaps Bryson in his peak form. This much-loved travel book uses creativity to explore the Appalachian Trail and convey Bryson’s opinions on America in his humorous trademark style.

5. The Gettysburg Address by Abraham Lincoln

 While most of our examples of creative nonfiction are books, we would be remiss not to include at least one speech. The Gettysburg Address is one of the most impactful speeches in American history, and an inspiring example for creative nonfiction writers.

6. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

Few have a way with words like Maya Angelou. Her triumphant book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings , shows the power of literature to transcend one’s circumstances at any time. It is one of the best examples of creative nonfiction that truly sucks you in.

7. Hiroshima by John Hershey

Hiroshima is a powerful retelling of the events during (and following) the infamous atomic bomb. This journalistic masterpiece is told through the memories of survivors – and will stay with you long after you've finished the final page.

8. Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

If you haven't read the book, you've probably seen the film. Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert is one of the most popular travel memoirs in history. This romp of creative nonfiction teaches us how to truly unmake and rebuild ourselves through the lens of travel.

9. Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris

Never has language learning brought tears of laughter like Me Talk Pretty One Day . David Sedaris comically divulges his (often failed) attempts to learn French with a decidedly sadistic teacher, and all the other mishaps he encounters in his fated move from New York to Paris.

10. The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

Many of us had complicated childhoods, but few of us experienced the hardships of Jeannette Walls. In The Glass Castle , she gives us a transparent look at the betrayals and torments of her youth and how she overcame them with grace – weaving her trauma until it reads like a whimsical fairytale.

Now that you've seen plenty of creative nonfiction examples, it's time to learn how to write your own creative nonfiction masterpiece.

Tips for Writing Creative Nonfiction

Writing creative nonfiction has a lot in common with other types of writing. (You won’t be reinventing the wheel here.) The better you are at writing in general, the easier you’ll find your creative nonfiction project. But there are some nuances to be aware of.

Writing a successful creative nonfiction piece requires you to:

Choose a form

Before you commit to a creative nonfiction project, get clear on exactly what it is you want to write. That way, you can get familiar with the conventions of the style of writing and draw inspiration from some of its classics.

Try and find a balance between a type of creative nonfiction you find personally appealing and one you have the skill set to be effective at. 

Gather the facts

Like all forms of nonfiction, your creative project will require a great deal of research and preparation. If you’re writing about an event, try and gather as many sources of information as possible – so you can imbue your writing with a rich level of detail.

If it’s a piece about your life, jot down personal recollections and gather photos from your past. 

Plan your writing

Unlike a fictional novel, which tends to follow a fairly well-established structure, works of creative nonfiction have a less clear shape. To avoid the risk of meandering or getting weighed down by less significant sections, structure your project ahead of writing it.

You can either apply the classic fiction structures to a nonfictional event or take inspiration from the pacing of other examples of creative nonfiction you admire. 

You may also want to come up with a working title to inspire your writing. Using a free book title generator is a quick and easy way to do this and move on to the actual writing of your book.

Draft in your intended style

Unless you have a track record of writing creative nonfiction, the first time doing so can feel a little uncomfortable. You might second-guess your writing more than you usually would due to the novelty of applying creative techniques to real events. Because of this, it’s essential to get your first draft down as quickly as possible.

Rewrite and refine

After you finish your first draft, only then should you read back through it and critique your work. Perhaps you haven’t used enough source material. Or maybe you’ve overdone a certain creative technique. Whatever you happen to notice, take as long as you need to refine and rework it until your writing feels just right.

Ready to Wow the World With Your Story?

You know have the knowledge and inspiring examples of creative nonfiction you need to write a successful work in this genre. Whether you choose to write a riveting travel book, a tear-jerking memoir, or a biography that makes readers laugh out loud, creative nonfiction will give you the power to convey true events like never before.  

Who knows? Maybe your book will be on the next list of top creative nonfiction examples!

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Narrative Nonfiction: Making Facts into a Story

narrative nonfiction

When editors say they are looking for narrative nonfiction, what does that mean?

Narrative nonfiction is creative nonfiction yet while both are fact-based book categories , narrative nonfiction is also about storytelling, not just presenting facts in a clever way. It gives people, places and events meaning and emotional content – without making anything up. If you make up dialog or alter facts, then it becomes fiction.

The primary goal of the narrative nonfiction writer is to communicate information, like a reporter, but to shape it in a way that reads like fiction.

So how do you do that?

✏️ Set the tone with opening images or word usage or even a juicy quote. My book, An Eye for Color , starts out: “Josef Albers saw art in the simplest things.” I wanted to set the tone that this story was about art, but simple art that kids could relate to. As the story unfolded, I connected to that idea of keeping it simple.

✏️ Voice .  When writing narrative nonfiction, avoid the dull, droning textbook voice that makes you feel like you’re reading a reference book. Perky, fast-paced and humorous works better to capture your reader right from the start.

✏️ Don’t give away the point you’re trying to make, build up to it . Use obstacles and rising stakes. Ask yourself, if this thing doesn’t happen, then what?

✏️ Use poetic language rather than dry statements . Using my new biography, When Jackie Saved Grand Central , as an example, I wanted to say that Jackie was mad and she wanted to join the protestors so I wrote: “Like a powerful locomotive, Jackie led the charge to preserve the landmark she and New York City loved.” This language ties into the train theme.

✏️ Use active verbs! Trim out phrases like: decided to. For example, She decided to build another model. Change to: She built another model.

✏️ Build your world or era. But do it quickly! Don’t spend a lot of opening text on setting up the year, the location, or the era. Here’s how the Jackie story starts out: “When Jackie became First Lady of the United States in 1961, she moved into the White House with President John F. Kennedy and their children.” Nuff said. I didn’t have to tell you when Jackie was born, or how many kids she had and their names, or what number president John Kennedy was, or that the White House was in Washington, D.C.

✏️ Find tension .  Like all books, narrative nonfiction requires tension and conflict to grab a reader. Does your main character have a competitor who is trying to beat your guy to the patent office? Is the event something that could change the world? Is the main character full of doubt which could sabotage everything?

✏️ Find “aha” moments . Did your character have a breakthrough on her invention? Did the artist discover something he’d never seen before in his paintings that made him follow a new path? Did your character get an idea while observing ladybugs that helped solve his problem?

✏️ Is there an emotional journey for the main character? How does she succeed or grow? This works great for narrative nonfiction inventor stories. Why did the person want to invent something in the first place? Did he have a sick mother? Was a machine too cumbersome? During his journey did he ever want to give up? Did he have a breakthrough, or a break down? Did he get the recognition he wanted, or choose to live alone in a cabin instead?

✏️ Is there a kid-friendly or universal theme? Historic preservation is a tough theme to sell to younger kids, so I had to make it about saving buildings people love to use rather than pontificating about the value of restoring the architectural integrity of a landmark. See the difference?

✏️ Make us care about the person or object or invention . In my Jackie book, the biggest breakthrough in my revisions came when I started looking at the object that Jackie was trying to save – Grand Central Terminal – as something people cared about. Rather than just describing the building, I showed examples where people attended dances there, where politicians gave speeches, and friends met for lunch. That way the reader could have an emotional attachment to the building and therefore care if it was going to be destroyed or not.

✏️ Limit use of facts . This sounds odd when you’re writing narrative nonfiction, but too many facts can drag down the poetic flow of the text. Choose the facts that support your theme or opinion about the topic. Interesting nuggets that are visual or help children relate to the topic are keepers.

And don’t pile them up in one giant paragraph. Sprinkle them throughout the story, and use quotes to break up stretches of text. Visually, quotes give the eye something different to see, therefore re-investing the reader in your story.

If you still think some facts are pertinent, put them in the endnotes instead.

When you’re writing narrative nonfiction, always keep in mind, is it kid friendly and am I telling a story? Then weave those facts into your story so that readers will learn while also being entertained.

Before you start writing your narrative nonfiction manuscript keep these things in mind:

🔸 How can you connect kids to your topic? For example, how does an invention affect their lives today?

🔸 Does your story have an unusual slant?

🔸 Is your biography of someone not heard about or someone kids should know about?

🔸 Check to see what other books have been done on that topic and how the author treated the telling and incorporated the information. Check out their sidebars and endnotes, too.

🔸 Is yours different and fresh?

🔸 Has new information come out on that topic to warrant a new book? Such as when a new president is elected. Or a new technology invented. How does this new bit of information make what’s out there obsolete – the topic could use a freshening up.

🔸 Has the publisher you work with already published that topic? Then don’t submit to them.

🔸 Did you publish a chapter book on a topic that would make a good picture book? If so, choose one through line and simplify and use poetic language. Choose one thing the person did and focus on that.

🔸 Is there an anniversary coming up in 4-5 years that you can hook your topic to? Start gathering research now.

🔸 Make sure you document where every fact is from so you can easily find it when you need to revise with an editor, or when you need proof where you got a quote.

🔸 Keep a list of experts you contacted so they can vet your manuscript before you submit it.

Natasha Wing is a best-selling author who has been writing for 25 years. She is best known for her Night Before series, but also has written several narrative nonfictions. When Jackie Saved Grand Central: The True Story of Jacqueline Kennedy’s Fight for an American Icon (HMH Books for Young Readers) received starred reviews from Booklist and Kirkus .

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June 18th by Guest Author


I love the suggestion to limit use of facts! It’s really true, but we as writers are often compelled to include every little detail in a story when most of them are irrelevant (though it’s difficult to see that sometimes without the help of a good editor). Great tips here!

Bill Crowley

Learning from experience can’t be beat! Experience is the best “teacher” in the world…no matter if it’s not YOUR personal experience. Listen, observe, learn…just keep your “mouth closed,, eyes, ears and mind OPEN!” Thank You, Thank You, Thank You…for sharing your priceless list of advice to others less “bruised from the rough road traveled on the interstate of writing. Best Regards, “Cartoon Bill” Crowley PS: Brief background: I’m an artist / cartoonist and have illustrated my share of mostly Children’s books and truly love doing so. Yes, I’ve written my own children’ book…but…have re-written and re-written it several times. The illustrations are all in my head screaming and screaming “Let me out! Let me out!!!” For sure, they will be “let out’ some time in 2018. Count of it! My story has the “Judy Seal of Approval” ( my wife) …and she is NOT a “Yes” person.If it’s bad, she says so, and likewise on the affirmative side of the equation…the best type of person to have as a partner, for sure!! Thank You Again, “Cartoon Bill” Crowley.

Annie Lynn

Natasha….this is a goldmine of info and recommendations…..wow! Can’t wait to share. I think many of the action items you listed also will help with my songwriting. Congratulations to all involved in this interesting and beautiful book.

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