Nonfiction Novel: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Bryanna Licciardi

Bryanna has received both her BA in English and MFA in Creative Writing. She has been a writing tutor for over six years.

Discover the genre that captures the drama of the novel, only with true life facts. This lesson describes the nonfiction literary genre, as well as genre techniques and famous examples.

Definition

Nonfiction is a genre in literature in which real events are depicted using story-telling techniques. Though the people and situations written about are true, the writer has creative license with how to tell the story. This makes the genre's definition rather flexible. Many nonfiction novels are written in such categories as biographies, historical events, travel, science, religion, philosophy, and art.

While some critics argue nonfiction has been around for centuries, Truman Capote claimed to have been the creator of this genre with his 1966 crime novel In Cold Blood. Whether or not Capote created the genre, he did give it a name. He claims the genre was inspired by his idea to integrate narrative journalistic reportage and creative writing techniques. However, unlike journalism, his idea of nonfiction would rely on creative writing to tell factual events, and rather than imbedding himself into the story, he would imply his credibility through his use of empathy and truth of the events.

In Cold Blood novel cover photo
In Cold Blood novel cover photo

What's Okay for Fiction, but Not for Nonfiction

Making Things Up

In fiction, there is no demand for fact checking. While it can be helpful, it is not necessary because a fictitious novel can make up anything and everything. In a nonfiction novel, however, fact checking is imperative. The trick with writing a nonfiction novel is to balance the truth with creativity. Because of this, it is up to the writer to make sure the events captured cannot be countered or disproven. If it can be disproven, especially if the information is about a person still living, the writer can be sued for libel, which is the public defamation of a person.

Being Indirect

In fiction, it's okay to be indirect, to let the readers work their own ways through symbolism and abstractions. However, readers of nonfiction expect the writer to be more direct about time, truth, and other information.

Inserting Opinion Over Fact

In fiction, the writer does not need to worry about truth and therefore paints whatever opinion of the story he or she chooses. However, in nonfiction, it is vital that the writer understand the information that he or she is providing, and therefore, how best to present the information. It is up to the writer to show the information and tell the readers what to think about the information.

Famous Examples

In Cold Blood describes the true events of a family murdered and the events that followed. What made this novel so famous is that it is told from the killers' points of view. Capote visited the killers in jail for several years to get their stories, developing his novel from their interviews. The purpose of his novel was to depict such horrific events in a new light, by creating a relationship between reader and killer, establishing even a sense of empathy for the killers.

Due to Capote's self-proclaimed brilliant new genre, his novel and its 'real-life events' depicted came under much scrutiny. After fact checking his novel, mistakes were eventually discovered in the way the true events were described. Though no legal action was taken, it is imperative that both the writer and editor catch any aspect of the nonfiction novel that can be disproved.

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