Can you find much difference between fiction and narrative nonfiction these days?



What’s the difference between fiction and narrative nonfiction?

Damn little.

Once the lines were clear. Now they’re blurred.

And I’m certainly not saying that’s a bad thing because the authors of both fiction and narrative nonfiction have one goal in mind when they sit down to write their books.

It’s all about entertainment.

It’s all about storytelling.

There was a time when narrative nonfiction was regarded as the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. That was its hallmark, at least it was in the minds of its readers.

So much for the myth.

The writers of narrative nonfiction must write from afar. They weren’t around – even if they were alive at the time – when everything that happened took place.

They must take the bones of truth and add the flesh of their imagination. They simply find the holes in the narrative and fill them up, being as loyal and as accurate as possible to time and place. The writers of narrative non-fiction were not privy to any of the conversations or those thoughts rambling around inside a character’s head.

So they packed up all the facts they could, looked around, and, if no one was looking back, they made the whole scene up. In a broad sense, it’s probably fairly accurate. But in reality, nonfiction has just slipped into fictional territory.

It may be based on history.

It may be based on letters.

It may be based on interviews.

It may be based on the recollections of others.

But, make no mistake about it. In the end, the writers of narrative nonficdtion make it up just like the writers of fiction do.

I can recall when narrative nonfiction was considered as works that had been heavily and painstakingly researched.

Fiction was written on the fly.

However, the fiction writers I know dig out as many researched facts as they can  find before stringing words, sentences, and paragraphs together to create a book.

They pride themselves on their research.

They pride themselves on their homework.

I know.

I’ve written both.

And I spent as much time, maybe more, researching material for a novel, such as Golgotha Connection, as I did while tracking down facts for a narrative non-fiction work like Gamble in the Devil’s Chalk.

Both were written with the same style and voice.

Both had plots.

Both had characters.

Both had the twists and turns of subplots.

Both were little more than a collection of short stories, an assortment of scenes that were connected together to form the backbone of a book.

As writers, we don’t mean for the lines to blur.

They just do.

Even the great and acclaimed works of nonfiction – whether it is historical, true crime, sports or biography – are all written like works of fiction.

The reason is simple.

The reader only has these requests.

Don’t preach to me.

Don’t educate me.

Don’t try to persuade me.

And, for goodness sakes, don’t bore me.

Tell me a story.

BattleForOilFrontPlease click the book cover to read more about my books on Amazons. The narrative nonfiction reads just like my fiction. 







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  • David Atkinson

    Of course you are quite correct Caleb. People want a story and I have often heard comments praising the way a writer has ‘brought the facts to life’

    • Caleb Pirtle

      I agree, David. The story needs to bring the facts life regardless of whether they are real or imagined.

  • Roger Summers

    Either way, it’s research, research, research.

    You are indeed correct, sir.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      The problem is that we enjoy researching so much that it’s tough to get around to the writing part of the book.

  • jack43

    All non-fiction is based in theory, a fact that teachers and many authors seem to have forgotten. Thus, it should be handled with the same scientific method that guides all searches for reality. Non-fiction that deals with people and human events is doubly problematic because the reality is often hidden in agendas, something the physical sciences don’t have to contend with. The funniest part is that those who deal in the physical sciences are turning more and more to narrative to explain their theories (watch The Science Channel and others on cable television or any TED presentation for examples) while those who teach the soft sciences, such as history, insist on preaching arcane facts such as names, dates, and places, while ignoring the rich tapestry of the human story. They are, I suppose, unequal to the task of making the unbelievable believable.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      You have touched on one of the problems that so many students fact. I never liked history in school until I reached college and had one professor who preached: “What happens is never as important as the people who make it happen.” From that moment on, history did indeed become a series of vignettes, anecdotes, and stories. And I was hooked.

  • Darlene Jones

    I disagree with the statement: “Don’t educate me.” I think readers do want to learn and do learn from fiction. I think they like a story that gives them information subtly as part of the story and in a non-preachy way. Try reading “Domingo’s Angel” and see how much you learn about life in Spain under Franco, perhaps without even realizing what you are learning.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      I agree if the education is presented well, within the confines of the plot, and in the form of the story. But I have read a lot of novels where the author stops the story and spends the next few pages showing off how much research he or she has done. At this point, I find another novel.

      • Darlene Jones

        That’s not educating and that’s not novel writing. I don’t read those kinds of books either.

        • Caleb Pirtle

          I’m with you, Darlene.

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