By Lisa Amstutz
Every now and then, I see discussions pop up online about terminology related to nonfiction. It’s easy to get confused! So I thought I’d take the opportunity to provide some definitions that are fairly standard in the industry.
First, what is nonfiction? This one’s simple: it is 100% verifiable fact. No invented dialogue or made-up characters or events. Anything else falls into the fiction category.
As a note, nonfiction is not superior to fiction or vice versa—these labels are simply a way of communicating with the reader what to expect. As writers, we owe it to our readers to be honest about what we’re presenting. If we call it nonfiction, they should be able to trust that everything in the book is well-sourced and factual.
Creative nonfiction is a term that is frequently misused. Creative Nonfiction magazine defines it as “true stories, well told,” which sums it up well. It is nonfiction written in an engaging way, using literary techniques to present the facts in a fun and interesting manner. It does NOT mean taking liberties with the truth. Most recent children’s trade nonfiction falls into this category; as an example, my book Plants Fight Back presents facts about plant defenses using humor and rhyme. But everything in it is 100% true.
Narrative nonfiction and expository nonfiction are other terms you may see thrown around. Again, these are both 100% factual categories. Narrative stories have a story arc of some kind; expository stories do not. Instead, they focus on explaining a topic. Biographies and ‘day in the life’ stories are narrative, while a book of factoids is expository. Narrative and expository books can both fall under the creative nonfiction umbrella, but can also be more straightforwardly written, like many educational market titles. For more on this topic, see Melissa Stewart’s excellent article at https://www.slj.com/story/comparing-teaching-expository-and-narrative-nonfiction.
There is one more definition I want to touch on: historical fiction. If you’re writing about an actual person or event in history, but decide to add invented dialogue, characters, or events, you’re now writing historical fiction. Particularly if you’re writing picture books, it can be helpful to explain to the reader in the back matter which parts you’ve fictionalized, as it may not otherwise be clear.
Are there other terms you’re curious about? Drop a note in the comments, or head over to the NF Fest Facebook page to discuss!
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Disclaimer: The Nonfiction Ninjas are a group of writers with diverse ideas . The views expressed in each post are those of the author and may differ from others in the group.