What Is Narrative Nonfiction? and Thoughts on Memoirs

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: Apr 02 2008

I was asked recently to explain what narrative nonfiction is. A good question. When most agents discuss the difference between submitting nonfiction and fiction, they are usually discussing non-narrative nonfiction. If you are writing narrative nonfiction the submission process is usually the same as fiction, the agent would expect that your book is complete or near completion and would definitely want a synopsis and sample chapters.

Now that I’ve thoroughly confused you, what is narrative nonfiction? Otherwise known as creative nonfiction, narrative nonfiction tells a story. Memoirs and journalistic accounts are usually narrative nonfiction. Authors like Tom Wolfe and books like The Perfect Storm would be considered narrative nonfiction. As would Angela’s Ashes, In Cold Blood, and Into Thin Air.

When reviewing prescriptive nonfiction, an agent is going to look at an author’s platform, how the book stands out in what is almost always a crowded marketplace, and what makes it different. Narrative nonfiction, however, is judged by the same standards as fiction—writing is going to be of primary importance. After that the agent is going to look at plotting and of course how the book stands out from other similar titles. In most cases, with creative or narrative nonfiction, a platform, while useful, isn’t necessary.

What’s most interesting to me about the many, many memoir queries or narrative nonfiction queries I receive are the lack of story. A book like Into Thin Air doesn’t become a New York Times bestseller simply because it’s an interesting tale. If that were the case we could all write it. It hits the list because of the storytelling, and I think that’s the most important thing for memoirists or narrative nonfiction writers to remember—your book is at first interesting to readers because your story is intriguing or dramatic, but what makes it a book is the storytelling. You need to take the facts of your life that you want to share and make them into a story, and that includes plot techniques, dialogue, and character building. While the people in your story might be real people, you need to make them real to your readers.


12 responses to “What Is Narrative Nonfiction? and Thoughts on Memoirs”

  1. Thanks for posting this. I had really wondered if this wasn’t the case. Storytelling seems to be very important, so I’m glad you confirmed it.


  2. Avatar Chessie says:

    The trick is, it has to also be TRUE.


  3. I’m in the editing process of my memoir and figuring out how agents viewed it was very confusing at first. Knowing it’s treated as fiction is very helpful, but I have a question regarding queries: should it be written in first person? I’ve heard that first-person novels should be queried in third but I’m uncertain if that applies for narrative nonfiction.


  4. A Slippery Slope

    From narrative nonfiction to those novels referred to as “thinly-veiled autobiography,” to a flat-out novel where you’ve taken the basic outline of your experience, and from there built a story that is completely fiction…

    I think memoir is kind of limiting, because there might be more interesting questions you want to address, but within the confines of “what actually happened,” those questions never came up. And then again, maybe you yourself are comfortable with putting your business out there for the whole world to see – but maybe someone else isn’t, so you have to respect their privacy…I mean, you don’t HAVE TO, but there’s that conflict, my truth/their privacy, to contend with.

    A first-person account of a disaster on Mount Everest, which is “news” already – public – that’s a little different than, say, something between two siblings, which is assumed to be private.

    I think I give up for the moment. Although I marvel at how someone else’s health crisis can cause a person to kneel down before the unholy trinity of chocolate, sugar and butter. I like the heft of a 5-pound bag of sugar (it’s comforting), the way paper wrappers from unsweetened chocolate and butter accumulate on a countertop. Soaking cherries in bourbon left over from the Christmas fruitcake, why not get a match and light them, an offering on the altar? To Hygeia, the Greek muse of health. C’mon Hygeia, chocolate, sugar, butter, cherries, it’s the best I’ve got.

  5. Avatar Karen says:

    Thank you – this clears up a major misconception I had.

  6. Avatar Ellen Guon says:

    Thank you for posting this. I’ve started a memoir (after publishing four novels and numerous short stories), and any advice on the genre is very appreciated.


  7. Avatar Anonymous says:


  8. Avatar Marcia C says:

    Thank you so much for posting this. I had just about decided to give up on writing nonfiction, because the buzzword today is "platform, platform, platform." I understand how this would be true for a book about gardening or open heart surgery, but I just couldn't see why it is so important for nonfiction that is basically telling a story. You've given me hope.

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    Who knows where to download XRumer 5.0 Palladium?
    Help, please. All recommend this program to effectively advertise on the Internet, this is the best program!

  10. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Thanks for the clarification. I think it helps to see it spelled out this way. It is always critical in narrative nonfiction to develop plot and characters. I'm not exactly sure I understand the difference between that and prescriptive nonfiction though? Tiia

  11. Avatar pam says:

    Can someone please tell me what is meant by "platform" in publishing? I'm trying to sell my narrative nonfiction "Girl With Green Hair in Landscape," a personal narrative about my father's stroke, and two agents have told me I lack a "platform." Does having a platform mean you must be famous, like, say, Ron Reagan? Or is it something else? I've published more than 150 articles in Wash Post, Houston Chronicle, Dallas Morning News, etc. And excerpt of my book ran in the Wash Post Sunday mag. Any info you have on "platform" would be most helpful. — pam

  12. I'm curious about how agents regard hybrid books. For example: "Motherless Children" by Hope Edelman contains stories yet it's not really a narrative. It seems like the kind of idea that would benefit from a platform, e.g., a counselor who works with women on mother issues or a lay person who's started a popular support group could get speaking gigs and television experiences.

    Would an agent expect this project to be near complete, or could the author sell it with a proposal that demonstrates, "I plan to compile interviews with several dozen women and research on hundreds of others"?