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Your Life as a Narrative: A Guide to Creative Nonfiction

Updated: Sep 19, 2023

By Erin Yoo

 

Creative nonfiction can sometimes be a difficult genre to pinpoint. It requires the use of traditional narrative elements as seen in any sort of creative writing, while also needing to stay true to real events from the author’s lived experiences. To write in this genre, you must simultaneously be an author and a character, and striking the right balance can be a difficult task when starting out. Below are some aspects of creative nonfiction that you might want to keep in mind as you make your foray!


Character Development


Especially in creative nonfiction, character development is critical, as it is often what drives the plot. One of the trickiest parts of writing creative nonfiction is character development. From a submissions standpoint, it can be what bridges the divide between a piece’s acceptance or decline. When employing the “Show, Don’t Tell” strategy of writing, writers might forget to provide sufficient background information or context as well as humanize the character. This may cause the primary character to seem like a “flat” character, instead of a “round” character, when well-developed narrators are foundational in exemplary creative nonfiction writing. Remember that in nonfiction, you’re sharing a part of your story, but readers won’t know everything that has affected your perceptions and identity up to that point—giving them a layout of the “before” part of your narrative can help make sure everyone is on the right page to go forward.


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Dialogue


Dialogue is an essential aspect of the creative nonfiction genre, but is oftentimes overlooked by writers. Even if you are planning to utilize the “Show, Don’t Tell strategy,” it is still important to consider adding dialogue. Dialogue not only provides a humanizing and immersive atmosphere for the reader to be actively engaged in the piece throughout, but it also provides a means to introduce a character more effectively when utilized well.


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Figurative Language and Literary Devices


Figurative language is often seen as an aspect of writing that is used strictly for poetry. However, that doesn’t need to be the case! Employing figurative language and literary devices – including metaphors, motifs, themes, personification, etc. – can be an equally effective tool for creative nonfiction pieces as well. A creative nonfiction author can compare their past experiences to any number of abstract things, and might even find recurring objects, location, or moods (such as a favorite food or a type of weather) to use as symbolism while staying true to themselves and their personal story.


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The “Show, Don’t Tell” Technique


The common writing strategy of “Show, Don’t Tell” can be a difficult line to walk. If writers withhold too much information from the reader in favor of “showing” it, they might inadvertently make it harder for readers to catch onto the piece’s true meaning, arc, and intentions. However, it’s still worth it to try contextualizing your story in a subtle way. Making sure to “show” the reader background information and relevant context, rather than just stating it and moving on, can also be an excellent way of incorporating some elements of imagery and other literary devices.


Hopefully this advice might help you along your creative nonfiction journey! Good luck in telling your own stories, and thank you for reading.


 

Erin Yoo is a blogger at Voices and a Senior Editor at Polyphony.


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