I used to avoid nonfiction—in both reading and writing—until I discovered that creative nonfiction employs literary techniques usually associated with fiction. How could this be? And would trying it expand my skills?
Creative nonfiction seeks to capture readers’ attention by describing actual people, places, and events in narrative format. For example, if I invent a motorcyclist character who travels across the US, that’s fiction. But if I record the experiences of a real motorcyclist I’ve spoken with, that’s creative nonfiction.
I broke out my pens and gave this hybrid genre a shot. My conclusion? That it’s an underused training weapon. Because the goal is to communicate facts in a meaningful way, you’ll add nuances to your writing that you wouldn’t have otherwise.
1. You’ll Learn How to Portray the World Realistically
Stories are in our heads, and sometimes we struggle to transfer them to paper. Since we’re making everything up, we have to fill each scene with details so that readers can visualize what’s happening. But with creative nonfiction, we don’t need to rely on our imaginations.
Let’s compare two paragraphs I wrote about a window. The first is entirely fictional, but the second I based on a setting that intrigued me.
Version #1: The brown and cracked pane overlooked an equally brown and cracked yard that had been scorched by the summer heat. Handprints smudged the glass, giving it an aura of neglect.
Version #2: In a recess of the basement, a window peeked over the brink of the yard. A rusting air conditioner blocked half the view outside and choked with each turn of its fan, causing overgrown weeds to cringe away and cluster against the window’s dingy glass. A spider flicked strings back and forth across one dusty corner.
Both pieces are crafted well, but the latter pushed me to write more vividly. I never would have dreamed up the air conditioner, the weeds, or the spider if I hadn’t found a basement window to study. Those elements immerse readers in the scene and change something ordinary—an old window—into a curiosity. Readers love unique settings that provoke thought and help them understand the POV character better.
2. You’ll Gain a New Perspective
Her hair gleamed black like a raven’s wing, and her eyes shone as blue as the ocean’s waves.
Descriptions like that are very cliché. Yet they’re easy to slip into, because physical characteristics can be tricky to depict with originality. But creative nonfiction can teach you to look at your surroundings and the people you meet as special.
Perhaps you’re seated in a coffee shop, and across the street a young woman is talking on her cellphone. She’s wrapped her other hand around an old-fashioned lamppost. If you jot down your impressions of her appearance and body language, the results will likely sound more natural than an attempt at being poetic with a fictional character.
Her hair gleamed as dark as the cherrywood lamppost she clung to, and the dim glow of her phone’s screen reflected in her teary blue eyes.
While not identical to the clichéd metaphors I started with, the second example conveys the same details more compellingly. This is where creative nonfiction excels. It shows you how to build a palpable atmosphere that resembles reality.
Maybe you’re writing a scene where a character is washing dishes. If you watch someone doing that chore, you’ll notice soap sticking to the sponge, specks of water on the dishwasher’s arm above her gloves, and the scrape of food being cleaned off a scratched dish. Small details like those make scenes feel authentic—and you can practice weaving them in by writing creative nonfiction.
3. You’ll See Ideas Everywhere
The world is full of stories. And creative nonfiction opens your eyes to the potential that each moment carries.
When a boy wearing an undersized backpack rides an oversized bike across the road, you won’t just file him away as a quirky character. You’ll automatically describe him in the voice of creative nonfiction. The bike chain clanked like a hand-me-down he’d grudgingly accepted, but his leather backpack hinted at wealth—except it was one size too small.
In an interview, author N. D. Wilson mentioned that he writes nonfiction sketches like a “photographer in prose,” which is exactly how your brain will respond as you delve into this writing style. You’ll take narrative snapshots of the world. And when you sit down to write, you’ll have much more realism and inspiration to work with than you did before.
Find Your Story
If you want to add another dimension to your writing, I’d recommend creative nonfiction without qualms. Drive to the nearest coffee shop with only your notebook and pen and an open mind. Your observations may be as interesting as an elderly gentleman reading aloud to himself, or as plain as a strange mark carved into your table. Spin the tale of what’s right in front of you. As the saying goes, truth is stranger than fiction—and writing about the truth can strengthen your fiction.
Savannah Grace is a Nebraska-born-and-raised author who loves writing—and reading—a good speculative story, because there’s no better place to escape than a book. When she’s not lost in (or creating!) other worlds, she can be found making a mess with watercolors, laughing way too loudly, or eating as much Korean food as she can get her hands on. She’s the submissions manager for Illuminate YA and an associate editor for Havok Publishing.
Savannah has had multiple short fiction pieces published in various places and loves helping writers hone their craft. You can find her blogging at savannahgracewrites.blogspot.com, posting sporadically on her YouTube channel (Savannah Grace), or finally finding a use for all her book pictures over on Instagram (@savannahgraceauthor). She’d love to chat with you!