In this cross-post between Christian Writers Downunder and Australasian Christian Writers, I’ve been tasked with writing about the different types of nonfiction. This genre covers a lot of ground, from biographies of famous people to new ways with tofu, from annual reports and training manuals to news articles and blogs. First, let’s get some definitions under our collective belts.
What is Nonfiction?
In the broadest sense, nonfiction is anything based on factual information. This differs from fiction built around true events or characters. Tracy Chevalier imagined a backstory for the girl in Vermeer’s iconic painting Girl with a Pearl Earring. We understand that she took some literary licence in doing that, but it doesn’t matter. We’re happy to get swept up in the story. In contrast, readers expect that nonfiction is true, or at least a well-argued and reasoned version of the truth.
Reportage vs Creative Nonfiction
I also want to make a distinction between straight reportage and creative nonfiction. In reportage, you present the information as objectively as possible. For example, journalists report the news using the 'who, what, when, where, why and how' questions.
An intoxicated Lithuanian clown was injured this morning when his skateboard collided with a penguin on the Gold Coast Highway. The penguin remains in a fishy condition at Sea World.
Other types of nonfiction that might come under the reportage umbrella include dissertations, scientific papers, and annual reports. These documents can include opinion, interpretation and analysis, as long as such commentary is logical and consistent with the available evidence.
In creative nonfiction, you still deal with facts, but you use literary devices to convey them in an engaging way (e.g. scenes, dialogue, imagery). For example, a straight news article might report that missiles were fired over Tel Aviv, while a piece of creative nonfiction might show events through the eyes of someone holidaying in Israel at that time. (See Anna Elkins’ travel essay Of Danger and Beauty for an example).
If you would like to find out more about writing creative nonfiction, I highly recommend Lee Gutkind’s book You Can’t Make this Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything in Between. If you would like a quicker introduction, I have a four-part series on creative nonfiction on my website. Just go to my writing tips blog and see Posts 33 to 36.
In the remainder of this post, I’ll highlight some of the main types of creative nonfiction.
Biographies, Autobiographies and Memoirs
Biographies, autobiographies and memoirs all tell about the life of someone, but they differ in terms of the author and focus.
A biography is written by someone other than the subject. For example, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxis.
In contrast, autobiographies and memoirs are written by the subject. It’s your story told in first-person. While there is some overlap between the two, memoirs tend to cover a particular theme or a shorter period in the person’s life rather than trying to include the whole saga. Jo-Anne Berthelsen’s memoir Soul Friend tells the story of her special relationship with her spiritual mentor, Joy. Other aspects of Jo-Anne’s life are only mentioned insofar as they relate to that main theme. Memoirs also typically involve more reflection, as authors look back on events and discuss what it means to them now or what they might have done differently.
For some tips on writing life stories, please see Posts 8 to 11 on my blog.
As the name suggests, these types of books give readers practical instructions for accomplishing certain tasks. Whether it’s upcycling or unicycling, preparing a sermon or peppering a salmon, there’s bound to be a book or article to show what you need to know.
Christine Dillon’s book Telling the Gospel Through Story is a good example. Christine draws on her experiences in cross-cultural mission work to show readers how they can use stories to talk to people about their faith
There are also a myriad of writing craft books that show you how to show, and tell you how to tell. Some favourites of mine are Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell and Story Genius by Lisa Cron. (Click here to see my post on how to use Cron’s techniques to deepen character in fiction).
Self-help books are like ‘how-to’ guides for your life. Some of these books help you deal with challenging situations (e.g. abuse, addiction, depression, parenting, singleness), while others help you to lead a more fulfilling life.
A number of Christian living books fall within this category. In her book Beyond Betrayal: How God is Healing Women (and Couples) From Infidelity, Lisa Taylor shares her own story, but also discusses research, strategies and resources to help people who’ve been through similar experiences.
Other examples include Bill Hybel’s Simplify: Ten Practices to Declutter Your Soul and Cloud and Townsend’s Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No To Take Control of Your Life.
I’m using this term in a very broad sense to refer to books that describe or explain information surrounding a particular topic. It could be a book about brain surgery, global warming, literature, theology, politics, cricket, history, psychology, or the companions of Dr Who. The main aim is to inform the reader about the topic. For example, Mark Worthing combines literature and history in his book Narnia, Middle-Earth and the Kingdom of God: A History of Fantasy Literature and the Christian Tradition.
Poetry and Song
here. Even if you don’t know a lot of poetry, I’m sure you can think of dozens of songs based on true stories (e.g. Hurricane by Bob Dylan, I Was Only 19 by Red Gum and The Outlaw by Larry Norman).
As I mentioned earlier, there are dozens of sub-genres within nonfiction and I’ve only scratched the surface. There is also a lot of overlap across categories. For example, Ruth Bonetti combines family memoir with the political undercurrents of the times in her award-winning book Burn my Letters: Tyranny to Refuge.
What are your favourite nonfiction books and why? I’d love to hear your examples.
Nola Passmore is a writer and editor who has had more than 150 short pieces published, including fiction, poetry, devotions, magazine articles, academic papers and true stories. She and her husband Tim own their own freelance writing and editing business called The Write Flourish. She is currently writing an ever-changing novel and will have the draft finished by Christmas ... really!
Web site: http://www.thewriteflourish.com.au