What is narrative non fiction writing?

One of the questions I am most frequently asked by new authors is: how many words should my book be? (Or, alternatively, how many pages? This question is almost impossible to answer because all books are a different size, with different type faces and fonts). The response to the word count question is that most non fiction books are up to 80,000 words, or even more in some cases. However, in my view, the emphasis should be on the words you use, not the word count.

You may have a tremendous story to tell, but unless you tell it in a meaningful way it will come across as dull, stilted and just well, not very interesting. It really is all about ‘the way you tell ‘em’. One way to make it meaningful is to use narrative fiction techniques so your story comes alive, lights up the page and keeps the reader wanting to know what happens next. The primary goal is to accurately convey the story of your personal experience, but to shape it in a way that reads like a novel.

To carry the reader with you, you need to help them experience what you experienced. They need to buy into the sights, sounds, smells and emotions. You didn’t just go to The Ivy to meet your new contact. What did it feel like going to this exclusive restaurant for the first time? As you walked up to the entrance from Leicester Square tube station, navigating around the selfie-taking tourists? Were you distracted by imagining which celebrities you may run into at the restaurant, or see across the room? When you walked through the door, what was the décor like? Were you impressed, or a little disappointed, wondering what all the fuss was about? When the waiter offered you a drink as you waited for your dining companion, was he gushingly polite, or did he look you up and down in a way you just knew he was thinking you shouldn’t be there?

In the above example, the mystery contact has not even arrived yet, but the reader has found out so much about the protagonist and his state of mind/insecurities/hopes. It is much more interesting than: I went to The Ivy to meet Ed for the first time and talk about his business plan.The voice telling the story featured in the previous paragraph is bright, personable and a little humorous, which is a world away from this dull, droning textbook style which would put even the most committed reader off.

Don’t be afraid to use dialogue. It breaks up long stretches of text, enhances the story and reveals more about individual characters. It’s a much more visual and immediate way of telling a story. Granted, you may not remember the exact words of every conversation you have ever had, but you will be able to reconstuct a good approximation. I also find emails and notes written at the time are a useful aide memoir.

In narrative non fiction you are not restricted to a strict timeline. A strong beginning, focusing on one of the main events in the story, which involved a moment of high emotion, loss or gain, is a great way to draw the reader in. It gives a sense of something either beginning or ending and a search for an answer: all recognisably good ingredients for a gripping read. If the end of the story is the logical point to begin, that’s fine. It is acceptable to tell the story in flashback.

The rest of the book should be a journey. Readers like to see a character succeed and grow, or overcome adversity. Again, it does not have to be linear. Life is a bit of a rollercoaster for everyone. Think about introducing periods of tension throughout the book and balance them with ‘aha’ moments, or breakthroughs. Try to end on a high note though. Certainly by the end of the book there should be a clear recognition that it was all worth it, otherwise the reader will feel a little cheated and perhaps even a bit depressed too.

Authors should show not tellwith narrative non fiction, in just the same way as they are encouraged to do in fiction writing. Draw the reader in with your detailed descriptions and use metaphors where necessary. Don’t tell your reader that you were afraid and wary of your unexpected invitation to invest in this stranger’s business opportunity. Try something like: ‘As Ed spoke, my face remained impassive. My insides were churning with emotions though. I was like a wild animal, weighing up whether to befriend this stranger and accept his proffered titbit, or dart away to save myself from an unwarranted and potentially dangerous approach.’

None of this is to say narrative writing is just making stuff up. This is absolutely not the case. You should strive for accuracy all the way through, even when key events are portrayed as scenes in a fiction novel. This entails vigorous research and fact checking. For biographies it is useful to confer with other people who were there at the time who may have a different, but nevertheless valid, perspective.

Done well, a narrative non fiction will do so much more than simply relating a true story. It can transport the reader to another time and afford them the opportunity to stand shoulder to shoulder with the author and experience much of what he or she experienced. That can be pretty powerful. It’s harder to do than to rack-up the word count, but it is a worthwhile endeavour.