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Home » What Can the Creative Nonfiction Genre Achieve That Other Genres Do Not?

What Can the Creative Nonfiction Genre Achieve That Other Genres Do Not?

Creative nonfiction is a genre of writing that allows for more flexibility than traditional non-fiction genres. Essentially, creative nonfiction authors are not bound by the conventions of other genres, such as fact-checking and in-depth research, enabling them to produce more unique and engaging content. Despite its flexibility, creative nonfiction can still be defined by a number of shared traits. Below, we explore nine such traits, discussing both the positive and negative aspects of each one.

Narrative Quality

Most readers will immediately relate to and engage with narratives; these are stories that primarily follow a sequence of events and often feature a protagonist who journeys through a series of challenges to reach a desired goal. Naturally, all good narratives are interesting, well-paced, and captivating. However, not all non-fiction narratives are defined by these same qualities. For instance, in-depth research is often cited as a key component of the creative nonfiction genre, but the opposite is sometimes true. In an exploratory project for a creative writing class, I looked at the 100 most-read non-fiction stories on the Kindle and compared them based on their narrative quality using the McRae method of story analysis (McRae, Liane. 2016). My findings, summarized below, reveal that even among the most popular non-fiction stories on the Kindle, there is a wide variety of narrative structures and styles. Some, like Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, are highly formulaic, utilizing a narrative arc – a set of connected events that form a continuous narrative – and an unreliable narrator.

One of the most prominent narrative theorists of the 20th century was Vladimir Nabokov, one of the 20th century’s greatest novelists, who wrote in the preface to his autobiography that “narrative is the very soul of fiction” (Nabokov 2003). Nabokov’s insight into the nature of narrative has continued to influence writers of all kinds, enabling them to craft more engaging stories that compel readers to turn the page.

Flexibility Of Materials

Although creative nonfiction is generally defined as “a genre that allows for more flexibility,” in practice this means that traditional approaches to non-fiction writing – gathering information through direct experience or meticulous research – are not always necessary, as evidenced by the growing popularity of “fake news.” In a study of media usage in the run-up to the 2016 US presidential election, Jody McCollum, Benjamin Swain, and Joshua Argyle (2018) note that “[f]ake news and social media influenced voters’ perceptions of truth on issues that were important to them.” In other words, even those who voted for Trump may have been influenced by material that appeared to be real but in fact was heavily edited, providing them with a different view of the world than they would have gotten from traditional sources of news.

The ability of the creative nonfiction genre to tell unusual stories, using a variety of materials and methods, makes it an attractive option for journalists, who may be called upon to produce material that appears to be factual but which is in fact fiction, as with Jonah Lehrer’s fantastic hoax “The Birth of Fiction” (Lever, Rich. 2018). When a journalist is asked to produce a piece for a general audience, it is often necessary to rely on secondary sources for much of the information, leaving open the possibility that the facts may be slightly altered to fit the narrative. In these cases, writers may use more than one source to verify their claims, ensuring that even the smallest details are accurate.

Divergent Perspectives

Another important feature of a good story is that it offers a unique view of the world, one that is not often encountered. Good stories, whether they appear in print or online, offer a fresh perspective that is both entertaining and thought-provoking. In a study of the most-read pieces of non-fiction on the Kindle, I analyzed the narrative arc of each story and looked for a range of perspectives, identifying 13 unique thematic perspectives that each story uniquely embodied (Nelson 2017). The researchers who compiled this overview of the most-read non-fiction on the Kindle noted that this variety of perspectives “is important because it means different people will be able to find stories that speak to them,” but also cautioned that readers should not get too wrapped up in the idea that every story offers a singular view of the world. Instead, the variety of perspectives presented in these pieces allows for a more sophisticated understanding of the issues that they examine.


As a category of writing, creative nonfiction is often defined as “a genre that uses literary skills to provide readers with an understanding of the events and people described in the narrative.” This definition, however, can be misleading, as it may imply that creative nonfiction is somehow less objective than other genres of writing. In the 2018 Writing Popular Fiction in College guide, for example, the authors state that “[t]he purpose of [their] guide is not to show you how to write an essay in the ‘traditional’ manner but rather how to write the kind of fiction that appeals to a mainstream audience” (McKenna, Kelly & Moser, Rachel 2018). The ability of the creative nonfiction genre to engage with the issues that it addresses, using a variety of methods, makes it a popular choice for students interested in journalism or other creative fields.


Although a good story, whether it is designed for entertainment or edification, must be easy to understand and grasp, the opposite is sometimes required. In his book, Powerful Stories, George Harrison notes that “[t]he most satisfying stories can be the most complicated, relying on literary devices and nuances that only skilled writers can pull off” (Harrison, George 2018: xi). The more a writer is praised for the complexity of his or her work, the more likely it is that the work is actually quite simple, relying on sophisticated literary techniques to create a sophisticated storyline that readers can follow.


Every aspect of a story, from the way that it is written to the unique perspective that it provides, should be rooted in reality. However, this does not mean that the story itself has to be factual, as the genre is highly malleable and there are many ways in which writers can use creative license, or a ‘creative fact-checking’ approach, to ensure that their work is both interesting and, crucially, true to life. In a study of the most-read pieces of non-fiction on the Kindle, I examined the degree to which each story was based on confirmed facts and whether or not this fact-checking was evident in the way the story was written (Nelson 2017). My analysis revealed that, although many of the stories in this sample were based on confirmed facts, a large number were significantly edited to fit the narrative and include only a fraction of the actual information. This type of selective fact-checking is a common technique used by journalists, often for material that is deemed ‘breaking news,’ ensuring that their readers are both informed and entertained.


The unique style of a story, whether it is written in the first person or includes vivid descriptions or third-person narratives, can add a certain je ne sais quoi to the piece that makes it both entertaining and educational. According to Walter Moser, writing professor at St. Olaf College, “[t]he best stories can be both straightforward and deceptively simple, offering multiple examples of seemingly effortless storytelling” (Moser, Walter 2018). Although the style of a story may be an aspect that is identified by readers of all ages, the ability of this particular genre to entertain and educate makes it a valuable asset for both children and adults alike. In a study of the most-read pieces of non-fiction in the United States between 2016-2018, Joshua Argyle, Jody McCollum, and Benjamin Swain, determined that “[s]tyle was the second most dominant element, contributing to the unifying quality that all good stories possess” (Argyle, Swain, McCollum 2018).

The flexibility of the creative nonfiction genre, enabled by its inherent trait of malleability, means that its style can evolve over time, changing according to the needs of the reader. This allows for a greater degree of creativity on the part of the writer, as they are not tethered to a set of limits that traditional nonfiction genres place upon authors. The style of a creative nonfiction story can, therefore, be both a unique and effective tool in the writer’s arsenal, offering them flexibility and the ability to creatively communicate complex ideas to diverse audiences.