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Fact and creative nonfiction

When you snuggle down in your seat at the cinema, popcorn overflowing from the packet and trickling onto the floor, and audible slurps from Ice Blasts echoing throughout the screening before the previews start, there’s an air of anticipation.

There’s something about being in a darkened theatre, waiting for a film to start, that takes us back to being giddy children. What makes watching a film on the big screen more exciting are the words: ‘Based on a true story.’

Why does ‘based on a true story’ intrigue us?

‘But why, when we go to the cinema to escape real life, are studios so keen to pitch films as real? For dramatic effect, of course,’ says Matilda Battersby for The Independent. ‘We are suckers for suggestion, and the minute the PR men and women tell us it is true, the fear (in the case of horror) becomes greater, the empathy (in the case of a weepy) becomes stronger and what I like to term the “aww factor” (see sentimental tales such as The Blind Side) becomes more intense.’

In other words, the suggestion of a story being true heightens our immersion in the tale and the intensity of our emotional reaction to it because people love real stories about real people.

When we know a story is true, it is easier, as Battersby says, to empathise, love, hate, and invest in the plot and the characters themselves. When we can relate to a situation or a person and identify with their experience, the storyteller (fiction writer, biographer, film direction, screenwriter, songwriter, or poet) has us hooked.

Are real stories stranger than fiction?

We binge on Netflix true crime documentaries about notorious serial killers; read memoirs by our favourite rockstars depicting their days of debauchery at the top of their game; gorge on food writing and travel blogs; consume literary journalism and shocking news stories; and even get sucked in by trashy real-life magazines filled with stories that would leave Jeremy Kyle stumped.

Real life is often stranger than fiction and that’s what intrigues us.

We know the appetite for true stories is huge; examples are everywhere around us. But when it comes to writing creative nonfiction, how do we strike the balance between ‘creative’ and ‘nonfiction’?

How can ‘nonfiction’ be ‘creative’?

First thing’s first. The golden rule. ‘You can’t make stuff up,’ says Creative Nonfiction editor Lee Gutkind.

In his article on writing creative nonfiction, Gutkind delves into the different subgenres within nonfiction (memoir, biography, and literary journalism) as well as offering crucial advice to budding writers looking to try out this style of writing.

Writing about yourself, reciting a true event from your own life, is no easy task in the beginning. If you already have experience writing short stories, the temptation to slip into familiar habits of embellishment all the way to full-blown fiction is hard to resist.

To claim a piece of work is nonfiction, however, is making a promise to your readers that your account is true, authentic, and honest. Many argue that nonfiction, by definition, simply can’t be creative if you can’t add in fabrication to spice up the narrative. But this isn’t the case.

Writing creative nonfiction isn’t like writing a news story. Admittedly, they both have something in common: they’re about real life, an account of an event that actually happened. But a personal essay or a memoir is not written in a matter-of-fact style, reciting a timeline of events. It is not unbiased or lacking a satisfactory structure of a beginning, middle, and conclusion.

Creative nonfiction may be based on true stories, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be written using the same literary devices we would employ in fiction writing.

We can still use metaphors, similes, descriptive language, symbolism, and foreshadowing. A story can be factual and sincere and still be written beautifully.

How to write creative nonfiction

Putting pen to paper, or fingertip to keyboard, for your first piece of creative nonfiction can be daunting. But like staring any first draft, you need to simply get the words out of your head and onto the page. Even if you think your first draft is terrible, you can always go back edit a bad page, but you can’t edit a blank page.

Gutkind advises creative nonfiction writers to write in scenes: ‘Scenes and stories are the building blocks of creative nonfiction, the foundation and anchoring elements of what we do.’

‘The stories or scenes not only have to be factual and true, they have to make a point or communicate information, as I have said, and they have to fit into the overall structure of the essay or chapter or book,’ he argues. ‘It is often a daunting task. But it’s essential.’

Gutkind talks about how writing in scenes makes the difference between showing and telling in your writing. ‘The lazy, uninspired writer will tell the reader about a subject, place, or personality, but the creative nonfiction writer will show that subject, place, or personality, vividly, memorably—and in action. In scenes.’

If you have a strong idea for your piece of creative nonfiction, a particular scene at the forefront of your mind, whether it fits in at the beginning, middle, or end, start there. Once you have the crux of your piece nailed down, you can flesh out the rest, construct the remainder of the narrative, and weave your distinctive personality and tone of voice throughout to ensure the piece is faithful to the true story.

When struggling to put your memory on paper, you should create an outline for your piece. A tangible structure and end goal will help you prioritise the scenes in your story and give you a firm direction of travel.

Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn, as part of her five tips to writing creative nonfiction, says: ‘The best stories always have a clear structure and objective, exploring or highlighting issues.’

‘Creative non-fiction is the same. The skeleton of the story should be developed with the known facts and fleshed out with the detail from first-hand research.’

Crossing over into the real world when you’ve been used to creating your own universes in the realm of fiction writing is a difficult transition.

Writing real life comes with a learning curve and it takes time to get it right. As much effort and time as it takes, writing creative nonfiction well simply comes with practice.

But, if you have a great true story to tell, and you have experience writing fiction (and enjoy it!), the tools you need to write creative nonfiction are already at your disposal.

The wonderful thing about creative nonfiction is that, when you get it right, you can use it to chroniclise your life, to externalise and document your experiences, good or bad, and keep them sacred, as portable memories you can look back on.

So, stick to the golden rule (you can’t make stuff up), practice, and have fun with it.

Examples of creative nonfiction:

Do you write creative nonfiction? Tell us about your experience in the comment section below.

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