The Five R's of Creative Nonfiction

Updated on March 26, 2018
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Leon is an American writer and essayist from Horton Bay, Michigan.

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Before putting pen to paper or finger to key, a writer has many decisions to make. One of the most important of these is identifying the kind of work he or she would like to create. While fiction writers choose to rely solely on their imagination and ability to distort reality beyond recognition, nonfiction writers assume the hefty load of research, reportage and accuracy.

Of the two types of literature, fiction is often more romanticized than nonfiction, with great names like Hemingway, Salinger and Faulkner (to name only a few) contributing largely to the genre’s body of work. But fiction is aging badly and more and more modern readers are turning to nonfiction, preferring to invest their time in subjects rooted in reality than those conjured up in a person’s head. Some popular examples of nonfiction books are Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, and Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City.

Knowing that what you’re reading took place sometime, somewhere, and to someone causes most to turn the pages with a little more vigor than when reading fiction. But when writing about real people and real life, the creative nonfiction writer must remember Uncle Ben's cautionary words to his nephew Peter Parker: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

In this article, I’ll cover the 5 R’s of creative nonfiction, a sort of checklist to refer to when writing a nonfiction work that will ensure your bases are covered.

The 5 R's of Creative Nonfiction

  1. Write about real life
  2. Conduct extensive research
  3. W(r)ite a narrative
  4. Include personal reflection
  5. Learn by reading

Continue reading for in depth descriptions of each of these writing tips.

1. Write About Real Life

Remember that you are writing about real people, real places and real events. Visiting the people and the places you are going to write about will give you the tools necessary to tell an accurate story with vivid scenery, well-described artifacts and true-to-life personages. Nothing should be fictional or made up. Everything that makes it into your work of creative nonfiction must have happened at some time or another in real life. Never embellish or alter reality.

2. Conduct Extensive Research

Use every resource available to you to gather information on your subject. Of course, where you look for information will depend on the subject matter, but some great starting places are:

  • The library
  • Newspaper archives
  • The Internet
  • Interviews
  • Public records
  • Books and magazines
  • Photographs
  • Immersion (visiting the place you are writing about)

It is also extremely important to ensure your sources are accurate and reputable. If not, your work of creative nonfiction will be picked apart by fact checkers, leaving you vulnerable to lawsuits. Even worse, a creative nonfiction writer who doesn't conduct sufficient research is liable to have their name scourged by readers who are able to poke holes in their story.

The front page of The Bakersfield Californian on January 8th, 1912.
The front page of The Bakersfield Californian on January 8th, 1912. | Source

3. W(r)ite a Narrative

Use the storytelling elements of fiction to create a compelling story with the factual information you’ve gathered. While a work of creative nonfiction does not have to adhere to the literary techniques and narrative arcs of classic fiction, if you choose to craft your story this way, the standard pattern is:

  • Inciting incident
  • Conflict (internal or external)
  • Climax or turning point
  • Resolution
  • End of story

In Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, for example, the opening pages introduce the Clutter family on the day they are murdered. The focus of the story is on the two murderers, who are en route to commit the crime. Once the crime is committed, we have the inciting incident. The climax occurs when, after months on the run, the murderers are arrested in Las Vegas. After their capture, the story cools down, and the author describes the mental state of the two men. The story ends with the murderers being thrown in jail and eventually executed. A sort of resolution comes as peace returns to the small town where the murders were committed.

The home where Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, the subjects of Truman Capote's nonfiction book In Cold Blood, murdered the Clutter family. (March 2009)
The home where Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, the subjects of Truman Capote's nonfiction book In Cold Blood, murdered the Clutter family. (March 2009) | Source

4. Include Personal Reflection

If not for the addition of personal reflection, there would be nothing to separate a work of creative nonfiction from a longform newspaper article. The “creative” in “creative nonfiction” comes with the author’s unique voice and opinion on the matters being related on the page. The author should serve as a guide, holding the reader's hand as they walk through an imaginary museum of well-organized, factual information, and hint at the meaning of this arrangement of facts. You, the author, are the human connection between the subject matter and the reader. In this sense, creative nonfiction relies much more on the personality of the author than fiction. You must befriend your reader, make them trust you, and proceed with your storytelling.

5. Learn by Reading

This tip for writing good creative nonfiction goes along with number two. A successful creative nonfiction writer can never do too much reading on their subject. There are books on pretty much anything you can think of, and plenty of them. The creative nonfiction writer should read autobiographies, newspapers, magazines, articles and other nonfiction books to get a taste for how theirs should be formatted and written. Perhaps even reading a novel that your subject once read will help you understand the life and times of the person a little better.

In Conclusion

By using these tips, you are more than halfway to creating a great work of creative nonfiction. Once you’ve collected your information, plotted your story and taken a unique angle on the subject, you are ready to begin the hardest part of the process: writing the story. Happy writing!

Lee Gutkind on Writing Creative Nonfiction

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    © 2018 Leon Dupuis

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