Writing Tips: 5 Rules for Writing Creative Non-Fiction (2022)

Writing Tips: 5 Rules for Writing Creative Non-Fiction (3)

The techniques of fiction can be used in non-fiction to bring the truth alive, and in today's article,Antony M. Brown from ColdCaseJury.com outlines some tips.

In the movie Infamous, there is a scene in which Harper Lee and Truman Capote are discussing the book he is writing about the Clutter murders, the brutal slaying of an entire Kansas family in 1959.

When Capote refers to his book as a novel, Lee is perplexed, telling him a book is either fiction or non-fiction. Capote disagrees – he wants to reveal the intentions, emotions and thoughts of the real-life characters he portrays, giving it the depth of a novel.

(Video) How to Write Creative Non-Fiction

His book In Cold Blood was subsequently recognised as an exemplar of a new genre – creative non-fiction.

Creative non-fiction is based on a true story, but a writer uses his subjective vantage point to tell it, or interpolates imagined conversations and thoughts of real characters into the true story.

The latter is also called a non-fictional novel and some distinguish it from creative non-fiction, although In Cold Blood is cited as an example of both. In this article, I will list my five rules for using creative techniques in historical non-fiction.

#1 Never contradict fact

The golden rule is that a fictional element is always understudy to truth, used only when there are gaps in the historical record and a particular fact is unknown or open to interpretation. Creative non-fiction always hugs facts and never lets go.

The task of the writer is to join the factual dots with plausible lines of narrative or dialogue, but always leaving the dots where they are.

The danger for the creative non-fiction writer is that the imagination becomes the driving force and historical fact is distorted or ignored.

Two examples.

  • The screenplay writer of the movie U-571 showed American marines boarding a German U-boat to capture Enigma code machines, which were vital in defeating the Nazis and ending WWII. In actual fact, the Enigma machines and codebooks were seized six months before America entered the war. Fiction replaced fact.
  • In one of her books about an unsolved murder, a true crime writer (now deceased) changed the known statement of a key witness to support her theory. Again, fiction replaced fact.

Both are egregious violations of the golden rule.

#2 Research is key

There are three ways to ensure you do not break the golden rule: research, research, research.

(Video) How to write descriptively - Nalo Hopkinson

You can never do enough. A writer can only decide to employ creative non-fiction techniques from a position of thorough knowledge, never before.

The best research not only includes secondary sources, such as books, but primary sources. For example, in my genre, historical true crime, this entails looking at the original police files, including police reports, witness statements, inquest testimony, and other documentary evidence.

This invaluable, first-hand history provides the most sought after commodity for any non-fiction writer: detail.

Where can you find primary sources? If a book has already been written on the topic in which you are interested, it will usually list both secondary and primary sources.

If not, a good start is a national or local records office. National archives often a wealth of documents, including de-classified police and prosecution files, although these tend to be released only decades after the event. Sometimes historical police files are held regionally.

#3 Outline the story

The point of creative non-fiction is to tell a true story in a compelling way and engage the reader like a novel. 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.

Only where there are gaps in the historical record should a writer consider using imagined constructs, such as dialogue between the real characters.

For my Cold Case Jury books, I take a historical true crime mystery – typically an unsolved murder from many decades ago – and reconstruct how the crime might have unfolded according to the different theories that have been advanced over the years to solve the case.

(Video) How to write creative non-fiction with Lee Gutkind

If there are, say, three major theories to account for what might have happened then typically they are contraries – they cannot all be true. Some must be false and, therefore, there is an intrinsic element of fiction to this type of true crime, regardless of the style in which it is written.

Further, different theories have arisen by different writers precisely because we do not know all the facts of the case; if we did, it would not be unsolved. This is ideal territory for creative non-fiction.

#4 Write in scenes

When outlining the story, think in scenes. Indeed, this is the essence of both creative fiction and non-fiction.

Scenes have characters, events and dialogue to advance the story and highlight points. Where the entire dialogue is known, from a trial transcript for example, there is no need for imagination. This is rare, however.

Dialogue is usually where the creative is put into creative non-fiction. If an entire story cannot be told in scenes, then you will have to change focus and augment the scenes with traditional prose, in which case the reconstructions should be clearly highlighted.

#5 Be honest

Always. In Did She Kill Him? (2014), Kate Colquhoun italicizes the dialogue that has been taken verbatim from historical documents and assiduously uses endnotes to cite sources for important facts. This is a sound approach, but not the only one.

Other than personal memoirs, sources should always be listed in any non-fiction book. Even better, transcribe some of the original primary research in an evidence file.

This is the approach I adopt in the Cold Case Jury books. For example, in my book The Green Bicycle Mystery, there is an important conversation between a police superintendent and the prime suspect. The conversation is dramatically reconstructed based on a police document that was only recently released to the public. It is not a full transcript, but detailed nonetheless. I also include the text of the original document in my book.

The purpose of the reconstructed conversation is to add more detail and provide insight.

(Video) Creative non-fiction and how to write it, an intro

For example, the conversation occurred when the suspect returned to the police station to collect his personal effects. From another document, taken from the original prosecution file, I unearthed a list of the suspect's sequestrated possessions, so was able to be authentic in describing which objects were handed back. Further, by attributing thoughts to the superintendent, it was possible to highlight important points of the conversation in an arresting way.


Creative non-fiction blurs the distinction between fiction and non-fiction but only at the periphery of knowledge, where fact and truth are unavailable or obscured. It is most definitely not a dramatic license to change what we know. That would be ‘fake history’, to coin a phrase.

Creative non-fiction is not without controversy. What has been your reaction when reading it? Have you tried writing it? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.

Antony M. Brown is an award-winning essayist, former magazine editor-in-chief and member of the Crime Writers' Association. He published several Cold Case Jury e-books – true crime mysteries in which the reader is invited to deliver the verdict on what they believe might have happened – before signing a four book deal with Mirror Books in January 2017. Learn more at ColdCaseJury.com and find Antony on Twitter @ccjury

Writing Tips: 5 Rules for Writing Creative Non-Fiction (10)

(Video) Writing Advice: Creative Nonfiction


Writing Tips: 5 Rules for Writing Creative Non-Fiction? ›

Creative nonfiction uses various literary techniques to tell true stories.
5 Creative Nonfiction Writing Prompts
  • Explore different perspectives. Tell a personal story from your own life from someone else's perspective. ...
  • Write about a location. ...
  • Consider a piece of art. ...
  • Events. ...
  • Experiment with genre.
Sep 29, 2021

What are the 5 R's of creative non fiction? ›

Gutkind defines the essential elements of creative nonfiction as five “R's”: real l ife, reflection, research, reading, and (w)riting. CNF is about real life experiences, and like journalists, CNF writers go to the places and people, immersing themselves in new experiences.

What are the 5 elements of creative writing? ›

Today, let's look at the five basic elements of any story you might write.
Five Elements of Story
  • Character. ...
  • Setting. ...
  • Plot. ...
  • Conflict. ...
  • Resolution.
Feb 11, 2020

What is the number 1 rule in writing creative nonfiction? ›

#1 Never contradict fact

The golden rule is that a fictional element is always understudy to truth, used only when there are gaps in the historical record and a particular fact is unknown or open to interpretation. Creative non-fiction always hugs facts and never lets go.

What makes good creative nonfiction? ›

The Creative Nonfiction (CNF) genre can be rather elusive. It is focused on story, meaning it has a narrative plot with an inciting moment, rising action, climax and denoument, just like fiction. However, nonfiction only works if the story is based in truth, an accurate retelling of the author's life experiences.

What is the fifth or final element of creative nonfiction? ›

The final element of creative nonfiction is writing.

The craft of creative nonfiction requires that the writer learn and deploy the style and techniques of creative nonfiction in his/her work.

What are the 5 main elements of fiction? ›

  • The Five Elements. of. Fiction.
  • Characters.
  • Setting.
  • Point of View.
  • Theme.
  • Plot.
  • Plot.

What are the 5 elements of writing a fictional narrative in order? ›

The 5 Elements of Plot
  • Exposition. This is your book's introduction, where you introduce your characters, establish the setting, and begin to introduce the primary conflict of your story. ...
  • Rising Action. ...
  • Climax. ...
  • Falling Action. ...
  • Resolution/Denouement.

What are the elements of creative nonfiction? ›

The main elements of creative nonfiction are setting, descriptive imagery, figurative language, plot, and character.

How do you start writing creative nonfiction? ›

How to Write Creative Non-Fiction - YouTube

What is reflection in creative nonfiction? ›

The aim of reflection is to make sense of the story, but it is not used to tell the story. (The voice of innocence does that.) Memoirists use the reflective voice to make meaning—to help readers discover the underlying message of a particular scene or moment from the character's life.

What is reflection essay in creative nonfiction? ›

A reflective essay is an essay in which the writer examines his or her experiences in life. The writer then writes about those experiences, exploring how he or she has changed, developed or grown from those experiences.

What is the fourth aspect of creative nonfiction? ›

The Fourth Genre is the first teaching anthology to draw on the common ground both of the practicing writer and the practical scholar. It offers the most thorough, comprehensive, and teachable introduction to the cutting-edge and still evolving genre widely known as “creative nonfiction”.

What is creative nonfiction in your own words? ›

Creative nonfiction is a genre of writing that uses elements of creative writing to present a factual, true story. Literary techniques that are usually reserved for writing fiction can be used in creative nonfiction, such as dialogue, scene-setting, and narrative arcs.

Want to know how to write better? Here are our favorite writing tips.

There’s no magical writing tip, idea, trick, strategy, or hack capable of turning a bad writer into a good writer.. But if you want to learn how to write better, if you’re looking to up your writing skills a level or two, a few good writing tips and tricks (combined with hard work) can help make it happen.. If you’re tired of lifeless words sitting on a page, try sprinkling power and sensory words throughout your content.. To take your big words to the next level, you need to spend just as much time editing your words as you do creating them.. Too many short sentences in a row and your writing will bore your reader.. If you want to be a better writer, find a writer’s block technique or two that works for you.. If you don’t entertain while you inform, your audience will find a great writer who does.. If you want people to read your writing, from beginning to end, you need to do the same.. Don’t start at the beginning of your post.. That’s why you’ve already picked out a few favorites, and it’s why you can’t wait to start writing.. Then it’s time to get to work.

Get an accountant, abstain from sex and similes, cut, rewrite, then cut and rewrite again – if all else fails, pray. Inspire by Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules of Writing, we asked authors for their personal dos and don'ts

3 Take something to write on.. But writing is all about ­perseverance.. 2 The way to write a book is to actually write a book.. Keep putting words on the page.. 5 Write whatever way you like.. Write it ­honestly, and tell it as best you can.. 1 Write only when you have something to say.. 6 Write.. It wouldn't be worth it if you didn't.

What is creative nonfiction? What are nonfiction genres? Check out some guidelines for writing creative nonfiction and then give it a try.

There are many forms and genres within creative nonfiction:. Memoir Autobiography and biography Personal essays Literary journalism Speeches Journaling Any topical material, such as food or travel writing, self-development, art, or history, can be creatively written with a literary angle. Biographies, for example, are a genre of literary journalism, which is a form of nonfiction writing.. Literary journalism also conveys facts and information, but it honors the craft of writing by incorporating storytelling techniques and literary devices.. Some nonfiction genres and topics that offer opportunities for creative nonfiction writing include food and travel writing, self-development, art and history, and health and fitness.. Write an article about how to fix something or solve some problem.. Have you ever written creative nonfiction?

Are you stuck for something to write about? Or are you looking for prompts to use in the classroom? These prompts are aimed at middle school students (roughly

Imagine inventing a new holiday or celebration.. Which scientific discovery or invention has changed the world the most, in your opinion?. Explain what you think parents should do and why.” (from education.depaul.edu) Should school children wear uniforms?. A child from the year 2300 travels back to our time.. Start a story with this line of dialog: “I won’t do it, and you can’t make me!” Two friends send secret messages to one another through a hiding place that only they know about.. Sometimes discovering a fortune will destroy your life.. “ (from thewritepractice.com) “It’s your character’s first day at a new school.. It might seem dull now – but in 20 or 30 years, you might be fascinated to read about the little details of your life.. Write a list – and if you can, choose one or two of these things to do this Write about the people in your family.. I hope these prompts have given you lots of ideas to write about!. You might want to pick a regular time each week to tackle a writing prompt (e.g. Sunday afternoons).. Get a subscription and start receiving our writing tips and exercises daily!

These 101 poetry prompts are sure to spark your creativity! Use these creative writing poetry ideas to start writing poems today!

You may even find this list of creative poetry writing prompts helpful as an exercise to build your skills in descriptive writing and using metaphors.. People You Have Known : Make each line about different people you have met but lost contact with over the years.. Use this hammer as inspiration for a poetry prompt idea!. Use your feelings about sweaters in a poem.. Write about it!


1. 5 Story Writing Tips for Non-Fiction Authors | Livestream Replay
(Book Launchers)
2. Writing Advice from Neil Gaiman | Discover MasterClass | MasterClass
(Patricia J. Parsons)
4. If You Can't Answer These 6 Questions You Don't Have A Story - Glenn Gers
(Film Courage)
5. Characteristics of Creative nonfiction / how to write creative nonfiction
(Qurtuba University Student Events)
6. A Masterclass in Narrative Nonfiction with Ben Rawlence

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