Creative Non-fiction: Appropriate Style and the Absence of a Formula
Victor Wasserman, UR Writing Consultant
(printable version here)
Creative nonfiction is an exceptional form of academic writing because of the relative freedom it allows the writer. There is no exact science for writing creative nonfiction and for some, this can seem daunting. This section will try to present a few of the freedoms creative nonfiction offers.
Nonlinear Arrangement and Clever Shifts in Direction: Driving Narrative or Linking Theme
With creative nonfiction, the entire shape of an essay becomes flexible based on how the writer wishes to present it. This is not like an analytical essay, where the usual presentation of information is of the thesis, followed by several paragraphs dedicated to expounding on the thesis or providing support for it. In creative nonfiction, however, the writer can approach the order of paragraphs in any number of ways.
Two particular styles are narrative and thematic.
The narrative style places one event after another to give the reader a sense of clear, chronological progression. An example of this sort of novel-like narration can be read in John Colapinto's" The Interpreter" (PDF).
Alternatively, the writer can choose to forgo narrative in favor of a linking theme. This style is more similar to the typical analytical essay, but rather than tying together concise, thesis-supporting facts, each part of the essay presents a new anecdote or analysis of a common theme that runs through the paper. A good example would be Jonah Lehrer's "The Eureka Hunt" (PDF).
The Free-Form Thesis
Where the thesis comes into a creative nonfiction essay is entirely up to the writer. There is no pressure on the writer to put the thesis at the very beginning of a paper, and the writer may choose to delay introducing the thesis until as far as halfway through the essay. Try to discourage waiting until the end of a paper to present your claim, as doing so may hinder your ability to express its significance to your reader. By removing the need to have a thesis upfront, the writer can begin their paper in a way that will help to validate the thesis when it is presented.
An example could be by beginning with a misleading anecdote, as Zeman does in "The Man Who Loved Grizzlies" (PDF) wherein he presents the story from the point of view of the bear, rather than the man the article is about.
Fiction in Nonfiction
A certain level of fiction can be added to nonfiction without compromising the integrity of the essay. Hyperbole and embellishment can be used to bring a description to life and a strict adherence to the facts of an event can leave the narration feeling dry and empty. When presenting dialogue in creative nonfiction, the writer is not expected to produce a word-for-word, exact transcript of a conversation as it happened. The writer is allowed a certain level of latitude when writing a conversation into the paper and the reader trusts the writer to accurately depict the essence of the dialogue, not necessarily to transcribe it.