I came across the term “narrative nonfiction” in the New York Times article titled “What should children read?” (November 22). It seems to be a journalist’s and book editors’ favorite jargon from the following sentence:

What schools really need isn’t more nonfiction but better nonfiction, especially that which provides good models for student writing. Most students could use greater familiarity with what newspaper, magazine and book editors call “narrative nonfiction”: writing that tells a factual story, sometimes even a personal one, but also makes an argument and conveys information in vivid, effective ways.

What does “narrative nonfiction” really mean? I recognize it is immediately followed by a definition, but I feel like I am still missing something crucial. Why the qualifier "narrative"? Isn’t it a given that nonfiction (story) is narrative on its own, obliterating the need to expressly mention "narrative"?

What is a typical format of “narrative nonfiction”? Or is this perhaps some kind of umbrella term for personal essays on daily matters and private diaries on the one side, and news reports and expository comments on the other?

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    It's “in quotes” because it's not really a standard term. But you can read more about it on Wikipedia Creative nonfiction (also known as literary or narrative nonfiction) Nov 24, 2012 at 1:39
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    This is a very interesting term which I would love to address. I'm afraid however, that anything approaching a satisfactory answer would require entering into tabu matters of literary history and criticism -- matters which also extend far beyond English literature, and are thus doubly Off Topic. A very short answer: you're best off thinking of this term as one drawn not from Criticism but from Marketing. (But I have no doubt that it will presently enter Criticism, if it has not done so already, since even Critics are not immune to intellectual confusion and venality.) Nov 24, 2012 at 2:11
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    @Yoichi: I think StoneyB's probably right that it's Marketing rather than Lit Crit terminology. Personally, I'm a bit wary of films/books promoted as "based on a true story". The fact of the matter is real life is often just plain boring, which is one of the reasons people seek entertainment/escapism in movies & such. I'm sure it's possible to both "inform and entertain", but publishers aren't stupid - if there's any problem meeting both of those requirements, they'll go for entertainment every time, because in the end that's what sells. Nov 24, 2012 at 14:55
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    @J.R. Here you go: "Narrative nonfiction, as an artform rather than a marketing ploy, goes back through Gibbon, Holinshed and Froissart, to Thucydides and Xenophon, and possibly the author of the Court History of David. It's just a new name for good writing people won't buy." Nov 25, 2012 at 3:18
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    I have a feeling, though am not sure, that the term 'narrative non-fiction' is used to distinguish it from non-fiction one might find in an academic journal article, a text-book, or a reference.
    – Mitch
    Nov 26, 2012 at 1:02

3 Answers 3


Probably the best example I can give you of narrative nonfiction is the work of John McPhee, who has written largely for The New Yorker. To quote from the Wikipedia article about him:

McPhee's subjects, reflecting his personal interests, are highly eclectic. He has written pieces on lifting body development (The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed), the United States Merchant Marine (Looking for a Ship), farmers' markets (Giving Good Weight), freight transportation (Uncommon Carriers), the shifting flow of the Mississippi River (The Control of Nature), geology (in several books), as well as a short book entirely on the subject of oranges. One of his most widely read books, Coming into the Country, is about the Alaskan wilderness.

Like other practitioners of the genre, McPhee tells a story in an engaging, personal way that often injects something of the author's point of view. Often he even becomes part of the story. He once went on a cross-country trip with an over-the-road trucker to document that lifestyle, becoming part of it himself. You might suppose that driving thousands of miles in a big rig must be pretty boring, but McPhee finds ways to make it engaging — turning it into a story full of interesting details, observations, and opinions. For example, did you know that truckers don't use their brakes on downgrades except in emergencies? With the enormous weight they need to slow down, their brakes would wear out very quickly, so they have to resort to other strategies. McPhee tells you this, and also what happens to truckers who don't make it. Always it is a narrative told about someone by the person sitting in the passenger seat right next to him. That is what makes it narrative nonfiction.

Here is the opening paragraph of that book, Uncommon Carriers, taken from Amazon. It should give you some of the flavor of the writing.

Paragraph from John McPhee's *Uncommon Carriers*

I don't know about you, but that makes me want to keep on reading.


Why the qualifier "narrative"? Isn’t it a given that nonfiction (story) is narrative on its own, obliterating the need to expressly mention "narrative"?

High school and college level science textbooks are non-fiction, but they're not usually narrative. Yes, there are biographies of scientists and such in the sidebars of such textbooks, and it can be hard to dispute that "historical" descriptions of natural processes included within them are other than narrative in structure, but things like the introduction, illustration, and application of the basic laws of electromagnetism in problem-solving contexts is hard to picture as "narrative", which in its basic sense simply means telling a story.

Notice in your italicized question above the introduction of "story" in brackets. This should be "writing," as your source text illustrates.

  • Only history books, and to a small degree sciences books in segments describing processes tend to use narrative. Most of the content is dry facts and dry relations devoid of cause-effect progression, which not only helps captivate (if well written), but also immensely helps remembering.
    – SF.
    Nov 25, 2012 at 8:24

Why the qualifier "narrative"? Isn’t it a given that nonfiction (story) is narrative on its own, obliterating the need to expressly mention "narrative"?

Not all nonfiction is narrative; narrative implies there's a story being told. Most nonfiction is tables of facts, it seems. At least, it was in the textbooks I had. Story was rather rare.

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    Dec 24, 2020 at 22:20

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