You walk into a bookshop and see a sign that shows a fork in your path: fiction vs nonfiction books. Which route do you take?
If you wait too long, the librarian or book shop worker may look up at you. Choose incorrectly, and you may find yourself wandering, picking up more books than you intended along the way.
You’ll need to be quick and decisive on whether you want to go to the nonfiction section or the fiction aisle.
There are four main genres in literature: poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and drama.
For books, two genres stand out: fiction book and nonfiction book. The line between them is not always clear, but for the purpose of understanding fundamentals, we’ll look at fiction and nonfiction in their simplest forms, then look at a combination of the two.
Fiction is made up. A fiction book or short story is imagined and spun by a person who wants to tell a great story. It comes purely from the author’s imagination, though they may use elements of truth within that fiction. Readers understand fiction to be a story that will be entertaining but will not be a true story.
Within fiction, there are many genres. Because fiction is such a vast amount of the literary world, it helps both writers and readers know what to expect within specific genres. Here are a few – but this list is far from complete as there are so many sub-genres and crossovers that fiction writers can work on.
Within the genres of fiction, you will find such works as romance, fantasy, fairy tales, horror, thriller, historical fiction, science fiction books and mystery novels or short stories. The list goes on and on.
As you can see from these categories, a work of fiction refers to something that is out of the author’s imagination. A fiction book may be about made up people, an extraordinary world, or a different time, all expressed in descriptive language to tickle the reader’s imagination.
Of course, it’s entirely possible that these stories are inspired by true events or have moments of truth in them (that’s how we can sometimes relate to fictional characters even though they’re not based on real life). Still, fiction stories are by definition “not true” stories.
This allows the reader and the writer to engage in all kinds of imaginative storytelling, and there are no limits to what an author can write because it’s all made up anyway. Examples of fiction may be Frankenstein by Mary Shelley or Confessions of a Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella.
Nonfiction refers to anything that is not fiction, which by default makes it true. Nonfiction books are based on factual information or real-life events. It makes the declaration that it is not fiction because the reader should understand that what is contained inside the book is not imagined and has a basis in the real world.
Types of Nonfiction
There are a many types of nonfiction that have been created to accommodate the demands of telling a variety of different truths. It is important to recognize the different nonfiction types to assess which one is suitable every time you engage in fact-based writing.
When reading, it is also imperative to distinguish these types to know each one’s scope and boundaries.
Here are the main types of nonfiction:
- Expository nonfiction: requires research to be done, so the facts are relayed in a non-biased way. It explains events or phenomena comprehensively. It also answers objective questions such as history-related and science-related questions.
- Narrative nonfiction: tells a factual story. It comes from the perspective of someone who experiences the specific reality being narrated or observes that particular fact with their own eyes.
- Persuasive nonfiction: makes a stand on the issue at hand. It projects a set of opinions toward the subject or topic.
- Descriptive nonfiction: relays facts uniquely and creatively. It highlights a reality through colorful and lively words.
Nonfiction has become huge in recent years. Due to overwhelming interest, many new genres have emerged in nonfiction writing to clarify what a book is about.
Some examples of nonfiction work include some form of real events such as history books on World War 1 or 2, biographies and autobiographies such as the one by Martin Luther King Jr., memoirs, essays, true crime, sports history, self help books, and so on. Nonfiction books are meant to enlighten the reader with facts within a certain area.
A nonfiction story may tell the true accounts of an athlete’s life, or they may just tell the part of their life where they trained for the Olympics. Either way, nonfiction literature is expected to be based on true events.
Some examples include the biography Going There by Katie Couric or The Fifth Domain by Richard A. Clarke.
If it’s a story of a real person or investigates a real event, it is categorized as nonfiction.
Fiction and Nonfiction Examples
To further help you delineate the differences between fiction and nonfiction, it may be beneficial to look at the list below that are also interesting reads:
Examples of fiction:
- To the Lighthouse (by Virginia Woolf)
- A Christmas Carol (by Charles Dickens)
- Alice in Wonderland (by Lewis Carroll)
- Frankenstein (by Mary Shelley)
- Harry Potter (by J.K. Rowling)
- One Hundred Years of Solitude (by Gabriel Garcia Marquez)
- 1984 (by George Orwell)
Examples of nonfiction:
- The Diary of a Young Girl (by Anne Frank)
- Encyclopedia of Water: Science, Technology, and Society (by Patricia Maurice)
- The New American Practical Navigator (by Nathaniel Bowditch)
- Walt Disney: An American Original (by Bob Thomas)
- The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook Sixth Edition (by Edmund Bourne)
- Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (by Frederick Douglas)
- The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics (by Daniel James Brown)
Fiction vs nonfiction: Where the lines blur
More recently, in the evolution of writing, there is a new, grey area that combines fiction and nonfiction. If fiction is made up and imaginative, and nonfiction is reality-based, then what happens when you combine the two?
More digging into the genre of creative nonfiction will introduce you to a thriving literary world that is still growing. People love the facts, but they sometimes want those facts delivered in a more riveting way than straight reporting.
Jon Krakauer is a master of the genre. In his book “Into Thin Air,” “Into the Wild,” and “Where Men Win Glory,” Krakauer covers real-life events and topics but uses some special tricks that are borrowed from the fiction world.
While reporting on true events and people, Krakauer uses creativity and embellishment to make the work come to life. He doesn’t just tell you about the Alaskan wilderness. He describes it in creative ways borrowed from the fiction genre to ensure that the experience is made more real for his reader.
So creativity in nonfiction borrows elements from fiction (such as creative descriptions and storytelling structure), but it is still rooted firmly in nonfiction (truth-telling).
In conclusion – Anything Goes?
Like many artistic platforms, writing evolves over time. There is a very clear separation of fiction vs. nonfiction, but there can sometimes be a bit of both. Your reader should understand the difference, or it’s possible to fall into the realm of misinformation (when fiction works try to disguise themselves as fact), and you don’t want to go there.
If people are not sure about the intention of your writing (if they think you are misrepresenting information), you may lose that reader or alienate future readers. It’s best, to be honest about which area you are writing in: fiction or nonfiction, or something close to creative nonfiction. Each genre has the potential for a huge amount of readers.
The general rule to remember with fiction writing vs. nonfiction writing is that fictional short stories and novels include made-up details from the writer’s imagination, such as a fictional town or fictional characters and fictional events. They are meant to entertain.
Nonfiction is based on actual events or real people and features true events.
Creative nonfiction is some combination of the two categories but be careful about presenting it as either fiction or nonfiction. Your readers know what they want to read, and they should be aware of what they are reading.