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Writing Creative Nonfiction: A Toolbox of Techniques

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August 2012
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Writing creative nonfiction is about telling true stories. You can tell a story about yourself, crafting essays about personal experiences. You can also write about other people, places, and events in the world.

There are three categories of creative nonfiction: the personal essay, memoir, and creative nonfiction. Within these categories, there are several subgenres. For instance, if you want to write a personal essay, you can choose from personal narrative, opinion essay, meditation, or lyrical essay.

Creative nonfiction requires that you write true and factual narratives, not fiction. You’ll want to present the truth and facts in a compelling, entertaining, and memorable way so that others will be inspired to read your story. To write any of these forms of creative nonfiction, you have many techniques to choose from, such as scene, summary, personal reflection.

In this article, I’ll identify the toolbox of techniques that writers are expected to use when writing creative nonfiction.

Topic and Question. Author Eileen Pollack, in “Creative Nonfiction”, suggests that before writing, you ought to select a topic and then pose a question. She suggests that a question creates a focus and purpose for  writing. For instance, suppose you recall a memory, ask yourself: What is so important about this memory? What did I learn from the personal experience? Why is it significant? Is there a universal truth? Or, suppose you wanted to write a meditative essay on “freedom.” You could start by posing a question to yourself: What is freedom to me?

Narrative Structure or Shape of a Story. There’s no single structure, nor is there a formula for writing creative nonfiction. Often your narrative takes shape as you write. Connie Griffin, in “To Tell the Truth”, writes that narrative structure is not imposed from the outside, but discovered from within the narrative, meaning that you discover the details of the story and its structure as you write. In creative nonfiction, there are five popular narrative structures or shapes:

  • Narrative structure: Telling the story chronologically, from beginning to end.
  • Braided Structure: Telling a story by weaving or combining two, sometimes three, narratives or stories.
  • Collage: Using a thematic and segmented approach that combines a quotation or two, poem, scene, metaphor, simile, allusion, personification, image, vignette, anecdote, a short, short, true story, with an epiphany.
  • Frame: Telling a story by opening with a particular scene or reflecting and closing with a particular scene or reflection.
  • Narrative with Flashback: Telling a story using scene, summary, reflection, and flashbacks.

As well, the you can experiment with the narrative structure,  resulting in a new structure or shape.

Distinctive Voice, Style, and Intimate Point of View. All good writers have a distinctive voice, which is the persona of the writer expressed on the age.

Dinty Moore, in “Truth of the Matter”, writes: “An author’s voice consists of many things, including word choice, sentence structure and rhythm, metaphor and imagery…perhaps humour or irony, and always the personality of the writer. Good writers also have a unique style. A writer’s style is his/her expression of persona on the page. It includes choice of diction, sentence variety, and tone, point of view, use of metaphor, and other literary devices. The tone of the writing itself is always friendly, conversational. Stories are often told using the first-person point of view.

Detail and Description. Creative writing is often a form of discovery. As you write, you recall the details, the memories, the images, the felt emotion, the deeper meaning. You’ll  recall from memory significant, particular details and then writes them down. You’ll craft vivid descriptions with concrete, specific, and particular details. You don’t have to include every detail, only those that are significant or important. Often you’ll use sensory imagery, language that invokes the sense of sight, smell, taste, touch, or hearing. The purpose of including detail is to recreate the experience in the mind of the reader.

Scene and Summary. One of the most important techniques of creative nonfiction is writing in scenes. A scene recreates the experience of the writer for the reader. A scene evokes. To write a scene, you  must show the reader what is happening. A scene often includes:

  • Setting-time and place of the story
  • Action-something happens.
  • Dialogue-someone something not always
  • Vivid description-concrete and specific details.
  • Imagery-language that invokes the reader’s sense of sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing
  • Point of View-first, second, third person.
  • Figurative language, such as simile and metaphor.
  • Beginning, middle, and ending-A scene has a beginning, middle, and end

Summary involves telling the reader what happened. Telling means to summarize and to compress, leaving out the details and descriptions. Telling is explaining.

You should create scenes of important events, such as for a setback and the turning point.

Scene and summary are used for all types of creative nonfiction.

Techniques of Fiction. You’ll also rely on the techniques of fiction to tell a true story, including:

  • Setting-time and place and context, which provides the backdrop to the true story
  • Narrative Arc ( inciting incident, conflict and setback, climax, epiphany, resolution)
  • Point of View- first person “I”, Second Person “You”, third person “He/She”
  • Character development- Developing character through action, dialogue, description
  • Vivid Description-descriptions that are concrete and specific
  • Use of imagery-literal imagery through description; figurative imagery with simile or metaphor
  • Theme-the meaning of the story

The narrative arc is used to write a personal narrative essay, sometimes a memoir. The opinion essay, meditative essay, and collage essay don’t require a narrative. These sorts of essays tend to be structured around a theme.

Poetic Devices-Figurative Language. You’ll often use one or more of the following poetic devices to write creative nonfiction:

  • Simile
  • Metaphor
  • Symbolism
  • Personification
  • Imagery
  • Assonance and alliteration
  • Allusion

Experienced Writers often use any of the above to write creative nonfiction. Simile and metaphor are the tools of choice.

Personal Reflection. In most types of creative nonfiction, you’ll share personal reflection with the reader. These can include:

  • Personal thoughts and feelings
  • Opinions
  • Ruminations
  • Personal perspective
  • stream of consciousness
  • Mediations

Personal refection is required to write a memoir. It is also used to write a personal narrative, opinion, meditative, and lyrical essay. Personal reflection can also be incorporated into literary journalism.

 Word Choice/Diction. Check to see that you use language in a fresh and original way,making note of connotation, the implied meaning of the word. As well, selecting words with the best meaning. Meaning refers to diction.   Avoid using clichés and jargon.

Sentence Variety (Length and structure). Use short and long, and a variety of syntax to create a personal essay, memoir, or literary journalism. Sentence variety includes:

  • Intentional Fragment. e.g. A pen. Pad of paper. Time, lots of time. Experimentation.  A creative mind. These are the requirements of creative writing.
  • Simple, compound, complex, compound-complex sentences.
  • Parallel structure in sentences. E.g. I require a pen, pad of paper, spare time, experimentation, and a creative mind,  to write creatively, to write poetry, to write fiction, to write a personal essay, to write anything.
  • Declarative (statement of fact), Interrogative (ask a question), exclamatory (emphatic) sentences
  • Inverted sentence. E.g. The book of poetry he wrote…The film, the script, the special effects, the story, I enjoyed.
  • Lose sentence and periodic sentences. When writing a periodic sentence, the main idea and clause are at the end of the sentence. For a lose sentence, the main idea and independent clause are at the beginning of the sentence.

Lyrical Language. Sometimes a writer will use a lyrical style to express emotion and evoke emotion in the reader. This is often the case when writing a lyrical essay. The writing style is based on the following:

  • Repetition of words, phrases, clauses
  • Parallel Structure
  • Rhyme, both rhyme and internal rhyme
  • Alliteration and Assonance
  • Sensory Imagery

Resources.

For additional information on any of these techniques, read the following:

  • Truth of the Matter: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction by Dinty Moore
  • Story Craft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction by Jack Hart
  • Creative Nonfiction: A Guide to Form, Content, and Style by Eileen Pollack
  • To Tell the Truth: Practise and Craft in Narrative Nonfiction by Connie D. Griffin
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