We here at The Poetics Project regularly partake in the Creative Nonfiction genre with our monthly Story Shots posts. I have a lot of fun with the genre, but I know that many people struggle with creative nonfiction.
Specifically, how much is creative and how much is nonfiction? Where does the line blur and creativity starts taking a nonfiction piece into the realm of fiction?
There are no solid boundaries nor are there any set percentages, e.g. 25% of your story must be “creative” while the other 75% must be nonfiction to obtain the label creative nonfiction. Essentially, the creative part of creative nonfiction refers to how the story is told and the nonfiction part of the creative nonfiction refers to the subject matter of the piece.
Can you make up dialog? No, but if you don’t remember the exact words spoken but can approximate them, that’s fine (in my book – others may disagree). Can you change names, dates, and locations of a creative nonfiction piece to distance the people involved from the story? I think you can, as long as everything else in your story is true.
In other words, use your best judgement when it comes to how much “creative” and how much “nonfiction” goes into your creative nonfiction. If you started out writing a creative nonfiction story about an experience you had in high school and it suddenly becomes an epic fantasy-romance, it’s probably no longer creative nonfiction. Lots of fiction is based on true and real events, but once enough of that story is manipulated, it’s no longer nonfiction and crosses into the realm of fiction.
But you don’t need to add a ton of fiction into your creative nonfiction to make it interesting. There are some very basic tricks you can use in creative nonfiction, as well as in other literary forms, to make your story creative without sacrificing the nonfiction part of your story. Here’s a quick list of 5 tips to help make your creative nonfiction really pop.
1) Embrace literary and poetic techniques. Remember, creative nonfiction is a literary form. So use some alliteration in there, and throw in an allusion or two, fuck it – foreshadow too! And rhyme is fine, but if you do it all the time people might notice and feel you’re starting to sound like Dr. Seuss. Use some more obscure techniques too, like a Homeric Epithet, or a repetitive descriptive phrase. Homer, not Simpson, used epithets all the time like “rosy-fingered dawn” or “the wine-dark sea” and you can to. Being descriptive adds to the creative aspect of your story while keeping the nonfiction intact.
2) Play with the plot order. Just because a story happens linearly doesn’t mean it has to be told in a linear fashion. Start with the climax, or the end, and work your way backwards, or forwards, and then jump to the beginning. Have fun with it. This is a great trick of fiction and it’s a trick that creative nonfiction can use too. Think Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or How the García Girls Lost Their Accents for some examples of how to play with plot order.
3) Be selective with your details. I don’t need to know the color of the tablecloth where you ate dinner, nor do I need to know that there were five green beans more on your plate than your date’s plate. Just give details that are relevant and specific to the story but leave the rest for the reader to fill in. Sometimes less is more, and reading is often one of those instances. Reading is a combination of detail and reader-imagination, so you have to give your reader space to image some of what happened instead of giving them a painstaking list of every detail.
4) Appeal to all five senses. After all, you were there, you experienced it, what did you feel/hear/taste/smell and see at that pivotal moment in your story? I know this might seem to contradict the above tip of being selective in your details, but adding a bit of sensory appeal to your creative nonfiction piece does not entail giving too much detail.
Good example: Cherries and vanilla filled the evening air when she walked by. I knew her. I knew that smell. I’d know that smell anywhere. She was a flash of mousy brown, green eyes, and red puckered lips.
Bad example: It was 4:15 p.m. and she wore her red lipstick again. It clashed with her natural green eyes and her mousy brown hair. She always smelled the same too – like cherries and vanilla. She wore too much perfume.
Do the good – don’t do the bad! Besides the good leaving more to the reader to imagine, the good was filled with “showing” or painting a picture while the bad was filled with “telling” or listing what characteristics the subject had. Which one was more compelling to read? Hopefully the good.
5) Last, but not lease, embrace uncertainties. Guess what? You can’t know everything, but this isn’t a place to insert fiction. Instead, make it apparent that you have no idea what X is, but X could be interesting, right? Here’s an example:
“He sneezed. I don’t know if it was due to a cold, a microscopic tickle of the cilia in his nose, or if he was just allergic to the bullshit he was spouting, but the fact that he sneezed cannot be denied.”